During my seven years as a Congressional and Committee staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives, I got a first-hand look at our government from the inside.
Amy and I drove a rented Ryder truck from Alton, IL, to Arlington, VA, at the end of February 1981, so I could become press secretary to Illinois Congressman Paul Findley, a 20-year member who served on the Foreign Affairs and Agriculture committees and had become a national figure in the struggle of Palestinians who were seeking a homeland in the Middle East.
Shortly after we arrived, a young man with who idolized actress Jodie Foster, shot President Ronald Reagan, severely wounded press secretary Jim Brady and a secret service agent outside of the Washington Hilton in the DuPont Circle area of Washington.
Brady, shot in the head, never recovered enough to resume his duties as press secretary. It was the first encounter with violence in the nation’s capital. It would not be the first.
It took about seven months for me to realize that working as a press secretary was not my strong point. I was interviewing the Bristol Herald Courier newspaper when Chriss Hearst, the incumbent director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, introduced me to Washington-based political consultant Eddie Mahe, who was looking a new communications chief for the re-election campaign of Manual Lujan of New Mexico.
I took the job, which required me to spend most of my time in New Mexico, working on Lujan’s tough fight to remain in Congress. Mahe taught me a lot about campaign practices and political tricks. He said the first goal of any election was to win. Nothing, he said, could be accomplished if you lost.
On my first trip to Albuquerque, I examined previous election results of Lujan’s previous elections. He had been in Congress since 1969 but almost lost in 1980 to a relative unknown, Bill Richardson, in an election year when Reagan’s landslide win brought victories for most Republicans.
Many thought Lujan would lose in 1982. Our goal was to not let that happen. Past election returns showed Lujan routinely lost in the Spanish-speaking South Valley of Albuquerque. How, I asked, could that happen to Lujan, whose family settled in New Mexico from Spain generations before.
The reason he kept losing was that the South Valley, mostly Mexican immigrant families, voted straight Democratic, and never realized that their Congressman, the Spanish speaking Lujan, was not a Democrat.
Something needed to be done to correct that, so — in the weekend before the election — door cards appeared on each residence in the South Valley. On the front, written in Spanish, was one question: “How do you pronounced Hartke in Spanish?” State treasurer Jan Hartke, a transplant from Indiana and the son of former Indiana Sen. Vance Hartke, was Lujan’s opponent.
When the South Valley resident turned the card over, there was a picture of blond-haired, blue-eyed Hartke under the answer to the question: “GRINGO!” The card also explained how to cross over and vote for Lujan in the congressional race.
Lujan won and the votes in the South Valley made the difference district-wide in the election.
I pulled one other stunt in the election. In preparation of the one televised debate, broadcast on the final weekend of the campaign, I negotiated with the Hartke campaign and agreed to let him make the opening statement. That gave Lujan the final say at the end.
Just before the debate, I gave Lujan and index card with a short statement typed on the back.
“If Hartke attacks you in his closing statement, read this as your closing statement,” said.
Hartke did attack, hard, and as he spoke, I watched Lujan turn over the index card, read it, and smile.
In his closing statement, he said:
You know, my daddy always told me that there were two ways for one to become the tallest tree in the forest. In one, you work to grow and attain the stature. Or you can just chop down all the other trees. I would not want to be in Congress is I had to get there by chopping down our trees.
The debate with a television shot of a smiling Lujan and a grim look from Hartke.
After the debate, Lujan thanked me and asked: “Where did you get that quote?”
“Mein Kampf,” I said. “Adolph Hitler said it.”
His face turned ashen.
“You had me quote Hitler? What if someone finds out?”
“I doubt they will,” I said. “I reworded it completely and it is not prominent in the book.
He spent the nest 72 hours worrying that someone would discover he quoted Hitler in his campaign.
No one ever did. He won and continued to serve until 1989, when he retired from Congress but was then named Secretary of the Interior by President George W. Bush.
I went to another Congressman to serve as chief of staff for two years but returned to Lujan as his special assistant to the ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee. We traveled the world together and I spent election seasons working as a operative for the NRCC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Committee. I worked for the Reagan-Bush reelection campaign in 1984 ad the principal writer for the Voice for Victory program and took a leave of absence from my committee work in 1986 to serve as communications consultant for the successful Congressional campaign of retired Corning CEO Amory Houghton.
I finally walked away from that life in 1994, a burned-pit alcoholic who took his first stop towards sobriety and celebrated 25 years sober this past June.
It took a dozen years to finally return to my first love: Newspapers. Amy and I would live 23 years in Arlington and I finished out those last 11 years with news services and freelanced assignments for papers like The Washington Post and the New York Times.
The assignments allowed me to cover news in Washington, around the country and throughout the world. I photographed refugees in Somalia, violence in Haiti, war in Afghanistan, Iraq and other violent places, but was on or home turf photographing the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon in 2001.
Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead was right when he wrote and sung: “What a long, strange trip it’s been” in his song, “Truckin.”
Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street.
Chicago, New York, Detroit and it’s all on the same street.
Your typical city involved in a typical daydream
Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings.Dallas, got a soft machine; Houston, too close to New Orleans,
New York’s got the ways and means; but just won’t let you be, oh no.Truckin’ got my chips cashed in. Keep truckin’, like the do-dah man
Together, more or less in line, just keep truckin’ on.