Memories

 

Nixon, the Klan, the FBI & Shortcake

 

By Tony Marro

 

   I probably got my job at Newsweek because my wife disconnected the phone in our vacation home.

 It was the summer of 1974 and I was working in the Washington Bureau of Newsday, covering Watergate.  I also was doing book reviews for the Washington Post, and I had handed one in just before we fled to Vermont for a short but much-needed vacation. The book was “Contrabandista”, a report on drug smuggling  by Nick Horrock and Ev Clark, neither of whom I knew except to nod at when we passed one another in the lobby of the building at 1750 Pennsylvania Avenue where Newsday and Newsweek both had their offices.

   Puff Job: After having the first two days of our vacation interrupted by a dozen or more calls from Newsday, my angry wife pulled the plug.  That meant that Newsday couldn’t reach me, but neither could the editor of the Washington Post books section,  who needed to cut about 400 words.  He solved his problem simply by cutting out everything critical that I had said about the book. This resulted in the most glowing review -- maybe the only glowing review -- that it got.

   When I returned to Washington the next week, there was a message from Mel Elfin asking me to come and see him.  He had a job opening to help cover the ongoing Watergate scandal, he said, and Horrock and Clark had told him that he should hire me to fill it.

   I liked writing my own stories and I had concerns about news magazine journalism, which Penn Kimball, a Columbia Journalism School professor, who once had worked for TIME, described as “many minds brought to bear on a defenseless set of facts”.  But I took the job, quickly found that I enjoyed it thoroughly, was impressed by the number of first-rate people on the staff, and was bemused by the fact that the corporate culture was informal enough that many of my bosses and colleagues were known by nicknames.  Osborn Elliot was “Oz”; Ed Kosner was “Fast Eddie”; Mel Elfin was “Melfin”; the incomparable Peter Goldman was “Goldie”; Lester Bernstein was sometimes known -- at least behind his back -- as “Lester the Investor” because of the considerable time he was said to spend on the phone with his broker; and John Lindsay was “Real John” to distinguish him from the 1960s New York mayor.

 The Wallys: The top editors of course were known collectively as the “Flying Wallendas.” During my time at Newsweek I heard about a dozen different reasons for the nickname, none of them accurate.  Les Hanscom had dubbed them the “Wallendas” when he was a writer in the back-of-the-book sections.  I worked with him later when I became editor of Newsday.  He told me one day over lunch that there had been no specific reason at all. [The Wallendas were famous as a family of  high wire performers.]  Hanscom said he had just referred to the top editors that way one day off the top of his head and was surprised to find that within a matter of hours it was being repeated all through the building.

   One of my lasting memories of “Real John” Lindsay [a Newsweek political reporter born in South Boston] is of a  lunch that also included Hal Bruno, Henry Hubbard and Henry Trewhitt,  all bureau reporters.  When not reporting for Newsweek,  this trio played together in a bluegrass group called the “Informed Sources”.  The three were going on at length about what they considered the poignant and moving lyrics in country music when Lindsay finally said:  “Oh, for Christ’s sake stop it.  Those songs are all alike and they’re just self-pitying, stupid and whiny -- ‘Here I am pimply-faced in a trailer park and my husband has gone’.”

 The Gap: Lindsay once theorized that the loud buzzing sound on the 18-minute gap on one of the crucial Watergate tapes [recorded in Nixon’s

oval office] wasn’t an obstruction of justice intended to erase evidence of a crime.  It was, he said,  just Nixon running around the oval office in his bumble bee suit.

  Lindsay had an institutional memory of Congress and national politics that was extraordinary and that also could often be funny.  During the scandal that erupted when it was learned that Rep. Wayne Hayes of Ohio had put a girlfriend on his payroll as a secretary despite -- in her own words -- not being able to type, file or even answer the phone, Lindsay did a file about the long history of sexual escapades on the Hill and recalled that former Rep. Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem had said openly that a stunningly attractive woman in his office with no apparent secretarial skills was there because “She types like a mink.”

   The Cake: The only woman at Newsweek whom I knew to have a nickname was Sandra Salmans, a writer in New York.  For some reason not clear to me she was known in the Washington bureau as “Shortcake”.  She once authored a memorable query [a wire launching a story] that was a classic example of how intelligent people can see things from very different perspectives.  It was for a piece she was doing on a wave of Harry Truman nostalgia that was sweeping the country.  She made the usual requests for  specific information and then added tthat it was hard to see how people could be fond of someone who had been so callous as to drop the bomb on Hiroshima.

   The query went to both John Lindsay and Tom Joyce.  At the time the bomb was dropped, Lindsay was a combat infantryman who was boarding an attack transport that would have taken him eventually to the invasion of Japan, or so I was told.   Joyce was a young paratrooper practicing jumps for the same.  Both were scathing in their response.

   Salmans also said that one reason for the Truman nostalgia might be that “he was bright enough to hate Nixon before all the rest of us”.  Elfin underlined that last and posted the query on the bulletin board, along with a scribbled note saying, “Speak for yourself Shortcake!”

   Good Vibes:  I enjoyed working with Salmans, who was very bright and a skillful writer.  And Peter Goldman of course was known for taking raw and sometimes clunky files from reporters, myself included, and, in effect, spinning straw into gold.  In truth, I enjoyed working with all the writers in the Nation section.

   There was only once in my three years at the magazine when I thought they badly mangled what should have been an important and lively story.  That was a piece about an assistant U.S. Attorney in Memphis.  He had dragged dozens of porn stars and producers from all over the country into an obscenity trial there, based on the novel theory that anyone involved in the production or distribution of porn films could be tried in Memphis for conspiracy to ship obscene materials across state lines -- even if Tennessee wasn’t one of the states.

  Twice Told: Everyone was found guilty in Memphis, but eventually all the cases were reversed on appeal.  The Newsweek report caused big city papers to race in and cover this spectacle, and eventually it became a major national story. But I thought our version had been flat and pedestrian -- and had minimized what an out-of-control Assistant U.S. Attorney could do.  I got permission from Elfin to do a freelance version for The New Republic. After that appeared, a friend  sent a note saying it looked as though I had done the story twice -- “once for publication and once for mutilation”.

  For the most part, I covered the Justice Department, which meant that I ended up reporting not only on Watergate but also on the later investigations by Congress into abuses by the FBI and CIA.  One of my failures was a story that I never managed to get into Newsweek that involved some heavy-handed activities by FBI agents trying to intimidate KKK members while investigating murders by klansmen in Mississippi during the civil rights years.  This story included information -- which I never fully confirmed -- of kidnappings of klansmen by FBI agents themselves.  They had dragged them into the woods for kangaroo courts and threatened them with hanging or serious injury if they didn’t talk.

   The Suspect: I spent a good deal of my time and Newsweek’s money on the project. But what I turned up, and could fully prove, was both dated and not clearly illegal.  Neither Elfin nor the editors in New York thought it was worth the space it would take to tell the story.  Thirty years later, one of the klansmen, whom I was sure but couldn’t prove had murdered two young blacks outside Natchez, was charged and convicted of the crimes.

   He had been a deputy sheriff when I tracked him down  doing the story.  It was the only interview I ever conducted where the subject kept his hand on his service revolver all during the questioning.  Ten years after we scrapped the project, I saw the movie “Mississippi Burning.” I  realized that I might not have had a publishable news magazine story but -- unknowingly --  had come back from Mississippi with what could have been a terrific screenplay.

   If I had known how to write it and market it, I likely could have made a lot more from it than I ever did working for Newsweek, and I’ve been kicking myself  ever since.

   Coat and Tie:  All this, of course, was long ago and a different world.  Men still wore suits and ties in the office, many of them smoked pipes, and staffers of both sexes often drank very large and very dry gin martinis at lunch.  They were called “silver bullets” and were like an assault with a friendly weapon.

   News magazines still had tremendous influence back then, and the quality of the reporting at Newsweek was on a par with that of the Washington bureaus of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times or Los Angeles Times.  In our biased view it also was superior to that of  “Brand X,” our slang for TIME magazine.  Washington was an exciting place to be a reporter in the ‘70s, and Elfin in particular made Newsweek a fun place to work.

   I was teamed up often with Horrock, Clark, Henry Hubbard and Diane Camper, who were four terrific reporters whom I greatly enjoyed working with.  They had very different talents and temperaments, but I learned a good deal from all of them.  By the time I left to take a job with the New York Times, they had helped make me a better reporter, as had Elfin.

   Caught Sleeping: Horrock was the most fiercely competitive.  Late one night during the [Nixon] impeachment hearings, the House Judiciary Committee was off  in [secret] executive session.  A lot of us had been working non-stop for days and were bone tired.  One of the TIME reporters in fact was sleeping on a bench in the press room.

   Suddenly word came that the executive session was breaking up and that the committee chair, Peter Rodino of New Jersey, was going to be giving a briefing.

    The whole press room emptied as reporters raced out to the committee room.  I headed back to wake the TIME reporter. Horrock suddenly grabbed me by the collar and spun me totally around.

   “Let the fucker sleep,” he said, and he pushed me out the door.

 

Tony Marro joined the Washington bureau as investigative reporter in 1974 and left in 1977.