Politics & storytelling, a sampler: Thompson, McGinniss, Sullivan, Lepore, Bowden, Bellow
Why hasn’t anybody Hunter S. Thompsonized this election? Or have they, and we missed it? Esquire’s Charlie Pierce approacheth –
In the interest of keeping you abreast of news that hasn’t happened yet, I would like to introduce you to what the intellectuals in the employ of the Glenn Beck Empire will be saying on Wednesday if the election doesn’t turn out the way that the weeping gossoon thinks it will.
– but who’s doing long-form story? Who’s capturing the soul of this moment? We won’t make this a Thompson extravaganza, but do allow us to send out a triple shot of HST that you might like to revisit for the glittering, raging sentences alone, followed by a couple of other classic and current pieces worth your time. You’ll need some good stuff to read while you’re waiting in line at the polls.
We want to keep in mind that “comfortable” is a very relative word around Washington these days – with the vicious tentacles of “Watergate” ready to wrap themselves around almost anybody, at any moment – and when McGovern composed those eminently reasonable words in the study of his stylish home on the woodsy edge of Washington, he had no idea how close he’d just come to being made extremely “uncomfortable.”
I have just finished making out a report addressed to somebody named Charles R. Roach, a claims examiner at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Headquarters of Avis Rent-a-Car in Arlington, Virginia. It has to do with a minor accident that occurred on Connecticut Avenue, in downtown Washington, shortly after George and his wife had bade farewell to the last staggering guests at the party he’d given on a hot summer night in July commemorating the first anniversary of his seizure of the presidential nomination in Miami.
The atmosphere of the party itself had been amazingly loose and pleasant. Two hundred people had been invited – twice that many showed up – to celebrate what history will record, with at least a few asterisks, as one of the most disastrous presidential campaigns in American history. Midway in the evening I was standing on the patio, talking to Carl Wagner and Holly Mankiewicz, when the phone began ringing and whoever answered it came back with the news that President Nixon had just been admitted to the nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital with what was officially announced as “viral pneumonia.”
Nobody believed it, of course. High-powered journalists like Jack Germond and Jules Witcover immediately seized the phones to find out what was really wrong with Nixon … but the rest of us, no longer locked into deadlines or the fast-rising terrors of some tomorrow’s election day, merely shrugged at the news and kept on drinking. There was nothing unusual, we felt, about Nixon caving in to some real or even psychosomatic illness. And if the truth was worse than the news … well … there would be nothing unusual about that either.
One of the smallest and noisiest contingents among the 200 invited guests was the handful of big-time journalists who’d spent most of last autumn dogging McGovern’s every lame footstep along the campaign trail, while two third-string police reporters from the Washington Post were quietly putting together the biggest political story of 1972 or any other year – a story that had already exploded, by the time of McGovern’s “anniversary” party, into a scandal that has even now burned a big hole for itself in every American history textbook written from 1973 till infinity.
— from “Mr. Nixon Has Cashed His Check,” Rolling Stone
July 4, 1974:
For reasons that will never be clear to anyone – and especially not to the management and other guests in this place – the National Affairs Desk is operating once again at the Royal Biscayne Hotel, about 900 crooked meters from the Nixon/Rebozo compound on the other side of the island. The desk itself is a round slab of what appears to be low-grade jacaranda wood.
The centerpiece is a bright orange electric typewriter that I rented several days ago from a business-machine store on 125th Street in North Miami. It is a Swedish “Facit” – a deceptively sharp-looking machine about five times slower in both directions than the IBM Selectric and totally useless for any kind of speed-lashed gonzo work. For all its style and voltage, the Facit is about as quick in the hands as one of those 1929-model Underwoods that used to be standard equipment in the city room of the New York Mirror. Nobody knows exactly what happened to all those old Underwoods when the Mirror died of bad age, but one rumor in the trade says they were snapped up at a dime on the dollar by Norman Cousins and then resold at a tidy profit to the Columbia Journalism Review.
Which is interesting, but it is not the kind of thing you normally want to develop fully in your classic Pyramid Lead. . . and that’s what I was trying to deal with, when I suddenly realized that my typewriter was as worthless as tits on a boar hog.
Besides that, there were other mechanical problems: no water, no ice, no phone service, and finally the discovery of two Secret Service men in the room right next to me.
— from “It Was a Nice Place. They Were Principled People, Really,” Rolling Stone
Oct. 10, 1974:
Well … this is going to be difficult. That sold-out knucklehead refugee from a 1969 “Mister Clean” TV commercial has just done what only the most cynical and paranoid kind of malcontent ever connected with national politics would have dared to predict. …
If I followed my better instincts right now, I would put this typewriter in the Volvo and drive to the home of the nearest politician–any politician–and hurl the goddamn machine through his front window … flush the bugger out with an act of lunatic violence then soak him down with mace and run him naked down Main Street in Aspen with a bell around his neck and black lumps all over his body from the jolts of a high-powered “Bull Buster” cattle prod.
But old age has either mellowed me or broken my spirit to the point where I will probably not do that–at least not today, because that blundering dupe in the White House has just plunged me into a deep and vicious hole.
About five hours after I’d sent the final draft of a massive article on The Demise of Richard Nixon off on the mojo wire and into the cold maw of the typesetter in San Francisco, Gerald Ford called a press conference in Washington to announce that he had just granted a “full, free and absolute” presidential pardon, covering any and all crimes Richard Nixon may or may not have committed during the entire five and a half years of his presidency.
Ford sprung his decision with no advance warning at 10:40 on a peaceful Sunday morning in Washington, after emerging from a church service with such a powerful desire to dispense mercy that he rushed back to the White House–a short hump across Lafayette Park–and summoned a weary Sunday-morning skeleton crew of correspondents and cameramen to inform them, speaking in curiously zombielike tones, that he could no longer tolerate the idea of ex-President Nixon suffering in grief-crazed solitude out there on the beach in San Clemente, and that his conscience now compelled him to end both the suffering of Nixon and the national angst it was causing by means of a presidential edict of such king-sized breadth and scope as to scourge the poison of “Watergate” from our national consciousness forever.
Or at least that’s how it sounded to me, when I was jolted out of a sweat-soaked coma on Sunday morning by a frantic telephone call from Dick Tuck. “Ford pardoned the bastard!” he screamed. “I warned you, didn’t I? I buried him twice, and he came back from the dead both times. … Now he’s done it again; he’s running around loose on some private golf course in Palm Desert.”
I fell back on the bed, moaning heavily. No, I thought. I didn’t hear that. Ford had gone out of his way, during his first White House press conference, to impress both the Washington press corps and the national TV audience with his carefully considered refusal to interfere in any way with Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski’s legal duty to proceed on the basis of evidence and “prosecute any and all individuals.” Given the context of the question, Ford’s reply was widely interpreted as a signal to Jaworski that the former president should not be given any special treatment…. And it also meshed with Ford’s answer to a question in the course of his confirmation hearings in the Senate a few months earlier, when he’d said, “I don’t think the public would stand for it,” when asked if an appointed vice-president would have the power to pardon the president who’d appointed him, if the president were removed from office under criminal circumstances.
— from “The Scum also Rises,” Rolling Stone
Byliner has just reissued Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President as a Byliner Classic, with a new introduction from the author. In this excerpt, Nixon’s media people are prepping for a TV appearance:
Paul Keyes continued to check the set. “Roger, can you put that camera one in closer so RN will be physically conscious of it?”
Ailes explained why moving the camera would be a problem.
“I know that,” Keyes said. “But this was the one specific thing he asked for this morning. That we give him a camera close enough so he would be physically conscious of it. He wants this to be a very intimate show between him and the American people. And the only way he can do it is if that camera is right on top of him.”
Ailes explained more of the technical problems.
“But RN wants to converse tonight. Low key, easy, informal. He doesn’t want to make a speech. And he needs the camera there to push him into the low key.”
Ailes rearranged the cameras.
“Okay,” Paul Keyes said, “now, can four come in a little closer?” “Yeah, but if I bring four in – ” “He needs it close, Roger.” “Okay. You position four where you want it and I’ll restage. “ Paul Keyes stared at the cameras.
“Is four better than the crane camera?” Roger Ailes said. “Yes. For his needs tonight.” “Then the crane is dead. We don’t even need it. But that means we can’t get a shot of Wilkinson at all because to take it we have to take the other camera. See, the best shot of RN is in the crane but if that’s not close enough to give the effect he needs, we won’t use it.”
“I know it’s a problem,” Paul Keyes said. “But he needs the camera up close. He’ll be talking to the camera, not to Bud. He wants to go into the living room.”
Finally, Ailes found a way to move the crane camera in over Bud Wilkinson’s shoulder and provide the “physical presence” Richard Nixon needed.
“Perfect,” Paul Keyes said. “I know that will do it for him.”
“Of course that kills my opening shot completely,” Ailes said. “It’s also going to kill the shot of the audience on one.”
But Keyes was not concerned with this. “That camera might as well be Wilkinson to the Old Man,” he was saying.
“But if the crane has to be in that close you’re never going to get Wilkinson in the foreground. You’ll never see the relationship between the two men. Does it have to be that close?”
“It has to be close, Roger. How far back would you want it?” “I need another two feet.” “Two feet, okay. If that will serve your purposes we can compromise. But it can’t go out any further.” “It’s almost not worth the compromise. Frankly, it’s not that great a shot. … Wait a minute, is four any good or is that too far away?” “Four is perfect. The important thing is the relationship between him and the camera. He needs that nearness.” “Okay,” Roger Ailes said, and told the floor manager to mark with tape how far forward and to the left camera four could go without moving into the range of any of the other cameras. “Just tell RN he’ll have that one camera he can play to and we’ll screw around with the others,” Roger Ailes said, and the problem was solved.
In case you missed it, here’s a good one from Jill Lepore, on the story of ballots:
On Election Day this November, I’ll walk around the corner to vote in the basement gymnasium of a neighborhood elementary school, beneath a pair of basketball hoops. At a table just inside the gym, a precinct volunteer will hand me a piece of white paper about the size and weight of a file folder. I’ll enter a booth built on a frame of aluminum poles, tug shut behind me a red-white-and-blue striped curtain, and, with a black marker tied to a string, I’ll mark my ballot, awed, as always, by the gravity, the sovereignty, of the moment. With the stroke of a pen, we, mere citizens, become We the People.
Except for the basketball hoops, much about how I’ll vote this November, about how most Americans will vote, was laid out in an Act to Provide for Printing and Distributing Ballots, passed in Massachusetts, my home state, in 1888. Henry George wanted all men to vote better; Francis Parkman believed that only the “best men” should vote. The Australian ballot did some of what both men wanted. It can scarcely be said to have removed money from elections (money has found plenty of other ways in), but it did provide an elegant solution to problems created by the sudden and dramatic expansion of the electorate in a time of vast economic inequality. It brought voting indoors, contained it in compartments, and made it safer, quieter, more orderly, more like an assembly line. Many kinds of corruption, violence, and intimidation ended. George Kyle, for one, would have been relieved not to have to walk to the polls with that bundle of ballots tucked under his arm.
I arrived at the town-hall meeting in Virginia on time, but the doors were locked. Too many people inside already; the fire department had made the call. A bunch of us stood outside, going through the ritual bonding gesture of greeting each new person who came up to try the door. “It’s locked,” we mutter in friendly warning. Really? (Trying anyway.) What the hell? “We know! What the hell!”
I asked a willowy redheaded woman who looked about 40 why she was there.
“Because I’m afraid,” she said. “I’m really afraid of this president. I mean, they’re starting to talk about limits on family size, how many children you can have. In our America.”
A guy came up and pulled on the door. “Figures,” he said. “He’s a liberal” (meaning the Democratic congressman hosting this town hall).
People around me snort and harrumph, but there are some guys here from a union.
“Oh, some of us are pretty smart,” a white-bearded one of them says.
“Oh yeah?” the guy says.
“Yeah,” the labor guy says. “Some of us even have master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s.”
Pretty tame, as political combat goes, but still you could tell it made the people in our little group edgy. (A couple of days later, someone bit somebody’s finger off at a MoveOn event. We were ready.)
— from “American Grotesque” (GQ, January 2010)
And Mark Bowden on the decision to kill Osama bin Laden, in this month’s Vanity Fair:
On March 14, Obama met with the National Security Council to formally review the intelligence. They gathered in the White House Situation Room, where much of the drama over the next two months would unfold. The Situation Room, informally known as the Woodshed, sits in the basement of the West Wing and, despite the resonant name, is not the sort of space a set designer would create for a great center of national power. The main conference room is nearly filled by the long polished-wood table at its center and the row of high-backed black leather chairs around it. There is barely enough room for staff members to sit on chairs against the beige walls. The lighting is fluorescent, and instead of windows there are flat-screen TVs, six of them, the largest filling the south wall down the long table from the president’s chair. When the room is full, the top leadership of the nation can truly be said to be huddled.
By early March the C.I.A. had determined that the Abbottabad compound definitely held a “high-value target” and that he was most likely Osama bin Laden. The C.I.A.’s team leader, perhaps the most senior analyst on the trail, was close to convinced. He put his confidence level at 95 percent. Brennan felt about the same, but others were less certain – and some were far less certain. The assessment would ultimately be “red-teamed” – worked over by analysts assigned to poke holes in it – three times: by the Counterterrorism Center, by Brennan’s staff, and by another group within the C.I.A. Four veterans at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had reviewed the case and provided their own opinions. Most of those involved placed their confidence level at about 80 percent. Some went as low as 40 or even 30 percent.
“O.K., this is a probability thing,” said Obama. “Leon, talk to me about this.” The director explained that following the agency’s erroneous conviction, a decade earlier, that Saddam Hussein had been hiding weapons of mass destruction – a finding that was used to justify a long and costly war – the C.I.A. had instituted an almost comically elaborate process for weighing certainty. It was like trying to craft a precise formula for good judgment. Analysts up and down the chain were now asked not only to give their opinion but also to place a confidence level on it – high, medium, or low. Then they were required to explain why they had assigned that level. What you ended up with, as the president was discovering, was more confusion.
— from “The Hunt for Geronimo”
The following is essay, but it must be mentioned that in 1996 Nobel winner Saul Bellow wrote about politics for the Chicago Tribune:
In the matter of presidential politics, I am like most Americans − I have my preferences and opinions, but I have seldom been in touch with the god like beings who govern. Years ago I was invited to dine at the Kennedy White House. Among the great figures to whom I was introduced was Lyndon Johnson. The then-vice president towered over me. He was a very big man dressed in a midnight blue tuxedo. With the material that had gone into this garment one might have hung an awning over a Texas corral. His two hands covered my right in a hearty hand-sandwich. All I could find to say was that George Reedy, his press secretary, had been my classmate in the ’30s. Mr. Johnson seemed highly offended. Did I have no more than this to offer the second-most-powerful man in America? He glared at his aides, as if to order them, “Take this jerk away, pronto!”
… There is, after all, no reason why our national leaders should be nice guys. Johnson seemed to be a Coriolanus − a fighting man who really did not like the crowd. He would not expose his battle scars to the voters. He averted his face from them. You saw only his profile. It was my guess that the real Johnson was at his best in conference, behind closed doors.
By this point in the election cycle, you may be feeling like this kid, who just wants it to all be over:
But if not, tell us your favorite piece of political storytelling. Which narratives do you love and why?