When I returned from lunch, my boss was waiting for me with a weak smile. "Your friend is holding the Washington Monument hostage," he said. "You'd better call the police."
Dressed in a homemade space suit, Norman Mayer had driven a van he said was loaded with dynamite up to the monument and threatened to blow it up unless he could broadcast his plan to prevent nuclear war. Washington was paralyzed, and the world was watching on live television. After I called the police, reporters started calling me.
So began my first foray into a media feeding frenzy --one of those times when everyone in the country responsible for bringing "the news" to the rest of us focuses for a moment on a single event. TV bookers who fill the airwaves with talking heads work the phones to find anyone with even the most tangential connection to the event. That day, that someone was me: I was the guy who knew the guy who was holding Washington hostage. Nightline sent a limo. I actually said, "Well, Ted . . ." on national TV, before telling what little I knew about Norman. My parents made a video, and calls came in from friends all over the country. To top it all off, a newly elected congressman from Cleveland named Ed Feighan was watching --one day after I had applied for an entry-level position in his office.
Feighan called the next day: "If you can get yourself on Nightline, maybe you can do some good for me." The job title was legislative assistant, which meant I would draft letters, memos, and speeches on whatever the congressman was working on. The salary was more than double my intern's stipend --$14,500 a year.
I was thrilled with my new job but spooked by how I got it. Norman Mayer had been bluffing. There was no dynamite in his truck. But the police couldn't know that, so they shot him down near midnight when he tried to drive off the Mall. It's not my fault Norman got shot. I didn't drive the van or pull the trigger. Why couldn't he just surrender after making his point? Besides, I would have gotten the job anyway. I'm qualified, I'm from Cleveland, I'll work hard. Still . . . No, it wasn't my fault Norman got shot, but I couldn't escape the fact that his fate was my good fortune.
Around this time, one of my new friends, Eric Alterman, introduced me to his mentor, the legendary journalist I. F. Stone. Nearing eighty, Stone had spent the last fifty years covering Washington on his own in his own way, always exposing hypocrisy, always challenging power, never getting too close to it. Eric arranged for us to meet at the bagel bakery on Connecticut Avenue. I can still see Stone at a small table, picking at his late afternoon lunch of a toasted bagel, raisins, and a cup of tea. With his wispy curls and clear eyes, he looked like Yoda come to life in a fraying flannel suit.
"You've covered Washington so long," I asked, "weren't you ever tempted to go into politics yourself?"
"Once," he answered. Sixty-five years earlier, when Izzy was in high school, the political "boss" of his class had offered him a place on the editorial board of the school paper --his dream job --in return for campaign help. But whatever temptation Izzy felt was quickly overwhelmed by a wave of nausea and a vow never to approach active politics again.
I respected that sentiment, envied it, felt slightly shamed by it, but didn't share it. My new work seemed too thrilling to renounce, and I was a natural at the game of politics: at knowing who knew what I needed to know, at absorbing the rhythms of legislative life by walking the halls, at preparing committee hearing questions for my boss that might get picked up by the press, at learning to anticipate his political needs and to use his position to advance my issues too, at succumbing to the lure of the closed room and the subtle power rush that comes from hearing words I wrote come out of someone else's mouth.
© 1999 by George Stephanopoulos. Published by permission of the publisher, Little Brown.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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