Published a family newspaper that came out at least 20 times during my 13th and 14th year, the earliest editions being handwritten and the later ones typed in red and black ink. They shared a taste for bad jokes, awkward emulation of adult journalistic styles, and evidence of an editor uncertain whether to put away childish things.
Became co-editor of the Germantown Friends School yearbook in Philadelphia with Marylea Perot using a new printing system known as photo-offset. Regularly heading for School Life Press, where the owner sat in the corner strumming on a guitar. Our theme was Winnie the Pooh. Under the editor’s senior picture: “You can’t help respecting someone who can spell Tuesday, even if he can’t spell it right.”
Was under the mistaken impression that the Harvard radio station, WHRB, was an honors program. Turned out to be only an extra curricular activity. Placed on probation at Harvard after just being elected WHRB station manager, so had to resign. Was also news directctor, hosted and produced a four-hour weekly news and entertainment program; covered the Cambridge city council; worked for the Harvard public relations office; held another part-time job with the Fund for Harvard College; worked on a fundraising project for Radcliffe College; played drums in a band; raced on the Harvard varsity sailing team, had an active social life and set a record for the number of hours spent at the Adams House dining hall engaged in conversation including once arriving early for lunch and staying through dinner.
Got a summer job in 1957 as a 19 year old reporter at WWDC Washington and coming back upon graduation from college two years later. I quickly learn that America isn’t quite as I had been taught, as I covered the Jimmy Hoffa, U2 and TV game show scandal stories as well as some of the first sit-ins and civil rights filibusters.
Covered Eisenhower news conferences, then going to the People’s Drug Store on the corner of 17th & Pennsylvania Ave, buying a cup of coffee, writing my story and ducking into a phone booth to make my report. Covered the murder of the former head of a Illinois college official who is found “stark naked, beaten and dying” in a room of the seedy Alton Hotel, killed by a male carnival worker. Interviewed Louis Armstrong in a hotel room on 16th Street and John F Kennedy right after he announced for president.
Was one of a handful of broadcast news reporters in town with a battery operated tape recorder – so new that the engineers union wanted to send someone out with us to make them work. The tape recorders presented a number of other challenges — including a deep sensitivity to temperature. More than once I returned from an outdoor winter taping — a burial at Arlington national cemetery or a fire — only to find my recorded voice sounding like Porky Pig as the batteries return to full power in the warm studio .
When I was not out on the street, wrote nine newscasts a day in a small corner room with just enough room for one window, four news tickers, two typewriters, several phones, reams of yellow copy paper, even more rolls of yellow ticker paper and a maximum of four human beings.
Each newscast was expected to be different, whether the news had changed or not. Three of the newscasts occurred during evening drive time. This coincided with the most likely period for accidents and thunderstorms. Since WWDC paid $1 to $5 for every news tip it aired, I was regularly inundated with accounts of fallen limbs and fender benders as I struggled to write three newscasts in an hour and a half. . .
The news tip system worked pretty well, although I sometimes suspected that volunteer rescue squad dispatchers were calling us before they sent out their equipment, since once the dispatch had been aired, anyone with a scanner could call in the item. On at least one occasion an employee at WTOP earned a dollar for phoning in a story that he had heard on WMAL.
One of our regular callers was Dan who sat in his apartment surrounded by police and fire scanners waiting for tragedy to strike somewhere in the metropolitan region. He would then call and hoarsely whisper the news: “This is Dan, Sam. I’ve got a body for you.” And another buck went to Dan.
Spent my first summer on Argonne Place where the nearby Ontario Theater was playing Love in the Afternoon. At the end of the summer it still was. The radio stations were playing Pat Boone’s Love Letters in the Sand. At the end of the summer they still were. When I worked the late night shift, I drove to WWDC listening to a program on WOL called The Cabbie’s Serenade — dedicated, said host Al Jefferson, “to all you guys driving the loneliest mile in the world.”
Called the DC police dispatcher to check on the overnight action and was told on a number of occasions, “Nothin’ but a few nigger stabbings.”
Ate at one of a handful of restaurants – such as the just opened Anna Maria’s on Connecticut Ave.(with the most costly item being veal scaloppini at $4.25), the A.V. Ristorante on NY Ave, and spots along U Street – that stayed open after midnight. It was still illegal to drink standing up or to carry your drink from the bar to your table. My late night choice was the Dee Cee Diner, squatted in a parking lot near Vermont & L NW. Into the Dee Cee Diner came cops, drunks, prostitutes and, on early Sunday mornings, congregants from the midnight “printers’ mass” that the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception thoughtfully provided late shift workers at the Government Printing Office as well as for the Catholic young returning from dates.
Entered the press room at the District Building through swinging doors reminiscent of a frontier bar. Inside were three desks, a center table and a worn-out sofa. The stuffing was coming out of the sofa and the covering is greasy and black from years of resting heads. After Watergate, a sign was posted above the press room sofa. It reads, “Carl Bernstein slept here.” The pale green walls had accumulated a half century of miscellany, written with bold copy pencils and fine pens, in illegible script and distinct printing. There were quotations from city officials of things they wished they hadn’t said, cliches, malapropisms and by the telephone numbers running in every direction. Sometimes the numbers had a name beside them but most often there was nothing but the exchange and the digits. Grave markers of stories long dead.
A 1957 ISETTA OF THE SAME MODEL THE AUTHOR DROVE
AS A RADIO NEWS REPORTER.
[Microcar & Minicar Club]
Covered the desegregation of lunch counters in Northern Virginia and the Glen Echo amusement park.
Interviewed one of the last residents of America’s first major urban renewal project in a house surrounded by hundreds of acres of rubble. More than 20,000 people and 800 businesses had been kicked out of DC’s Southwest to make way for the plan. Some 80% of the latter never went back into operation.
Covered the attempt by police to shut down DC’s only coffee house – Coffee n Confusion – which was being ably defended by Texas lawyer Harvey Rosenberg who argued: “Personally, I must admit that I have very little knowledge of poetry, or the bohemian atmosphere that is found in Coffee n Confusion. But I have been informed by personages who have visited Paris that this is the way that numerous writers and poets have reached the French scene.” DC was eventually found safe for coffee and poetry in close proximity.
Worked for Roll Call newspaper, where editor Sid Yudain let me be the resident poet, including writing a Christmas poem that took a whole page and included the names of all 435 members of the House of Representatives.
Offered the station manager job at WGBH radio in Boston by Hartford Gunn because he wanted to concentrate on TV. I can’t take it because of my pending military service.
THE AUTHOR, 2ND FROM RIGHT, INTERVIEWS JFK RIGHT AFTER HE HAD ANNOUNCED HIS PRESIDENTIAL CANIDACY.
Photo by Hank Walker, Life Magazine
Along with Ed Taishoff, served as Walter Cronkite’s private wire service for the Kennedy inauguration, taking telephoned info from CBS reporters in the field, rewriting it and passing it along to Cronkite.
Go through a ‘Good Night & Good Luck’ experience (but without Ed Murrow’s help) over my Coast Guard security clearance, owing to organizations to which my parents had belonged – like the League of Women Shoppers and National Lawyers Guild. I am finally cleared but realize that forever more my name will be in a file. I almost flunk my subsequent physical because the trauma of the investigation has damaged my eyesight, blood pressure and blood sugar level, but a friendly Public Health Service doctor fudges the figures. I will go on to serve as aide to an admiral and later operations officer aboard a cutter that handled aids to navigation and heavy weather search & rescue in the North Atlantic
Left the Coast Guard after three years active duty. One month before I get out, the government gives us the defense service ribbon, which meant they had discovered we were in a war. Will stay in the reserves another four years, including serving as executive officer of the Baltimore Coast Guard reserve unit.
Already knew we were in a war because my friend Lew Walling, then 22 years old and flying a secret mission, had become the 33rd American to die in the Vietnam conflict. His pilot was the first member of the Air Force killed in Vietnam. There will eventually be 58,000 names placed on the Vietnam Wall. Lew and I had worked at Harvard radio station WHRB and he would sometimes show up with his friend, a Boston University student and singer named Joan Baez. Joan Baez’ first radio appearance was on WHRB
Started in 1964 an alternative publication called The Idler and, in an early issue, ran letters from a friend of mine who was taking part in the Mississippi summer of 1964. In 1965, I go to Jackson, Mississippi to cover the hearings of the US Civil Rights Commission and devote a whole issue to the story.
Our ad was refused by the Saturday Review of Literature because “the board just decided your magazine was a little too liberal.”
Took part in a citywide bus boycott organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to protest a fare increase. Over 100,000 people stay off the buses that day in what is the largest local protest in the city’s history. I drive 70 of them down the Benning Road route and then write about it. The head of SNCC comes over to my apartment seeking public relations assistance. Thus begins my relationship with a man then sometimes described in the press as “dashiki-clad Negro militant Marion Barry.” Barry will later describe me as one of the first whites who would have anything to do with him. Some years after that he will call me a “cynical cat” and still later he will go up to my wife at a dinner and ask, “Where is that son of a bitch?”
Dramatically changed my views on Vietnam over the course of a year:
- September 1965: “The public must be made to understand the necessity of the undramatic, sufficient, and lengthy application of American force in South Vietnam.”
- March 1966: “We must learn the limits of a realistic American role [in Vietnam] and not exceed them.”
- April, 1966 : “Perhaps it is not too late to salvage our position in Vietnam, but if we are to do it there are going to have to be some fairly dramatic changes made . . . The overriding fact of the Vietnamese war is that neither we nor the South Vietnamese are doing a good job at it.”
- June, 1966: “[LBJ’s] Vietnam escapade has been an abject failure.”
Being asked by James Reston, chief of the Washington bureau of the NY Times, to become his assistant. Also offered a job at the Washington Post. I reject both offers as they seem less interesting than what I’m doing. Years later a friend says that if I had taken either of the posts I would have ended up fired or a drunk. I think he’s right.
Seriously considering an offer to co-author a column for the National Enquirer. The Enquirer is willing to pay $800 a week for a Washington column — an enormous sum at the time albeit some of it intended for loosening lips. The scheme is brilliant. Four of us will write under a single pseudonym. Thus we can all keep our day jobs while writing one quarter of a column for a fee greater than my salary as a Coast Guard lieutenant. For five hours, we sit in the dark, dignified dining hall of the Mayflower Hotel discussing the project with the tabloid’s chief editor, a small, dapper Englishman who moves from national politics to reflections on the importance of dog stories in perfect segué. The three other conspirators — all of whom work for the highly dignified Congressional Quarterly — return to broach the subject with their publisher, Nelson Poynter. Poynter pointedly responds that they can either work for Congressional Quarterly or for the Enquirer but not for both. The scheme disintegrates.
After writing an article headed, “Keep the Seat, Baby,” being invited to meet with Chairman Adam Clayton Powell, soon to be expelled from Congress, at his congressional office. At the morning session, Powell opens the largest office bar the editor has ever seen, explaining, “This, Sam, is what comes of serving the Lord.”
Starting a neighborhood newspaper on Capitol Hill at the urging of a Saul Alinsky trained Presbyterian minister who is trying to organize the neighborhood.
Switching to offset printing, the inexpensive new technology that will encourage the flourishing of underground papers in the late Sixties. Type is set by an IBM Executive or Selectric typewriter, with all corrections cut out with razor blade and then scotch taped into place. Headlines are rubbed on letter by letter using Presstype.
Living in one of the toughest sections of town but experiencing relatively few problems. Two cars of friends are stolen from our block. Our house is broken into several times. Once, a half gallon of vodka is returned to us by the police, complete with blood stains and evidence tag. I keep it like that in my bar. Some months later, the house is broken into and the same bottle is stolen again along with the tag.
Being mistaken – perhaps not surprising for a 210 pound iron pumper – for an undercover cop at four different demonstrations, the one pleasant confrontation being as I sat smoking a pipe near the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool and a long haired guy next to me says, “FBI?” and I say, “Nope” and he says “CIA?”: and I say “Nope” and he says “Smoke much?” and I say, “Half & Half all day long,” and he says “cool” and gives me his love beads.
Having half our circulation department in jail, finding needles hidden behind stacks of papers in the office, having police stake out our home after a kidnap threat and having one staffer show up at our house at 11:30 pm seeking refuge from his drug dealer who is circling the block in a brown Cadillac.
Being visited at our office by a 9th Precinct cop who on several occasions drops by to talk politics. Officer Donald Graham listens to me better in those days than he will later on as publisher of the Washington Post.
ONE OF THE GAZETTE’S FIRST COMPUTERS:
THE SAINTED RADIO SHACK MODEL 100
The machine – the first laptop and the last computer system for which Bill Gates wrote a significant amount of code – weighed only 4 pounds, had only 32K of memory but could run 16 hours on four AA batteries.
Getting a call from an angry young guy who is working in a car wash, complaining about us running one of his photos without credit. I point out that it had been sent with a news release from a community organization and add, “You wanna be a real photographer? I’ll tell you how. Get a rubber stamp marked ‘Photo by Roland Freeman. All rights reserved’ and I won’t run any more of your friggin’ photos without credit.” Two weeks later, Freeman becomes the Gazette’s photo editor, later becoming an associate of Magnum, author of a number of books, the first photographer to get a fellowship from the NEH and subsequently three from the NEA.
1968 RIOT FIRES 4 BLOCKS FROM AUTHOR’S HOME
Sitting in our smoky living room watching the TV coverage of the 1968 riots, including what is going at that moment just four blocks north of us on H Street. Going the next morning through the neighborhood and feeling – as troops marched past the rubble – like I am in World War II Europe. Two of the four major riot strips are in our circulation area; 150 businesses and 52 homes in our neighborhood are damaged and things will never be the same.
Having one of our advertisers – ex-CIA agent Harry Lunn, then running a photographic gallery, tell me in the aftermath of the riots that if anyone burns down his store he is going to burn down my house. And another advertiser, Len Kirsten of the Emporium telling of a woman who came in and saw the stack of Gazettes on the floor. “Isn’t that a communist paper?” she asks and Len replies, “No, the editor is a communist but the paper isn’t”
THE EMPORIUM, OWNED BY LEN KIRSTEN (IN BLACK HAT)
Sitting in SNCC headquarters as Stokely Carmichael announces that the whites are no longer welcome in the civil rights movement.
TROOPS PATROLLING H STREET THE MORNING AFTER THE RIOTS
With too many readers wanting to burn down too many of our advertisers, turning the Gazette into a citywide alternative paper, the DC Gazette, dealing with such issues at the war, national progressive politics, freeways, DC self-government and urban planning.
Writing an article explaining how DC could become a state without a constitutional amendment. Total initial reaction: one reader sends in $5 for the cause. Later that summer editor writes a piece calling for the creation of a new third party. In the fall the two ideas come together as the editor and others form the DC Statehood Party under the leadership of civil rights activist Julius Hobson. The party will elect representatives to the city council or school board for the next 25 years.
Running in 1970 an article by Erbin Crowell on city council hearings concerning marijuana: “Most significant to the Council’s hearing — and to a good number of kids who are in prison on pot convictions — was the fact, reiterated by Surgeon General Jesse L. Steinfeld, that ‘in the case of marijuana, legal penalties were originally assigned with total disregard for medical and scientific evidence of the properties of the drug or its effects. I know of no clearer instance in which the punishment for infraction of the law is more harmful than the crime,’ Steinfeld concluded.”
THE REVIEW INTRODUCED ZIPPY TO WASHINGTON READERS
James H. Heller of the National Capital Area Civil Liberties Union called for legalization of pot. He said he saw no reason that it should be treated any different from alcohol. (He admitted to having tried grass once, but it didn’t have any effect. ‘Maybe you just didn’t know how to smoke it,’ Councilwoman Polly Shackleton consoled him.)”
Introducing the country’s first urban planning comic strip – Archihorse – drawn by Washington architect John Wiebenson who designed Resurrection City and was a major figure in saving important local buildings such as the Old Post Office. We will also start running the first column in the country written by a prisoner, S. Carl Turner.
Having a bunch of fine interns, including Beau Ball, who writes an expose of the DC Board of Zoning Adjustment. After his story, two members of the board resign. Another intern’s story leads to a major change in the city’s property tax assessments.
Publishing a picture by architect Rich Ridley that illustrates the difference between a Volkswagen and a two-man DC Jail cell. Biggest difference: the VW is larger.
Covering the May 1971 anti-war protest and the largest mass arrest in American history. Most of the 13,000 arrested — including law-breakers, possible potential law-breakers, war protestors engaged in entirely legal demonstrations, journalist, uninvolved passers-by and spectators — are illegally detained, illegally charged,and deprived of their constitutional rights The court system, unable to cope with this grand scale emergency caused by the police, is thrown into chaos. People are beaten and locked up by the thousands in makeshift holding pens with inadequate toilet facilities and food, or stuffed into drastically overcrowded cells. People on their way to work, patients going to see their doctor, students attending classes, reporters and lawyers are all caught up in the sweep arrests. Most of those stashed in the DC Jail exercise yard are without blankets throughout a night in which the temperatures falls into the 30s. I avoid arrest and show up at a midnight court session to convince a judge he should release a protestor friend into my custody.
Becoming Washington correspondent for the Illustrated London News. I will become the first person in the journal’s over 150 years of service to the British empire to get the word fuck into an article.
One year after the Attica riot in which 29 inmates and ten guards were killed, covering a prisoner revolt at the Washington, DC Jail during which the director of DC Corrections and a number of guards are taken hostage. Unlike Attica, no one is killed. Judges, politicians, U.S. Marshals, prisoners, and hostages all gather in Courtroom 16 to see what can be done – brought together by a single judge – William Bryant – who isn’t afraid to talk when others want to shoot. The peaceful resolution of the DC Jail uprising is one of the most extraordinary stories I ever covered. After Judge Bryant listens to the prisoners’ complaints they return to the DC jail.
Eventually the media is called into the jail. I write: “The door locks behind us. A dozen CDU men with tear gas are lounging in the room. The door to the visitors’ rotunda opens and there are the prisoners; the lawyers rushed down by Judge Bryant – 30 or 40 of them including James Heller and Ralph Temple of the ACLU; District Building types like Dugas, Duncan and Yeldell; Walter Fauntroy and Sterling Tucker; negotiators Ron Goldfarb and Julian Tepper; guards; cops; all milling around a cavernous room under huge, bad 1940s murals including one of raising the flag at Iwo Jima. The echo is jamming out the voice of the prisoner who is on a table trying to explain that the man beside him had been beaten by a prison guard while the court hearing was in progress. They’re mad. What is happening? A turn for the worse? Why are we in there? Why are some of the most powerful and some of the weakest men in the city wandering around this towering hall listening to each other, shouting at each other? It’s like one of Fellini’s movies. And there’s nobody around to explain. Why have the prisoners seemed to be talking sense and the unjailed seemed bound and gagged?” The hostages would soon be released.
Giving a party that not only makes it into the Washington Post and Washington Star-News, but also into the hearing record of the Senate Judiciary Committee’ investigation into “subversion of law enforcement intelligence gathering operations.” The event is a fund-raiser for the Fifth Estate, a creation of Norman Mailer.
AUTHOR SPEAKING AT AN ANTI-WAR PROTEST
The Star-News wrote of the guest of honor: “Finally he mounted a stair landing to speak. With one hand on the balustrade and the other gesticulating from the elbow, he spoke at great length about himself and his cause. ”
A number of other organizations would actually survive being launched on our front porch or in our living room, including the Center for Voting & Democracy. Unfortunately, the Fifth Estate is not one of them. It is soon gone. But not completely forgotten. In the permanent record of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s 1976 hearings there is this report from a committee investigator:
“Publicity [for the Fifth Estate] was provided at a March 23, 1974, fundraising wine and cheese party at the home of District of Columbia Gazette editor Sam Smith attended by some 100 guests, each of whom paid $10 each for the privilege of attending. Norman Mailer made a rambling 30-minute speech; the staffers. . . spoke of their counterintelligence activities, and the somewhat besotted liberals in attendance poured two bottles of Portuguese wine into a planter in support of African liberation.”
Becoming the first male president of the John Eaton Elementary School parent’s association. Among my predecessors: Joan Mondale, wife of the then vice president.
Worst moment: For the school safety patrol parade, we design a 15 foot high space capsule out of chicken wire stuffed with pink and white Kleenex. The kids walk in front of the capsule, which is on a trailer pulled by a car. They have a large sign that reads WATCH OUT FOR CARS OR YOU’LL END UP ON MARS. Walking ahead of them is Mrs. Frieda, the safety patrol teacher who is eight months pregnant. Constitution Avenue is lined with spectators, and they’re all laughing at our kids. Finally figure out that to them, the very pregnant Mrs. Frieda is marching ahead of a 15 foot high phallus.
Best moment: the PTA board is at the regional superintendent’s office and she’s bragging about how she and the staff had painted it the previous weekend. I listen politely and then ask, “Where did you get the paint?” I had her and she had to give us enough paint to do the same to our school which we did with parents, teachers and students one weekend, losing only one 30 gallon can of white paint that was spilled in the girl’s bathroom.
Being elected in the first DC advisory neighborhood council election. I had advocated such councils for some time. My opponent hardly campaigned, I had greeted all my friends coming to the polls, but when the morning count came in I lost it by something like 75 to 12. The afternoon count, however, had me winning by about 96-26. I pointed this out to Norvell Perkins, the election board chief who said, “Well, Sam, I guess you just have more afternoon friends than morning friends.” In fact, the morning votes had been switched, which led me to become intensely interested in later problems with computer voting. I only lasted one term; it was really hard work and I wasn’t born to be a politician, illustrated by the time when I was out of DC and the DC Statehood Party nominated me to run for city council chair. A Washington Post reporter reached me with the news and my response was, “Oh shit, I knew I shouldn’t have left town.”
Co-writing a musical review of Washington history with my wife Kathy and Becky Brown that will be performed by the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. It will feature Channel 4 news anchor Jim Vance as Frederic Douglass and a 1950s beat poet. Includes a soft shoe by Boss Shepherd : “I’m the boss; I’m the boss of Washington. . . I can force anything that I want done. . . I can pave a street or plant a tree or put a gas lamp up. . . So what does it matter if I’m a little bit corrupt?”
Playing drums for the New Sunshine Jazz Band and later having my own group, the Decoland Band for which I play stride piano Among the gigs: a party for Walter Mondale right after Reagan’s inauguration. That’s Mondale above, still in his morning coat.
THE AUTHOR (L) CONFERS WITH MAYOR MARION BARRY
DURING A BASEBALL GAME
Almost declining an offer from a news syndicate to replace one columnist with another. The new columnist is named Dave Barry and he will be published first in DC by the Gazette.
Several months before the 1992 Democratic convention, running a list of more than a score of questionable institutions and individuals with whom Bill Clinton has been involved, nearly all of whom will be linked to criminal or corrupt misdoing before it’s over. My original information comes from a progressive student group at the University of Arkansas. It is a story Washington doesn’t want to hear, a story of deep southern corruption, the Dixie Mafia and of a drug dealer landing in a pasture and finding his pickup to be an Arkansas state trooper in a marked car. At one point I have an email exchange with Billy Bear Bottoms, former pilot for the most notorious drug dealer of the time, Barry Seal. On no other story have so many people asked me whether I wasn’t concerned for my safety.
Being banned from a talk show on local NPR station WAMU for reasons the host, Derek McGuinty, refuses to tell curious listeners. WAMU political editor Mark Plotkin says it is for “excessive irony” but the evidence points to my Clinton coverage as I also find myself on a blacklist at CSPAN and elsewhere. Plotkin has me on several times when he guest hosts the show until the station manager tells him to stop it.
At least ten other non-rightwing journalists will be fired, transferred off the beat, resign or otherwise get in trouble for aggressively pursuing the Clinton scandals. I dub them “the miniscule left wing conspiracy.” Not everyone is mad at me, however. I meet a black White House staffer, who smiles when I introduce myself and says, “I know who you are. You’re b-a-a-d.”
Being purged, along with several other too active progressives, as a vice president of the traditionally liberal Americans for Democratic Action which is avidly supporting Clinton. One ADA official calls me a combination of Svengali and St. John the Baptist, exercising evil influence over younger members. I can’t recall what Svengali did and so am unable to deny it when a reporter calls.
Helping to start the national Green Party. My home becomes an occasional gathering spot for Green co-conspirators including the evening before the founding meeting of the first national Green organization.
THE AUTHOR AT HIS CONNECTICUT AVENUE OFFICE, 1998
Being forced to move after 23 years at 1739 Connecticut Avenue, where I subletted from architect John Wiebenson with one rent increase. It was a complicated arrangement: Wieb was my landlord but he was also my cartoonist and I had the only fax mchine, photo copier and bathroom on the floor. Starwood Urban purchases the building and triples the rent. The Review moves a few blocks to the south but definitely less convenient to its conference room, a table next to the bar at La Tomate Restaurant.
YELLOW SQUARE MARKS TABLE THAT SERVED AS THE EDITOR’S CONFERENCE ROOM FOR SOME TWO DECADES
The move also brings to the end a long, cordial relationship with some of the homeless men on that block of Connecticut Avenue, men I got to know well enough that one complained to me when Jesse Jackson didn’t give him anything, another once gave me a Christmas card and a third congratulated me for being the subject of a cover story in Washington City Paper, saying, “It’s about time you got some credit.”
Having a couple of my favorite people in town commit suicide. Homeless activist Mitch Snyder had started a massive organizing drive. We talk on the phone. He tells me enthusiastically of the law suit being filed against the city council and of the lawyers who were working on the case and would I be one of the plaintiffs. I say sure and he says — as he did so often to so many people he had pulled to the cause in that soft gentle voice — “Thank you, my friend.” A few days later, Snyder kills himself. I do a commentary on local public radio: “For me, Mitch — controversial, blunt and irrascible 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.”
Alicia Paterson Foundation photo
The other suicide is city council chair John Wilson. I didn’t always agree with him, but like many in the city, I loved him. Once he told me, “Sam, you know that any city run by Marion Barry and me has got to be fucked up.” On another occasion, someone offered him a campaign button and he replied, “I don’t put holes in my clothes for nobody.”
After his death, I write an op ed piece for the Washington Post: “There was only one sort of relationship you could have with John Wilson, and that was a personal one. Some politicians can’t even have a personal relationship with their own families. For John, there are hundreds who can share the thought of a 14-year-old neighbor: ‘We were kind of like pals and stuff.’ They range from Jack Kent Cooke to the radio listeners with whom John talked all one New Year’s Eve because the callers didn’t have any place to go”
Serving for five years as the only white reporter on the WDCU TV show Cross Talk and later on WDCU radio’s Ernest White Show. Off air I call myself the real earnest white on the Ernest White Show. Adrienne Washington and Jerry Phillips and I tend to mix it up. One listener writes: “After the rather lively discussion on crime . . . it suddenly dawned on me that Sam Smith and Adrienne are married and Jerry is Sam Smith’s dad. Just listening to the interactions between the three of you reminded me of a few discussions I had with my ex-wife and my own dad. Those were heady days, but I’m sure glad they’re over though. So Ms. Washington, tell that wonderful husband of yours that you both have to nip these strong emotional responses toward one another in the bud. Don’t’ be afraid of marital counseling, either.'”
Five years later. Ernest White dies after disintegrating into 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 writes:
“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. . . Now, at age 52, White himself is in trouble. . . . 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.”
White gave much life to the city but dies a lonely metaphor of its own slow disintegration from a deep and complex community to a place that increasingly had the transitory feel of the world’s largest downtown hotel lobby.
Starting a campaign to get DC into the Olympics with the slogan “Give us liberty or give us the gold.” I appoint myself the “very interim chair” and even get Jesse Jackson interested long enough that he fires off a letter to the head of the International Olympics Committee. The chair of the city council, Dave Clarke, also endorses the idea. Jackson’s attention deficit disorder soon takes over and nothing more was is heard from him. Even more distressing is the failure of DC activists who, rather than rushing to the cause, bombard me with requests to be on the team — based on unsubstantiated and archaic claims of athletic prowess.
Periodically being reminded of the quirky nature of a colonial culture of DC and the constant crossings of federal and local. Such as the time when I, editor of the most radical newspaper in town, get a hug from the DC police chief at a major protest demonstration. We had known each other since he was a cop in my neighborhood and our kids had been baptized together at a neighborhood church.
On another occasion, 20 of us file suit against the president and Congress over the lack of local congressional representation. Someone calls the police to warn falsely that we will be causing a disturbance at the federal courthouse. I arrive there the morning of the hearing about the same time as Rev. Graylan Hagler, another plaintiff. We pass a row of helmeted police officers agressively holding their batons horizontally and enter the courthouse where the Watergate and other famous trials had been held. A black US Marshall comes up and asks, “Can I help you gentlemen?” Graylan asks where we can get some coffee and the marshall points down the stair, adding, “I’ve been to your church, Reverend. One of my men is on your vestry. Let’s go bless him.” A bit later, the pair returns and the marshall shakes hands with each of the plaintiffs and leads us to some of the best seats in the courtroom. From serious threat to honored guests in less than five minutes.
Attending the memorial service for Gene McCarthy, my friend and a Review contributor. It runs a bit long, considering it is a tribute to a man who had once suggested reducing the number of commandments from ten to four.
A guy with a red baseball hat sits next to me in the pew. With sincere earnestness he turns to me before the service and asks, “Tell me, what did he do? He ran for president, didn’t he? And was he a senator?”
I am stunned, wondering what has led him to enter the cathedral in the first place, but I describe McCarthy’s background and his 1968 presidential campaign. The man remarks, “I wasn’t here then but I just liked the way he stood up for the truth.”
A light clicks on. “You were in Vietnam,” I say.
“Right. It really screwed you up. Every day you thought you were going to die. I’m still screwed up.”
During the service, the man with the red baseball hat makes copious notes and takes photos with his camera.
At the end of the service, we shake hands and I say I was glad to have met him, adding, “Was it worthwhile?”
He smiles. “It was unforgettable. I feel alive again.”
Observing my 50 years in Washington journalism, Mark Plotkin starts his interview with me on WTOP this way: “How do you respond to those who say you’re just outrageous, off the wall, beyond normal?” I tell him that if you go back and read what I wrote ten, twenty or thirty years ago it’s hard to see what the problem was. The FBI, in a rare of moment of literary eloquence labeled those who fought in the Spanish Civil War as “premature anti-fascists.” In this town timing is everything. Phil Hart once described the Senate as a place that does things 20 years after it should have.
I think I was like a bad comedian; I knew the punch lines, I just couldn’t get the timing right. I came to think of myself not as a radical, but as a moderate of an era that has yet to come.
In a nation ablaze with struggles and divisions, we are too often forced to choose between being a participant in the arson or a member of the volunteer fire department. But, as best as I can tell, my real impetus was not been so much duty, anger or virtue – but a truly manic, grandiose and cockeyed optimism – a child’s dreams and an adult’s faith pounding tide after tide on the rocks of reality, thinking that maybe this time I’ll float off.
Saul Alinsky was once asked by a seminarian how he could retain his values as he made his way through the church, “That’s easy,” replied Alinsky. “Just decide now whether you wish to be a cardinal or a priest.”
I have followed the latter route and don’t regret it at all.