Sam Smith, 2006 – When I was a radio newsman in the late 1950s, I would sometimes snag the late or early shift and have to drive from my apartment on Capitol Hill the hundred blocks or so out 16th Street to Silver Spring. The streets were dark, silent and empty and I would turn on a black radio station and listen to The Cabbie’s Serenade — a show, the host said in a mellow post-midnight voice, dedicated to “all you guys driving the loneliest mile in town.” Then Al Jefferson would play the blues to keep you company.
As I wandered deep into the mysteries of William Jefferson Clinton, the memory of those nights returned more than once. As one of a minuscule number of non-conservative journalists to make the trip, the streets were often dark, empty, and silent.
By the standards of my background, my trade, and my politics — as I was frequently reminded — I should never have never gone this way. Nothing I have ever done — none of my activism, none of my writing, none of my choices — left me so much the outsider as trying to write the truth about Clinton. It often seemed the loneliest mile in town.
At first, though, it was just business as usual. I had been raised a traditional liberal, which by definition meant politics was a two-front battle — an offensive against the Republicans but also, and often no less important, a matter of defending the party’s values against the corrupt, the cynical, and the prejudiced within. From the Dixiecrats to Carmine DeSapio to Richard Daley to the Vietnam hawks, being a Democrat meant being in a constant state of civil war.
I was the son of a man who had worked for Franklin Roosevelt from within months of the beginning of the New Deal to the end. I stuffed my first political envelope as a 12-year-old in a successful campaign that would end 69 years of corrupt GOP rule in Philadelphia. As a Harvard student in 1960, I was co-chair of the first college Humphrey for President club. I covered the Cambridge city council for the college radio station. James Michael Curley died while I was there but his spirit still hovered over Massachusetts politics. Later I would spend two decades close to the story of Marion Barry, first as a friend and fellow activist, later as an observer and critic whom Barry described as “a cynical cat.”
Initially I played a role with Barry not unlike many around Bill and Hillary Clinton. In fact, from the start I recognized something familiar about Bill Clinton. The soft southern voice unwavering in its glib assurance, the excuse for everything, the absence of inquiry, the cynical charm, a cause well used a quarter century ago and then forgotten, the adulterated intelligence, the inconsistency, the willingness to use anything or anyone, the undisciplined egocentrism, the populist rhetoric playing bumper tag with corporatist policies, the drugs, the women, the whiff of the underworld. It was not new; I had, after all, known Marion Barry for over 25 years.
There were other things that I recognized. For example, I knew enough political history to understand that modern corruption was largely a Democratic invention and that it had two primary branches: northern urban and southern ubiquitous. It wasn’t that Republicans were more honest; perhaps they were just too greedy to share the wealth and thus seldom had time to build a good machine before getting caught. In any case, finding another corrupt Democrat was nothing new.
Then, some months before the 1992 campaign, I read Sally Denton’s Bluegrass Conspiracy — a stunning description of how illegal drugs corrupted Kentucky right up to the governor’s office. The early tales from Arkansas contained eerie echoes of Kentucky. There were also new scents of old trails I had followed while writing about Reagan and Bush — back when no one ever accused me of being a conspiracy theorist for just reporting what I had found. The droppings of BCCI and Iran-Contra, of S&L scandals and the CIA were in Arkansas as well.
Several months before the 1992 convention I compiled a list of troublesome things that had already surfaced in that state, drawing a flow chart to link the people and institutions involved. It was the first time any journalist had connected the dots. Some of the names would become much more familiar: Webster Hubbell, Seth Ward, Genifer Flowers, Dan Lasater, the Arkansas Development Finance Agency, Mena, Buddy Young, even the Indonesian multi-millionaire, Mochtar Riady. There were suggestions of illegal intelligence operations, illegal drug running, illegal financial manipulations, threats of violence, not to mention run-of-the-mill political corruption. It was a disturbing, but more disturbing was that no one seemed to care much about it. The Clinton juggernaut was already well under way.
My own problem with Clinton quickly became three-fold. I was convinced that he was one of the most corrupt politicians I had ever run across. I was equally certain that despite his idealistic rhetoric, the political Clinton was like the Raymond Chandler character: “smart, smooth and no good.” In philosophy and practice, Clinton was a fraud.
My third problem was the reaction of others to my first two problems. A piece I wrote in May 1992 suggesting that the Democrats dump Clinton while there was still time was not well received by my liberal colleagues, especially those in Americans for Democratic Action where I was an executive vice president engaged with others in a quixotic effort to resuscitate the old war horse of liberalism. A few months earlier, Clinton had attracted only minimal support within the organization; now the leadership was pressing for an early endorsement on the grounds that it would endear Clinton to the liberal cause. This fantasy would only be the first in a long string of masochistic liberal delusions about Clinton, a failure to understand that, to their candidate, politics was the same to him as sex: a one-way street. You gave, he received.
Earlier that same spring I ran into Don Graham on 15th Street. He asked me whom I was supporting in the Democratic primaries. When I said Jerry Brown, the publisher of the Washington Post grabbed my arm and waved it in the air shouting to the cars and pedestrians, “I’ve found one! I’ve found a real live Brown supporter!”
Still, I couldn’t bring myself to sit out the election as I had in 1968, and so I followed Mae West’s dictum, namely that when faced with two evils, always pick the one you haven’t tried before. I voted for Clinton.
Shortly after Clinton’s inauguration, I was invited to a conference on third party politics sponsored by the Green Politics Network. I had arrived at Bowdoin College with caution but left realizing that my political discomfort was with far more than just one man — I had developed an irreparable distrust and disgust with what the Democratic Party had become.
In April, I was asked to write a book about Clinton’s first year for Indiana University Press. About the same time, the leadership of ADA decided to purge those of us they considered a problem. When I first heard of this — shortly before entering the hospital for prostate cancer surgery — I was stunned. For all previous executive vice presidents, the only grounds for termination had been death. Did the leadership of ADA know something that I didn’t?
No, it was just that ADA had decided to end years of populist insurgency in its ranks, simulating the Democratic Leadership Council’s successful efforts at quashing dissent within the Democratic Party. I and a number of other board members who had failed to hew to the party line were to be kicked out of our offices. Liberalism would once again be safe from the winds of change. Included in our number was a former national treasurer, the current chair of the Chicago chapter, and the former chair of Youth for Democratic Action.
About a year and a half earlier we had formed a “progressive caucus” within ADA. The paleo-liberals in the leadership — some of whom had done battle against Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party — took kindly to neither the idea nor the irony of the name. We were not openly accused of political incorrectitude. At first we weren’t accused of anything. Later — and only after Washington’s City Paper got wind of the purge — we were charged with being “disruptive troublemakers.” I was personally accused of acting like both John the Baptist and Svengali towards the younger members, a remarkable blend of virtues and vices. In fact, our trouble-making had consisted largely of writing letters and introducing resolutions the ADA leadership didn’t like. Apparently in ADA, dissent was a political dirty trick.
I was initially quite aggravated at the purge until it occurred to me that being a certified ex-liberal had a certain appeal. The truth was that liberals weren’t doing much at all. ADA’s most notable achievements had become its annual rating of Congress and its Christmas time toy safety survey. Eugene McCarthy had described the group as having been formed to keep liberals safe from Communists but now dedicated to keeping liberals safe from dangerous toys.
To some of us in the organization, ADA’s ineffectiveness was unfortunate and unnecessary. We naively assumed that the group would be open to new ideas and strategies. Nothing proved further than the truth. Even when an alternative drug policy was twice approved by a national convention over the almost apoplectic opposition of ADA’s leadership, the matter was simply filed away so that no one outside the organization would ever hear about it. As the Texas politician said, I don’t mind losing when I lose, but I hate losing when I win.
During one convention, the leadership became so concerned that they called in the titular leader of the organization, Rep. Charles Rangel, to debate drug and crime expert Eric Sterling. Sterling got things off to a rocky start by reminding Rangel that they had met in Bolivia while on a congressional fact-finding mission. In fact, Sterling pointed out, they had shared coca tea together with their hosts. Rangel almost turned white.
The ADA establishment – some of which went back to the organization’s founding in the late 1940s — was as adept at internal judo as it was lethargic in broader political action. An extraordinary amount of effort was spent maintaining political correctness within the group while the nation drifted undisputedly towards the right. Some of the organization’s leaders brought to mind Charles Hodge, who taught at Princeton Seminary in the early 19th century. Hodge boasted that in his fifty years of teaching he had never broached a new or original idea.
To be sure, as in a bad movie, occasional scenes brought things to life. For example, ADA helped to sink the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork and worked hard on single-payer health insurance. Many of ADA’s other positions were admirable, although one often admired them somewhat in the sense that one admired a restored Studebaker.
ADA seemed largely unaware of the depth of popular revulsion against an over-expensive, over-authoritarian and over-centralized government. It ignored such major new ideological influences as the Green movement. It felt threatened whenever anyone suggested a modification of the standard liberal canon. Most of all, it no longer fulfilled its former role as a political catalyst. Not only was no one afraid of ADA; many hadn’t even heard of it, or they would tell you, “I thought that died years ago.” This was sad and, given an annual budget of about $750,000, didn’t have to be.
But the organization had other priorities. What it seemed to want, above all, was to retain its status as the official voice of liberals in Washington, even if this status had the limited élan, say, of being an alleged Russian count in Manhattan. To challenge liberal orthodoxy risked losing caste with its orthodox liberal allies in Congress and losing funding from its orthodox labor backers. ADA would never challenge the Clinton administration, perceiving that it could not regain its former political stature without risking its social position. It was better to leave things alone. Thus this once vibrant organization rested on the political landscape, as Disraeli once said of the opposition bench, like a range of exhausted volcanoes.
Which was all right, because I needed time to recover from my operation and write my book. I asked my editor, John Gallman, when a book on Clinton’s first year would have to be finished, and he laughed and recalled me having phoned him to say that my first book, Captive Capital, would be two weeks late. “I wasn’t used to working in that short a time-frame, said Gallman who rode herd on the literary efforts of mostly academic types.
Gallman, the patient, skilled, and thoughtful editor of Indiana University Press, seemed quite satisfied with the book I wrote. He thought I should have omitted mention of the Gennifer Flowers affair and had been too cynical concerning the supposed virtues of free trade, but generally indicated that not only was the book well done but that it was newsworthy and would attract a readership.
We did have an argument over the cover. I had sent Gallman a mockup that featured a panel from a Tom Tomorrow comic strip. I proposed that the cartoon be set on a black cover with a title in pale fluorescent-multi-colored lettering in the manner made popular by the MTV network. Gallman called and said bluntly, “I hate your cover.” I started to make a defense and he interrupted, “Look Sam, we’re trying to mainstream you.”
“Good luck,” I replied.
The book, which came out the following April, received some wonderful reviews, but there were also noticeable silences. . The first sign of trouble came when Publisher’s Weekly failed to run a review, a decision that so incensed Gallman that he wrote the editor a rare angry letter about it. The book got a friendly reception in as diverse locales as a black radio station in DC, a conservative talk show in Idaho, a populist weekly in Texas and a west coast business column. WAMU — Washington’s public radio station — wouldn’t touch it, but Baltimore public radio was happy to have me on. I spent a cordial hour on a conservative talk show in Boston, but the establishment left such as the Village Voice and the Nation did not review it. The New York Review of Books would not touch it, but the right-wing Washington Times gave it a favorable nod.
Edith Efron in the libertarian Reason said she had to be almost forcibly restrained from quoting yards of the book; on the other hand, the editor of the New York Times Book Review told my editor that the book was “turgid,” although, as Chesterton once said, “forms of expression always appear turgid to those who do not share the emotions they represent.”
On the other hand, the sainted non-establishment columnist Colman McCarthy gave the book a fine review in the Washington Post. But only thanks to happenstance; McCarthy had picked the book off of a discard pile on the floor outside the book editor’s office door. McCarthy himself would be shortly dumped outside the door of the Post.
In sum, Gallman’s effort to “mainstream” me proved a massive failure. The fault did not seem to be in the book or else a sharply critical review might have been expected here or there. There were none. How, I wondered, could a book be compared favorably not only to Bob Woodward’s contemporaneous effort but to Tocqueville’s work and still be steadfastly ignored by the mainstream media?
Was it too radical? Perhaps, but if so, why did conservative outlets treat it as well as they did?
Something else was at work. Robert Sherrill, in a Texas Observer review of both Woodward’s Agenda and Shadows of Hope, offered this analysis:
These two books are, in a way, a perfect introduction to the unfairness and insanity of contemporary book publishing.
Sam Smith, editor of the Progressive Review, has for three decades been what is correctly called an “alternative” journalist in Washington, DC. Alternative to what? Well, for one, thing, to that quasi-adjunct to the federal government, the Washington Post, which employs the celebrated Bob Woodward as assistant managing editor for investigations.
What I mean by unfairness and inequity is that Sam Smith probably couldn’t even get his book accepted by a major publishing house, which is why he wound up at Indiana University Press — a first rate publishing house, by the way, but very, very small pumpkins compared to Simon & Schuster, which has been Woodward’s cash cow since the days when the was writing about Watergate. My guess is that Smith’s advance wasn’t a dime over $10,000 if he got any advance at all (most university presses don’t give any). And my guess, based on the rumors of what he got for his other books, is that Woodward got at least a million bucks up front. If Smith sells 5,000 copies, he’ll be lucky. Woodward’s book has been number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks.And yet — I don’t exaggerate — Smith’s book is by far the wiser and more useful and certainly the more entertaining of the two.
Sherrill’s analysis was one reason I had not written a book in twenty years. I preferred a medium as ephemeral as the reaction one might expect from it. A periodical invited the casual glance, a browse, transitory involvement. There was a deadline and always another issue beyond, factors that put clear limits on one’s own involvement in preparation. A book, on the other hand — or at least a decent book — requires extraordinary effort that is hardly ever, in the author’s mind at least, fully requited, let alone properly remunerated.
I had thrown myself into the book. Not even an operation for prostate cancer had slowed me. My wife recalls me coming home from the hospital with masses of clippings culled between painkillers and bad meals. I knew that I wouldn’t get a chance like this for a long time and I called up every idea, fact, recollection, and conversation from more than four decades of national and local politics in order to tell my story.
I thought, in the end, that I had done a good job, but I had run smack into the impenetrable defenses of the extremist middle. The problem was, I eventually concluded, that I had not been licensed to write of these matters. My friend Jon Rowe noted that the media often referred to his old boss, Ralph Nader, as a “self-appointed consumer advocate.” Where, Rowe wondered, did one go to get a license to become an properly appointed consumer advocate?
I realized later that I had stumbled upon the outlines of a new American political fault line. It was so new that it lacked a name, stereotypes, cliches, experts and prophets. In many ways it seemed more a refugee camp than a voluntary assembly, yet, as I thought about it, the more its logic seemed only concealed rather than lacking.
On one side were libertarians, blacks, greens, populists, free thinkers, the alienated apathetic, the rural abandoned, the apolitical young, as well as others convinced America was losing its democracy, its sovereignty and its decency. On the other side was a technocratic, media, legal, business and cultural elite centered in New York and Washington. At times it felt as if all of America outside of these two centers had turned into a gigantic, chaotic salon des refusés.
Another thing I noticed was that this was about far more than politics. A cultural and class coup was underway, of which the Clinton administration was a part, one that was creating a gated economy and transforming those outside the barriers into pliant, homogenized, multi-nationalized consumers for whom freedom, choice and democracy would atrophy into symbols of only virtual meaning. People like me were traitors to the cause. They hadn’t admitted me to Harvard for me to be so ungrateful.
Increasingly, the words of encouragement that I received came from somewhere other than my home town, a place whose conventional thinking I had happily challenged for nearly thirty years. In the 1960s and 1970s it had been no problem; there had always been plenty of similar voices and I never felt alone. Washington — like Madison or Berkeley — possessed a vigorous counterculture ready to strike out, provoke, and outrage and to enjoy every minute of it. Although by the 1980s the voices of protest had greatly dulled, dissent was still fair game as long as one’s targets were Reagan or Bush.
In the 1990s, however, the Washington establishment simply closed down the marketplace of ideas. This involved not merely Democratic lawyer-lobbyists now pursuing openly the cynical abuse of government they had discreetly enjoyed during the Republican years. It included not merely journalists whose sycophancy towards the powerful was now promiscuously out of the closet. It also included the professional liberal establishment of Washington — labor, feminist, and environmental leaders whose heady new access to government blinded them to how distant what they had once advocated was from what they were now willing to accept over — or even in return for — lunch.
For mainstream Washington, there was no longer any politics, only deals. No victories, only leveraged buyouts. No ideology; only brand loyalty. No conservative and liberal, only Coke and Pepsi.
The city’s social life reflected the smog of grim, pallid process that settled in over the town. The New York Times reported that in the capital many men of power no longer even wished a social life. A former White House social secretary told the Times that her lawyer husband barely wanted to go out at all: “He whines. He says it’s a school night. And if it’s a seated dinner, he’s dead, because he can’t control the time at which you leave.” It would have been one thing if these men were doing something imaginative, daring or, god forbid, useful. In fact their lives were as boiler-plate as the contracts they rushed off to revise. And the city turned gray with their souls.
I had been trained to become one of the gray souls. I attended college with them, had reported their profoundly predictable and tedious rituals, and had argued with them at cocktail and dinner parties. I had learned what caused your host and hostess to squirm and others to avoid you. I had learned that no matter how righteous your views, the evening is reserved for confirmation and not revelation. Over time, if you don’t follow this rule, you find yourself not only bowling, but also dining, alone.
My own invitations to such events, never sumptuous, became even rarer over times. Among the last prototypical Washington dinner parties I attended was during one of those episodes of military excess against a country roughly one-fiftieth our size in which we killed roughly fifty times more people than is necessary to accomplish roughly two percent of our stated goal.
It was a civil evening attended by several well-known Washington journalists, two of whom entertained us at length with clichés they obviously planned to launch against a broader audience in the near future. Their point was to impress upon us the magnitude of American geo-political responsibilities in Iraq and the similar dimensions of their own minds. In such ways do Washington journalists establish their reliability. Their support of power is often not really ideological at all, but rather just another form of social climbing.
I listened quietly as long as I could and then asked gently a question: “Well, how many more civilians do you think we need to kill in order to make our point?”
The room seized up. I parried a bit and then retreated, realizing that no good was going to come of all this.
On the other hand, something interesting did. Sitting next to me was the wife of one of the killer scribes, herself a noted journalist. She had said nothing but after I asked my question, she patted my arm and whispered “Good.”. This nationally known reporter was ever so gently and civilly egging me on.
When it was time to leave, the wife of the other bumptious and jingoistic journalist — a man familiar to any visiting the Sunday TV talk ghetto — took me aside and remarked, “I’m glad you said what you did. My husband is such a hawk and I get so tired of it.”
The hostess, standing with us, added, “Did you notice how all the men supported the war and all the women opposed it?”
The mechanisms for discouraging sedition in the Washington of the 1990s were the same as among the smugly homogenous everywhere — only the Clinton people did it far better and with far more cruel premeditation. A word passed, an invitation not sent, coldness in place of hospitality, phone calls not returned — the exclusion of those who fail to comply. Diversity — now defined only by ethnicity and sex — allowed Clinton to claim a cabinet that “looks like” America yet would still include the most millionaires ever. Diversity of dreams, values, experience, class, suffering, imagination rhetoric, ideology, caring — these were not part of diversity any more, but rather of subversion.
As one of the seditious, I found the city’s doors closing one by one.
I had observed the fate of government and defense industry whistleblowers, so I was not surprised. The cultural isolation and imputation of madness are standard by-products of telling unwanted truths. I knew lawyers who specialized in these matters and how they often spent almost as much time counseling their clients on personal survival as they did providing counsel in the courthouse.
Whistleblowers, in the course of doing their jobs, typically stumble upon facts that point to danger, neglect, waste, or corruption. Far too often this discovery is met not with approbation and as a sign of exemplary public service, but rather as a threat to the agency or company. Among the consequences: firing, reassignment, isolation, forced resignation, threats, referral to psychiatric treatment, public exposure of private life and other humiliations, being set up for failure, prosecution, elimination of one’s job, blacklisting, or even death. .
From the doctor in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People to Karen Silkwood, the nuclear industry worker killed after her car was forced off the road on her way to talk to a reporter, speaking truth to power has proved costly. The Mongolians say that when you do it, you should keep one foot in the stirrup.
Further, whistleblowers fall easily into traps that can hurt if not destroy them. They may become monomaniacal, paranoiac, depressed, confused, and terribly lonely. One study found that 232 out of 233 whistleblowers reported suffering retaliation. As Admiral Hyman Rickover told a group of Pentagon cost analysts: “If you must sin, sin against God, not against the bureaucracy. God may forgive you, but the bureaucracy never will.”
I had also followed the fate of others who had challenged the Clinton myth and considered myself lucky. I took as a perverse sign of my sanity that people would ask me from time to time if I didn’t fear for my personal safety. I had covered politics since Eisenhower and no one had ever asked me that before. And I was pleased by little signs that my efforts had not gone unnoticed such as the black White House staff photographer who, upon meeting me and recognizing my name, smiled and said, “You’re bad. You’re bad!” I thanked her.
And other things were happening as well. A cable television program asked me to be a regular guest on a panel otherwise comprised of African-American journalists. During a time in which that I was being isolated from my own culture, another had welcomed me. It would have been an unblemished pleasure had not the black city served by the program been under severe attack. A combination of a fiscal embargo by Congress and fiscal mismanagement by the local government would soon lead to a federal takeover of DC and the largest de facto disenfranchisement of American voters since the days of Jim Crow. Our program would become a small metaphor for what was happening.
The television station was owned by the University of DC, a land grant campus that served as an educational underground railroad for the neglected and forgotten young of the city. The fiscal problems of the Washington had already hit UDC. The elevators could no longer be relied upon; it was wiser to walk the four flights up to the studio. The air-conditioning in the studio became unreliable and finally one night the station manager told us they could no longer afford to continue the show. In our place, the station began running stock footage from NASA.
The faculty protested the budget cuts and the students tried to rebel and even blocked busy Connecticut Avenue one day. But the city and its politicians failed to respond and the president of the university, a weak man of colonial sensibility, went to the White House and sat silently as other heads of black colleges futilely made what should have been his case.
After the TV show was canceled, the host, Ernest White, asked me to appear weekly on his radio program, Cross Talk, a rare outlet for those seldom heard in this capital of power and pretense. I would refer to myself off air as the “real earnest white on the Ernest White Show.” Then a couple of years later, after the university’s faculty had been slashed still more and the public relations and alumni affairs offices had been closed and the water cooler was no longer being stocked, the station manager came in one day and told us to make the show a good one because it was to be our last.
The university was going to sell the station in order to help cover its deficit. Just one mile to the west was Radio Free Ward 3 — WAMU, the public radio station of affluent Washington with its pristine studios and prissy paradigms. Somewhere in that mile crossed the American fault line.
At first it appeared that a Christian sect would buy WDCU, but the deal fell through. Eventually the station was purchased by the Shrine of the Immaculate Center, C-Span, allowing the elite city to hear still more affirmation of its status quo.
As the station disintegrated so did White – with AIDS, drugs and alcohol. A man who had been one of the few true links in a fractured city was spotted begging for change outside the annual dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus. The Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy wrote
White had been one of black Washington’s most treasured resources . . . For White to end up unemployed, homeless and begging on the street gave the phrase “disposable society” a painful new face. White had helped hundreds of people. During one of his many on-air Thanksgiving fund-raisers for the homeless, he received a telephone call from a woman who said she had been on the verge of committing suicide but had changed her mind after hearing him play a song of salvation. After the show, White took the woman several bags of food and clothes, then talked her into surrendering her life to God.
Now, at age 52, White himself is in trouble. A viral infection in one leg left him in a wheelchair, and his descent into alcohol and drugs was so stunningly swift that nobody really knew how to help him. Efforts to provide him with temporary shelter, food and clothes did not amount to much, for none of those things could ultimately address the spiritual crisis in which he was embroiled. A month ago, after being kicked out of a local motel for having undesirable guests, he moved into the Randolph Shelter in Southwest Washington, where he now wages nightly battles with lice, rats and crack addicts.
As White was falling apart, the city he had loved was being bullied, squeezed, and demoralized by the federal takeover. Schools would be closed, health clinics eliminated, inmates sent hundreds or thousands of miles away to privatized gulags. A form of socio-economic cleansing was underway, only with budget cutbacks and tax policy rather than with land mines and rifles. The corporatist technocrats of both parties wanted Washington rich and free of human reminders of the failure of their inhuman policies. They wanted a Singapore on the Potomac.
Twenty-five years ago, Washington’s white liberals had helped overcome the segregationists in Congress in order to win DC a semblance of home rule; now their successors grumbled about Marion Barry, only barely concealing the fact that Barry was a euphemism for others who looked like him. DC was no longer a community but a facility and the burghers of white Washington demanded to know why they had not been better served for all their tax dollars. Yet they no more expected to engage themselves personally in the city’s affairs than they would have changed the sheets while staying in a hotel suite. DC had become the world’s largest Marriott.
The antipathy to things that had once defined local liberalism mirrored the national retreat. The new liberals spoke happily of welfare “reform,” and showed indifference to growing incursions on civil liberties and the massive injustice of the war on drugs. The word “anti-trust” never crossed their lips and the corporatizing of much of America and the incarceration of the rest passed unnoticed.
Should you press them on any of this, a standard rebuke was that Clinton was better than Dole or that the White House had to move right to co-opt the right.
What about the more than 40 friends, associates, aides, and firms around Clinton convicted or pleading guilty?
Guilt by association.
What about the over 100 witnesses who pled the Fifth or fleeing the country?
Their constitutional right.
What about? . . .
You can’t prove it.
What about? . . .
You don’t believe that rightwing crap do you?
Liberalism had become the abused spouse of the Democratic right.
Facts had became obsolete in Washington. They were at best a filler between arguments on TV about what really mattered — perception and image. Facts were background noise at a news conference, multi-colored jimmies on scoops of policy, and just plain annoying in private conversation.
At times I felt trapped in the compound of some bizarre cult of overwrought rhetoric, infantile premises, and manic mythology. There were no ideas, only a leader; no ideology, only icons; no inquiry, only arrogant certitude.
I felt as though both local and federal Washington had been stolen. Yet, as it turned out, I was also gaining something, something I couldn’t see as clearly as that which I was losing. My very isolation was forcing me to see my surroundings differently, encouraging me to discover things I might otherwise had discounted or missed entirely. A way, the Quakers promise, will open. In the midst of my anger and melancholy, I only belatedly noticed that it already had.
When I went on a radio station in Idaho Falls — Mark Fuhrman country — I heard the host pick out the one sentence in my book in which I spoke well of the right of jury nullification. Somehow this conservative talk show host had found that sentence and he introduced me by saying that I was a supporter of the fully informed jury movement, which had cross-ideological support but was particular popular in the libertarian west. I was meant to be on for 20 minutes but we kept talking for an hour and a half. Some debate but no hostility. I waited for the call from a right-wing crazy; it never came.
I went on Duke Skorich’s show in Duluth. Duke had some tough listeners, including members of the Minnesota Militia. I was working hard but having fun, when a guy called up and said, “You know, this fellow in Washington’s got a point; we’ve got to stop worrying about those gays and feminists and start worrying about what the corporations are doing to us.”
On Larry Bensky’s Pacifica show, a listener began discussing the need to set national priorities. We can’t solve anything without starting at the right place. I agreed. Then the caller raised the ante: “And the right place to start is with the problem of extra-terrestrial aliens, don’t you think?”
Larry looked at me as if to say, you’re on your own. “Well,” I responded, “My view on that we ought to treat extra-terrestrial aliens like anyone else in this country. We should welcome them as one more immigrant group that will add to the strength and character of the nationd.”
I was on my own; I felt free to enjoy America again, free to talk trash or truth to any citizen without having to run an ideological credit check on them first. Free to speak to them as real people rather than as the personification of paradigms. Free to discover unexpected common ground. It’s the kind of politics I liked; the kind I think of as bar room politics: if you can’t walk into a bar and hold your own, then you don’t have it down no matter how many op- ed pieces you’ve written about it.
I wondered if this was how it was with the Free French, with communists and Gaulists and everything in between in temporary alliance — fighting for the right to fight each other fairly. Certainly the Peronist Clintons, their policies of globalization, their brain-clouding agitprop, and the growing proto-fascist mechanisms of control were reason enough for those outside the inner party to look more kindly upon each other. Far better to form an uneasy common defense than to have our freedoms snapped off one by one, until we were none.
My next book was about repairing politics and the pattern repeated itself. Among the more mainstream media, only Weekend All Things Considered paid it any mind. The book received rave notices in populist and green publications and an excerpt was printed in Utne Reader along with an exceptionally kind profile by Jay Waljasper. But not only did the corporate media not mention it, it was ignored by such presumably friendly publications as the Village Voice, Nation, New York Review of Books, and the Progressive.
In part, I knew I was paying the price for my attacks on Clinton. With an overwhelming majority of the Washington media still solidly on Clinton’s side, it took little more than a few snide comments over lunch or some phone calls to make one persona non grata in the club they call the nation’s capital but regard as their own.
Only a few times was the hostility overt. Such as the night that I met a top White House aide at a party she was giving for a neighbor and she noted that she had invited me despite my opinions. Such as the day Marion and Peter Edelman, Lou and Di Stovall, Sy and Liz Hersch and I were standing on the sidewalk passing the time of a sunny weekend afternoon and Don Graham walked by. Don soon found himself under attack from the others for the way his paper had handled Marion’s “Stand for Children” demonstration. Don listened somberly and said he appreciated the comments because “I respect what you have to say . . . . except for you, Sam.” He smiled but I knew he meant it, and he knew I knew he meant it. I smiled back.
Such as the time after I had appeared on the local NPR station and when I left the studio, the conservative black host Derek McGinty turned to the station’s political editor, Mark Plotkin, and said, “He’s banned” and I was. Several times when McGinty went on vacation Plotkin had me on, but the station manager noticed and told him to stop. I asked Mark why I had been banned and he said he thought it was for “excessive irony.”
I made a joke of it, explaining my expulsion by saying that it was all right since I had discovered that irony was a violation of the DC Code, a lesser included offense under paradigm abuse. And my friends would occasionally call in and make McGinty mad by asking about my status. One caller asked why and McGinty denied that it was because of a particular line of questioning. Said McGinty: “I can’t say that he’s not persona non grata, but if he is, it’s not for that.”
In fact, irony was risky in Washington. Once, I was on McGinty’s show with Marion Barry who was complaining about how reporters always blamed him for all the problems of the city. “I don’t blame you for all the problems,” I replied “I just blame you for 23.7% of them.” Marion said, “I’ll take that.”
Some weeks later, at a party, I told the story to a Washington suit. He listened absolutely straight faced and then asked, “How did you derive that percentage?”
Over the next two years I was dropped as a guest by Fox Morning News. A Washington Post reporter told me casually that, yes, she guessed I was on that paper’s blacklist. And there was an end of invitations to C-SPAN after two appearances were canceled at the last minute, presumably by someone more powerful than the host who had invited me. My speech during the first protest over Bosnia was the only one deleted from C-SPAN’s coverage – even a folk singer saying that she was the “warmup band for Sam Smith” was left in. I received a long phone call from the host of a local Pacifica talk show berating me for what I written about Clinton and I was graced with mocking suggestions by other journalists that I was a conspiracy theorist and becoming paranoiac.
It wasn’t just the politics that bothered me. I still loved broadcasting as reflected in a note I wrote to a C-Span producer some years earlier:
Thanks for having me on your program. Since then I have received 45 letters, 12 phone calls, including a 15-page cure for inflation, several remedies for other problems (mostly from those who also do not believe in page margins), three inquiries concerning the name of my automobile insurance company, an annotated listing of every point I made, one piece of hate mail and a viewer who wrote “Shame! Shame!” for my failure to mention plebiscites.
Well before Monica Lewinsky, I wrote,
The worst Clinton scandal may be yet to come. This is not a prediction, only a premonition, a realization that time is running out. In a little over three years, the way things are going, the most destructive presidency of modern times will end in a blaze of fawning editorial thumb-suckers, blubbering ruminations on the departee’s historical legacy and pompous praise from the blow-dried minds of television news. Clinton, if nothing changes, will leave unimpeached, unindicted, and largely unscathed — a triumph not only of his remarkable political sociopathy but of a federal city that no longer cares what anyone thinks about what it does or the way it does it.
No one will have called him to account for willfully having failed to faithfully execute the laws of the land. Only a few will remember the wholesale misappropriation of FBI dossiers, the rampant obstruction of justice following the death of Vincent Foster, or the deeply suspicious links to the drug trade. Clinton’s repeated assaults on constitutional and other citizen rights will be unnoted as will his energetic efforts to undermine local, state and national sovereignty in the interest of multinational marauders.
Underneath the sturm und drang of political debate, official Washington — from lobbyist to media to politician — had reached a remarkable consensus that it no longer had to play by any rules but its own.
There was a phrase for this in some Latin American countries. They called it the culture of impunity. In such places it led to death squads, routine false imprisonment and baroque corruption. We were not quite there yet but we were certainly moving in the same direction and for some of the same reasons.
In a culture of impunity the rules served the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values ostensibly guided a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encouraged coups and cruelty, at best practiced only titular democracy, and put itself at the service of what Hong Kong with Orwellian understatement referred to as “functional constituencies,” which is to say major corporations.
Such a culture does not announce itself. It creeps up day by day, deal by deal, euphemism by euphemism. And in a culture of impunity, what replaces the Constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all sort of arcane stuff? Simply greed. As Michael Douglas put it in one of his movies: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”
Of course, there has always been an overabundance of greed in Washington. What was different now was the stunning lack of limits on the avarice. The federal city had become a town without heroes, without conflict over right and wrong, with little but an endless struggle by narcissistic boomer bandits to get more money, more power, and more press than the next guy. In the chase, anything went and the only standard was whether you won or lost.
The federal government no longer effectively regulated corporate greed. Republicans no longer combated Democratic greed and vice versa. Liberals and centrist Republicans were pathetically ineffective forces within their own parties. The local bar largely devoted itself to undermining decent government in the interests of its corporate clients. The media had lost both its will and skill for keeping others honest. And, increasingly, law enforcement, intelligence, and military agencies made their own rules.
The culture of impunity was not an exclusively Washington phenomenon, as demonstrated by NYPD officers torturing a prisoner as they cried, “It’s Giuliani time.” Consider also that the UN estimated the worldwide drug trade at 8% of the global economy — roughly equivalent to the world automobile industry or, in this country, to all state and local government. Was it possible that such a huge industry — alone among major economies — lacked easy access to every state house and major city hall?
Still Washington set the tone, the style, and many of the new rules under which the country increasingly functioned. These were not the rules we were taught in civics but the laws of competing mobs in control what we once thought was our capital.
I’m talking here of culture, not of conspiracies. If you have a strong enough culture you don’t need a conspiracy. One of the reasons ethnic minorities and women continued to have such difficulty moving into the institutions of our country was precisely because there was no one to blame, no smoking gun, nothing on paper — only the stone wall of implicit values and ingrained behavior.
Similarly, the Washington that thumbed its nose at the Constitution, its supporting statutes, and the desires of the American public, was not the creation of some evil cabal, but rather the product of incremental individual and institutional choices made over a long period. Do not wait for the last judgment, Camus said. It happens every day.
A good — although far from the only — place to look for the origins of Washington’s culture of impunity was at the beginning of the Reagan administration. I could feel it coming and wrote a piece for the Washington Post in 1980 attacking the notion then being fostered by local media and business that the city was undergoing some sort of renaissance. Rather, I argued Washington had become “the Paris of prevarication, the London of dissemblers, the Florence of deceit:”
The much touted physical changes of the city have produced little other than rampant displacement, creeping homogeneity and an overabundance of automatic teller machines. Washington’s “greater sophistication” is virtually indistinguishable from cynicism and mindless profligacy, and its autoerotic fascination with power for its own sake threatens to prove that masturbation does cause insanity. . .It is the city of real estate dealers rather than merchants, the city where you damn well better not leave home without it, clone of Gotham, sire of scandal so tawdry it has discredited political corruption, the city in which a day’s work can consist of a memorandum revised, a two-hour quiche lorraine and martini lunch, and four phone calls to say you’re all tied up.
By 1987 such thoughts were no longer permissible in the Washington Post, but I wrote a piece for the weekly City Paper in which I described the city’s new elite this way:
They have come to be close to power, but because they have little purpose beyond power, they are loose cannons on the deck of the city. . . If they are lawyers, they spend their days serving the avaricious and spend their evenings boring us about it. If they are journalists, they fill our papers and ears with the latest disinformation from government officials so carefully cultivated over lunch or drinks. . . If they are politicians, they deaden our evening news and our morning reading with such disingenuousness, such tediousness, such gracelessness that one longs for the next tampon commercial. Collectively they clog our roads and then honk at us for daring to turn left; they brutalize our language; they talk too loudly in the subway about excruciatingly uninteresting subjects; and create excessive lines for increasingly marginal services and goods. Their bike-riding couriers, carrying their turgid memos and latest schemes for destroying the cityscape, run us down in the street. They don’t answer our phone calls. They so fill available aircraft on their puerile missions that we end up missing our grandmother’s funeral.
That was the last time any major anybody would publish something like that because among the victims of the new city were humor, social criticism and passion. In fact, the last time I was published in the Post was a piece following the suicide of our city council chair, John Wilson, in 1993. John and I disagreed on a lot of things but the need for humor, social criticism and passion were not among them. We also were among a declining number in Washington who believed that one shouldn’t go around telling people that poison was candy.
John once told me as we both gazed into a store window on Connecticut Avenue, “You know any town with Marion Barry and me running it has got to be fucked up.” We had wandered up from Dupont Circle where John would sometimes go just to talk with the chess-players, the winos, and bike messengers who gathered there. “You know which of my constituents I like best?” John had asked me once when he was still representing the highly variegated Ward Two, which included not only riot corridors but the Watergate Hotel.
“Damned if I know,” I replied.
“Those folks in Foggy Bottom.”
I stood in the path through the circle and tried to figure out why his most fusty neighborhood should be his favorite.
“Why’s that, John?”
“‘Cause they don’t move. Those folks up on 14th Street, just when you’ve got them, they get evicted or something. But in Foggy Bottom, man, they just stay there year after year.”
For years after his death you could still see cars around town with bumper stickers that read: “I miss John Wilson.”
For the most part those in power were more than happy to enjoy the perks that came with the new Washington. Real estate developers got their rezonings, lobbyists got their bills, lawyers got their way and politicians got paid back for making it all possible. Those who didn’t like it often left voluntarily or were priced out of the progress. Died out, sold out, burned out, or moved out.
It wasn’t racially exclusive. People like Ron Brown and Vernon Jordan catapulted into both business and political and power — it was becoming increasingly difficult to tell the pinnacles apart. Marion Barry was left in the dust not only by the white hustlers but by his own ethnic buddies. Politicians got power, but those who bought them got money as well.
In fact, the myth that grew up around Marion Barry bordered on the absurd. Take all the money that Barry and his administrations had wasted or stolen and it hardly added up to a few hours at the Pentagon where they lost complete track of ten times as much money a year as the whole city of Washington got for its budget. Barry-enhanced rip-offs over his entire career wouldn’t have bought an exit ramp for Boston’s “Big Dig” freeway-tunnel scam.
What Barry and his friends did during the 1980s was what hundreds or thousands of others did in Washington in the 1980s: they got rich and they got high. Barry and his friends just didn’t do it as discreetly or as cleverly as many of the others. And, unlike the Clintonistas, they didn’t have the media running interference for them.
1980s boomer Washington should have been an easy target for scribes with a touch of satire in their veins. But these were in short supply. The media, led by the Washington Post’s Style section and the power-groupie Washingtonian magazine, fawned over each excess, every tasteless display of ill-gained wealth, and generally promoted the idea that success was whatever you could get away with.
Increasingly, this was a media that had come out of colleges and graduate schools having absorbed the paradigms of the academic establishment but without the skill and skepticism to test their theses against reality. They had not learned the inductive reasoning of a good police or city hall reporter, whose conclusions were built on evidence rather than according to the way someone told you the world was supposed to work. They repeatedly tried to squeeze unwilling facts into their principles.
They were, therefore, remarkable easy prey for the pseudo-intellectualism and false logic of right-wing corporatist economics and erudite defenses of social prejudice. And they fell even more quickly when along came a Oxford-attending, highly articulate governor from Arkansas making noises about running for president.
The Washington news media rushed in overwhelming force to hail this new arrival primarily because it had been taught that Clinton was the way a president was meant to look, talk, and act. If you tried to tell them that the fellow had some of the seediest colleagues ever assembled in politics, that he wasn’t a particularly good governor, and that nobody really knew what he stood for because he told everyone just what they wanted to hear, they were incapable of absorbing the information. What Bill Clinton should have been won out every time.
By the time of the 1992 New Hampshire primary the press would be overwhelmingly in the Clinton camp. Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Republic reported he had surveyed several dozen journalists and found that all of them, had they been a New Hampshire voter, would have chosen Clinton. Hertzberg noted that this was a change from previous elections when the press had tended to split their primary choices, sometimes sharply.
Clinton had also been the beneficiary of what one journalist has called the Great Mentioner. He had already been noted, remarked upon and welcomed in the smokeless salons where national politics are created. Clinton mattered.
How one comes to matter in Washington politics was guided by few precise rules, although in comparison to fifty years ago the views of lobbyists and fundraisers were far more significant than the opinion, say, of the mayor of Chicago or the governor of Pennsylvania. This was a big difference; somewhere behind the old bosses in their smoke-filled rooms were live constituents; behind the new cash lords there was mostly just more money and the few who controlled it.
Thus coming to matter had much less to do with traditional politics, especially local politics, than it once did. Now, other things counted: the patronage of those who already mattered, a blessing bestowed casually by one right person to another right person over lunch at the Metropolitan Club, a columnist’s praise, a well-received speech before a well-placed organization, the assessment of a lobbyist as sure-eyed as a fight manager checking out new fists at the local gym. There were still machines in American politics; they just dressed and talked better.
There was another rule. The public played no part. The public was the audience; the audience does not write or cast the play. By 1988, the 1992 play was already being cast. Conservative Democrats were holding strategy meetings at the Washington home of party fund-raiser Pamela Harriman. The meetings — eventually nearly a hundred of them — were aimed at ending years of populist insurrection within the party. They were regularly moderated by Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss, the Mr. Fixits of the Democratic mainstream. Democratic donors paid $1000 to take part in the sessions and by the time it was all over, Mrs. Harriman had raised about $12 million for her kind of Democrats.
The appeal of Clinton to these matchmakers went beyond mere political calculations. Clinton was not only politically realistic, he was culturally comfortable. He projected the image of an outsider, yet had adapted to the ways of capital insiders. Official Washington — including government, media and the lobbies — functioned in many ways like America’s largest and most prestigious club, a sort of indoor, east coast Bohemian Grove in which members engaged in endless rites of mutual affirmation combined with an intense but genteel competition that determines the city’s tennis ladder of political and social power. What appeared to the stranger as a major struggle was often only an intramural game between members of the same club, lending an aura of dynamism to what was in truth deeply stable.
The Yale law degree, the Rhodes scholarship, the familiarity with the rhetoric of the policy pushers all helped Clinton fit into the club. But perhaps most of all, Clinton knew when to stop thinking.
Just as the Soviets tolerated free thought only within the limits of “socialist dialogue,” so debate in Washington was circumscribed by the limits of what might be called Beltway discourse. Ideas that adjusted or advanced the conventional wisdom were valued. Those that challenged it were ignored or treated with contempt. Beltway discourse was informed by a number of disciplines but tended to ignore others.
When the Clinton scandals exploded, much of the Washington media, including some of its best known names, were incapable of dealing with the facts of the matter because they so dramatically conflicted with the journalists’ pre-formed paradigms. The very thing reporters were meant to be good at — facts — were tossed aside to protect their presumptions. These presumptions supported much of the media’s willingness to wink, snooze and look the other way where the Clintons were concerned.
It was not hard to see how a culture of impunity could have developed. For the better part of two decades there had been hardly anybody minding the store.
For those who tried, it is not a happy experience. Some of the most powerful media were not content to simply ignore the news; they actively slighted or ostracized those who refuse to join them in their ignorance.
Sometimes it would be a trivial but annoying matter as when a worthy public interest group found itself gratuitously described in the Washington Post as “the Congressional Accountability Project, a self-styled congressional reform organization.” Sometimes it would be bullying as when the label of “conspiracy theorist” was repeatedly applied to those who dare to ask what were once normal journalistic questions.
Sometimes it could be bizarre. Post columnist Courtland Milloy wrote a piece, based on my writing, about the militarization of America. One week later, the paper ran a front-page style section article on the virtues of generals in civilian life complete with a 13″ photo of General Patton in jack boots pointing his baton. Just one week later, the Post ran a page one article with the headline: “Generals in Command on the Home Front.” The subhead ran: “In need of discipline, order, honor, polish? Civil institutions find old soldiers pass muster.”
The author, Marc Fisher, wrote: “A retired general is spit-and-polish. Order and discipline. Expectations and results. Retired general. Two words with such Taoist balance. At once at ease and in charge. Calm yet powerful. Benign yet can-do.”
From General Don Scott, deputy librarian of the Library of Congress: “We’re proven. We know how to take orders, we know how to do more with less. Society wants more order and more structure.”
Charles Moskos, a sociologist who studies the military: “Making the trains run on time is not to be pooh-poohed. In a world of crumbling institutions, the military stands out for its cohesion.”
Fisher ended his piece with a quote from a retired general: “Let those in uniform fight the cold and hot wars. Let those who have retired fight the domestic war.” Fisher forgot to ask the general just when and why the American people became the enemy. But, from the Post’s viewpoint, I was clearly among them.
But this was penny ante stuff. Consider the case of Gary Webb, the reporter who broke the story of the CIA-crack connection. It was a good, important story that complemented already documented evidence of CIA involvement in the drug trade dating back to the end of the World War II. The counter-attack from the traditional media, led by the Washington Post, was vicious and resulted in Webb being given a lousy beat miles from his home in an effort to force him to quit. Worse still, his co-reporter, Georg Hodel, was physically threatened by ex-contras in his native Nicaragua.
The trade of journalism had fallen so far that it would not even stand up for its own kind. What stronger signal does a culture need of its impunity then for the Washington Post to make clear that it will defend its friends at Langley before its own colleagues in the craft? Investigative reporter Bob Parry, editor of the new IF Magazine, called this sort of thing anti-journalism, It was becoming more popular.
You could find the culture of impunity at work all over town. In the military sliding stealthily into civilian roles. In the lies from the White House. In the mutual butt-covering of Democrats and Republicans. In the collapse of journalism. In the excesses and corruption of law enforcement agencies. In the widespread indifference to news of bad things and in people saying, “Everybody does it” when they heard about it. In the equivocations of the Attorney General and the trails not followed by special prosecutors.
My morning walk would take me past Starbucks, where customers at sidewalk tables enjoyed the final product of the postmodern food chain. As I approached, I would pass a woman in front of the pharmacy just down the street. All her possessions were wrapped in plastic, and she spoke determinedly of things that shouldn’t have been or shouldn’t be. I tried saying good morning to her a few times, but she didn’t see or hear me.
Beyond Starbucks was Sidwell Friends School. Long ago, members of the Society of Friends got into trouble for refusing to doff their hats to the king. When Richard Nixon died, Sidwell Friends flew its flag at half mast.
Across the street from Sidwell was the Federal National Mortgage Association. Its low-rise colonial style offices and discreet tower were fronted by an expansive lawn. One morning I watched an 18-wheeler flatbed trailer truck pull alongside. It had brought scores of bushes from North Carolina to make the lawn even grander. Security guards with pressed tan uniforms and state trooper hats stood watchfully in the driveway as latino workers dug holes for the bushes.
Everything in Washington seemed to need security. The Vice President’s house was taking on the character of a nuclear weapons plant with its double fencing, guard houses scattered around the grounds, and a massive checkpoint. Soon, I thought, it might be a federal offense to tell jokes about the vice president in Washington, just like you couldn’t tell jokes about bombs at an airport.
On one morning, a homeless man passed me, apparently on his way from a shelter to his favorite corner, walking past the newly shrubbed lawn of an agency established to help people get mortgages so they wouldn’t be homeless. As I reached the corner, another man, who looked a bit like Ray Charles except that he saw everything that passed, called out a greeting. “How you doing?” I reply, “I’m hangin’ in there.” He shouts back, “Don’t worry. You’ll make your move.”
I’m not surprised. A regular near my office to whom I had never given more than a quarter and a passing greeting approached me once in the magazine shop at the corner. “Come here,” he said, “I’ve got something for you.” He reached in his pocket and handed me the thirty cents that came out, adding, “You may need a cup of coffee.” For several days thereafter, he refused any change from me, indicating that I had done my share.
I seemed to hit it off with street folk, perhaps because they sensed in me a homeless mind. Once a regular gave me a Christmas card. Another stopped to complain that Jesse Jackson had passed him without a donation. When my picture — featured on the cover of the free weekly, City Paper – lay on neighborhood shop floors for a week, one of the street men assured me that he was taking a copy to the shelter to read that night. Another said, “I didn’t know you were a printer.”
“I’m not, really,” I said. “I’m more like a writer.”
“Well that’s even better. It’s about time you got the attention you deserve.”
When some years later I read what Joe “Professor Seagull” Gould had said to Joseph Mitchell, his New Yorker biographer, I felt as if it were me speaking: “Down among the cranks and misfits and the one-lungers and might-have-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats…I have always felt at home.”
For awhile, there were Wednesday night meetings of a group trying to organize around local issues. It gathered at a 1300-bed shelter, the largest in the country. As I walked up to the third floor, one of the residents was sweeping the steps and another was on the loudspeaker saying that too many people had congregated in the lobby and would they take their business elsewhere. There was a grimness to this place, but also a sense of order being recreated and — even more important — a sense of shelter, not just from the heat and the cold and the rain, but from a city and a nation that doesn’t care.
The shelter had been started by Mitch Snyder, another good person in Washington who had grown tired of trying and had taken his own life. I wrote a radio commentary about it:
This spring, when homeless activist Mitch Snyder announced he was going to retreat to a monastery for awhile for reflection and renewal, I felt pulled to drop him a note thanking him for his witness, for the good it had done, for the wisdom and encouragment it had given others. In the note I quoted Emerson.
“The voyage of the best ship” said Emerson, “is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.”
I can not comprehend Mitch’s last tack that ended in suicide. But the average tendency of his life has been as inspiring as any I have known. At times humbling, at times guilt-provoking, at times incredibly catalytic and at times — yes — aggravating, this one scruffy amalgam of love and anger, intensity and gentleness led us to care far more about what it was easier to ignore — the homeless refugees of the puerile, avaricious American dream of the 80s.
Lately we’ve been falling back to easier ways. The DC city council has just ordered a cruel retreat from the decency towards the homeless we overwhelmingly supported in Initiative 17. In San Francisco, on the very day Mitch died, Mayor Agnos ordered the arrest of homeless people sleeping in public places.
What effect this had on Mitch I don’t know. I do know that in his last days he was organizing a massive drive for a referendum on the council action. As he met in the shelter to discuss the referendum last week, he patiently explained to a man reciting some of the new cynicism towards the homeless that no one in that 1400-bed shelter wanted to be there. Not even Mitch Snyder.
And I do know that we talked on the phone on Monday. He told me enthusiastically of the law suit being filed against the council and of the lawyers who were working on the case and would I be one of the plaintiffs. I said, sure, and he said — as he did so often to so many people he had pulled to the cause in that soft gentle voice — he said: “Thank you, my friend.”
But I also know that Mitch lived a life in painful proximity to modern society’s cruelest results and carried a terrible trusteeship for its victims. In recent months, there were voices — most sadly among those in power and in the media — indicating that we no longer needed to care.
For me, Mitch — controversial, blunt and irascible as he was on occasion — fit the best definition of a saint, which is to say that Mitch Snyder was a sinner who kept trying harder.
Not long after Mitch’s death, our group held a forum at which environmentalists, successful high school students, senior citizens and gang members came together to say what bothered them about the city and what could be done. A few of the gang members — some of whom the school system thought were too dangerous to let back in class — snickered when the president of a senior tenants association started to speak, but as he told how he had beaten city hall at its own game, they began listening and some softly cheered.
A senior from McKinley High School told how in one of his classes they put out a bucket to catch the water when it rains. He was headed for college, but he spoke of those who weren’t. “Most drug dealers,” he said, could be “mathematical geniuses and covert operation specialists. There are doctors and lawyers out there, but they’re locked up.”
When it was their turn, the members of the crews (as gangs were called in DC) lined up proudly behind an ex-inmate — now with two college degrees – who was running a program for them. They listened respectfully as he spoke of their concerns. There was a lot of respect in the room.
A Washington Post reporter wandered into the meeting because nothing was happening on the night police beat. Afterwards she said to me, “This is how I imagine the civil rights movement might have started.” I told her she might be right.
When you come right down to it, the system was not particularly anxious to have gang members, environmentalists and leaders of Korean Youth United sitting down and talking about what they might have in common. It certainly didn’t want it noticed that there were now so many ex-offenders in DC that they formed a major voting bloc. And it was not thrilled that people might weary of an endless and fraudulent “empowerment,” and really want to take power instead.
From City Hall to the White House, from welfare to the war on drugs, those in power preferred the paradigm of pathology — controlled by force and punishment rather than driven by potential and hope that might, in their wake, reveal as unmistakably wrong too much of what had protected too few for too long.
And so the Democratic President of the United States spoke of forced labor, of penalties for the pregnancies of unemployed women, of new reasons for capital punishment, of boot camps and of rights that must be surrendered for a marginal gain in safety. To find hope you had to listen to a man who has brought members of five gangs together or another teaching the homeless those trades the school system never did. In Washington, it seemed that the wrong people have given up.
Of course, you were not meant to notice. By much of the city’s definition, the right people were in charge. For them, the issue is not what was happening to America but who got to decide. These, after all, were people who helped make the sixties, who worked for the Kennedys and for Carter, who went to the best schools and got the best grades, who had written most seriously about the most important matters, who said the best things at the best dinner parties. If they aren’t up to the job then who was?
And that precisely was the problem. The American establishment had finally burned itself out. Liberal and conservative, incumbent politician and entrenched columnist, all capable of little but repetition, increasingly irrelevant relics of an empire that could never return but refused to expire. Devoid of imagination, common sense, or the wisdom that comes from simple compassion and honest experience, our leaders stumbled along, entangled in the web of their enervated presumptions and archaic prejudices.
To notice and say this, however, made one alone. A British journalist introduced me to someone by saying I was the town’s last progressive. It wasn’t true, but there were plenty of days when it felt like it was.
The orthodoxy of one’s friends could be far more stifling than that of one’s enemies. I sometimes told them to just think of me as a Republican. That way I at least might escape the opprobrium heaped on apostasy. It was better to have never joined the church than to have fallen away.
In the end, Washington was about being on teams. There were only two teams and the rules said that when your team was in power you either cheered up or shut up.
There was, for example, a group to which I belonged that strongly and publicly challenged the Bush administration. After the election, it pretty much disappeared. Then I got a notice saying that the group was being revived, but with a telling caveat: “Our idea is that the meetings will be informal and off the record with no action taken in the name of the group.”
This group would now meet quietly with no name, no voice and no action. Others trimmed their agendas to stay precisely one amendment ahead of the White House or the Congress. Some took refuge in judging the president by their favorite issue, as though supporting abortion made irrelevant how one treated those in public housing or prison. Others kept saying, “But he’s better than Bush.” Still others stopped talking about it altogether.
It had become a time of waiting, as our political choices narrowed to competing falsehoods. We could not prevent the wait, but we could remember the Latin proverb: “Fortune favors the well prepared.” The French resistance understood this. While listening every night for a coded signal that would announce the commencement of liberation, it spent its days helping to prepare for its successful completion.
In the American progressive movement some fully realized that the most important business to be about was not that of adaptation but of preparation, not to reach an accommodation with the present, but to a lay a path for the future. They were out there in America’s communities — an underground of hope and imagination.
But in Washington this progressive variety appeared to have withered. Far more believed that somehow they could still reform and redirect the most conservative and cynical Democratic administration in modern times — an administration that had corrupted the spirit of what grew out of the 60s, taking the ideals and symbols and transforming them into mere tools of puerile power.
And so while some struggled and built in the silence, many others who might once have been associated with meaningful and humane progress had either removed themselves from the fray or were content to be consumers, rather than advocates, of change. Like the ever less alternative newspapers and magazines they read, they preferred attitude to action and style to substance. They toiled not, neither did they spin; they only posed. The future was just a problem of good graphic design and finding the right clothes and attractive presentation.
I figured that if I was going to be part of a vast right wing conspiracy, I better find out something about it. So in the best fashion of post-modern journalism, I decided to take a poll. The sample of fellow Clinton tormentors I came up with consisted of Roger Morris (author of Partners in Power), Sally Denton (longtime co-conspirator and now wife of Morris), journalist Christopher Ruddy, independent investigator Hugh Sprunt, columnist Phillip Weiss, and, just to keep costs down, myself.
The first thing I discovered about these folks was that their conspiracy might be more of the vast offspring, rather than vast right-wing, variety. In fact, with the exception of Morris, all came from families ranging from four (Sprunt and Denton) to six (Weiss and Smith) to fourteen (Ruddy). And while the Clintons were each oldest children of small families, only Morris and Sprunt led their sibling pack.
Was there an inner meaning to this? Maybe. When Weiss – who, like myself, was the third of six – asked if I was bothered being mixed up with right-wingers, I told him no, because I had always lived around people who didn’t agree with me. To put the matter of birth order as scientifically and objectively as possible, if you are the later born in a large family you learn early not to take any shit from those who got there first. One can imagine the vital skills the 12th born little Ruddy gained in endless battles for the window seat.
I next looked for ideological traces, only to be terribly disappointed. For example, at almost the same time Sprunt was absorbing Ayn Rand, I was being influenced by the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. Conservative journalist Ruddy went to the London School of Economics and taught American history to Bronx students from the Caribbean and later to largely black classes at Adlai Stevenson High School. At 26 he won an landslide election to become chair of the teacher’s union local, from which post he led a successful battle to get rid of an incompetent principal.
Sally Denton’s father ran for Congress twice as a “very progressive, liberal Democrat” favoring civil rights, welfare, Medicare, and gun control. One of her grandmothers was an early 20th century feminist. Weiss’ parents were anti-Vietnam War. Mine were rabid New Dealers who started an organic beef farm even before Silent Spring. While Morris had once worked for the Nixon White House, he resigned over the invasion of Cambodia in May 1970. Besides, he had also worked for Dean Acheson, Lyndon Johnson and Walter Mondale which, in liberal circles, was pretty close to a hat trick.
More important, though, may have been the fact that among the journalists in my sample, none had worked for what might be called the prissy press — the people who look and talk like morticians and are always prattling about excellence and editorial filtering and that sort of thing. Two (Ruddy and Weiss) had worked for lusty tabloids, Denton worked for Jack Anderson, in television, and for western papers. And I started out in radio and have been an alternative journalist most of my life.
But the most significant thing I found out was how many of us grew up in environments that encouraged both independent thinking and moral concern. Chris Ruddy’s father, for example, was an police lieutenant whom he described as “a great believer in people — a humanitarian — which is not typical for the cynicism one finds among cops.”
“My parents were patriotic. They believed in the country, in values. Of course we [didn’t] have much money and it was sort of stressed that money was not as important as doing the right thing.” His father was pro-union and not reactionary at all.
Sally Denton’s list of familial free-thinkers started with an ancestor who fled Utah in the 1850s after being “fleeced by the church” and the men who ran it. Appalled by polygamy she left the state with a Mormon assassination squad hot on her trail.
Growing up in Las Vegas, Denton was an early rebel influenced by watching her father being defeated by corruption time and again “and the routine and systematic silencing of women.” She found her outlet in journalism, producing among other things, The Blue Grass Conspiracy, a riveting account of how drugs took over Kentucky.
Roger Morris was strongly influenced by his grandmother in the Kansas City of the Pendergast machine: “Her view of the inner darkness of real American politics left me an indelible sense of the shallowness and disgrace of most or our public discourse, the fundamental immorality of both old parties, and an abiding sense of reformist outrage.”
Hugh Sprunt described himself as “not a complete Randite . . .and I gathered from official sources that is the only kind you can be.” He went to church regularly through high school. It counted as a class. All through high school, I went to Quaker meeting each week and it, too, counted as a class.
Sprunt ended up a “respectable” tax CPA and attorney with a JD and MBA from Stanford, but along the way he drove a combine, worked as an illegal alien outside the US, taught diving, cooked 1,200 meals at week at MIT while a student there, and — trained by crop dusters — got his pilot’s license at 16.
Philip Weiss came to the Whitewater story as an articulate agnostic and continued his search as an honest pilgrim, which is to say that as a confederate of any sort he was not to be trusted. For my part, one grandfather wouldn’t have Sunday papers delivered to his house, the other wrote letters to his son using “thee” and “thou.” And my mother, upon hearing me mildly slight Eleanor Roosevelt, demanded in pique, “Don’t you hold anything sacred?”
At the same time, our house always seemed filled with people doing something different or for the first time such a cousin testing his weird invention, an FM car radio, or my father filing a public interest law suit before there were such things or asking dowser Henry Gross to find him some water. In my own case, loyal readers had more than enough evidence of terminal indifference to the conventional.
In short, it all added up to a pretty lousy conspiracy. It seemed more like an oxymoronic confederacy of the hopelessly independent. Just some people who somehow learned to respect certain values and certain things, one of which is that it is still possible to think for yourself. Whatever it was, it was nice to find others who felt the same way.
Sometime later, a producer for 60 Minutes called concerning a possible show on Washington’s mayor. We were discussing a certain black activist and the producer asked whether he wasn’t something of an anachronism. I told the producer there were times when being an anachronism was the only honorable thing to be.
I started to write another book: “Why Bother?: Getting a Life in a Locked Down Land.” The book’s history in surprising ways mirrored the topic: why and how people do difficult things in a time that seems to have turned its back on all but matters of primitive, pecuniary, and proximate gratification. How to maintain one’s courage, will, and choice in a society that wishes to reduce our functions to two: consumption and compliance.
The idea was initially rejected by both my former publisher and my agent. The latter thought it too “dour.” She wrote me that “the feel — if not the intent — is dark. I know you want to avoid the excesses of the self-help genre, but part of its success lies in a positive approach.”
Later, I wrote her back:
I’m afraid that among the ways that I have been trying to recover from one of the more discouraging periods of my life is to think of myself as a former author. . .
In this cold, hard place, much of what I have worked for and believe in is disintegrating, dismissed or disparaged. I find myself an exile in my home town and don’t really need any more rejection notices right at the moment. . . .
It isn’t that I wouldn’t love working with an editor who appreciated my writing or even one with whom I might establish a relationship as meaningful, for example, as that I have with my dentist. Some people tell me I have important things to say and say them well. I have worked like hell to sell my books. I can outwrite many published authors with three predicates tied behind my back. But I am badly out of sync with the times. I write good, I just don’t think good. As (WW Norton editor] Alane Mason said, my work is “stylish, sturdy and of the sort that used to be publishable.”
If I were younger I would still fight against this, but there comes a time when accumulated failure and rejection leads you to seek peace of heart more than prospect of success. One of the reasons I have survived as long as I have is I know when to seek the lee of an island.
I could make a moral, political and literary argument as to why my work should be published, but I can’t make a commercial one, nor fairly expect you to do so.
Meanwhile, I do far better in cyber-space, where the Review’s pages are nearing 50,000 hits a month, not bad for a one-man operation celebrating neither sex nor computers.
“Why Bother” continues to show faint vital signs, largely thanks to Roger and Sally who have refused to let me give it up. I also hand it to those who might appreciate it, such as a teacher using excerpts for a class at Groton. I recently spoke to a college convention in Manchester NH which featured Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes, Jeb Bush, Al Kamin, and Paul Wellstone. I talked to a dwindled group of students using excerpts from the book. Several approached me later and said it was the best speech of the weekend. Another college student – who came to town on a special project – wrote later:
“I’ve been reading more of ‘Why Bother?’ I really want to thank you for writing it, because it helps address a feeling that I think a lot of people my age are having. I really hope you are able to publish it — push on through!! . . . I get the feeling from your writing, and I believe myself (or at least hope) that something is going to happen, that the ground work is being laid for major positive changes in our society . . . Please publish the book because it is part of the foundation that must be built. People speak out, and that is the beginning of something bigger. Thank you so much for writing!!!”
And so it goes in my curiously trifurcated world, trapped between utility, irrelevance, and pariahdom. . . .
A producer for 60 Minutes called the other day concerning a possible show on DC’s mayor. We were discussing a certain black activist and he asked whether he wasn’t something of an anachronism. I told the producer there were times when being an anachronism was the only honorable thing to be.
If, however, the untimely becomes salable again, please let me know. You will find me in my hobbit hole testing Benjamin Franklin’s thesis that happiness comes not from great strokes of good fortune but from the little felicities of every day.
The darkness was not accidental nor was the rejection of the smarmy positivism that infected the shelves of American bookshops. But I felt defeated and so had stopped bothering with “Why Bother.”
Quite a few months later, a funky west coast publisher wrote and suggested I do a book for him. Having nothing else in mind, I Fedexed him some chapters from “Why Bother?” Within two days, he had called to say that he wanted to go ahead with the project.
With considerable joy, I leisurely began work on the book. I was less than two months into the project when I realized I had never inquired as to a deadline. It was missing from the contract. I asked and was told: I would have a total of four months to finish.
I told an author’s group that “if I meet the deadline, I will have written four books in a total of 22 months. My other 60 years have been quite pleasant.” I did meet the deadline — steeling myself by remembering that Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World with similar dispatch. At 9:38 AM on August 23 the publisher e-mailed to say that he was “quite happy you came through so well” and was sending the book off to a journalist I knew and admired, who would serve as copy editor.
Another e-mail suggested that Howard Zinn might write the intro. Then, 32 hours after the initial acceptance note, the publisher wrote me again: “I really like your book. It’s thoughtful, sensitive, needed, necessary. It absolutely should be published. But let’s think over some facts.”
The facts were, that his firm had a “core audience are troubled, younger outsiders. Some read, some simply look at pictures, some have the books merely for the value of having them on their shelf. It seems that putting [our] imprint on ‘Why Bother?’ might hurt the book’s chances with its intended audience, which seems to be more along the lines of your peers, people who read Utne Reader, to be a little crass about it.”
I wrote back to ask what had happened in less than 48 hours to have so dramatically changed his mind. He replied: “I’ve been up all night to figure out the spring season. What happened is that I came to terms with a sense of dread after reading your book. A sense of dread regarding [our] typical reader.”
On reluctant reflection, I understood. I had been in small business all my life. And I knew that mistakes that could, in a large publishing house, be explained away in a memo, were potential disasters for a smaller operation. I thought he was wrong, but accepted his call.
I would have dropped the project were it not for my friends Roger Morris and Sally Denton who — though working on a major book themselves – began an underground railroad for the book, shuttling it to potential publishers. They also provided e-mail therapy, chastising me when I became too discouraged. “Now it’s your turn to keep the faith,” Roger wrote once. And Sally scolded me after a particularly depressed missive, “Oh behave!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
In the end, 14 editors and 3 agents said no.
I found myself ricocheting between words I had written – including a section on the importance of others in helping one remain a free individual — and a dismal desiccation of my heart. Examining this dichotomy, I felt not only discouraged but hypocritical. I knew full well why people chose not to bother.
No one took the bait. I put the project aside and tried to forget about it. But that didn’t work either. I kept getting signs that I might have been on the right track. Asked to speak a group of Ayn Rand supporters, enough of a challenge in itself for someone of my ilk, I upped the ante by reading them a chapter on rebellion. The first question from the audience: “Did you bring any more chapters?” I taught a class of college students using excerpts as my text. The three page introduction provoked a half-hour discussion and before it was over even the baseball-hatted dude slouched in the corner had joined the conversation.
One day, progressive columnist Russell Mokhiber happened by my office. I chanced to mention the book and my experiences with it and he asked to see a copy, which I gave to him and, not long after, Mokhiber called to tell me that he had enthusiastically read selections to (a) Ralph Nader (b) his wife and (c) his five year old son (who thought ‘why bother?’ sounded like Winnie the Pooh) and that he wanted to write a column about it.
He did and said:
‘To accept the full consequences of the degradation of the environment, the explosion of incarceration, the creeping militarization, the dismantling of democracy, the commodification of culture, the contempt for the real, the culture of impunity among the powerful and zero tolerance towards the weak, requires a courage that seems beyond us,’ Smith writes. ‘We do not know how to look honestly at the wreckage without an overwhelming sense of surrender.”
In the face of this despair, Smith rejects the way of the reformer in the hope that a new activism will arise — the citizen who will seek the “hat trick of integrity, passion and rebellion.”
“We need no more town meetings, no more expertise, no more public interest activists playing technocratic chess with government bureaucrats, no more changes in paragraph 324B of an ineffectual law, no more talking heads,” he writes.
Instead, we need an uprising of the soul, that spirit of which Aldous Huxley described as “irrelevant, irreverent, out of key with all that has gone before.
The column generated over a hundred e-mails, not, I think, because I had said anything new but because I had said something that was in the readers’ hearts that others declined to talk about. It was perhaps the main reason I was having such a hard time selling the book — despite three previous works with uniformly postive reviews. My message was simply impermissible in an age of cultural conformity, economic boom (at least for those earning enough to edit books), and democratic disintegration. I was, after all, discussing the last American taboos: failure and despair. I sometimes would explain to people, “I write pretty good, I just don’t think good.”
Other things happened.. Like the talk I gave to a New Hampshire political convention of college and high school students gathered mainly to hear the likes of Jeb Bush, Alan Keyes, Pat Buchanan, Al Kaimen and Paul Wellstone. I read them dark and dour excerpts from the book and suggested that courage would carry them further than mindless faith.
The next day a couple of students came up, slapped their palms against mine, with a “Hey, Sammie,” in greeting. My speech was, they said, the best of the weekend. And one of them announced, “I’m a populist,” something no one of his age and ever said to me before, and so we talked about Mary Ellen Lease who had once suggested that farmers raise less corn and raise more Hell.
I left the warmth of snowy New Hampshire and returned to back to in-all-ways cold Washington and soon found myself putting one foot ahead of the other out of habit rather than heart. In this town that I had covered for over four decades I found myself more a pariah at 62 than I was at 22 — yet also finding it easier, ironically, to talk with those in their 20s than those twice their age. Ironic, but not surprising, because I think knew what we shared: we had both grown up in a time when everything was meant to be perfect. Carelessly, even stupidly for our own happiness, we had scratched through to the rust.
Seattle had happened a month earlier and it would be followed by major demonstrations against globalization in Washington. History had started to move again. The largest protests since the 1970s had suddenly erupted. Then, nine months after my book had been dumped, I got an e-mail from the publisher out of the blue:
“Yes, it’s true. I feel quite stupid about the way I handled your book . . . A reactive state of mind compelled me to make a hasty and ill-considered decision about your book, which I now truly regret. But I did not stop publishing books of a political nature, and intend to do so again. ‘Why Bother’ is probably more important to publish now than ever before.”
It had been worth bothering, after all.