The newspaper game

HERE’S HOW I got into the glamorous newspaper business.

It was 1969, and I needed a job. I had no newspaper training, not a single journalism class to my name. I was married. I had a kid. I was 24. I had little money.

My father had been in the newspaper business. He had retired early at age 49. He knew the managing editor of the New Orleans States-Item, and I was living in New Orleans. Dad put in a good word for me, and I got hired as a reporter. I was a piss-poor reporter.

Old fedora felt hat with a press cardHere’s how my reporting career came to a quick halt. It was gruesome. And I had only been a reporter for a few weeks.

There was a police scanner in the newsroom. One day we heard that a kid had drowned in Lake Pontchartrain. The city editor told me to head to the boy’s house and request a photo to run in the paper with the story of his death.

I drove quickly to the home. I don’t recall how we got the address. I walked to the front door, rang the bell, and a woman appeared. She was smiling. Uh-oh, I said to myself. I had arrived before the police. No one had yet informed the family.

I told her I was from the newspaper and asked if the boy was home. No, she replied, he’s at school, confirming my suspicion. Why? she asked. There must be a mistake, I replied, backing down the sidewalk, wanting to flee as soon as possible.

Here you see what separates wusses from hard-bitten reporters. Geraldo Rivera would have told her that her boy had drowned, watched her collapse screaming to the sidewalk, and he would have returned to the newsroom to write a “color” story.

But I’m not Geraldo Rivera. I skedaddled to my car, as she followed, getting concerned now, asking why I was there. I drove off. I knew at that moment that I had no business being a newspaper reporter. I lacked the stomach for it.

Plus, I did not like wearing ties and dealing with people.

I requested a transfer to the copy desk the next day. I became a copyeditor, and I stayed one for 30 years with the occasional detour into short-termed occupational lunacies.

Even now, so many years later, just thinking of those moments at that door makes me cringe a bit. I don’t know how real reporters do it, the heartless bastards.

And I still have never taken a journalism class.

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(Note 1: For a more in-depth look at my checkered newspaper career, go here.)

(Note 2: When I retired in December of 1999, the mainstream media were still mostly honest, unbiased and principled. With some exceptions, mostly independent and online, they aren’t now. They are corrupt shills for the Democrat Party.)

Passed lives*

MY OCCUPATION was, of course, newspapering. I never called myself a journalist. Sounds hoity-toity. Guys like Dan Rather and Brian Williams were journalists, and look at them now.

They’re bums.

I got into newspapering by fortunate happenstance. I was good at it — better than average — but unlike many people, I never choose a “life’s work.” It kinda chose me. Had I chosen, I would have chosen something different.

Jennifer Rose and Steve Cotton chose lawyering. My wife chose civil engineering. My daughter chose social work and counseling, as did her mother, and — rather late in life — so did my sister. My father chose newspapering, and Ray Clifton chose forestry.

All those people chose. I simply went along.

I got out of newspapering for a couple of years in my early 30s, but finances forced me back. Down through the years, three options — possibilities I never pursued — remained in my mind, a “life’s work” that I wish I had chosen … I think.

Sutherland1. Actor. Had I not spent my newspaper career toiling in the evenings, I would have joined a theater group to get my feet wet, but theater groups invariably work at night. They don’t do it mornings or afternoons. There was the fatal rub.

I would have progressed from local theater to Hollywood. I would have been rich and famous. I would have lived in Brentwood, dodged paparazzi and driven an Eldorado Biarritz.

I am not making this up. I would have liked to be an actor.

Lama2. Monk. A second field that has long intrigued me is the monastic life which is, of course, about as far from Hollywood and the Eldorado Biarritz as you can get.

I cannot explain this stunning contradiction.

On leaving the Air Force in the mid-1960s, I went immediately to Paramahansa Yoganada‘s Lake Shrine Retreat in Pacific Palisades, California, and asked to be admitted as a novice. They said no. Go home and study. I did go home, but I did not study. Not that, at least.

Monasticism has fascinated me since. If only I did not love women so.

Jones3. Archaeologist. I followed my father into newspapering, but we had another connection. My father’s dream was to be an archaeologist, but the Great Depression and distance from the nearest good archaeology school in those days squashed that ambition.

It is one I have long shared. And with a bit more focus, I could have done it, but I did not.

I picture myself brushing desert sands off the Egyptian crypt of some yet undiscovered Pharaoh’s 12-year-old concubine while keeping detailed observations in one of hundreds of spiral-bound notebooks stored beneath my wind-tossed tent. I am a detail man extraordinaire.

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But it’s too late for all that. It’s come down to this, a layabout atop a mountain in the middle of Mexico, wondering what might have been. It could have been far better — or far worse. You cannot know.

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* Get it?

Tricky Dick’s truth

A FEW MONTHS ago I read my first political memoir. It was Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War by Robert M. Gates. Having never read a political memoir, I don’t recall why I started with Gates.

But I found it so interesting, I decided to plow on. Next up was In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir by Dick Cheney. Then came Donald Rumsfeld’s Known and Unknown Deluxe: A Memoir. After Rumsfeld I was totally out of control, so I read Decision Points by George W. Bush.

Bush’s book is less a traditional memoir than the others. He took a different tack, focusing a bit on his life but primarily on several important decisions he made as president, and elaborating on them.

Bush’s book is my favorite so far. It raised my opinion of him considerably. Of course, memoirs invariably paint a positive portrait of its author, but even with that as a given, I still came away thinking highly of Dubya, as I often have called him, which now shames me.

I left the United States when Bill Clinton was president, so I observed Bush’s years in office from afar, but that’s not difficult in these high-tech times. I’m ashamed to say that I long embraced the left-wing (I am a fully recovered Democrat) notion that George W. was something of a dimwit, a lightweight, and that Cheney was the de facto president.

Simply was not so.

Gates seems like a good guy. Cheney and Rumsfeld have reputations as right-wing hard-asses, but knowing far more of their lives makes them more human, especially Cheney even if he is truly a right-wing hard-ass, something I do not hold against him these days, having become one myself.

After Bush, I had considered reading RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon but at 1,400 pages I decided no and opted instead to read Nixon’s Leaders: Profiles and Reminiscences of Men Who Have Shaped the Modern World. I’m just getting into that, and Nixon’s telling me about Winston Churchill.

Churchill was a writer of histories. I tried one of his histories recently and found it turgid.

Possibly next in the memoir list will be Condoleezza Rice’s No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington. The free Kindle sample sits in the sample file, one of the great aspects of the Kindle.

You may be thinking: What is it that inspired this post’s headline? Tricky Dick’s truth.  It was this quote I found in his chapter on Winston Churchill:

“The difference between politics before and after Watergate is striking … Today the chances of receiving much approval or esteem for accomplishments in public life are slim. The risks of glaring invasions of privacy are much greater, and the kinds of sacrifices and disclosures required for entering politics … have simply become prohibitive for many. This is bound to affect detrimentally both the quality and the number of men and women who are willing to present themselves for public office.”

nixonI have taken this position before, most recently in Newspaper days: Houston. I was quite surprised to see Tricky Dick parroting me. The quality of people in public life has fallen. This is true of both Democrats and Republicans,* and my former occupation — the news media — is responsible for that to a huge degree.

A nation reflects its leaders and the leaders are mediocre. The future looks very dicey.

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Bonus material: You likely noticed that all the memoirs mentioned are written by conservatives. Not to worry. A few days ago, occasional Moon reader and commenter Kim G. of Boston gifted me via Kindle with John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience. It is on my list, and I may actually read it, but I’m unsure when. It’s like gifting the Bible to the Devil. The Amazon book description reveals that Dean says conservatives are authoritarian and present a danger to democracy. We are evil people.

But I am sure that Barry Obama would agree with that.

Dean was one of the principals who tried to cover up the Watergate situation for Nixon. He admitted in court to forwarding hush money and confessed to obstruction-of-justice charges. He had earlier asked Nixon for immunity to the obstruction charges. Nixon refused, and Dean was fired. With this background it would be a bit hard to take his book knocking conservatives very seriously.

Smells of revenge.

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* Far truer of Democrats than Republicans, of course.