SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES – By the 1990s, 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.
It seemed 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 nation.”
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.
In eastern, elite America it was different. I wrote another book – about repairing politics. 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 and the Progressive.
In part, I knew I was paying the price for my reporting 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 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. I later asked Mark why I had been banned and he said he thought it was for “excessive irony.”
A few friends called in and made McGinty mad by asking about my status. One caller asked why I had been banned 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.”
Plotkin would occasionally sneak me on the show when McGinty was on vacation but the program director, Steve Martin, accosted him one day and said, “You’ve been found out. Stop it.”
In fact, irony is always risky in Washington. Once, I was on McGinty’s show with the mayor 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 another local news program. A Washington Post reporter told me casually that, yes, she guessed I was on that paper’s blacklist. 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 of the event – even a folk singer saying that she was the “warm-up 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 had started out in broadcasting and still loved that blend of show business and telephone conversation, reflected in a note I had written 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.”