For the first six years of our time in Washington, DC, I worked for the Republican party in one form or another.
My first job in the nation’s Capital was press secretary to longtime GOP Congressman Paul Findley of Illinois . It was a change from being a newspaper reporter who wrote news stories and columns for 17 years in Virginia and Illinois.
I wasn’t happy in the job. Applying partisan slants to material I was writing didn’t appeal. I had gone to Washington for what was going to be a two-year sabbatical to learn how Washington operated. In less than a year, I found myself considering an earlier than respected return to newspapers.
A staff member at the National Republican Congressional Committee asked me to give a second Congressman a chance and recommended talking to GOP Representative Congressman Manuel Lujan of New Mexico. First, I had to meet with GOP consultant Eddie Mahe, chief strategist of Lujan’s campaign and one of the Republicans credited with saving the party after Richard Nixon’s debacle with Watergate. Mahe gave me a seal of approval and I met with Lujan at the Capitol Hill Club. After a long evening of discussion over what he needed and what I expected along with scotch, I went back to our condo in Arlington with a new position.
Lujan faced a tough challenge for re-election against the then-New Mexico state treasurer Jan Hartke, son of former Sen. Vance Hartke. I found campaign activity for Lujan more exciting and got wrapped up in the political nuances of such operations. Lujan won and GOP consultant Mahe publicly praised me for being a “major force” in driving the campaign. To be blunt, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what I was doing so I just tried anything I could think of. One of my stunts in the campaign ended up in a movie about political consulting, “Power,” starring Richard Gere and Gene Hackman.
Lujan won and brought more opportunities: Chief of Staff for new Indiana Republican Congressman Dan Burton, field operative for both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committe; a teaching gig at the American Campaign Academy and guest lecturer for the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism.
In 1984, I was offered a position by the Republican National Committee to become the principal writer of the “Voices for Victory” campaign for the Reagan-Bush Presidential campaign. Early each morning, I participated in a conference call with White House officials, campaign operatives and consultants and then wrote the “message of the day” for the campaign along with talking points to be used by spokesmen of the operation.
After the campaign, I took a break from politics and returned to Lujan to serve as his “Special Assistant to the Ranking Member” on the House Science and Technology Committee. The position included foreign travel to Israel, Italy, France, Germany, Britain and other countries plus work investigation of the crash of the Challenger space shuttle and coordination on computer projects with the National Security Agency.
Politics called again and I took a leave of absence form the committee post in 1986 to serve as primary communications consultant on the House campaign of retired Corning CEO Amory Houghton. I worked with political media consultant Roger Ailes to develop television spots for the campaign. We won.
By 1987, I had worked for many GOP candidates, won most of the campaigns I advised and had something of a reputation as a “go to” guy for political operations. The National Association of Realtors, one of the nation’s largest trade organizations, asked me to became division vice president of political programs, which included supervision of what was then the world’s largest political action committees (PACs).
We spent millions on “independent expenditure” campaigns on behalf of candidates, maxed out in contributions on most Congressional races. Richard Berke of the New York Times interviewed me for a page one story in the New York Times, noting:
The committee raised $6.2 million in 1987-88 and spent $5.9 million – more than any other trade association PAC. Its power can be felt in almost every race for the House and Senate: RPAC made contributions in 432 of the 435 House contests and in every Senate race last year. The committee plays it safe by giving most of its money to incumbents. In last year’s campaign, its chosen candidates won in 98 percent of the House races and more than four-fifths of the Senate campaigns.
‘The question quite often is: ‘Is the member accessible? Does he listen to our point of view?’ ” Mr. Thompson said. Accessibility is not the only virtue, he allowed: ”What we are doing is supporting people who support us. We go with people who have a proven record of support on our issues.”
The realtors resent the suggestion that PAC’s have corrupted politics. ”PAC’s seem to be the scapegoat,” Mr. Thompson said. ”We’re not buying loyalty, or buying support, or buying anything with $5,000. It’s not PAC’s that give members of Congress widespread mailing privileges and free trips home to mix business with pleasure.”
Yeah, I really said that with a straight face. Berke quoted me by my formal name: William D. Thompson but the picture of me with my expensive suspenders (braces) and a tri-screen TV with C-Span and news on in my office was even more pretentious.
The five years with the Realtors was a heady time: Presidential dinners, trips to the White House, a six-figure income and lots of travel around the country. I worked on side projects like lecturing on political communications for Charlotte Tighe Communications and taught spokesperson training.
But I wasn’t happy. The planned two-year trip to learn about Washington turned into 23 years. Eleven of those years included heavy involvement as a political operative — six for the Republican Party and five for a national political action operation that deal with and supported both parties. I came to Washington to study the way government worked so I could identify the problems and write about them for newspapers. Instead, I became part of the problem.
I never managed to become a member of the Republican Party. Sometimes I vote in Democratic primaries and others times in Republican ones. I kept by voter registration in Virginia, which does not require any pledges of allegiance to any party. I worked in politics for the money and I was seduced by the adrenaline rush of politics.
I left the Realtors in 1994 during a reorganization of the political operations that I helped design and left with a generous severance “umbrella.” Politics burned me out, I drank too much and made decisions that were too often not correct, moral or honest. It took two more years trying to bring my life under control, take the first overdue stop towards recovery from alcoholism, and return to news writing and photography.
I created a political news web site that was non-partisan and took hard looks at misdeeds of both parties and both Congress and the White House. I picked up my cameras again and shot photos for wire services, newspapers, magazines and online operations.
On September 11, 2011, I was on a rise along Columbia Pike near the Pentagon shooting news photos of the carnage from the plane that crashed into the building during the terrorist attacks that also destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City. My photos were published in The Washington Post, New York Times and other newspapers around the world.
Life in and around Washington changed on that fateful day. The region became an armed camp. For a while, a Patriot missile battery stood ready on the National Mall and an Army half-track with a machine gun guarded the roads that ran by the Pentagon.
I wasn’t making anywhere near the money that came before with the political operations but I was a hell of a lot happier. A newspaper editor once said that “working for a newspaper was a job for those who could not do anything else in life.” He was right.
In 2004, I turned down an offer to go to Iraq. I had been in other countries, including Libya and Afghanistan in times of strife, but Amy and I discussed this proposed trip and she asked me to not go. She said she had an uneasy feeling about going into that war. The photographer who went in my place died in Iraq. There is no way to know if I would have been at the same place at the same time, but it convinced me that the decision to turn down the assignment was the right one.
Instead, we decided to leave Washington. We sold our condo and moved to a new home outside of Floyd — a homecoming of sorts for me and a chance to take care of my aging mother. I had no idea if I could make a living in Southwestern Virginia, but shortly after the move, Wanda Combs of The Floyd Press asked me to shoot photos of a high school football game. That led to a request to cover county courts and the Board of Supervisors plus shoot sports of high school events. In most editions of the paper, I have photos and stories. Been doing it for 12 years now.
Working for the Press was a homecoming. I wrote stories, took pictures and even ran the linotype machine at the Press. It was my first newspaper job and led to five years at The Roanoke Times before I took a better paying job at The Telegraph, in Alton, Illinois — part of the St. Louis metro area.
I shoot assignments for other media outlets from time to time and have provided video to places like CNN and MSNBC. A call from a photo assignment editor in Washington had me grabbing my cameras to cover the shootings at Virginia Tech. Another outlet needed video footage of Senator Tim Kaine after he became the vice presidential candidate in 2016.
I still own and edit a political news site on the Internet. Readership ranges up to more than 200,000 visits a day when a good story comes along but politics no longer dominates or controls my life.
That, in itself, makes life good.