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Authors: Jim Lehrer

Tags: #General Fiction

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BOOK: The Last Debate
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Howley was one of the many political reporters who had chronicled Meredith’s rise from being a small-time political-science professor to being the Republican candidate for president of the United States. Stops along the way included creation of the Take It Back Foundation, a spectacularly successful information enterprise that included book and pamphlet publishing and electronic productions. All of the enterprises—including his various radio call-in and television programs—promoted the Take It Back political philosophy for angry Americans. Take it back—the streets, the schools, the borders, the city halls, the state-houses, and, now, the White House.

Howley had just come from an evening in San Antonio, his favorite Texas city. It was a paid lecture-series appearance before more than a thousand people in the downtown Majestic Theater, which had recently been restored perfectly and elegantly to its early-1900s Victorian presence. After he gave his standard forty-minute “Beltway Blues” speech about Washington, government, politics, and the press, he fielded questions and comments from the audience for twenty minutes. The election was all anyone was interested in, and the more he talked about it the harder it was to hide his real opinion about the disaster the election of Meredith would be for the United States of America.

He didn’t even try to hide his increasing self-hate for the way he and his colleagues in the press had contributed not only to Meredith’s rise from the radio-talk-show fringes to the mainstream of American politics, but to most psychological, confidence, and other failings of current American society. “We have sold out to a higher purpose than keeping you informed,” he told the San Antonio people. “We now are slaves to our own glory, our own lecture fees, our own faces, our own snideness, our own bank accounts.” And I believe he meant Me. He meant himself. He was sick and tired of himself.

Now, on the plane headed back to Washington, he thought also of his second youthful ambition. To be William Faulkner. Success in journalism had come fast and easy to Howley, maybe too fast and easy. He had always wanted to turn his mind and his typewriter and his energy from the phony fiction of Washington and the rest of the so-called real world to the real fiction of novels and short stories and maybe even plays. But there had never been time. Hemingway or somebody said only those who have to write fiction or die do it, because it’s too hard otherwise. Clearly Mike Howley hadn’t had to or die. Did he now?

“Mr. Howley?” said a stewardess, leaning across the man in the aisle seat.

Howley smiled in the affirmative. Yes indeed, he was the famous Mr. Howley. Do you want me to autograph your manifest?

“I sometimes see you on ABS in the morning,” she said. “I think you are really great, but I don’t know how you remember all of that the way you do. I love your stories in
The New York Herald.

Mike Howley continued to smile, deciding it was not worth correcting her to say that if she ever saw him in the morning it was on NBS, not ABS, and that it was
The Washington Morning News
, not
The New York Herald
, that ran his stories, the best political reporting done in America today. He could hardly wait to tell T. R. (Teddy) Lemmon, Jr., of the
, who did the nation’s second-best political reporting, that the stewardesses of American were mistaking him for him, and probably vice versa.

“Here, the captain asked me to give this to you,” said the stewardess. “It came on his radio, I think.”

Howley thanked her, took the note (must have felt extremely important), and read:

“Urgent that you call Mr. Hammond at 202-555-5498. I appreciate your work. The Captain.”

Mike Howley knew Mr. Hammond. Chuck Hammond, the former Carter and Mondale guy who ran the National Commission on Presidential Debates. And Mike Howley immediately assumed Hammond wanted him for Williamsburg—most likely as the moderator.

Howley says his first reaction was an absolute, unequivocal no. There was no way he was going to go on that Williamsburg panel. It was all showbiz, all surface, all preening, and all wrong. Journalists should not participate in debates where the candidates have any say-so at all in selecting the panelists. No, no, no. A thousand times, no. It was against
Washington Morning News
policy anyhow. No.

That absolute, unequivocal no clearly changed to a probable yes after another hour or so in the air. It must have been his thinking through his real and serious fears about the election of David Donald Meredith that caused the change.

He got off that American Airlines 757 at National Airport and went directly to the
Morning News
office to confront the obstacle to his going to Williamsburg.

That obstacle was Jerry Rhome, the executive editor of
The Washington Morning News

“Let’s go for a walk” were the scariest words a reporter or editor could hear from Rhome, who had a passion for walking. He claimed it cleansed the mind, rejuvenated the spirit, exercised the heart, and enhanced the sex drive. But it was on walks that he also did his major firing, promoting, chewing out, and praising.

He spoke the magic words to Mike Howley a few minutes into their friendly shouting match that followed Howley’s brief telephone conversation with Hammond, confirming what he had suspected about their wanting him to moderate the Williamsburg Debate. Friendly shouting matches were Howley and Rhome’s favorite method of communication.

“It’s too goddamn cold out there, Jerry,” Howley said to Rhome’s invitation to walk.

“Bundle up, bundle up, you’ll be fine.”

“I’m busy.”

“Busy talking to me, right. You can be busy talking to me walking around the block.”

So Mike Howley bundled up and they went outside on K Street and started walking west toward Sixteenth.

“It’s against our policy, you know that,” Rhome said. “You helped make the policy.”

“Change the policy.”

“I don’t want to.”

They turned left at Sixteenth toward Lafayette Square. The White House was visible through the trees on the other side of the park, the Pennsylvania Avenue side.

“I think our policy is too cute, too elitist, too arrogant, too stupid,” Howley said.

“That’s not what you thought when you signed off on it four years ago. I can remember your high-and-mighty words now. Didn’t you say it was ‘journalistic malpractice’—yes, ‘journalistic malpractice’—to participate in a debate where the candidates had a say-so in choosing the panel? Yes, yes, indeed. I remember your words so well. You really do have a way with words, Mr. Howley.”

“I was wrong. You were wrong. We were all wrong. Pompous Perfect Mulvane was right.”

Pompous Perfect Mulvane was Douglas Mulvane, the ANC anchorman and former
Los Angeles Times
political editor who had retired last year and now wrote magazine essays, made speeches, and taught graduate seminars on what he called “the downfalling of the American press.” He was the one who invented the word “clownalist” in describing Mark Southern, the then Washington bureau chief for a Chicago newspaper whose attempts to be funny on the talk-fight shows were especially ridiculous and embarrassing. The term caught on as a way of referring to a whole new class of what Mulvane called “pseudo-journalist-commentator-clowns who see and use the news as an entertainment vehicle.” Mulvane had moderated the most important of the debates four years before and had publicly argued with the
and several other news organizations who would not allow their people to participate in the debates. He claimed journalists could not divorce themselves from responsibility as citizens. Doctors and lawyers had obligations to contribute their professional services
to the good of society and so did journalists. “We journalists have become the New Arrogants of American society,” Mulvane had said over and over again. It was a New Arrogant question, in fact, that had triggered Howley’s own attack on the press the other night in San Antonio.

“Look what happened with that Caperton bitch,” Mike said to Rhome. “Pompous Perfect said if we New Arrogants stay on our high horses it’ll be the talk-show dandies who’ll take over, and he was absolutely right.” Angela Caperton, a daytime talk-show host on TTCN—Talk Talk Cable News—moderated one of the three debates in the last presidential election.

“Mulvane, I regret to report, may be right for once,” Rhome said. “But I also regret to report that all I remember about that Ann Arbor debate was that skirt she had on. It was the shortest I had ever seen off a prostitute picket line. Every time she crossed her legs I lost track of the question, the answer, and even who was running for president and what day it was.”

“You have just made my point.”

They were approaching the Hay-Adams Hotel.

“How about ducking in here for a cup of coffee or something?” Mike Howley asked.

“Nope. You’re a candy ass, Howley. The only one worse is Tubbs.”

Tubbs. Pat Tubbs, the
’s legendary investigative reporter who now wrote mostly nonfiction inside-Washington exposé books that were made into movies starring people like Tom Cruise and Richard Gere as legendary investigative reporters. He and Howley, the
’s biggest stars, had co-authored a “straight” book on the 1976 presidential campaign and were known to be friends and equally untouchable by Rhome and the

Howley and Rhome went on to the corner, to the light, and crossed over to Lafayette Park and kept walking.

“These debates are nothing but television spectaculars, so why not leave it to the television spectaculars like Angela Caper-cunt, or whatever her name is, to run them?” Rhome said.

Michael J. Howley, the man who’d wanted nothing more in life than to be William Faulkner or to run away to Oklahoma with May Ann Brinkman, saw before him a target of opportunity.

“Stop a second, Jerry, and look at what lies before you.”

Jerry Rhome did as he was told. “I see the White House before me.”

“Who lives there, Jerry?”

“A jerk named Gilliam, who thanks to the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States can’t hold his job more than the two terms he already has.”

“Are there any jobs in the world more important than the one he has?”

Rhome looked to his left and to his right and then to the sidewalk and up to the sky.

“What are you doing?” Howley asked.

“I hear the Marine Band, I think it is, playing ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever.’ I wondered where you had them stashed.”

“Look, goddamn it, isn’t a debate—in this case, the one and only debate—between the two candidates for most powerful job in the world something more than a goddamn television spectacular?”

“I have about decided that all politics, all government, all wars, all news, is now nothing but one huge goddamn television spectacular. That’s why Meredith, a talking spectacular, is doing so well.”

Rhome turned back toward K Street and the
office, and Howley, gratefully, followed his lead.

“You may not have been listening,” Howley said, “but even in that awful Ann Arbor thing some important things got said. Maybe at Williamsburg we can get Meredith to admit once and for all that he really does believe only his kind of Christians are going to heaven. Something like that …”

“I don’t understand why nobody has drawn any more blood on that so far.”

“Meredith doesn’t bleed.”

“Everybody bleeds. It’s the fourth rule of journalism.”

Jerry Rhome was famous for making up fourth rules of journalism. He used to say his first three were: When in doubt write around it, When in doubt leave it out, When in doubt lie. He quit saying that after some people hearing him in a C-SPAN “American Profile” interview thought he was serious, and it turned up in a lot of I-told-you-so letters and articles about the awfulness of the press.

In a few minutes they were back to K Street and a block from the office.

“What do I say about the policy if I let you do this?” Jerry Rhome said.

“If I let you do this” were not words that Michael J. Howley enjoyed hearing from anybody. He and Jerry Rhome were both in their late fifties, both powers in their own right. They were known as friends, but there may have been too much of all the rest for them to be real friends, the kind Howley and Tubbs were, the kind who exchanged secrets and longings or even simple pleasantries. I was able to confirm that neither Howley nor Rhome had ever been in the other’s home except for large cocktail parties or small dinner parties held for business reasons by one or the other.

“Tell them the truth,” Mike Howley said. “Tell them that after much consultation and experience you have now decided the no-debates policy was wrong. People appreciate people who are big enough to admit they were wrong.”

They were at the
building’s front door.

“I assume you will say the same thing,” Rhome said.

“Absolutely. I was wrong, but now I am right.”

“ ‘I was wrong, but now I am right.’ You are indeed a man of words, a smith of words. No wonder you have come so far in this, the most noble of all professions in the great democratic society we call America the Beautiful.”

After several seconds of awkward and tense silence, Rhome said: “Why have you really changed your mind on debates, Mike? I’d really like to know.”

“I already said, I think our policy is elite, stupid …”

“All right, all right. Go be Mr. Moderator,” Jerry Rhome said. “Only promise me one thing. Promise me you’ll make sure Meredith loses his ass. I am not sure the country could survive that take-it-back crap of his. He’s the one who needs taking back—to the armpit of hell where he came from.”

“I’ll do my best,” Mike Howley said.

And they both laughed. And they both swore to me it was all meant to be laughed at because it was clearly a joke.

A few minutes later Mike’s sister, Janet, said almost the same thing
about what Mike should do to Meredith in the debate. Only she was definitely not joking.

“Make me really proud, little brother, and do God’s real work,” she said to Howley from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she had gone ten years ago with her husband to co-author the successful “Cowboy Jake” detective novels set in Houston. “Make sure that awful man does not become president.”

BOOK: The Last Debate
10.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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