Sunday, April 14, 2024

From Atlantic High School to Obama’s staff

Robert “Skip” Orr is a local boy done good –very good. A 1971 graduate of Atlantic High School and a subsequent history major at Florida Atlantic University, Orr has spent nearly four decades in the public eye, beginning as a legislative assistant to Florida congressman Paul G. Rogers. He later became a professor overseas, then Vice President of Government Relations for Motorola and the president of Boeing Japan.

He re-entered governmental life 2010, when President Obama asked him to become the ambassador of the Asian Development Bank, which apportions foreign-aid funds to Asian countries in need.

Orr shared some of his life experiences in a funny and informative lecture at the Crest Theatre at Old School Square Thursday, the second in the arts center’s 2012 lecture series. Some of Orr’s former classmates were in attendance. Here were some of the highlights.


  • Let me tell you a story about young people engaging in foreign cultures. I have a very good friend who went to go as an exchange student in Japan. This was in the early ‘70s. He thought, before he arrived, that it would be a good idea to send his host family something that was representative of American culture. This fella is about 19 years old and racking his brain. Remember, this is the early 1970s. And he thought … maybe a Frisbee. So he sent the family a Frisbee. And when he arrived, the family wanted to give him a beer after his long trip. So he sat at the table. The mother went to the refrigerator and pulled out the beer and a cheese tray, which was the Frisbee.


  • After marriage, I came back to the United States, and one of the stipulations that my wife’s dad had was that before I would get married, and I had to have a job. So I was able to, through my grandfather, establish a relationship with Congressman Paul Rogers, who represented this area proudly for many years. My first job on Capitol Hill was as a doorman. I tell you, it was a great place to start, because I was able to learn the procedures of the House of Representatives on the floor and, more importantly, I had to memorize all 435 members of the House, face and name, before they would even let me on the House floor, because you had to determine whether or not these people were really members of the House. It allowed me to make a lot of initial connections that served me well as my time went on.


  • I want to emphasize something. In those days, in the late 1970s, there was something present that no longer exists in the American political discourse, and I greatly regret it. I’m a Democrat, but we used to argue with my Republican friends in the daytime and go out to the Hawk & Dove and drink beer at night. We were friends. We didn’t agree on a lot of things, but we were friends. This served us well, because after we did the socializing, we would always go back the next day and we’d hammer out compromise with no personal animosity at all. We had an understanding. And that’s something I miss a great deal in the United States.


  • Bear in mind, before I entered Motorola, I wasn’t sure which end of a cell phone to put to my ear. I’m no technologist, and I didn’t have a business background. But you learn on the job, I found.


  • I got involved with the campaign of Barack Obama, and I thought that after the campaign ended, I would go back into semi-retirement. As it turns out, I got a phone call from the president, and he asked me to help him in government. When the president calls, you do not say no. I was proud and honored when I was asked to become the United States Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank.


  • It took 15 months from the time of the request to come on board until the time I got the job. The 15-month period entails a very thorough investigation by the FBI. The first person the FBI called was my friend Walter Mondale. He was very funny, because he called me later and said, “Skip, the Feds have been by to see me. I lied shamelessly.”


  • When I went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee [as part of the ADB nominating process], you can tell by this answer that I was a newbie. The chairman of the committee, Sen. Webb of Virginia, said, “Dr. Orr, we understand the relationship between Japan and the United States in the Asian Development Bank is not very good. What’s your observation about that?” Listen to my well-trained answer: “Mr. Chairman, that’s an excellent question. I have lived in Japan for over 25 years, working in business, government and academia. I have many friends and connections in Japan. Mr. Chairman, if confirmed, I will apply that experience.” That’s basically the way you respond.


  • I’m figuring after going through 15 months of this process that maybe fireworks or something would go off, but I get a little e-mail that just says “You’re confirmed.” That’s it.


  • In absolute terms, it’s true that the United States is the largest provider of foreign assistance in the world. It varies, around 28 to 30 billion dollars a year. The second is France. Having said that, the United States spends less than 1 percent of its annual budget on foreign aid. You sometimes see in the public that the U.S. spends 20 to 30 percent of its annual budget on foreign aid. It’s just not the case. In fact, on a per capita basis, the Danes spend 331 dollars per person per year. The Japanese spend about 109 dollars per person per year. The United States spends about 33 dollars per person per year.


  • The United States Military is the biggest supporter of foreign aid. Why? Because in their view, poverty and lack of economic stability are breeding grounds for terrorism. If you talk to the military guys, they are tremendously supportive. Lack of economic development means our guys get shot. The second biggest supporter of foreign aid is the American business community.


  • The future is shifting toward Asia, no matter what anyone thinks. It’s a fact. It’s a fact in terms of economic development, and it’s also the region with the most poor people. More than 50 percent of people in Asia have less than a dollar a day income. There’s a strange divergence. Even in a place like China, where you have a $10 trillion, second-highest economy in the world, there is a tremendous amount of poor people in the center of the country.


  • The Asian Development Bank was formed in Manila, and it has performed functions focusing on creating growth and eliminating poverty in Asia ever since. The bank is not an institution to go out and create health care programs. It’s not an educational institution, though that element is increasing. The ADB mostly build roads, dams, bridges, big stuff. It’s infrastructure. It’s heavy-duty stuff.


  • On the bank’s board, the United States, China and Japan are the only countries that represent their own countryonly. The other representatives on the board represent multiple countries. For example, my colleague from Australia represents not just Australia but 11 countries. He represents Armenia and the Pacific Islands. He has the biggest group. The representative from Korea represents seven or eight countries. The reason they all don’t represent their own country is because they don’t have sufficient capital in the bank. There’s a limit. So in the case of the top three donors, the United States, Japan and China, we have enough capital to support one representative.


  • By the time an issue reaches the board, it’s over. There are no debates at the board. The Japanese don’t like debates. They prefer consensus. Since 1966, the Asian Development Bank board has had four votes. Instead, everything is worked out beforehand. We have to work hard at the committee level and the pre-board level.


  • The Europeans are members of the Asian Development Bank, and there’s kind of a funny sideline to it. The representative from France represents France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and one other country, and it’s known as the wine bloc. The representative from Germany represents the United Kingdom, Ireland, Austria and Luxembourg – the beer bloc. The representative from Canada represents Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands. It’s the ice bloc. It’s a great little shorthand, because you’re walking down the hallway trying to figure out how your colleagues are going to vote, you’ll run into them and say, “Hey Edward, where’s beer today?”

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