The feisty comedian from Brooklyn who became Gerald Ford's court jester has a somber message for present and future White House occupants: "Good, bad or indifferent, life will never be the same afterwards."
Don Penny should know. For six months he's been in Los Angeles without a job, wondering just how to begin a new life at age 45. A cocksure New York advertising film Producer, Penny came to Washington in 1976 to film a Gerald Ford political commercial. He stayed after Ford photographer David Kennerly encouraged him to give up his business to work as a consultant writing presidential jokes and speeches.
Ford apparently liked Penny's irreverence - in one case Penny had him stumbling and spilling his prepared speech as he approached the podium at the annual Gridiron Dinner - and Penny survived attempts by some senior staffers to oust him.
Though he reveled in his leprechaun-like life in Washington, only today is Penny beginning to understand what happened to him in the rare air of the White House.
"A writer friend said mine is a story of redemption," Penny says quietly. "I was a guy going through life with no commitment, who was shallow, who could buy what he needed. Nothing much was required of me as an ad man - I just did the job and went home."
At the White House, however, Penny says he found a different spirit.
"I came from a dog-eat-dog world where it was made clear to me that there wasn't any justice, only success," Penny says. "I found at the White House many people truly tried to help me. That sort of threw me."
When Ford was defeated, Penny married and tried writing a screenplay about his experience. He moved to Los Angeles as head of an entertainment division of a New York ad agency and tried to peddle his screenplay. The job didn't work out and the script generated more talk than action. His contacts in New York had faded; it was time to wait, a game Penny says he doesn't play very well.
He wants to return to writing and, perhaps, performing: he's been a stand-up comedian and television comedy actor in the past. Last year his wife treated him to an astrological reading. The bad news, Penny learned, was that he was in the midst of a "death cycle." The good news: the summer of 1978 is "comeback time."