Unofficial tales from an Official City
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
than once, when
calling the DC police dispatcher to check on the overnight action,
I am told, "Nothin' but a few nigger stabbings."
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.
AT THE CHARLES HOTEL
HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF WASHINGTON
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
[Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library, Washington Post]
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
becomes safe for poetry and bongo drums.
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
Photo by Hank Walker, Life Magazine
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.
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
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."
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."
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
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. . .
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.
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.
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."
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?".
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.
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.
years after I leave WWDC, it becomes the first station in the
country to play a Beatle's record.
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.
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.
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.
first radio appearance was on our station.
an apartment on
Capitol Hill and start an alternative monthly called the Idler
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.
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
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.
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?"
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.
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
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
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
. . . "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"
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
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
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.
city erupts in riots. 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.
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.
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.
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."
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?"
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.
Bobby Kennedy is killed and I go down to Union Station to see
his body come back.
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.
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
THE EDITOR AT WORK [Bob Burchett,
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
arrest and show up at a midnight court session and convince a
judge to release a protestor friend into my custody.
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:
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?"
are soon released.
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.'"
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.'"
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.
completely forgotten. In the permanent record of the Senate Judiciary
Committee's 1976 hearings there is this report from a committee
"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."
the first male president of the John Eaton Elementary School parent's
association. Among my predecessor: Joan Mondale, wife of the
then vice president.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
(L) CONFERS WITH MAYOR MARION BARRY
DURING A BASEBALL GAME
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. . .
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
much casual certainty as I could muster, I inform Phyllis that
it isHodge's, a small carryout on New York Avenue.
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 "
e 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
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."
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."
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,
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.
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."
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.'"
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.
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
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
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.
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?
typical evening in the Washington market place of ideas.
a couple of week:
- 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:
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?"
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."
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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?"
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."
clicks on. "You were in Vietnam," I say.
It really screwed you up. Every day you thought you were going
to die. I'm still screwed up."
the service, my neighbor makes copious notes and takes photos
with his little camera.
end of the service, I shake hands and say I was been glad to
meet him, adding, "Was it worthwhile?"
"It was unforgettable. I feel alive again."
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.
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.
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.
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