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Authors: Jim Lehrer

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BOOK: The Last Debate
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arbara Manning never even had a glimpse of a daydream about being on the Meredith-Greene debate panel. “I was still way, way back there in the back of the bus for those kinds of fantasies” was the way she described her state of professional mind at the time.

She was twenty-nine years old, ten months into her job at
This Week
, still into the trauma of matching news with coherent words and sentences under what she heard somebody once call “everybody pressure”—meaning doing it for a huge national readership rather than a small local one. She had worked her way to Washington and the magazine from the South Bend, Indiana,
and the Chicago
, where she had learned the basics of making real what she had learned at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism’s special fast-track graduate program for minority journalists. But she was still getting her footing on the weekly newsmagazine track.

So when the call did come from Chuck Hammond, she was not only not expecting it, she almost didn’t take it.

“An important person named Hammond on line two for you, Barbara!”

“No calls!” said Barbara.

“He said it was urgent!”

“Nothing is more urgent than this piece!” she said.

The man she was shouting with was Mel Renfro, her boss, the political editor of
This Week
magazine. It was almost five
, which meant she had less than thirty minutes to get her story about the way poor blacks were afraid of what might happen to them under a Meredith administration, a case she had already made ten or twelve times in print before, but it could not be said often enough. Her desk and computer were part of the politics cluster in the center of
This Week
’s Washington bureau office. Renfro sat in the center and shouted at people.

“This is!” he shouted at her now.

Barbara was terrorized by him and by deadlines, the coming of which in her weekly life everybody said she would eventually either get used to or perish from. She remained uncertain which was going to happen first.

“Barbara Manning,” she said into the phone.

“Chuck Hammond, Barbara,” said the male voice on the line. Barbara? she thought. Why are you calling me Barbara? I don’t know you.

“I’m director of the National Commission on Presidential Debates,” said Chuck Hammond.

“Yeah, right?”

“We would like for you to be one of the four press panelists at Williamsburg next Sunday. What do you say?”

“Me? This is Barbara Manning.”

“I know who you are.”

“You want me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Man, you must really be into affirmative action at your place.”

Chuck Hammond was tempted then to respond honestly to her honest response but decided against it. He did not think it would have been helpful for him to say what he really believed, i.e., It is the height of stupid affirmative action to have you, kid, on the panel. He said nothing.

Barbara was truly confused by the call, the invitation. She took a few breaths. It made no sense. Me? You want me? Little old Barbara Manning, granddaughter of Maude Frederick Manning of Perrin, Georgia? You want me? Twenty-nine-year-old me?

“Mr. Hammond, you have thrown me across the room.…”

“Chuck. I was Carter’s deputy chief of staff.” He hated the fact that he had to even identify himself. How could anybody covering politics in America today not know who he was?

“Let me talk to my bosses and think about it some and I’ll get back. This is really something, man. Believe me. I am floored. I really am hit by this. I really am.…”

Hammond gave her his phone number and she promised to call him within two hours, by seven

She hung up the phone and shouted: “Me! They want me on the Williamsburg panel!”

Mel smiled at her. He already knew that, Barbara thought. Chuck Hammond must have talked to him first. Mel Renfro already knew that. He shouldn’t have. I should have known first. My new friend Chuck should have told me first.

Oh, hell, what difference does it make?

She stood up and threw her fists into the air. “Me! They want me! Gramma Maude, look at me now!”

It was only at that moment that she realized that Mel and her five other colleagues on the political staff of
This Week
magazine were in fact looking at her. All were white men of various ages, all were senior to her in reporting time and in time at
This Week.

All six were smiling at her, and some even seemed to be mouthing words like, Great, Congratulations, Right on.

But she knew what they were thinking. She knew they were thinking that the only reason she was chosen was because she was an African American, a black person, a person of color, a minority, an affirmative action, a political correct, a face.

Well, white boys, that’s what you get for not having any slaves in your background. And isn’t that too bad?

Gramma Maude, look at me! Listen to me!

Gramma Maude could not hear her because she was dead. But her daughter—Barbara’s mother—was very much alive and living in Pittsburgh. She was very much beside herself a few minutes later when Barbara called her and gave her the news. So was Barbara’s father when she reached him at his law office downtown, and her sister in Cambridge and
her brother in Chicago and Lilly Owen Mills, her old mentor-tutor at Northwestern.

Barbara talked so fast and so frantically and so excitedly to so many people so quickly that it wasn’t until she got on the Metro for home that she got scared. Really to the bone and soul scared.

She saw herself trying to speak at the debate and her mouth freezing open. Wide-open. Exposing the fact that her teeth were mud dirty. Exposing the fact that she had no tongue. Exposing the fact that there were green things on her vocal cords. Then she saw herself throwing up there in front of the whole world, trying to ask a question of Meredith and Greene. “Is it true?” she would say with her mouth full of poorly digested pastrami and chili and mayonnaise and blue-cheese-flavored popcorn. “Is what true?” Meredith and Greene would respond. “Anything,” she would respond. She saw Mel Renfro calling her while the debate was still on and firing her. “You little pickaninny piece of baby shit, you fold up your laptop and your floppy disks and your Rolodex and go back to the slave market from where you came,” he would say. And she saw Gramma Maude calling in on the other line from heaven saying: “Why didn’t you have the brains Jesus is God gave you to say to the man, ‘Not right now, Mr. Chuck. Get back to me in a couple of centuries when I’m ready, Mr. Chuck. Not quite yet now, Mr. Chuck’?”

Not quite yet now.

Barbara Manning also had a problem that she did not have to imagine. It was the Barbara Hayes problem. It was real and right there.

They had first met at a meeting of the Black Journalists and Writers Club at Northwestern and had run into each other again when they had come to Washington in search of work. They were now roommates, having rented a basement apartment together in the Dupont Circle section of Washington.

The problem for Barbara Manning was that Barbara Hayes was on the press staff of the Paul L. Greene presidential campaign. Her job was minority press relations, which meant, in both Barbaras’ words, sucking up to people like Barbara Manning of
This Week
magazine. To head off any awkwardness, they had agreed never to discuss the campaign or politics of any kind at home, but it hadn’t held. Barbara Manning, like most
every other sane person she knew in the press or anywhere else, detested and feared David Donald Meredith.

But this was different. This was awful. Being on a presidential-debate panel was different, was awful. There had to be no contact, no loose talk, no real problems, no appearance of problems, no nothing.

There she was. Barbara Hayes was there in the apartment. Barbara Manning opened the front door and there she was. Normally Barbara Hayes was still at her office this time of evening. Or on a plane. Wasn’t she supposed to go off to Florida or Georgia or someplace this weekend? This evening?

“Hey, proud to know you,” Barbara Hayes said. “I figured you for the big time and here you are already, already in the big time.”

“They needed a black face, they got a black face. That’s all you ought to figure. I’m scared to death about it. I mean scared. Really scared. But that’s it. I am saying not one more word to you about it. And you are saying not one more word to me about it.”

“This may be the most important thing you ever do, roommate.”

“I thought you were going off somewhere this weekend,” Barbara Manning said.

“Change in plans. I needed some clean clothes.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot Washington was the only place with laundries and cleaners.”

They were in the small kitchen of their small place on Nineteenth Street, NW. Barbara Hayes had been calmly sipping a caffeine-free Diet Coke when Barbara Manning walked in.

“Don’t say another word to me about Williamsburg,” said Barbara Manning. “Not one word.”

“Have I said a real word? Have I?”

“You came home to say one. Admit it. You came here to say some words to me, didn’t you?”

“I live here, remember?”

“The campaign assigned you to do this, didn’t they? Well, do not say one word. Not one word. Nothing. I want to be able to say to Mean Mel Renfro or anyone else without breaking my Gramma Maude’s lying mirror that I had no conversations with my roommate Barbara Hayes of the
Greene campaign. So forget saying a word. Not a word about anything, and I mean anything, and I mean it.”

Barbara Hayes followed Barbara Manning out into the large room where they did everything except sleep, cook, and go to the bathroom. The room had a large sofa, two chairs, and a small dinette table over in one corner. All the pieces were mostly shabby and mostly borrowed from friends or bought at yard sales in the neighborhood.

Barbara Hayes said: “OK, OK. You’re right. I came to talk to you. I came to tell you that we are desperate, that America is desperate. That unless something happens in Williamsburg this election, maybe this country is over. If that scumball Meredith is elected, every person in this country, particularly everyone that looks like you and me, is going to suffer, every—”

“I am a journalist! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” screamed Barbara Manning as she put her hands up to her ears so she would not hear any more.

Barbara Hayes handed Barbara Manning a piece of paper. It was an advance copy of a press release about the coming NBS–
Wall Street Journal

Across the top of the page in capital letters was the headline:

“A source at NBS slipped this to us ahead of time,” said Barbara Hayes. “They’re running it in two days.”

Barbara Manning read the awful story. In a preference poll of 1,047 probable voters, David Donald Meredith, the Republican nominee, had for the first time surged ahead of the Democratic nominee, Governor Paul L. Greene. The numbers were 51 for Meredith, 44 for Greene, with the rest undecided. The most stunning part was the fact that the numbers had been 47 Greene, 43 Meredith, only two weeks before, and probably even more stunning was it marked a 17-point Meredith jump in the seven weeks since Labor Day.

“The racist bastard is going to be elected president of the United States,” Barbara Hayes said to Barbara Manning.

“I do not believe that the people of this country would do that to their country,” said Barbara Manning.

“Well, the time has come for you to maybe start.”

“Not another word!”

“They’re ready for a tough guy. He’s a tough guy. They’re ready for some order. He’s an order guy. They’re ready for somebody to do something about all ‘them minorities.’ He’s a do-something-about-them-minorities guy—”

“Shut up,” said Barbara Manning. “Shut up, shut up, shut up.”

“I can’t shut up. Neither can you.”

“Watch me.”

“I’m going to.”

Henry Ramirez had had vivid panelist-plus fantasies from the moment the one and only Meredith-Greene debate was announced. He felt spirits moving out there that would move him into one of those four Williamsburg slots. He saw himself clearly and proudly sitting there at a table decorated in red, white, and blue ribbons, exchanging clever, smart words with the candidates and his fellow superjournalists. He moved on from there with the spirits and his fantasies to a black-tie dinner where he received a plaque for being the first Hispanic American to be a presidential-debate panelist, then to standing behind one of the Williamsburg podiums himself as the first Hispanic American to be a nominee for president of the United States, and finally to becoming the first Hispanic president, sending several U.S. Army divisions off to defend Mexico from an attack by leftist or rightist hordes from Guatemala or some other evil force to the south.

His fantasies of political grandeur were fed and encouraged by Paul L. Greene, the Democratic nominee for president. If this gringo dumbbell could make it, then there was certainly hope for the likes of this little brown Mescan dumbbell, as Henry saw it.

BOOK: The Last Debate
6.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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