When Herb Denenberg referred to me as a friend in one of his columns, I felt honored. Herb and I had been email correspondents for about five or six years when we were both columnists at the Philadelphia Bulletin. I moved on when that newspaper transitioned from a five-day-a-weeker to a weekly last summer. Herb stayed, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable who, in his view, were the usual suspects of the Obama administration, the Democratic party, academia, the media, Hollywood and, well, you!, dagnamit, if you didn’t watch your step.
Herb died in March, and Philadelphia-area conservatives lost their most courageous voice. Herb spent the last portion of his career writing more about politics than faulty appliances and rip-off-artists disguised as repairmen, but he’d done both to the end. Of course, he’d gained national recognition and local icon-status as a consumer advocate. Herb built a career out of making people stop what they were doing because someone had called “You’ve got to come in here and watch this.” “This” being pigeons roosting on soft pretzels or some crooked bureaucrat feeling the heat and loosening his collar because he’d been featured on “Denenberg’s Dump,” a mainstay of NBC10’s news for many years.
I would maybe have gotten as much of a kick if for some reason my boyhood sports heroes — Mike Schmidt, Ron Jaworski, Julius Erving — and I had become buds. Maybe. But Herb? A lot of people growing up in the Philadelphia region who harbored dreams of a journalism career thought of smooth Bob Woodward or suave Peter Jennings. Yet, many budding reporters from hardscrabble Philly wanted to be Herb, the scourge of every hot-shot who thought he could make an extra buck by cutting a corner here or hiding a design flaw there. It was fun to watch malefactors scurry when Herb approached, terrified that he was about to open up a can of whoop-ass on them. Mike Wallace’s brand of in-your-face reportage is prosecutorial; Herb came at the creeps like a stevedore wielding a tire-iron.
Like most great men — like most people — Herb could be paradoxical. This man who made his name as a bane of the insurance industry took his last stand against Obamacare, what he considered government overreach that would greatly hamper private insurers, if not kill them altogether. He spoke bluntly, using gritty Anglo-Saxon words that regular Joes could appreciate. A Wharton School professor and attorney, Herb’s idea of slumming was to acquire 40 Emmys while becoming a local media legend. He was an erudite and subtle thinker, a lover of great art and defender of the Western Canon. When I called Herb’s house on several occasions there would be classical music playing in the background.
Last year I pitched a radio show to some local stations that would feature Herb and me. At Herb’s insistence, we’d be equal partners. Friends of mine will sometimes rib me, saying that I am a legend in my own mind. Yet, I am tethered enough to reality to know that I am one of thousands of ink-stained wretches toiling away in anonymity and dealing with my addiction: I can’t stop writing. Certainly not on a par with Herb Denenberg, in other words, and when I finally take the big dirt nap my sendoff won’t include a front page obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Herb would hear none of that. We were comrades, fighting against societal decay. I played along up to a point. During a conference call with a radio station’s program manager, I stated what everybody knew: The only reason we were having that conversation, the only reason we were able to get that appointment in the first place, was because the young radio hotshot wanted to speak to the legendary Herb Denenberg. He didn’t know who I was.
On the ride home after that discussion, I called Herb and we talked about the meeting and also what was generally going on in the world. It was the last time I spoke to him, and it was one of those easy conversations that friends have, levied with witty asides and interesting digressions. Just Herb Denenberg and I chewing the fat. I remember thinking: What a great and good guy.