And other tales of Washington radio
From "Multitudes: An Unauthorized Memoir" by Sam Smith
By the late fifties, the hounds of change were on radio's traces. Television was seizing for itself the stories, the vaudeville and the sense of being there that had been the heart of radio. And into the void was moving a new kind of music called rock 'n' roll.
To be sure rock 'n' roll already existed, but it was known as "rhythm 'n' blues" or "R&B." In the jargon of white broadcasters, it was "race music," although even some white teenagers, myself included, listened almost surreptitiously to stations like Philadelphia's WDAS, where DJ Jocko Henderson even proto-rapped the commercials:
Get a little cash from out of your stash,And make like a flash in the hundred yard dashRight down to my man John Koler at 4th & ArchAnd tell him JOCKO sent you!
But it was not until the mid-decade triple explosion of Bill Haley & the Comets, The Blackboard Jungle and Elvis Presley, that young white America irrevocably entered the age of rock'n'roll. Radio reacted to the new forces of music and technology by rapidly transforming itself from a ubiquitous stage for all the world into a collection of automated audio wombs for each of the country's proliferating demographic enclaves. It was just on the cusp of this transformation, in the summer of 1957, that I was hired as a news reporter for Washington's WWDC.
In the spring of my sophomore year I read in Broadcasting magazine that WWDC, an independent station in Washington, DC, was developing a major news operation. Most stations at the time just ripped and read copy from the wires; the exceptions were usually network affiliates.
I immediately added WWDC to a list of 40 stations -- all the others in New England -- to which I sent summer job applications. The 40 New England stations rejected or ignored me, but WWDC took me on. And so I returned to my native Washington, which my family had left when I was ten.
The station's main offices were in a stone house on Brookville Road in suburban Maryland. Had the house not squatted in front of a large radio tower and been bordered by a county public works depot, it would have looked like just another stone house in the suburbs. Until, that is, you walked inside and found an engineer's booth monitoring three broadcast studios where a front hall should have been.
My bosses were two Texas liberals -- news director Joe Phipps and his assistant Bob Robinson. Short and bald, Phipps appeared a bespectacled and ambulatory small mouth bass. When excited his eyeballs almost rubbed against his glasses. His voice ebbed and flowed between 1950s broadcast fog and full-blown southern oratorical eruption. Robinson, on the other hand, had an unflappable Texas drawl. A tall man with white hair, Robinson was as imperturbable as Phipps was instantly reactive.
I already knew that Texas liberals were special people; Tom Whitbread, the poet and Harvard tutor, had introduced me to the Texas Observer, newly started by Ronnie Dugger. The Observer was a remarkable voice of sense and liberty in an era turning dogmatically dumb and mean. In the first issue, Dugger quoted Thoreau: "The one great rule of composition is to speak the truth."
Beyond their politics, I liked that Texas liberals seemed to enjoy themselves and that even the worst election brought a new batch of stories. Such as the one about the freshman state legislator being advised that the best way to stay honest was to sell out to one interest group fast; that way the rest would leave you alone. Or about the Texas trial lawyer who stole from the rich . . . and gave approximately half to the poor. I liked the tales of Lyndon Johnson and Ralph Yarborough -- the yin and yang of the Texas senatorial delegation. Even the names that cropped up -- like Creekmore Fath or Cactus Prior -- were fun.
I didn't realize it then, but being a Texas liberal in the 50s could be hazardous. Folk humorist John Henry Faulk found that out when CBS fired him after he became a target of the red-hunters. Unlike a lot of eastern liberals at the time, Faulk struck back, suing the group that had accused him. Nonetheless, it still took years on the broadcast blacklist and the legal assistance of Louis Nizer to prove that he was a good American.
Through it all, Faulk kept his sense of humor,. telling stories like the one about Totsie who was hit by the Katy Flyer express. Totsie's remains were so well distributed that the family rented 300 acres for the funeral -- just to be on the safe side. The minister said it was the largest funeral he had ever preached -- acreage wise.
Faulk also told of being born in a village so small it only had four houses, and they weren't exactly downtown. He claimed to have been one of triplets and that his father had come to the hospital and asked his mother, "Well, which one you gonna keep?" "That," recalled Faulk, "is when I learned how to swim."
My initial task -- writing nine newscasts a day -- interned 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 was expected to be different, whether the news had changed or not. Three of the newscasts occurred during evening drive time and were a half hour apart. This coincided with the most likely period for accidents and thunderstorms. Since WWDC paid $1 to $5 for every news tip it aired, I would be regularly inundated with accounts of fallen limbs and fender benders as I struggled to write three newscasts in an hour and a half. Often the copy ended up like this
Reports of damage done by this afternoon's thunderstorm are pouring into the WWDC newsroom. At least six houses are on fire, nine accidents have occurred and numerous trees and hot wires have fallen across roads. Police and electric company officials say their phones have been jammed. . .
That newscast probably cost $13, representing the number of incidents I managed to squeeze into one double-spaced page -- all typed in caps with the errors blacked out by a soft copy pencil.
The news tip system worked pretty well, although I sometimes suspected that the volunteer rescue squad dispatchers were calling us before they sent out their equipment, since once the dispatch had been aired, anyone with a scanner could call in the item. And on one at least one occasion an employee at WTOP earned a dollar for phoning in a news tip that he had heard on WMAL.
One of our regular callers was Dan. Matching Robert Frost's paradigm for the good life, Dan's vocation and avocation had become one. He sat in his apartment surrounded by police and fire scanners waiting for tragedy to strike somewhere in the metropolitan region. He would then call and hoarsely whisper the news: "This is Dan, Sam. I've got a body for you." And another buck went to Dan.
The reports of fallen limbs and power outages we accepted on faith. More serious matters would be checked out by phone, using a cris-cross directory that was sorted by street address rather than by name. You could often scurry up a good taped interview this way. One such eyewitness began coughing profusely as I questioned him about a fire in his apartment building, finally urgently suggesting that the smoke was getting too thick to continue the interview.
Writing constantly soon became tiresome and I discovered various ways to amuse myself. One was to pick a word for the day and then see in how many newscasts I could use it. It had to be something like evince or piqued because my goal, unlike that of station management, was to raise the general tenor of the WWDC sound. This quixotic effort came to a halt when a blue paper memo from Bill Robinson made it clear that he had noticed and didn't think much of my unsanctioned vocabulary lessons.
At times it seemed that the little stone farmhouse on Brookville Road marked the precise divide between the old and new worlds of broadcasting. In one studio, for example, were the props of WWDC's morning man, Art Brown. These included several caged canaries and an organ. Brown, a large, rumpled gray haired lump of a voice, would alternate current recordings with traditional tunes -- which he played on the organ accompanied by the canaries. Years later he would reveal -- or claim -- that he could control when the birds would sing because they would only warble in the key of A flat.
Brown had already been in radio for 25 years when I met him and had enough clout to get away with refusing to play rock and roll. If a listener called to complain, he would point out that there were 16 other spots on the dial.
Meanwhile, however, the commercials for this archaic program were stored in experimental tape cartridges that WWDC engineers were helping to develop. Every 30 or 60 seconds of advertising had its own continuous play cartridge that could be simply slipped into a machine and started on cue -- an immense improvement over tapes that needed to be rewound and manually lined up.
In the late fifties WWDC was the area's top rated station, but it maintained this status with substantial help from the exclusive broadcast rights to the Washington Senators games. Absent baseball, WWDC dropped to second or third in evening listening, behind WTOP and WRC, although keeping its lead in the daytime.
The new single format radio hadn't quite reached Brookville Road. While WWDC was known as a top-40 station, emphasizing the two score most popular records of the day, it still pursued a relentless eclecticism ranging from singing canaries to the most modern local radio news operation in town. And while we were expected to write our newscasts with journalistic dignity, it was also true that on my arrival each morning, I would be greeted not only by Art Brown's birds but by a jingle that chirped:
Good morning to you in the land of the free
This is Washington's Double-U, Double-U DC . . .
May your skies above all be sunny and blue
WWDC says good morning to you!
Good morning, good morning, good. . . [fade]
For such reasons, WWDC was sometimes known as Bubbly Bubbly DC. The song had come from a jingle house, one of the new parasites of the business -- a firm that provided stations with customized musical fillers. Knowing that the same jingle, slightly reworked, was being used by stations all over the country was a reminder of the illusions one could create in a medium where no one saw what you were doing.
There were many new illusions being created in those days. The radio contest, for example, was coming into its own, contests like the one in which new dollar bills were placed in circulation each week with a payoff every time the announced serial numbers were matched. Taxi drivers would keep lists of the serial numbers attached to their visors; clerks taped them next to the cash register. There was also an insidious contest in which the winner was whoever correctly counted the number of times the station's call letters had been mentioned in a two hour period.
Between about a dozen commercials every half hour, WWDC played its songlist, inserting more traditional music after every third or fourth current hit. Although such programming clearly pleased the audience, surveys confirmed what some observers suspected, namely that the new radio was appealing to an easily influenced but small segment of the population: the record-buying teenager. Stations thus were not only deceiving themselves but their advertisers since sponsors were trying to sell things a teenager would never buy. Someone described radio at the time as "a bunch of 12-year-olds trying to keep up with a 14-year-old audience."
Art Brown was the first of the day's "personalities." Later there was Fred Fiske, reputedly the highest paid announcer in DC thanks in part to having made commercials with a slogan dreamed up by Arthur Godfrey and still being used: NEXT TO A NEW CAR, A CHERNERIZED CAR IS BEST! The WWDC news department manual described Fiske as "the master of the short, cornball quip. He intersperses records and commercials with dialect stories and human interest items from the news wire."
Jack Rowzie had a mellower, almost ministerial voice, drove a pastel purple Mercury convertible, ended his show with a hymn or gospel number and, whenever I hopped a ride with him, spoke of the need to turn to Christ. Years later, when Jack was 84, we talked on the phone about the old days. About fifteen minutes into the conversation, Jack asked, "Now what I really want to know, Sam, is what you're doing for the Lord."
I hadn't run into anyone like that before. Nor like Steve Allison, "the man who owns midnight." Allison was a pioneer of the radio talk show. In Boston, and then Philadelphia and then Washington, Allison had set up in a restaurant late in the evening, and interviewed stars coming out of their shows or the politicians trying to stay in office. My father had been one of his guests.
Allison had left Boston under a cloud and Philadelphia after an indictment. I had read in the Boston papers how Allison and nine others had been charged with participation in a vice ring involving teen age girls as young as 15.
When Allison arrived at WWDC, I introduced myself as my father's son. Allison grabbed my arm and pulled me into the empty hall. "Look," he said for openers, "all I did was put my cock in the mouth of some under-aged girls. Show me a guy who hasn't done that and I'll show you a queer."
Together it created a curious blend of the traditional and the contemporary, the sentimental and the cynical. But then Washington radio had always been a bit different -- ever since a local morning man named Arthur Godfrey started making fun of his advertisers on the air. At least one of them, a furrier named Zlotnik, the man to see "when your wife is cold," became famous mainly as a result of Godfrey's comments about the dirty stuffed bear in front of his store.
The Washington I had returned to in the summer of 1957 was, on the surface, a quiet, rarely air-conditioned southern town. When I first got to Argonne Place, I noticed that the Ontario Theater was playing Love in the Afternoon. At the end of the summer it still was. The radio stations were playing Pat Boone's Love Letters in the Sand. At the end of the summer they still were. When I worked the late night shift, I would would drive to the suburbs listening to a program on WOL called The Cabbie's Serenade -- dedicated, said the host, Al Jefferson, "to all you guys driving the loneliest mile in the world."
Despite the apparent somulence, DC was actually undergoing a mass migration of blacks from further south. Almost from its beginning, DC had been the first stop in the promised land. Now the city had just turned into a majority black town.
Despite the demographic trend, however, there was nothing remotely approaching black power. More than once, when calling the DC police dispatcher to check on the overnight action, I was told, "Nothin' but a few nigger stabbings." It had, after all, only been twelve years since the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell arrived to take his seat in the House of Representatives. Stepping into his office for the first time he found a memo on his desk headed "Dos and Don'ts for Negro Congressmen." One was "Don't eat in the House dining room."
The city was run by three commissioners appointed by the president. Many, though, assumed correctly that the real commissioner was the director of the very white Board of Trade. The local papers routinely listed the race of victims and perpetrators in crime stories. A Washington Star veteran recalled "the grieving widow who called me one day after I'd done an obit about her late husband, in which I had referred to him as a D.C. native. "'He wasn't no native,' she shrieked. 'He was as white as you or I!'" And when I went to cover the annual Brotherhood Week luncheon at a local hotel, a reporter friend leaned over and said, "Do you notice the only Negroes in this place are the waiters?".
This same reporter called me at 2 a.m. the morning after the funeral of Sweet, Precious Daddy Grace, the colorful bishop of the United House of Prayer for All People. "I'm down here waiting for them to choose Daddy Grace's successor," he whispered into the phone, "and I'm the only white person here. How about coming down?"
I had covered the funeral earlier that day and had been struck by the jewelry bedizening the lifeless and red, white and blue long finger-nailed form of the late charismatic who one paper said resembled Buffalo Bill. I got dressed and joined my friend at 601 M St. NW -- two young, unwelcomed white guys sitting quietly in the pre-dawn darkness of a church basement hallway waiting for the end of a seven-hour deliberation. Finally, the 224 elders from as far away as New Bedford, Mass., and Miami selected Bishop Walter McCullough by about 30 votes.
Daddy Grace has been born Manoel da Graca, a Cape Verde immigrant to New Bedford and a cranberry picker who would come to claim that God had also come to America in his body. He would eventually give baptisms to up to 1,000 at a time and accept "love offerings" from female followers. Among the tenets of his theology: "Salvation is by Grace alone. Grace has given God a vacation. If you sin against God, Grace can save you, but if you sin against Grace, God can't save you."
Daddy Grace, came to DC in 1927 and, according to Molly Rath in Washington City Paper, left this world a debt-burdened $25 million estate including an 85 room mansion in Los Angeles, a farm in Cuba and a coffee plantation in Brazil. Along with quotations like, "If Moses came here now he would have to follow this man," pointing to himself.
In most of Washington, though, not much was happening. This was a town, after all, where the leading department store had only begun Sunday advertising after the war. This was a town where Mrs. Eisenhower's secretary had trouble charging a pair of gloves for her employer at the White House. The Eisenhowers had, after all, been out of DC for some time and their account had been closed. The clerk, the secretary was told, would have to check with the manager.
Only a handful of restaurants, such as the just opened Anna Maria's on Connecticut Ave.(with the most costly item being veal scallopini at $4.25), the A.V. Ristorante on NY Ave, and spots along U Street stayed open after midnight. It was still illegal to drink standing up or to carry your drink from the bar to your table.
It was not easy to find good music either, among the exceptions being the Howard Theater, the Charles Hotel, and the Showboat Lounge The Howard was built during DC's black renaissance with black capital and was the best place to hear the best acts. But musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarten also showed up at the Charles Hotel on R Street for jam sessions. I never caught one of the big names but I did hear a young clarinet player named Jimmy Hamilton who four decades later would play in my own combo. And at the Showboat, a guitarist named Charlie Byrd was making a big name for himself, aided by as bass player who would become perhaps Washington's most ubiquitous musician, Keter Betts.
My own late night choice was the DC Diner, which squatted in a parking lot near Vermont & L NW. The silver diner had 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 DC Diner came cops, drunks, prostitutes and college students returning from dates or, on early Sunday mornings, from the midnight mass the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception thoughtfully provided the Catholic young and restless.
My routine was to order the steak and egg breakfast. A beefy cook would grab a couple of eggs and burst them on the grill. The steak followed. He then reached over for a handful of home fries from the foot-high pile that sat nearly cooked in a cool corner of the stove. Almost simultaneously the chef lunged for a fistful of salad from a five gallon potato chip can resting under the counter and plopped it into a side dish. During the whole procedure no kitchen utensil touched his hands, yet few meals have tasted as good.
It was then, as now, exciting to be young and living in the capital, perhaps more so because, as with late night restaurants, there was less around to be excited about. Only three television networks. Only one movie at the Ontario Theater all summer long. Only the set of values your parents, your schools, three networks and the local movie house had given you. And, increasingly in the 1950s, only one way to be a good American.
Everything in American culture seemed to point in one direction. The political apex of that direction was Washington, symbolized by its political cathedrals -- the Capitol and the White House. You not only were happy to live and work in their vicinity, you were honored and a bit awed. And, if your occupation carried you within their confines, you also felt a bit smug and self-satisfied. In a system with only one direction, you knew when you had arrived.
George Tames, the New York Times photographer, grew up poor within sight of the Capitol. He recalled the dome seeming to hang above the city, a sense he would capture in images as a grown man. I also remember the dome floating, especially in the rain and fog. And me with it, for whatever grimy or corrupt events took place beneath its circumference could not sully the grandeur and pride of being as certainly right as American democracy seemed at the time, with justice, fairness and progress only a few congressional bills or a handful of newscasts away.
Of course, you kept thoughts like that to yourself. If you were a young, neophyte reporter in an old, cynical city, the last thing you wanted to exhibit was idealism. So you watched the older reporters carefully and learned how to be indifferent to the right things at the right time, how not to be swayed by public words, and how to talk sardonically about events later in the House and Senate radio-TV galleries.
I gravitated to people like Rouhlac Hamilton, who represented a string of southern radio stations and newspapers and carried within him an encyclopedia of congressional information. It was Rouhlac, for example, who told me that South Carolina Senator Olin Johnston -- Olin the Solon as he was known -- had once greeted the Pontiff by saying, "Good morning, your popeship" and had declared trees to be "our primary source of lumber."
You found out who was kind to young journalists -- like Sid Davis and Ann Corrick of Westinghouse Broadcasting and Mike Michaelson of the House Radio-TV Gallery -- and who wasn't. And you noticed things. One of the things I noticed was that my ambition to become a network anchorman or national correspondent might not be so wise. To be sure, this ambition had its encouragements, such as getting drunk with Chet Huntley and a few others in a hotel suite following a Radio-TV Correspondents Dinner. But it also slowly dawned that the network correspondents I overheard in the radio-TV galleries talking to their bosses were being told what to do and not, as was typically my case, suggesting their next assignment or how the present one should be carried out better. These journalists seemed to be taking a lot of orders given their ostensible success. I, it seemed, was being underpaid in salary and overpaid in freedom.
Later, in January 1961, I made my only foray into the real world of network television. I was hired for Kennedy's inauguration by CBS News as a news editor. Along with fellow WWDC newsman Ed Taishoff, I sat all day capped with a headset in a ballroom of the Washington Hotel, turning phone calls from CBS correspondents into stories placed on Walter Cronkite's personal news ticker. If there was one thing Ed and I knew, it was how to take news from callers, turn it into copy and get it on the air fast.
But when the calls weren't coming in, I looked around the room and tried to figure out what the scores of CBS minions and executives were doing. As far as I could tell, Ed and I and a few people in front of dials and screens were doing most of the work. Yet we were badly out-numbered and underpaid by men in suits who tore around yelling and looking concerned or angry or wanting to know where something was. It all didn't look like much fun and I think it was when I decided I didn't want to be a network anchorman after all.
After the summer of 1957, I returned to Harvard even more determined to go into radio. I was elected WHRB's station manager but two weeks later received 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; among the penalties would be the surrender of my new post. Nonetheless, and in the tradition of the station, I continued on the air under a pseudonym and comforted myself with the thought that WWDC had asked me to come back. I toughed it out and eventually graduated without honors but with a job.
When I came back to Washington after graduation, I lived for a while in a room of a house belonging to a suburban lady who insisted on giving me coffee and details of her current ailments every morning. It was cheap and convenient -- I was able to ride a bike to work -- but I quickly accepted 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 1500 of them. Larry's mother, Olive Smith, a 1920 graduate of Smith College, ran the boarding house, raised three sons and, from the late fifties on, served as ad hoc den mother for a succession of Harvard men passing through Washington. Larry's father, a native of Ireland, was an engineer on the Pennsylvania Railroad. George Smith worked in leather in his spare time, earning the nickname, Pocketbook Smith.
Olive Smith had values, opinions, wisdom and specific knowledge in the manner of any good den mother. The opinions she would offer on request or otherwise. Somewhere in my files is a note from her complaining about my use of the phrase "nearly unique" and another arguing that one can not have shades of black and especially in writing about it.
You learned to ask her things as well. I remember one evening watching Mrs. Smith in her early 20th century dining room explaining to my friend Warren Myers, then teaching at Groton, how to get across some fine points of Latin grammar. Many more times I remember her laughing at her son's friends' jokes and antics, joining in heated discussion between Larry and the oft-visiting Father Petrini, or recounting her own stories. Like the time her exhaust fan overheated and she called the fire department. When she apologized for having bothered them, the fire lieutenant had said, "It is better, ma'am, to not need us and call us then to need us and not call us." The idea of not calling the fire department when you needed it struck Olive Smith as very funny. It was something she would never have done.
The Smiths owned a boarding house at the other end of the block at 125 5th Street NE. Larry had the top floor. Larry, employed by the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company, had the haircut and build of the ex-high school varsity basketball player he had been, but the library of the Harvard English instructor and Ph.D. he would eventually become. His collection already comprised about 600 volumes, all carefully cataloged on 3 by 5 cards. He had, according to his calculations, read two-thirds of the books. And Larry had already developed the habit of carrying on a conversation with his books through extensive scrawled green ink marginalia that varied from the profound to the merely obscene.
Later, Larry took a job out of town and Bill, a reporter for the Washington Post and later a network news executive, moved in. Bill carried himself with a great southern dignity that had the curious tendency to reinforce itself the more he drank.
One night we were at the Carroll Arms Hotel, sipping whiskey and listening to a young, popular Hill comic named Mark Russell. The hotel, just steps away from the Senate office buildings, offered rooms by the hours. As Russell later put it, he got his start in a brothel.
Outside, one of those rare but deep Washington blizzards was underway. Despite our considerable consumption over the evening, Bill carried on a normal conversation. It should have been a clue. As we left the hotel, Bill without warning threw himself against the revolving door and hurtled face down into a magnificent snow bank that had blossomed on the sidewalk
We had come from the apartment, a half dozen blocks away, and there was no choice but to raise Bill upright, sling his arm over my shoulder in the classic grasp and started slogging back to 5th Street. On a couple of occasions I tried to flag down a car, but there was little interest in assisting a couple of inebriates on an all too snowy night.
With no little exertion I finally got Bill back to 5th Street. By this time he had virtually passed out and I was not far behind. I laid him out in the snow at the edge of the street, and went inside to find another boarder to help me carry him to the third floor.
Bill drank no more than the rest of us, which was a lot. The parties at 125 5th Street were frequent and flowing, as I once described in a letter:
The last two weekends have been fairly lively,. We threw a beer blast two weeks ago for about thirty or forty people. Last night a few friends joined Larry and myself at his mother's for dinner. We began drinking Almaden Rose out of half/gallon jugs and discussing the fate of the world. The party moved down the street to our apartment and continued until Larry suddenly got it into his head that he was going to hitchhike to Cambridge to see his girl. Our drunken and ineffectual attempts to stop him failed and he walked off into the two am dark. Three-thirty this afternoon his girlfriend called to tell me that he had arrived. And a well-traveled, cold , and more sober roommate is catching the 5:30 plane from Boston . . .
On another occasion, I found a group gathered around the stove in the kitchen. On closer inspection, it appeared that one of the crowd had his head in the oven. He was, it was explained, Caryl Chessman and a game was being played in which the drunkest person present was to be declared Governor Pat Brown and allowed to pardon Chessman or turn on the gas. I was sober enough to end the game.
Just before I returned to WWDC in the summer of 1959, Joe Phipps left the station to begin a radio news service headquartered in his apartment down one of the long, dark, cabbage-perfumed halls of the Chastleton apartments at 16th & R NW. I started working for Deadline Washington on my off-days and after work on other days -- putting in 12-14 hour stints. Often I would be on joint assignment for Deadline and WWDC.
Joe had bought the operation for $75,000 from a less than admirable journalistic hustler named Jock Lawrence. I asked Joe if $75,000 wasn't a lot of money for such a business. He replied, "I'll tell you, Sam. I believe every man before he dies owes some service to humanity. And I thought if I could buy a charlatan out of the news business it would be worth it at that price." I never found out whether Phipps had a financial partner in WWDC, but for most purposes, the news service was closely integrated with the station's own operations.
I wasn't all that happy and kept looking for a better job, but I also wrote 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 was making $85 a week at WWDC plus what I earned at Deadline. A friend who went to work at the Washington Star at the time received only $65 a week, while another friend, the ex-president of the Crimson, was 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 was covering everything from murders to White House and my salary was even higher than union scale as set by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. AFTRA never did much for us, but I enjoyed being a union man and liked belonging to an organization that made my job sound so grand.
At its peak, Deadline Washington provided two dozen independent radio stations with Washington news. That in itself was a novelty, but even more appealing to these stations was our ability to appear to be their personal correspondents. This was achieved by recording custom tag lines e.g. "This is Sam Smith, WPIG News in Washington, and now back to the studio." Using two Ampex recorders, each story would be fed to stations with its appropriate tag line dubbed on the end.
WWDC also received feeds from other stations. For example, when Nikita Khruschev was visiting the US, we arranged for a mid-western station to give reports of his tour of an American farm. In the days before satellite links, covering a Soviet premier's visit to an Iowa farm was not easy. In order to get around the inevitable delays and to beat the competition, Robinson came up with a simple solution: the Iowa radio station would simply imagine Khruschev's visit.
Of the Khruschev story I wrote in my journal:
WWDC News hit another low. It received from a station in Iowa five advance stories on the Khruschev visit to Des Moines. These stories described several hours in advance how Khruschev had been received, what he had said and to whom he has said it. The incredible thing was that the personnel at the station saw nothing incredible about such a procedure . . .
Bob liked to write memos. One in October 1959, a month after the Khruschev visit, was on the subject of "Where are we going? How are we doing?" Ben Strouse had just been to the San Francisco Conference of Broadcasters and Bob shared some of the ideas his boss had brought back with him:
We must try for more human interest. We must have more interviews, even if it's only a few words, with the man who has killed his wife; with the woman has been pulled from the Potomac; with the juvenile who has led police on a 100-mile-an-hour chase; with the bus driver who has been beaten over the head by a thug . . .
WNEW in New York did a helluva a thing when Khruschvev was there. As Mr. K was appearing on TV, a WNEW newsman went into a New York bar and interviewed people as they watched the TV screen . . .
We should try to catch recorded comments from people in the hallways outside police courts. When someone like the Air Force sergeant is shot dead by punks tampering with his car, we might send a newsman to the funeral. Perhaps a few remarks from the sermon, the sound of the mourners can be picked up on tape . . .
We must work constantly to avoid the use of clichés in our writing. . . One thing is certain. None of us, least of all the News Director, knows all the answers. But if you'll pardon my attempt to restate an old cliché, togetherness can produce better quarterbacking.
In one memo, Bob bragged about my successful efforts interceding on behalf of a man who needed medical treatment, but had fallen through various bureaucratic cracks, and who felt several congressmen were conspiring against him. I had found that the man was entitled to be in a VA hospital, but when I called to tell him the good news, his response was, "Does this mean you're going to drop my case?" His last remark to Bob Robinson before he left for the hospital was, "I hope Mr. Smith will work on those Congressmen while I'm gone."
Such cases were not unusual and the same station that broadcast fictionalized reports of the Soviet premier's visit also spent hours dealing seriously with social issues and personal problems that came its way.
Thus I was sent to interview a woman who was refusing to move out of her house in the Southwest urban renewal area. Hundreds of acres had been leveled around her and still she clung on like a survivor of the Dresden carpet bombing.
The project, the largest in the nation, had begun in April 1954 and five years later some 550 acres had been cleared. Only 300 families remained to be relocated. More than 20,000 people and 800 businesses had been kicked out to make way for the plan. Some 80% of the latter never went back into operation.
The design was hailed by planners and liberals; a 1955 report for the District was titled No Slums in Ten Years. Not everyone was so sanguine, however. In a 1959 report of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, the Rt. Rev. Msg. John O'Grady said, "It is sad. It is not urban renewal; it is a means of making a few people rich. Instead of improving housing conditions, it is shifting people around from one slum to another."
The Supreme Court disagreed. In 1954 it had upheld the underlying law and in a decision written by none other than William O. Douglas, declared:
It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled . . . The experts concluded that if the community were to be healthy, if it were not to revert again to a blighted or slum area, as though possessed by a congenital disease, the area must be planned as a whole.
In another instance, I was sent to look into reports that a white family was about to be evicted from an Alexandria, VA., public housing project because their 14 year old daughter had given birth to an illegitimate baby.
Said the housing project director: "We follow the policy against illegitimate children pretty rigidly, otherwise the project would get a bad name. We must frown on all such anti-social conduct."
I asked him whether the project took similar action against families with juvenile delinquents and he said it had no hard and fast rules. Would he consider 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.
I filed several stories and wrote a two page letter to the ACLU giving full details. The station ran three different editorials attacking the Alexandria Housing Authority.
In a 1959 letter I described my thoughts about writing news:
The reporter's job is to bring life to life. Drama has a role, of course, but the real problem is how to use color wihout having a colored newscast as a result. The approved approach here is for sentences like "Tragedy walked the streets of Washington last night. . . " or "Grief and disaster struck the home of. . . " I have found that a direct quote or a factual description of some small scene can be almost as effective and, in most cases, more so. Thus at the funeral of Admiral Halsey the scene of hundreds of officers dressed in white uniforms with black arm bands against the gray walls of the Cathedral struck me as something that would be only weakened by the use of adjectives such as "somber." The trouble is that you have to make decisions on things like this every hour and it is much easier to say the corny, the exagerrated than to paint a picture dramatically but honestly.
But the truth was that I was also fascinated by some of the showmen of the business such as Paul Harvey who once started a broadcast something like this:
Up in Albany New York, eleven year old little leaguer Johnny Henderson hit a high fly ball to center field. . . He ran to first. . (pause). . . rounded second. . . (pause). . . .rounded third for the trip home. . . (pause). . . He was safe. . . (pause). . .And dead. . . . (long pause) . . . No, don't ask me; there'll be an autopsy tomorrow. Meanwhile in Washington today. . .
Truth was I wanted to be both Edward R. Murrow and Paul Harvey.
WWDC's news fleet consisted of two vehicles, a Nash Rambler station wagon and an Isetta minicar. The light blue Rambler had WWDC NEWS, in reverse image, painted on its hood in large dark blue letters, thus allowing the sign to be read correctly in a rear view mirror. The style would become common, especially with ambulances, but at the time was the sort of novelty WWDC loved.
The Rambler had an even more startling, albeit unintentional, characteristic. The front seats of Ramblers folded down to become beds. Unfortunately, this capability had developed an anarchistic streak in our model, resulting in a tendency for the driver's seat back to become prone whenever sturdy brake pressure was applied, say at an ordinary stop light.
The Rambler was, however, the more conventional vehicle of the two. The Isetta, an Italian import, was far smaller than any car on the road today, and powered by a motor scooter engine. It had four wheels, but they were tiny and the two in back were almost adjacent to each other. You sat in what amounted to little more than a cockpit with barely enough room for a 210-pound reporter and a radio telephone. The door doubled as the entire front end, with the steering wheel swinging out of the way for entrance and egress. More than once I pulled up to a wall or post only to remember that I had blocked my own departure.
From its door-width bow, the Isetta slimmed almost to a point in the stern. It was painted bright red with the words WWDC NEWS inscribed in large white letters. In sum, the Isetta looked much like a lopsided, egotistical, overgrown tomato rolling down the highway.
It was not the best way to cover the news. The Isetta had a flank speed of 50 mph on flat, good pavement, and it practically had to be pedaled up hills. This sometimes interfered with arriving promptly at the scene of a distant fire, murder or drowning. Nonetheless, no one at WWDC would admit that novelty in this case had gotten a bit out of hand. Besides, the Isetta's light carriage allowed me to push it out of mud and sand in which a heavier car would have become mired.
Before long, I knew Washington and its environs like a cab driver and could quickly compute such arcane calculations as the shortest route from the White House to a six alarm fire in Upper Marlboro. I also knew every press room in town.
My favorite was at the District Building, which one entered through swinging doors reminiscent of a frontier bar. Inside were three desks, a center table and a worn-out sofa. The stuffing was coming out of the sofa and the covering was greasy and black from years of resting heads. After Watergate, a sign was posted above the press room sofa. It read, "Carl Bernstein slept here."
The desks belonged to the three dailies. The Post and the Star desk were manned by men who looked much like other Washington journalists. Their suits were due two weeks ago at the cleaners, cuffs worn and pockets pulled out of shape by too many stenographer's notebooks and too many news releases stuffed into them. The Daily News reporter had spent his morning and early afternoons in the District Building for more years than anyone including the gray-haired elevator operator at the end of the long hall could remember. Nothing frightened, surprised, upset or bewildered this man. Like a vintage bar room piano player, there were no new tunes in life. And if there were, he could fake them.
Much of the time the News man played solitaire. When his companions weren't busy he would silently amble over to the center table, clear away the scrap paper and news releases and deal three hands.
The pale green walls had accumulated a half century of miscellany, written with bold copy pencils and fine pens, in illegible script and distinct printing. There were quotations from city officials of things they wished they hadn't said. Clichés, malapropisms and by the telephone there were numbers running in every direction. Sometimes the numbers had a name beside them but most often there was nothing but the exchange and the digits. Not even the News man could have told you what more than a half dozen of them signified. They were the grave markers of stories long dead.
Complementing the novelty of the station's news fleet was its collection of still rare battery operated tape recorders. These devices were about three inches thick, five inches wide and ten inches long. The microphone, a small rectangular piece of plastic, was permanently attached by a cord just short enough to complicate the task of securing the mike to a stand at a news conference while simultaneously resting the recorder itself on the ground.
The recorders were so new that the engineer's union had initially insisted it send a member out with all reporters using one. Fortunately for the future of news radio, this particular piece of featherbedding was scotched. The tape recorders, however, presented a number of other challenges -- including a deep sensitivity to temperature. More than once I returned from an outdoor winter taping -- a burial at Arlington cemetery or a fire -- only to find my recorded voice sounding like Porky Pig as the batteries returned to full power once back in the studio .
Whatever the machines' faults, there were fewer than a dozen stations and networks in Washington that had them, so even a neophyte reporter such as myself had easy access to the most senior politicians.
In a manual on WWDC news reporting that I wrote in 1960, shortly before leaving the station, I outlined some of the peculiarities of the technology:
The Mohawk is a temperamental machine that gives excellent service until the sunspot level gets too high or some other change takes place . . . [The Steelman recorder] is a useful machine when it works . . . Tape machine repairs are done at Brenner Photo store in the 900 block of Penna. Ave. NW. Parking on D Street in front of the back entrance has netted no tickets so far . . . Brenner Photo does not, as it may appear, swallow tape recorders. It merely chews upon them for several weeks or months, then spits them back at you in more or less repaired condition. Constant phone calls and in-person appearances results in some progress. If things really get desperate, Chuck can be prevailed upon to loan a recorder.
The various machines operate in various ways at various times. For example, they have different proper recording levels and sometimes these change after the machines have been repaired. . .
Do not let the speaker hold the mike unless he is in such a position that you can not comfortably reach him. You will find that the compulsive mike-grabbers often seem to be trying to record themselves internally. Saliva does not help the mike crystal.
The mike stands to which we secured our recorders often belonged to the networks. It took a combination of diplomacy and deference for a young newsman to safely affix his toy machine to the phallic symbol of CBS News, but over time these men -- all of whom looked like John Madden -- became accustomed to such intrusions. My suggestions included:
Covering events with you on the local level will be the three daily papers, an occasional wire service man, and sometimes a man from WMAL The basis of successful operation alongside these other news people is largely intuitive and is worked out by experience. But if the WMAL cameraman asks you to move the mike a little to the left, you should do so as long as it does not hamper your work. If you need to get through a crowd of reporters with a mike, polite requests combined with the proper quantity of physical pressure will assure entrance.
There are many events at which over a hundred reporters will be present. Obviously, a dog-eat-dog attitude could easily result in chaos. A scoop is one thing, but it doesn't mean cooperation is eliminated.
Covering national stories, the networks present a problem. The network engineers and cameramen try to intimidate new independent newsmen and like to play tough. Some of their requests are responsible. Sometimes they just are trying to give you a hard time. It gains you nothing to get angry. Be good natured whenever possible; otherwise go about your business ignoring them . . .
In time this policy pays off. One cameraman, without being asked, gave me the idea for the paper clip mike holder. NBC's Johhnie Langanegger repaired a transformer for me. A cameraman named Skip lent me a screwdriver at a crucial moment. These men have a job to do and take a certain pride in being old-timers at it. It helps to remember this . . .
Many interviews are done on a pool basis. In the case of fishing expeditions in the corridors of the Capitol, two independents may be seeking the same Congressman at the same time. It is often pointless and annoying to the interviewee to have to go over the same material two, three or more times in separate interviews. Make sure the other party agrees. Mike Turpin got so mad at Steve Dixon 'piggy backing" his interviews that the pair got into a fight that was broken up by a Capitol guard.
The manual also included advice on where to find electric and sound outlets, descriptions of common news locales as well as this note on how to report a presidential news conference:
After the conference there is a 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 the simplest thing to do is to go the People's Drug Store on the corner of 17th & Pennsylvania Ave, buy a cup of coffee, sit down at a table and write your story in relative peace.
You didn't analyze society much in those days, unless you were Vance Packard or William Whyte. There were rules and there were those who obeyed them and those who didn't. Those who didn't were mostly considered criminal, communist or crazy.
Occasionally, though, something would interrupt the order of things and you would hear it, like a distant train, and you couldn't be quite sure whether it was the sound of madness being suppressed or something else such as, perhaps, the sound of freedom. Maybe that's why I wrote down my conversation with the cab driver who told me of the vehicle he had designed that was propelled by a magnetic field, "causing the vehicle to be raised and float off the ground a few feet, thence to move with transcendental speed towards its target -- or, I mean, the place to which it going."
The brilliance behind this device is that it is a revolutionary development in comparison with the humble internal combustion engine. In the present day engine, fuel must be purchased, placed inside a storage tank where it waits until action which occurs with the aid of a generator and a battery which create a mere spark which is nonetheless necessary if the gasoline is going to be converted into energy at all. But by doing away with these steps as well as the gears and wheels, the ninety percent efficiency loss is avoided and man reaches his goal simply and perfectly.
The cabbie said that he was going to proceed with the project even if the "monopolists" did not give him money. The cab stopped and the driver rested one short arm along the top of the front seat and looked hard into my eyes. I avoided his, and stared instead at the rings on his right hand. Both were large, one containing a blue stone. The other, on his third finger, was part silver and part black rock inscribed with the design of a primitive face.
"Have any monopolists given you help?" I asked.
A curt laugh came from the front seat. "My friend, the monopolists are the anointed; they sit at the tables of the mighty, in a country which spouts forth in its churches and synagogues the slogan, 'Lay not your treasures upon earth.' These men sit at the council table on Pennsylvania Avenue only a few blocks away from the movie theaters that play On the Beach and The Man in a Gray Flannel Suit. They are not certain whether they are cocker spaniels or Russian wolf dogs. They sit at the doorstep of the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue and watch the spoils being divided up amongst the six Duponts and they expect me, the cab driver, to express adulation."
We pulled to a stop in front of my apartment. I only had a ten dollar bill for the 75 cent fare. The driver counted change as he continued:
"I don't want to detain you but I would tell you just this . . . one, two, three . . . I had a radio program in California in 1941 called Richard Melster Challenges. It was a brief but essential experiment.
"An experiment . . . five, six . . . in talking sense at an eighth grade level . . .seven, eight . . . but even that is not a level that all people can understand . . . nine, ten . . ."
I handed him a tip.
"Thank you," he said, staring intently at the two bits.
"I don't want to detain you but I just thought you might be interested . . . an eighth grade mind, an eighth grade level. And still, I was not allowed in this great democracy of tompainethomasjeffersonandrewjacksonabrahamlincolnetal to proceed past this point because the infinitesimally small minds that controlled the educational system in the great albeit overstuffed and too full of oranges state of California."
I put one foot out the door.
Those were the days of prohibition. I was in eighth grade. Every child in my class was instructed to write an essay defending prohibition. Now I had often been to the Episcopal Church with my mother and I knew that those who believe in that particular faith were not above an occasional sip and the same was true with my Catholic father although he might have told his confessor something to the contrary. And my mother's sister was married to a Methodist who was the worst of all. All of them drinking and I knew full well that the evil did not rest with drink but with the mind that partook of the drink. And the voice that spoke profanity upon drinking and the body that treats mankind meanly for having done so. So I wrote my essay which opened as follows:
'There is no evil in drink as such, only in those who do the drinking. For mere alcohol is neither moral nor immoral. The human being is capable of being both. . . '
My teacher, her name was Miss Richter, and she could cry when the emotional situation demanded it, she had me read my essay in class the first of all. I got no further than I have indicated to you when she said, 'Dicky, don't you know that the principal wants every boy and girl in the school to write an essay explaining why prohibition is a good thing?'
I replied, 'Then I care no more for the principal of this school than I do for prohibition.' I was marched to the principal who had me read my essay right on through to the closing words that went:
"Prohibitive walls mean nothing if they are built up outside the individual. It is only through a mature understanding and a meaningful education that prohibitive walls can be built up, and then only within the individual, by the individual."
The principal was shocked and asked, 'Who wrote that for you, Dicky?' I told him, 'I could have written this the way you and Miss Richter wanted me to had I been willing to desecrate every value I hold dear as a student within a free democracy. And my friend, I walked out the door and never returned to eighth, or any other, grade.
I waited in silence, not knowing whether I would hear more or be excused.
"Now I am sorry to have taken so much of your time. I appreciate you listening to me."
"That's all right," I replied, as I stepped quickly out of the cab, for I was anxious to climb the stairs, pull out my smooth gray-cased Smith-Corona portable and write it down.
I also saved 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 was trying to shut it down. Although there were already perhaps 1,000 such establishments around the country catering to the still quietly alienated, nothing quite like it had hit DC. In Philadelphia, meanwhile, a cop named Frank Rizzo was making a name for himself by staging raids on three or four coffeehouses and having them closed for health code violations. Although on the case less than 24 hours, Rosenberg threw himself into the cause with remarkable vigor.
"We plan," he announced, "to produce 150 witnesses, including some eminent personalities, to establish the fact that this Coffee n Confusion Cafe is of the type that would be most beneficial not only to the District of Columbia but to the United States of America." Rosenberg continued:
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 . . .
Our defense will be that this group has a right to express itself whether you like this expression or their poetry and we feel that this is an outlet for young struggling poets, authors or what you will.
We can't all be born with a silver spoon in our mouths and we can't all be given a fashionable showing on 5th Avenue, Madison Avenue or Park Avenue. And some of us, no matter how talented they may be, can't even get their manuscripts read. For this reason there must be some area for people who think they have the capability to express themselves. This cafe is such an area for Washington . . .
There are always those who are opposed to anything different. And to them the fact that these poets wear beards and are unconventional in their dress and attire is different. I must say that if they believe that they must harass because these people are different they are only subverting the American way of life. Our very tradition has been to allow us a freedom of expression as long as such freedom does not invade the privacy, attack the common decency or incite to danger. None of these have been shown to be caused by this cafe . . .
We are told that some people complain of the noise. I have never been in one of these cafes before and so last night -- since I had a new client -- I decided to establish my headquarters here and find out exactly what the noise was and see what could be done to smooth over our differences with those who said we were noisy. I was astounded to find that there was less noise here -- even with a bongo drum and a piano going -- then in some nightclubs or taverns that I have been in. In fact the quiet got on my nerves.
Now I can not say, and I have never heard anyone say, that one reading poetry causes loud and boisterous noises. As a matter of fact when the poetry reading was going on there was absolutely no noise. In fact, the only noise that I heard was when a gentleman got on the guitar and someone else was playing the drums. But certainly in the city of Washington we are used to music.
If some people are opposed to having a few poets read their poetry I myself am greatly shocked that this would occur in the citadel of democracy, in its very capital, the District of Columbia.
Rosenberg then announced the creation of a Washington Writer's Guild to publish and present the work of local writers. A reporter asked whether this project had been developed within the past 24 hours. Rosenberg said the idea had been around for a long time but when it had been presented to him the previous evening. he had said he thought it was excellent. The lawyer continued:
We also intend, if we do raise the funds, to bring a French artist here from the Left Bank and let one of our artists go to the Left Bank, and have an exchange of cultural relations with various nations. . .
I see some people are snickering and I have only this to say: even President Eisenhower has commented that the person-to-person campaign is the best way of effectuating peace and better understanding. . . .I think that a cultural exchange of artists would not only benefit the United States but the entire world.
DC was eventually found to be safe for poetry and bongo drums.
The stories I covered for WWDC ran from Eisenhower news conferences, to an interview with Louis Armstrong, to the murder of the former head of a Illinois college who was found "stark naked, beaten and dying" in a room of the seedy Alton Hotel, murdered by a male carnival worker.
In the summer of 1957, I covered the Senate investigation of the Teamsters Union. Among those seated at the long panel table was young John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts. His brother, Robert, served as a counsel for the committee. At one point, a prostitute witness made some off-color comment that brought guffaws from the audience; and Bobby's own giggles were amplified by his mike. The humorless chair, John McClellan, rapped his gavel and told Kennedy that "This is not a joking matter." It would be the only time I ever saw a Kennedy look chastened.
The testimony of Hoffa went like this:
Robert F. Kennedy: Did you say, "That S.O.B., I'll break his back"?
Jimmy Hoffa: Who?
Hoffa: Say it to who?
Kennedy: To anyone?
Hoffa: Figure of speech... I don't even know what I was talking about and I don't know what you're talking about.
Kennedy: Uh... Mr. Hoffa, all I'm trying to find out, I'll tell you what I'm talking about. I'm trying to find out whose back you were going to break.
Hoffa: Figure of speech... figure of speech.
I was not particularly impressed by the Kennedys, who struck me as lightweights hardly in the same class with Humphrey and Dirksen, and wrote in a September 5, 1959 letter:
The Kennedy brothers -- like the remark about the Quakers -- came to Washington to do good and did very well. Jimmy Hoffa, who's astute if corrupt, told me once in the midst of the rackets hearing, "Bobby Kennedy is trying to make headlines for his brother so he can get him to the White House, but he can't find his way out of this room." Now that the labor reform bill is passed, one big source of Kennedy headlines has disappeared. Let's hope the Kennedys do likewise.
It may be that what happened in that hearing room helped to lay the groundwork for Kennedy's later assasination - if theories of a mob hit are true. Certainly Hoffa hated the Kennedys and Washington investigator author Ron Goldfarb writes that in "August 1962, Hoffa recruited an aide to kill RFK. In February 1963, John Kennedy told Newsweek's Ben Bradlee that Hoffa had recruited an assassin to kill the attorney general."
Frank Ragano, long-time lawyer for both Santos Trafficante Jr. and Hoffa, wrote a memoir with NY Times reporter Selwyn Raab in which he recalled several conversations between the two mobsters:
Trafficante: Sombody is going to kill those sons of bitches. It's just a matter of time.
Hoffa: Something has to be done. The time has come for your friend and Carlos [Marcello] to get rid of him kill that son of a bitch John Kennedy. This has got to be done. Be sure to tell them what I said. No more fucking around. We're running out of time - something has to be done.
After JFK's assassination, Ragano claimed that Marcello told him, "When you see Jimmy, you tell him he owes me, and he owes me big."
And Trafficante thought they had got the wrong man: "We shouldn't have killed John. We should have killed Bobby."
Goldfarb quotes the brother of Sam Giacana as boasting, "We took care of Kennedy. The hit in Dallas was just like any other operation we'd worked in the past." Writes Goldfarb: "Sam Giancana himself was murdered in 1975 just days before he was suppose to talk to the Senate intelligence committee about plots to kill Castro."
He also notes that "Two biographies of leading mobsters report that Marcello exclaimed, 'Don't worry about that Bobby son of a bitch. He's going to be taken care of ' According to one participant Marcello told his listeners he would recruit some nut to kill Kennedy so it couldn't be traced to him, 'like they do in Sicily.'" Marcello would later deny the quote.
If Goldfarb is right, then during my introduction to journalism, I not only interviewed John F. Kennedy but one of those responsible for his assasination.
In November 1959, Charles Van Doren was called before a congressional committee in the midst of the TV quiz show scandal. My copy reeked of journalistic piety:
The tale of Charles Van Doren is the tale of the not too tender trap . . . He had deceived himself and others in a manner that should be familiar to a college instructor. Cheating, relying on another's work to get ahead is one of the oldest and most cardinal of academic sins . . .
A month later, the US sent a monkey 55 miles into space.
A month after that, DC Transit ran its last streetcar to Glen Echo and one day later, John F. Kennedy announced that he was running for the president.
That same January, I discovered 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."
Then that summer, State Department spokesman Lincoln White told 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 showed me at a news conference sitting next to Mrs. Powers with my Mohawk mike held towards her as she underwent what the caption writer called an "interrogation."
Some of the stories, though, were totally non-consequential. These I tried to spruce up as best I could by, for example, somberly quoting a Cherry Blossom Festival chair's estimate of the daughter of the US Treasurer, Ivy Baker Priest: "Ever since the coronation of the lovely Pat Priest, who was queen in 1953, members of the coronation committee have remembered her starry-eyed young sister, Nancy, and they are delighted that Nancy has accepted their invitation to reign as queen in 1959." I closed with "And that's the latest word from the world of coronations. . ."
And there were, of course, the normal tales of a city. I made a note I the fall of 1959:
Yesterday, driving to the Hill from WWDC, I had two accidents and a holdup come over the police radio, all just off my normal route. So by the time I got down there . . . I felt like I had already had a pretty full day even though it was only 10:30 am.
But far more serious business was at hand. In August 1960 I wrote 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.
In February 1960, four black college students had sat down at a white-only Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in fifteen cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to fifty four cities in nine states. In April the leaders o f these protests had come together, heard a moving sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. and formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. The summer I had first worked for WWDC I had covered the passage of the first civil rights legislation in Congress since 1875. Now it was getting serious. By the end of June, I was covering the desegregation of lunch counters in Northern Virginia after sit-ins by groups led a Howard Divinity School student, Lawrence Henry. Henry then took his troops to Glen Echo. Although I saved few recordings from that period -- tape was 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. . .
You're telling me that because my skin is black I can not come into your park?
Not because your skin is black. I asked you what your race was.
I would like to know why I can not come into your park.
Because the park is segregated. It is private property.
Just what class of people do you allow to come in here.
So you're saying you exclude the American Negro.
Who is a citizen of the United States.
As a biracial group marched outside with picket signs, Henry led a group inside to sit-in at the restaurant and mount the carousel horses. The case ended up in court and less than a year later, the park opened for all.
Meanwhile the House and the Senate were tying themselves in knots over civil rights legislation. In the House, the egregious but courtly Judge Howard Smith, czar of the Rules Committee, promised that "I shall not dilly, I shall not dally, neither shall I delay" and then proceeded 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. He also noted that southerners had never accepted the idea that the "colored race" had equal intelligence, education and social attainments as whites.
He was not alone. Over on the Senate side, I reported 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 was participating in a southern filibuster that had already been going 69 hours, far longer than any previous effort.
Among those also taking part were Sam Ervin and the rambunctious, hard-drinking Russell Long who managed to hold the Senate floor for eleven hours. This, however, was no record. Senator Wayne Morse had once gone over 18 hours and two years earlier, Strom Thurmond had held the floor for more than a day.
Thurmond reportedly described to Rep. Wayne Hayes in some detail how he managed this feat without having to relieve himself, noting that he had taken saunas, avoided liquids and so forth. Hayes listened thoughtfully and then said, "Strom, I can understand how you went that long without pissing, but I can't figure out how someone so full of shit as you could have done it."
One filibuster drifted into another and the hours turned into days. A group of reporters gathered around the minority leader, Everett Dirksen, in the middle of one of the many nights and one asked, "How are you doing?" The Wizard of Ooze told us he was doing all right "but 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."
At the time, I saw these stories as separate events but it seems now that maybe it wasn't a bunch of stories I covered back then, but rather the end of one big story, a story that Americans such as I had been raised to believe, a story about perfectibility and how close we were to it and how easy it would be to go the rest of the way. At the end of the story was not what we had been told to expect. At the end of the story, it turned out, was Jimmy Hoffa and Charles Van Doren and Gary Power and Judge Smith, and guards keeping people out of amusement parks and coffeehouses being shut down by cops who thought poets were dangerous. It turned out that the end of the story was that much of the story hadn't been true.
I couldn't have put it as directly then. I was only 23 and my mind was on other things -- such as getting into the Coast Guard before my draft board got me. But I know those months changed me even as they changed the country. I no longer thought of the Capitol as a cathedral, the exciting had turned a little tawdry, the right choice was less certain and the important no longer peremptorily apparent.
I had stopped noticing the shine of the marble. The floors of the House and Senate office buildings became harder, the hallways darkened, and the doors that lined them seemed to conceal more than they invited. Even on foggy and rainy evenings, the Capitol dome no longer floated in the sky but sat lumpy and leaden on top of the Hill, waiting for a new story to begin.
Copyright 1996 Sam Smith