Unofficial tales from an official city
Although I have written mostly of national or general matters, I share with theologian Martin Marty the belief that we all need a place from which to view the world. While the effects of life may be global, life itself is local, something politicians and media often, to our detriment, ignore or fail to understand For most of my life the place from which I have viewed the world is Washington, DC, not the ritualized predictable official capital
In the spring of my sophomore year at Harvard, where I am active at the campus radio station as a newsman and host of Jam With Sam, I read in Broadcasting magazine that WWDC in Washington, DC is developing a major news operation. Most stations at the time just rip and read copy from the wires. I add WWDC to a list of 40 stations — all the others in New England — to which I send summer job applications. The 40 New England stations all reject or ignore me, but WWDC takes me on. And so I return to my native Washington, which I left with my family when I was ten.
My initial task — writing nine newscasts a day (three in an hour and a half during afternoon drive time) — interns me 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 is expected to be different, whether the news has changed or not. WWDC pays $1 to $5 for every news tip it airs. The news tip system works pretty well, though, although I sometimes suspect that the volunteer rescue squad dispatchers are calling us before they send out their equipment, since once the dispatch has been aired, anyone with a scanner can call in the item. On one at least one occasion an employee at WTOP earns a dollar for phoning in a news tip that he has heard on WMAL.
One of our regular callers is Dan who sits in his apartment surrounded by police and fire scanners waiting for tragedy to strike somewhere in the metropolitan region. He will then call and hoarsely whisper the news: “This is Dan, Sam. I’ve got a body for you.” And another buck goes to Dan.
When I first get to Argonne Place , I notice that the Ontario Theater is playing Love in the Afternoon. At the end of the summer it still is. The radio stations are playing Pat Boone’s Love Letters in the Sand. At the end of the summer they still are. When I work the late night shift, I drive to the suburbs listening to a program on WOL called The Cabbie’s Serenade — dedicated, says host Al Jefferson, “to all you guys driving the loneliest mile in the world.”
More than once, when calling the DC police dispatcher to check on the overnight action, I am told, “Nothin’ but a few nigger stabbings.”
Only 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 stay open after midnight. It is still illegal to drink standing up or to carry your drink from the bar to your table.
LOUIS ARMSTRONG AT THE CHARLES HOTEL
PHOTO: HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF WASHINGTON
It’s not easy to find good music either, among the exceptions being the Howard Theater, the Charles Hotel and the Showboat Lounge where a guitarist named Charlie Byrd is making a name for himself, aided by bass player Keter Betts. Among those playing at the Charles Hotel is Jimmy Hamilton who will later play in my combo.
My late night choice is the Dee Cee Diner, squatted in a parking lot near Vermont & L NW. The silver diner has a conventional counter filling about two thirds of its length, with a little paneled nook at one end just large enough for several tables and a display of race track photos. Into the Dee Cee Diner come cops, drunks and prostitutes and, on early Sunday mornings, congregants from the midnight “printers’ mass” that the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception thoughtfully provides late shift workers at the Government Printing Office as well as for Catholic young returning from dates.
I soon start covering the city in either a Rambler station wagon with WWDC NEWS written in reverse letters on the front hood or in an Isetta, essentially a four wheeled motor scooter with a top over it and with the whole front of the car being its door.
In the summer of 1957, I cover the Senate investigation of the Teamsters Union. Among those seated at the long panel table is young John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts. His brother, Robert, serves as a counsel for the committee. At one point, a prostitute witness make some off-color comment that brings guffaws from the audience; and Bobby’s own giggles are amplified by his mike. The humorless chair, John McClellan, raps his gavel and tells Kennedy that “This is not a joking matter.” It will be the only time I ever see a Kennedy look chastened. I also cover the passage of the first civil rights legislation in Congress since 1875.
After the summer of 1957, I return to Harvard even more determined to go into radio. I’m elected WHRB’s station manager but two weeks later receive an official letter stating that “the Administrative Board voted to place you on probation instead of severing your connection with the University.” It had been my second unsatisfactory term as a result of my infatuation with radio and numerous other distractions. Among the penalties is the surrender of my new post. In the tradition of the station, however, I continue on the air under a pseudonym and comfort myself with the thought that WWDC has asked me to come back. I tough it out and eventually graduated without honors but with a job.
When I come back to Washington after graduation, I quickly accept the invitation of my friend Larry Smith to move in with him on Capitol Hill. Larry had grown up at 101 5th St. NE in a tall Victorian row structure that for many years doubled as a boarding house for congressional pages – eventually 1,500 of them. The Smiths own a boarding house at the other end of the block at 125 5th Street NE. Larry has the top floor.
125 5TH STREET NE: A POPULAR CRASH PAD ON WEEKEND, ESPECIALLY FOR REFUGEES FROM VARIOUS NEARBY MILITARY ENCAMPMENTS
The parties at 125 5th Street are frequent and flowing. On one occasion, I find a group gathered around the stove in the kitchen. On closer inspection, it appears that one of the crowd has his head in the oven. He is, it’s explained, Caryl Chessman and the drunkest person present is Governor Pat Brown and will be allowed to pardon Chessman or turn on the gas. I am sober enough to end the game.
Just before I return to WWDC, the news director, Joe Phipps, leaves the station to begin a radio news service headquartered in his apartment – down one of the long, dark, cabbage-perfumed halls of the Chastleton at 16th & R NW. I start working for Deadline Washington on my off-days and after work on other days — putting in 12-14 hour stints. Deadline serves about two dozen stations around the country.
I write a friend at the time: “There are real compensations to the job. There is the satisfaction that comes with a feeling that the city is yours. Nothing in it is foreign to you, the trivial or the important. The foot patrolman and the District Commissioner will both answer your questions.”
Besides, I am making $85 a week at WWDC plus what I earn at Deadline. A friend at the Washington Star receives only $65 a week, while another friend, the ex-president of the Crimson, is being paid $75 at the Washington Post. The former had to take dictation for six months before being even allowed to go out on assignment and the latter was stuck on the police beat. I am covering everything from murders to White House.
FRED FISKE INTERVIEWS TAB HUNTER
[Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library, Washington Post]I’m sent to interview a woman who is refusing to move out of her house in the Southwest urban renewal area. Hundreds of acres have been leveled around her and still she clings on like a survivor of the Dresden carpet bombing.
I’m sent to look into reports that a white family is about to be evicted from an Alexandria, VA., public housing project because their 14 year old daughter had given birth to an illegitimate baby. . . I ask the director whether he considered a juvenile delinquent who stole cars or engaged in similar activities a worse influence in the project than a girl with an illegitimate child? He said no, because the baby was living proof of the girl’s misdoing and would have contact with other children.
Before long, I know Washington and its environs like a cab driver and can quickly compute such arcane calculations as the shortest route from the White House to a six alarm fire in Upper Marlboro. I also know every press room in town.
My favorite is at the District Building, which one enters through swinging doors reminiscent of a frontier bar. Inside are three desks, a center table and a worn-out sofa. The stuffing is coming out of the sofa and the covering is greasy and black from years of resting heads. After Watergate, a sign will be posted above the press room sofa. It reads, “Carl Bernstein slept here.”
The pale green walls have accumulated a half century of miscellany, written with bold copy pencils and fine pens, in illegible script and distinct printing. There are quotations from city officials of things they wished they hadn’t said. Cliches, malapropisms and by the telephone there are numbers running in every direction. Sometimes the numbers have a name beside them but most often there is nothing but the exchange and the digits. Grave markers of stories long dead.
Battery operated tape recorders are so new that the engineer’s union initially insists it send a member out with all reporters using one. The tape recorders present a number of other challenges — including a deep sensitivity to temperature. More than once I return from an outdoor winter taping — a burial at Arlington 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 .
After presidential news conferences there is mad rush for the few phones available. Since the conferences always end on a half hour, you have a half hour before first airtime. So I do the simplest thing: go the People’s Drug Store on the corner of 17th & Pennsylvania Ave, buy a cup of coffee, sit down at a table, write my story in relative peace and then duck into a phone booth.
I still have the tape from a news conference held by Harvey Rosenberg, member of the DC and Texas bar, who had been hired the previous evening to represent the Coffee ‘n’ Confusion Cafe. The DC government is trying to shut it down. Although there are already perhaps 1,000 such establishments around the country catering to the still quietly alienated, nothing quite like it has hit DC.
Rosenberg throws himself into the cause with remarkable vigor arguing that “We have been accused of a cultural dearth in the United States. Wherever you go in Europe they talk about the cultural lag. 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 who have reached the French scene, and are recognized as outstanding authors and poets, began their struggle in the artistic world. There must be some area where people can get together and present their views, whether it be on art, politics, chess or women. We have in the fair city of Washington a number of emporiums dedicated to the latter search. We have in Washington a number of emporiums dedicated to the search for art in the sense of the Mellon Gallery. but we have no place where the poet may congregate and present his work.”
DC eventually becomes safe for poetry and bongo drums.
The stories I cover for WWDC run from Eisenhower news conferences, to an interview with Louis Armstrong, to the murder of the former head of a Illinois college who is found “stark naked, beaten and dying” in a room of the seedy Alton Hotel, murdered by a male carnival worker.
THE AUTHOR, 2nd FROM RIGHT, INTERVIEWS JFK RIGHT AFTER HE HAD ANNOUNCED HIS PRESIDENTIAL CANIDACY.
Photo by Hank Walker, Life Magazine
In November 1959, Charles Van Doren is called before a congressional committee in the midst of the TV quiz show scandal. . . A month later, the US sends a monkey 55 miles into space. . . A month after that, DC Transit runs its last streetcar to Glen Echo and one day later, John F. Kennedy announces that he is running for the president. I interview Kennedy and his wife right after his announcement.
That same January, I discover a cop from the Special Investigations Unit spying on a news conference for a group protesting a pending hearing of the House un-American Activities Committee, reporting that “I was told the unit likes to keep tabs on people who come to town.”
That summer, State Department spokesman Lincoln White tells reporters a plane shot down over the Soviet Union had been a “weather research” aircraft that had drifted off course. The craft, in fact, was a U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers doing just what he had been told to do. A Daily News photo shows me at a news conference sitting next to Mrs. Powers with my mike held towards her as she undergoes what the paper calls an “interrogation.”
In August 1960 I write in a letter: “Have been covering some of the anti-segregation demonstrations around the Washington area. The results here have been hopeful. Good police work has kept violence to a minimum although the presence of neo-Nazi Lincoln Rockwell and his troopers doesn’t make the situation any simpler. Quite a few lunch counters have been desegregated. Glen Echo Amusement Park is resisting despite a month of picketing and a Bethesda theater is also refusing to back down.”
By the end of June, I’m covering the desegregation of lunch counters in Northern Virginia after sit-ins by groups led a Howard Divinity School student, Lawrence Henry. Henry then takes his troops to Glen Echo. Although I save few recordings from that period — tape is expensive and usually recycled — I still have the raw sounds I made that day. On it a guard and Henry confront each other:
Are you white or colored?
Am I white or colored?
That’s correct. That’s what I want to know. Can I ask your race?
My race. I belong to the human race.
All right. This park is segregated.
I don’t understand what you mean.
It’s strictly for white people
It’s strictly for white persons?
Uh-hum. It has been for years. . .
I cover the progress of civil rights legislation on the Hill. In the House, the egregious but courtly Judge Howard Smith, czar of the Rules Committee, promises that “I shall not dilly, I shall not dally, neither shall I delay” and then proceeds to do all three. Judge Smith had once justified slavery on the grounds that the Romans and Egyptians had used it to build their civilizations.
Over on the Senate side, I report that “This afternoon it was JW Fulbright who said the issue of discrimination was non-existent — raised every four years for political reasons.” Fulbright at the time is participating in a southern filibuster that had already been going 69 hours, far longer than any previous effort.
One filibuster drifts into another and the hours turned into days. A group of reporters gather around the minority leader, Everett Dirksen, in the middle of one of the many nights and one asks, “How are you doing?” The Wizard of Ooze replies, “At some point I suppose I shall have to lie down and let Morpheus embrace me . . . After two weeks the flesh rides herd on the spirit.”
I cover the annual Brotherhood Week luncheon at a local hotel, a reporter friend leans over and said, “Do you notice the only Negroes in this place are the waiters?”.
Hartford Gunn offers me the station manager job at WGBH radio in Boston because he wants to concentrate on TV, but I can’t take it because of my pending military service obligation.
I go through a ‘Good Night & Good Luck’ experience (but without Ed Murrow’s help) over my Coast Guard security clearance, owing to organizations my parents had belong to 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. And I almost flunk my a physical because the trauma of the investigation has damaged my eyesight, blood pressure and blood sugar level.
Three years after I leave WWDC, it becomes the first station in the country to play a Beatle’s record.
A few weeks before I enter the CG, Ed Taishoff and I serve as Walter Cronkite’s private wire service for the Kennedy inauguration, taking info from reporters in the field, rewriting it and passing it along to Cronkite. Sitting in the hall at the Hotel Washington I am struck by how many suits there are running around not doing anything while the engineers and Ed and I never stop working. I decide then that maybe TV is not for me. Besides a short temporary gig with Roll Call has gotten me fascinated in the print media.
I leave the Coast Guard after three years active duty. One month before I get out, the government gives us the defense service ribbon, which signifies participation in a war. Vietnam has finally become official.
I already know we were in a war because my friend Lew Walling, then 22 years old and flying a secret mission, has become the 33rd American to die in the Vietnam conflict. There would eventually be 58,000 names placed on the Vietnam Wall. Lew and I had worked at the Harvard radio station and he would sometimes show up with his friend, a Boston University student and singer named Joan Baez. Her first radio appearance was on our station.
I rent an apartment on Capitol Hill and start an alternative monthly called the Idler
The Idler runs a series of letters from a friend of mine taking part in the Mississippi summer of 1964. In 1965, moved by the account and what was happening, I go to Jackson, Mississippi to cover the hearings of the US Civil Rights Commission and devote a whole issue to the story.
I start playing drums with the New Sunshine Band, a retro jazz group whose leader collects old scores including a never recorded Jelly Roll Morton number that we add to our repertoire
I start a neighborhood newspapere on Capitol Hill at the urging of a Saul Alinsky trained Presbyterian minister who is trying to organize the neighborhood. Rev. Bob Smith talks me into calling the paper the Capitol East Gazette, a phrase then only found on the maps and in the reports of city planners. It includes an area deep into black Washington, with only about a quarter of its residents white. Which is how I come not only to start The Capitol East Gazette but try to rename the neighborhood at the same time.
I take 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 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?”
I would also sometimes tweak him when we meet. “What’s happenin’, Sam?”
“Not much, Marion. Just staying home with the wife and kids. How about you?”
Somewhere around this time I get a call from James Reston, chief of the Washington bureau of the NY Times, He asks me to become his assistant. I reject the offer as the Times seems less interesting than what I’m doing. He asks if I know anyone and I give him my friend Jim Sterba’s name. Sterba ends up in Vietnam and becoming foreign editor of the Wall Street Journal. Years later a friend says that if I had taken the job I would have ended up either fired or a drunk. I think he’s right.
It wasn’t the only road not taken. At one point I seriously considered working for the National Enquirer. A friend at Congressional Quarterly called with news that a mutual acquaintance — a deputy editor at the tabloid — was looking for a Washington column. The Enquirer was willing to pay $800 a week — an enormous sum at the time albeit some of it intended for loosening lips.
My friend’s scheme was brilliant. Four of us would write under a single pseudonym. Thus we could 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 sat in the dark, dignified dining hall of the Mayflower Hotel discussing the project with the tabloid’s chief editor, a small, dapper Englishman who moved from national politics to reflections on the importance of dog stories in perfect segué. We sold each other on ourselves and the three other conspirators — all of whom worked for CQ — returned to broach the subject with their publisher, Nelson Pointer. Pointer pointedly responded that they could either work for Congressional Quarterly or for the Enquirer but not for both. The scheme disintegrated. I did get paid $100 for a single paragraph item the Enquirer published, but afterwards I felt a little tawdry and never submitted anything else.
The Coast Guard starts sending ships to Vietnam. Since that wasn’t why I joined, I leave the Coast Guard Reserve, where I have been most recently executive officer of the Baltimore reserve unit. I’m a little sad to surrender my little card that instructs me to report to the Washington Naval Yard in seven days in case of an emergency, since I have carefully planned the trip of two miles or so, with a different bar featured each day.
In my neighborhood, the Age of Aquarius often looks more like a war zone. Many of the people there are not part of a counter-culture but of an abandoned culture. Even the jukebox at the Stanton Grill — purveyors of Greek and American food to white Appalachian boarding house residents — plays the Supremes, not Bob Dylan.
We live in one of the toughest sections of town but experienced relatively few problems. Two cars of friends were 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 bottle stolen again.
We had bought the traditional Washington row house on 6th Street NE after becoming engaged but before getting married. I assured Kathy that the neighborhood was safe. It was, after all, only about four blocks away from where I was already living. The neighborhood kids who helped me move weren’t so sure. Over lunch at my new abode, one observed that he “wouldn’t come over here with the whole US Marines.” “But,” replied another, “It’s better than Death Alley.”
“Death Alley?” . . . “You know, Sam, that alley behind your apartment.” I had never thought about it from a kid’s point of view, but he was right: the dead end of Death Alley would not be a pleasant place to be trapped.
My circulation staff comes from the neighborhood — when they aren’t in jail. At one point, about half of them are. I find needles behind stacks of papers in the office, have a few checks stolen and am even tipped off to a kidnap threat credible enough that my wife and son leave town while the police stake out my house for a day.
One of my staff twice threatens to commit suicide and twice I calm him down. I take him to the Area C mental health center but that doesn’t work either. Then he shows up at my house at 11:30 on night seeking refuge from his drug dealer who is cruising the block in a two tone brown Cadillac.
I figure that the safest place for Bo that night might be jail. So I call the local precinct, explained the situation and suggest they just take him down to the station house until the problem subsided.
A white cop arrives and Bo leaves with him. As they walk down the street, something goes wrong and the two started fighting, with Bo eventually losing and being forcibly taken off. A neighbor, a popular black singer at the nearby Mr. Henry’s bar, looks out his window, sees a white cop assaulting a black man and goes down to the precinct to bail Bo out. One hour later, Bo is at my door again begging to be let in. This time I call the precinct and asked them to send a black cop and just take Bo home. And they do.
The meat and potatoes of our coverage is endless meetings taking place in the community, not a few of them spurred by questions as to what to do and who should do it with money coming from the war on poverty. Everyone knows Robert’s Rules of Order and its locally sanctioned addenda: “Mr. Chairman, I have an unreadiness.” Sometimes the meetings break up in pandemonium. One is literally turned around after the chair declares it illegal. The vice chair, a minister and cab driver who wears a clerical collar around his neck and a coin holder on his belt, stands up in the back of the room and everyone to turn their chairs around. Most did, leaving the chair speechless in what was now the rear.
The meetings may have seemed chaotic, but they were part of a community coming alive, of power being transferred to better places, and of the anarchistic results of discovering hope. And you met some wonderful people covering the story, people like public housing activist Lucille Goodwin who dragged her senile husband, rolling his plastic soldier in his hands, to every meeting and once explained to me how to handle the folks downtown: “You got to technique ’em, Sam” she said.
A photographer calls the Gazette to complain that a photo the paper had been sent by a community group was run without credit. He explains in an agitated fashion that he is a poor black dropout working in a car wash and that the Gazette has done him wrong. The editor explains how to progress as a photographer: “Go and get yourself a fucking rubber stamp that reads ‘Credit Roland Freeman, Photographer, All Rights Reserved’ and you stamp every photo you take with that stamp and then you’ll be a real photographer and I won’t print anymore of your frigging photos without giving you credit.” A few weeks later, Freeman becomes photo editor of the Gazette. Later, he will win a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, become an associate of Magnum, a nationally known photographer and an expert on African-America quilting.
I turn 30 by the end of 1967. I am now too old to be trusted anymore, they say.
The Gazette begins running the first regular column by a prison inmate anywhere in the country
Under a tree by the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool during a big peace march, a tie-died, pony-tailed protester next to me is quiet for a long time. Then he turns and asks softly, “CIA?”
I puffed on my pipe. “Nope”
I take the pipe out of my mouth. “Half and Half, all day long.”
“Cool,” he says and gives me his love beads.
I do not get off as easily at later demonstrations. On three other occasions I am mistaken for a copy, some activists not believing that 200 pound iron pumpers might like peace or want to save the enviroment, too.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, I’m up on T Street with a group of anti-freeway protesters picketing the mayor’s house, when word came of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. We go home as the police cars poured by filled with shotgun-armed and helmeted police.
The next morning things are quiet enough that we went about our business as usual. . . There are only a few whites living in the block; but I feel little tension or hostility. I mainly note the black smoke drifting down from H Street, four blocks away. My wife is out back working in our foot-wide strip of garden, listening to reports of looting and arson on a portable radio as a black fog settles in. We decide to go up on the roof for a better look. H Street is burning. Others areas have gone first and the radio reports a lack of fire equipment to deal with the situation a few blocks to the north. I try to count the fires but they congeal under the curtain of smoke. We decide to pack just in case. For about ten minutes we gather an instinctive selection of nostalgic items, favorite photos, the non-valuable but irreplaceable. Then we look at what we have done and laugh. Like loyal children of our generation, we settle down in our smoky living room to watch on television what is happening to us.
Some people think I had something to do with it. One of my advertisers, the photo dealer Harry Lunn, tells me late one night that if anyone firebombs his store he is going to come and personally burn my house down. He has been, or is still, with the CIA so I take him seriously.
SAM SMITH PHOTO
Len Kirsten, an advertiser and owner of the Emporium, is more blase. A lady walks into the store and, spotting the pile of Gazettes on the floor, says, “Isn’t that a Communist paper?” “Oh no,” Len replies cheerfully. “The editor’s a communist but the paper isn’t.”
Another advertiser is Spack’s Chicken on the Hill, which has a storefront windows filled with an 1883 Swiss music box, an airplane propeller, opera glasses, statuettes and drug store jewelry. There are Arabic sabers hanging over the restroom doors and travel posters on the wall. Also “the world’s smallest bar” — a few shelves filled with miniature liquor bottles. “Now someday this place is going to have class,” Spack once told our reporter, Greg Lawrence. “You know — cosmopolitan, relaxing, with fine music from the past. For instance,” he said as he reached for an object under the counter, “this vase from Europe has been dyed by its creators in pigeon blood. Now I ask you, what other cafe on Capitol Hill features decorations dyed in pigeon blood?”
In May I’m elected to the Democratic Central Committee as part of a rare fusion slate in American politics, a combination of Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy supporters, of which I am one of the latter.
In June Bobby Kennedy is killed and I go down to Union Station to see his body come back.
I go to a meeting at SNCC headquarters, where I am one of the few whites in the room. Stokely Carmichael comes in and announces that whites are no longer welcome in the civil rights movement. A wall have come down between blacks and whites in the city.
I’m visited at my office by the brother of a woman I had dated a couple of times, Lallie Graham. Donald Graham has just come back from Vietnam and wants to talk about what he should do with his life, adding that he is thinking about joining the DC police department. I tell him I think that’s crazy, but, in the first of a long pattern, he ignores my advice and is assigned to my precinct. On several occasions, he drops by while on duty; he and I discuss politics on MPD time while his patrol partner sits looking bored.
THE EDITOR AT WORK [Bob Burchett, Washington Post]
With post-riot advertising in trouble, I switch the Capitol East Gazette into a citywide alternative paper, the DC Gazette. I tell people that too many of my readers want to burn down too many of my advertisers.
I become a co-plaintiff, as member of DC Democratic Central Committee, in a suit to recover bus fare overpayments. Twenty years later, following Supreme Court refusal to review the appeal, DC bus riders will be awarded $10 million in the case.
My friend and activist Gren Whitman calls from Baltimore to borrow my office “as place for the press to meet before an action.” I ask what’s up. “Don’t ask,” he instructs. “I don’t want you to know. That way you won’t be liable.” I agree to help. The reporters and the activists arrive at my office at the scheduled time and within minutes depart on their still-unidentified mission. Later that day I learn that nine protesters have broken into the offices of the Dow Chemical Company and spilled blood over the files in an anti-war protest, becoming known as the DC Nine.
I write the Catholic bishop of Washington objecting to something of public concern involving the church. Get a letter back from the auxiliary bishop that reads: “This is to acknowledge your letter of March 27 and to thank you for the opinion it expresses. Each such manifestation of viewpoint is like a stone in a mosaic. Only after all the stones are in place is one able to get a true picture of the representation.”
A group of us gather in the basement of a church to plan Julius Hobson’s campaign for non-voting delegate. After some discussion, Hobson says, “What sort of platform am I going to run on?” Someone in the room mentions an article I had written some months earlier describing how DC could become a state. The total response to the article had been a $5 check from one reader. But Julius listens to the discussion and says, “That’s what I’m going to run on.” The DC Statehood Party is born.
The city council holds a two day hearing on marijuana. It learns that scientifically, marijuana is a mild conscious-altering drug; it is not addictive nor does it lead to the use of addicting drugs; it has been known and used and studied for literally thousands of years, and no physiological damage whatsoever has been discovered; instances of adverse mental effects from its use are extremely rare.
U.S. Surgeon General Jesse L. Steinfeld notes 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.”
Activist Petey Greene testifies on behalf of his grandmother: “She said she’d rather me smoke reefers and just sit and smile at people than drink that old wine and come in throwing chairs around. ”
Even Dr. Milton Joffe of the Bureau of Narcotics says that although “legalizing simply for hedonistic purposes” is not warranted, “I’m not against pleasure.”
Noting that Surgeon General Steinfeld had referred to the famous Alice B. Toklas marijuana brownies but claimed the recipe was not to be found in Alice’s cookbook, the Council’s Republican chairman Gilbert Hahn opens the second day of hearings by setting the record straight. “You will find the recipe on page 273 of Alice B. Toklas.”
Tom Shales writes a column on the Washington Post in which he says, “Of course, the Post is so riddled with flaws and shortcomings, it is hard to know where to start, and I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t. From its snobbishly inadequate under-coverage of the District itself, to the helter-skelter disorganization of national and international news within the paper, the Post is a compendium of journalistic ambiguity and short-shifts to the community one assumes it is supposed to serve.” Shales will later be hired by the Post, eventually becoming its TV critic, but will for sometime continue writing his Gazette column under the pseudonym of Egbert Sousé . . . until he is discovered and ordered to cease.
More than 13,000 are arrested in a May protest, the largest mass arrest in American history. Most of those arrested — including law-breakers caught while attempting to impede traffic, possible potential law-breakers, war protestors engaged in entirely legal demonstrations, 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 and convince a judge to release a protestor friend into my custody.
One year after the Attica riot in which 29 inmates and ten guards were killed, there is a prisoner revolt at the Washington, DC Jail during which the director of DC Corrections and a number of guards are taken hostage. But, unlike Attica, no one is killed. Judges, politicians, U.S. Marshals, prisoners, and hostages all gather in Courtroom 16 to see what could 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 cover. After Judge Bryant listens to the prisoners’ complaints they return to the DC jail their hostages. 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 are soon released.
The young DC Statehood Party decides to run a hefty election slate. I miss the convention, having gone to Philadelphia to visit relatives. There I received a phone call from Jay Matthews of the Washington Post informing me that I had been selected as the party’s candidate for city council chair. I reply, “Oh shit, I knew I shouldn’t have left town.” (The Post ran the response without the expletive). After a week of reflection, I decided to stick to journalism. Nationally syndicated black columnist Chuck Stone writes, “The outside chance for a white city council chairman evaporated when Sam Smith, the irreverent and witty publisher and editor of the bi-weekly DC Gazette, withdrew after a draft (which included a large number of blacks) had been mounted on his behalf. ‘Oh dear,’ fretted a matronly white woman who had organized a candidates night, ‘we did want so much to have a least one white candidate for that office.'”
I move my office from Capitol Hill to the back room of the architectural offices of friend John Wiebenson, where I will stay until 2001 with only one rent increase. My office has the bathroom, copy machine and fax and I see a lot of architects, contractors and plumbers. Wieb starts drawing for the Gazette the first urban planning comic strip in the nation.
A party we give 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.
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. ‘This idea came to me through the aegis of an angel,’ he said. ‘This angel said, ‘You are the dauphin. You must ride forth and bring this idea. You must save France.’ The angel was a drunk and he meant America.
“‘So I said, ‘Okay, anything to relieve my illimitable boredom . . . I am just Phineas T. Dauphin. If this remains my plaything, nothing will happen to it. I just want to be remembered as old Uncle Norman who had something to do with it.”
Among those attending the party is ex-CIA agent Victor Marchetti whose new book has been enjoined from publication because of government objections, as well as a woman who says, “I’m a very bored radical right now, and I’d love to leave, but the person who brought me wants to ask Mailer something.”
The Post reports that, “many of the guests, mostly elegantly dressed, articulate antiwar activists, had come not knowing quite what to expect but with the thought that, as one woman put it, ‘wine and cheese and Norman Mailer were probably worth $10 a head.'”
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 and a bunch of pizza-munching activists launching a national Green party. 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.”
I become the first male president of the John Eaton Elementary School parent’s association. Among my predecessor: 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. As well they might, seeing that, to them, the very pregnant Mrs. Frieda was 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 – 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 spilled in the girl’s bathroom.
I’m elected in the first advisory neighborhood council election. I had advocated such councils for some time. My opponent hardly campaigned and 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.
My wife Kathy, Becky Brown and I write a musical revue of DC history that will be performed by the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. It features 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.”
I become a founding board member of the DC Community Humanities Council. Even Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have councils by now, but DC is too close for comfort for the National Endowment for the Humanities. One of the co-chairs is Del Lewis, later head of NPR. We fund a movie on liberation theology right under NEH boss William Bennett’s nose.
I get a letter from Peter Menkin of Feature Associates telling me that one of my columnists is now longer writing and would I like their new guy: Dave Barry. I’m hesitant and Menkin writes, “Who might this be, you ask. Barry is living in Pennsylvania. What effect it has on his mind, we don’t know. The choice is yours: keep using Schwimmer, and ask for some columns you haven’t seen, or take someone alive, like the Pennsylvania fellow Barry. We haven’t code named him yet” I agree to use Barry, the first time his work appears in Washington.
THE AUTHOR (L) CONFERS WITH MAYOR MARION BARRY
DURING A BASEBALL GAME
I write a piece for the Post’s Outlook section that begins, “Could you stop the renaissance of Washington a minute? I want to get off. I have to run down to People’s and restock my inventory of Rolaids before reading one more article about how the city is being reborn, revived and revitalized. This city – the Paris of prevarication, the London of dissemblance, the Florence of deceit -has outdone itself: It is telling itself and the world that it is getting better. . .
“The new Washington disdains nearly every contact with the city as a community and treats the place as part shopping mall and part Plato’s Retreat for the ego. The new city is the one you read about in Style and Washington Life (the old city is stuck in the ghetto of the District Weekly – a peculiar ghetto at that, since it is only open on Thursdays.) 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 that 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.”
The author playing with the New Sunshine Jazz Band at a party for Walter Mondale (still in morning coat) after the Reagan inauguration. This was the author’s last gig as a drummer. He switched to stride piano
I’m hired as Washington correspondent of the London Illustrated News. The editor remarks to the deputy who hired me, “I didn’t know Americans knew how to write.” Over a three year gig, my pay will drop in half because I am paid in pounds which are shifting downwards. My greatest achievement: to be the first ILN writer in 150 years to get the word “fuck” into the magazine.
I get a note from PG Design Electronics: “Thank you for your interest in our new 32K expansion RAM module. . . It’s like having many 32K Model 100s at one keyboard at 1/3 the cost.” I buy this powerful device for $325.
I writ in City Paper: “Life in Washington’s slow lane is under siege. The culture of the more than half-million residents who don’t subscribe to the Washingtonian, who think of game plans only on fall weekends, and who eat at the 537th best restaurant in town and honestly believe they have had a good meal is threatened by in intrusive, presumptuous, and pompous elite so insecure it must remind us every day in every way that it is in town.”
Soon after the article appears, I get a call from Phyllis Richman, the food editor of the Washington Post. “Which,” she demands, “is the 537th best restaurant in town?” She apparently saw my comment as a swipe at her and her profession, especially since her own ratings stopped at 100.
With as much casual certainty as I could muster, I inform Phyllis that it isHodge’s, a small carryout on New York Avenue.
She immediately goes out and reviews it. Richman writes, “Huddled between Lee’s Brake Service and Kim’s Auto Body Shop, Hodge’s is a self-service sandwich shop with a few shiny tables outside under the green plastic awning.” But the meal I had clearly underrated: “537th? Hmmph. Even the City Paper voted this roast beef sandwich the best in Washington, says the framed certificate on the wall. And the coffee was better than at the lunch counter in my office, even when Hodge’s manager declined to charge for it because it wasn’t fresh enough ”
The only time I actually sat on a jury was on June 6, 1989 and that was for just 20 minutes. It was a White House demonstration case and the defendant, Jon E. Haines, was accused of assaulting a police officer. Haines was of moderate height, with rusty brown hair, a moustache and beard. He was wearing a blue-gray suit and a red and blue tie.
The first witness was a Park Police officer and the first question was would she please identify the defendant. She pointed out Haines’ attorney, Mark L. Goldstone who was of moderate height, with rusty brown hair, a moustache and beard. He was wearing a blue-gray suit and a red and blue tie.
She was dismissed and a second witness, another Park Police officer, was called. Meanwhile Goldstone gave his client his legal pads and papers and told him to “act like a lawyer.” Asked to identify the defendant, the officer also selected Goldstone.
We were sent to the jury room while the law in all its majesty decided what the hell to do. Which was to drop the case. 7/02
Alicia Paterson Foundation
The city council back tracks on the treatment of the homeless. Homeless activist Mitch Snyder starts a massive organizing drive to fight the action. We talk on the phone. He tells 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 say, sure, and — as he did so often to so many people he had pulled to the cause in that soft gentle voice — he says: “Thank you, my friend.”
A few days later, Mitch Snyder commits suicide. I do a commentary for WAMU: “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.”
I begin five years as the sole 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. Towards the end of the run, Adrienne Washington, Jerry Phillips and I start 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.'”
City Council chair John Wilson commits suicide. A few days later I write a piece for the Post’s Outlook section: “The reason so many of us still feel like crying is not just because John Wilson showed how politics could be an honorable trade. It’s not just because you could learn more in an elevator ride with John than you could from an average politician over a whole day. . . And it isn’t because John was given to telling the truth — in Washington pure evidence of eccentricity.
“Such things are important and help explain why our town is going to be hurting for a long time. . . But they don’t really explain the tears. What may explain them, though, is that 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. . .”
Wilson was also wonderfully plain spoken. Once, offered a campaign button and he responded, “I don’t put holes in my clothes for nobody.” Of city council meetings he said, “The dumbest things they ever did was to put this shit on TV so they could see how stupid we are.” Once he told me, “Sam, you know that any town that has Marion Barry and me running it has got to be fucked up.”
I start 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 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, however, 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. Keith Rutter of the Project on Government Oversight even assures me that he has friends in Atlanta and so wouldn’t burden the team with room and board: “I started working out the minute I heard you on ‘Morning Edition.'”
A few years later the editor will be banned from a talk show on the 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 the Clinton coverage as the editor also finds himself on a de facto blacklist at outlets like CSPAN and the Washington Post. 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.
Having been a charter member of the miniscule left wing conspiracy that exposed Clinton’s corrupt Arkansas past even before the vast right wing conspiracy got geared up, I start to pay the price. Curious things start to happen.
Such as the time after I appear on local NPR station WAMU. When I leave the studio, the conservative black host Derek McGinty turns to the station’s political editor, Mark Plotkin, and says, “He’s banned” and I am. Several times, when McGinty went on vacation, Plotkin has me on, but the station manager notices and tells him to stop. I ask Mark why I have been banned and he says he thought it was for “excessive irony.”
My friends occasionally call in and make McGinty mad by asking about my status. One caller asks why and McGinty denies 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 sneaks me on the show when McGinty is on vacation but the program director, Steve Martin, accosts him one day and said, “You’ve been found out. Stop it.”
In fact, irony is 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 am dropped as a guest by Fox Morning News. A Washington Post reporter tells me casually that, yes, she guesses I am on that paper’s blacklist. There is 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 is the only one deleted from C-SPAN’s coverage – even a folk singer saying that she was the “warmup band for Sam Smith” is left in.
THE AUTHOR’S DECOLAND BAND
Four of us are standing together at a party and the subject is Sy Hersh’s new book on Jack Kennedy. The man who had once been one of Hersh’s colleagues at the New York Times calls the book unbelievable; his wife and the other woman agree. I ask the former journalist what parts of the book he found unbelievable and he tells me the part about Marilyn Monroe that had turned out to be a forgery. That part isn’t in the book, I say. Besides, did you ever get near the end of a story and find that something you thought was true wasn’t? He said he had.
The woman to my left picks up for him, citing the part about buying the 1960 election. That’s old stuff, she says with disdain. Besides why would Kennedy have to go to the mob when he could just go to Mayor Daley? I try briefly to determine why stealing an election with the help of Mayor Daley is more honorable than doing it with the Mafia, but gain little distance. So I ask the question that had been on my mind from the start: how many of us have actually read the book?
None of us had.
Another typical evening in the Washington market place of ideas.
In just a couple of weeks:
– A reader writes in to describe the Review as “rightwing maggots, fuck heads, and pro-fascists.”
– I become the subject of low intensity philosophical debate on a Clinton scandal bulletin board that included these comments:
“If those who began life as Marxists have evolved into more thoughtful individuals, then as far as I’m concerned they are welcome aboard. Would any here consider the ‘enemy’ even if he chooses to espouse a number of untenable positions, which positions, I suspect in the long run will not prove significant?”
Which produces this response from Billy:”That completely depends on what we’re calling ‘significant.’ Personally, I’ve lately said in private correspondence that, for a commie, Sam’s not a bad sort. He most certainly is to be roundly commended for his stalwart intolerance of The Lying Bastard, that’s for sure. However, if not for that particular disaster that happens to bring him and me together, it’s clear to me that we could be serious antagonists over other matters.”
After 23 years at the same address the Review gets word that it will have to move by October 1. A developer is moving into the block in a big way.
The move means the destruction of one of the funkiest business blocks in the city. At one point, 17 architects found haven in this block as did assorted other livers on the edge. Our landlord, Mike Heller, is often found standing on Connecticut Avenue passing the time of day with tenants and others as he patiently awaits something to fix. When his daughter was younger, he sold Girl Scout cookies throughout his five building complex.
After 9/11 I write, “On that bad morning, people here filled the streets, walking and driving away from what in better times had been known as the capital of the free world. Official Washington had responded by turning a disaster it didn’t understand into one it did: a traffic jam. Soon, the traditional icons of order began to appear as well; the city’s dozen or so different police forces were augmented by camouflaged soldiers standing by Humvees parked on the sidewalk. Thinking about the possibility of someone crashing into the Capitol building just six blocks from my house, I felt less than reassured by all this activity; it had the aura of belated bureaucratic compensation rather than rational response. When I turned on the TV, all of New York seemed part of a great rescue operation. In Washington, the rescuers were isolated across the river at the Pentagon while the rest of us engaged in a muted ritual of dignified angst. It’s one of the divisions of the town, like black and white, rich and poor. There are relatively few who know how to do things like save lives in a burning building. The rest of us write about it, come up with strategy options to do it better next time, or lobby members of Congress to ignore these options. It is a city of too many words and too few tears and laughs.”
Ernest White, host of the TV and radio shows on which I was a guest for five years, dies. White has been disintegrating for some 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. . . . 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 a 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.
In Ernest’s obituary, the Post’s Claudia Levy wrote: “Mr. White’s friends, including a number of journalists whose careers he helped, said they tried to help him in turn but were frustrated at his inability to cope. He stayed at homeless shelters and motels but mainly lived on the streets.”
White gave so much life to the city but died a lonely metaphor for its own slow disintegration.
I walk by the Capitol and find myself wondering why we weren’t more paranoiac during the Cold War. When Johnson and Kennedy and Nixon were president you could still wander about the Capitol’s halls and through the associated office buildings as though you were actually a part owner. Yet if Homeland Security had been in charge of setting the alerts for that era, he would have run out of colors. We were in far more danger than we are now.
It strikes me that this isn’t about me and you; it’s about them. We are being governed by some intensely frightened people from George Bush on down. Much of the homeland security business is to provide important people personal protection to from the consequence of the extremely bad things they are doing. We are the victims of both Al Qaeda and Il Dubya, told to give up our rights and freedoms so that the worst leaders of our entire history can go about their business without having to suffer for it. The whole city of Washington has become the armored vest of the Bush administration and Congress.
My wife and I have lunch at Jimmy T’s, five blocks down East Capitol Street from where George Bush and his capos are being given four more years to do damage to their country, its constitution, its culture, and its environment — not to mention further mischief to the rest of the world. The inauguration is taking place on the opposite side of the Capitol and there are hardly any cars or people and no signs of security.
The counter at Jimmy T’s was full so we sit in a booth. The TV is on but no one looks at the inauguration and the sound is turned to WASH-FM – loud enough so you can’t hear the helicopters overhead. For as long as it takes to eat a short stack with bacon and drink a cup of coffee we can pretend everything is okay.
The memorial service for my friend Gene McCarthy 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 has sat next to me in the pew. With pleasant earnestness he had turned to me before the service and asked, “Tell me, what did he do? He ran for president, didn’t he? And was he a senator?”
I’m stunned, wondering what had led him to enter the Natonal Cathedral in the first place, but I describe McCarthy to him. The man is interested and 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, my neighbor makes copious notes and takes photos with his little camera.
At the end of the service, I shake hands and say I was been glad to meet him, adding, “Was it worthwhile?”
He smiles. “It was unforgettable. I feel alive again.”
Stewart Mott dies. When Ann Zill called me in the mid 1980s and told me that she and Stewart Mott would like to have lunch with me, I thought, well, I better be on my good behavior. This, after all, was in mind the guy who had, funded the 1960s, not to mention giving the buck power to the campaigns of Gene McCarthy and George McGovern and making it onto Nixon’s enemy list. That day I may have worn a tie and I’m sure I replaced my running shoes with loafers, but it wasn’t necessary. Zill and Mott arrived at my Dupont Circle office, each carrying a motorcycle helmet. Right away I knew we would share a paradigm or two.
For more than two decades after that luncheon, I would sit on the board the Fund for Constitutional Government, a delight even if it hadn’t been helping the cash flow of groups protecting government whistle blowers, uncovering government waste, and fighting would-be censors of the Internet.
On one occasion, I received a Fedex box from Stewart and inside were various loaves, muffins and other baked goods, each dyed some stunningly unappetizing color. The bread came with a four page guide. Stewart liked to make sure things were right.
I realize that with the inauguration of Barack Obama, I will have covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America’s presidencies. It’s time for something different. My wife and I move to Maine