Reader Reactions & Anecdotes

16 February 2008

The Great Seducer

In 1950, I was the main rewrite man on the Wilmington, Del., Journal-Every Evening, and I was struggling to clothe and feed and house and transport my wife and twin daughters and me on $60 a week. When Delaware’s sole congressman called me up one day and offered me a Washington staff job at more than twice that much plus all the government perks, my head rang with a huge swelling of symphonic “castaway’s survival music.” I wasn’t any kind of politician, but, man, was I ready to fake it.

I worked for Congressman Boggs for the full two years of his third term, peeling off when he decided to run for governor of Delaware. The thought of state politics horrified me, and when I told Cale I’d be looking for something else to do he gave me all the time I needed to look around. We’d become good friends, but I didn’t want to move to the State House with him, even if he made it (which he did, twice), because politics — like the military — was the great seducer, pulling you in, locking you into a kind of single-minded, egocentric quest for more rank, more power, and an ever-larger retinue of sycophants. So, in a series of events I’ll get to in another blog, I ended up at Du Pont.

But, reluctant pol that I was, my two-year stint on Capitol Hill taught me things that might otherwise have taken me decades to acquire as a working newsman — if I were to have them at all, that is. How else could I have had the dubious honor of riding an elevator with Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, watching him scratch his crotch and hearing his wry explanation that his * * * * were too * * * big for this * * * city-slicker underwear? Or carrying an ice bucket into Cale Boggs’s office, where he and Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were sitting with their feet propped on the desk, sipping scotch and trading jokes?

The three of them had what they called their Thursday Afternoon Club, when they would meet in their offices by turn for drinks and cigars and a general bull session. Nixon had the misfortune of looking like the bad-guy lead in a B gangster movie and Ford, a very big fella, bumbled around like an over-the-hill jock, and so the media — heavily opinionated and cruel even then — had a field day making fun of their looks. But I saw with my own eyes that it was pretty much a bad rap. Nixon was usually amiable and gracious and no more foul-mouthed than Harry Truman or any other pol on the Hill; Ford was really quite quick and bright and immensely likeable. Nixon always asked me if I’d like a drink. But instinct told me Boggs would prefer I didn’t hang around, so I declined with some kind of crack about how I was needed out there to run the government in their absence.

At the end, when I told Cale I’d not be going with him on his gubernatorial run, he said he thought he could get me a nice job on Nixon’s staff, surely on Jerry Ford’s staff, if I wanted to stay on Capitol Hill. But I told him that he was the only one I wanted to work for in Washington, and if he was leaving, so was I. As history played out, it proved once again how lucky I’ve been so many times. I get chills when, in my midnight broodings, I think of how I might have been sucked into the disaster suffered by those many unknowing and personally uninvolved staffers who were nonetheless smothered in the fallout from Nixon’s hugely stupid decision as president to stonewall on Watergate. Or have been in the line of fire when that deranged woman took a shot at Ford.

Speaking of Truman, I harbored a great liking and admiration for the man which I had to keep to myself, working as I did as a staffer in a Republican member’s office. Although he was forever being branded by the media as a grubby little haberdasher who’d been hand picked for Congress and eventually the presidency by the Missouri Prendergast mob and its Mafia tendrils, I wasn’t buying that. He was simply too independent, too ballsy, too up-front to make me believe he could be any crook’s errand boy. But the thing that endeared him to me the most was the gut feeling that told me this guy didn’t give a damn for power and glory and couldn’t care less if the voters threw him out. He was there to do a job, and if he didn’t do it right — “Well, up yours, Charlie, I’m gone fishin’.” I would — and secretly did — vote for him in a heart-beat.

There were some real characters among the congressmen who inhabited the Old House Office Building.

Across the hall, for instance, was an Honorable from one of the southern states who always reserved an afternoon hour for “one-on-one meetings” with constituents. And it was presumably very much one on one, seeing as how the “constituent” was always a young blonde in tight clothes and tall, pointy heels. Never a redhead or a brunette. Always a blonde. And precious few had southern accents. The Hill staffers knew that they should never bother to call or otherwise get in direct touch with this Honorable from three to four in the afternoon. And most of them — including his executive secretary, a little oldish Southern belle with blue hair — knew that the “constituents” were in fact constituent units of one of Washington’s toniest call-girl rings.

Nobody complained, nobody blew the whistle, because even in those days Washington was a steamy place filled with licentious skeletons in almost every office closet. Something seemed to happen to usually decent people when they moved into the capital loop. They seemed inevitably to undergo a subtle character change, to generate some kind of vulnerability, to acquire some secret guilt, to perpetrate and hide some rotten transgression. Quite often I’d be approached by a lobbyist, or an angle-shooter, or a favor-seeker and offered all sorts of goodies if I’d only persuade Boggs to do this or that, and I remember telling Boggs that I’d be rich as hell if I’d just say yes now and then. Cale laughed and said, “Sure. But you could also end up in jail. Me, it’s my fear of that that keeps me Ivory-soap clean.”

The net result of all this stuff was my eventual inability to resurrect the thrill of being an American I’d felt when I reported for duty the first day. More and more I found myself staring at the Capitol dome, or the Washington monument, or the Lincoln Memorial, in a melancholy search for the naive pride in country that had once filled my chest. But I finally gave up, knowing as I did that I’d never find that feeling again.

Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.