james campion.com

Journalism Review 4/15/96


Part One (Thrust into the angry mouth of the ’96 campaign on a hunch and a prayer)

“Do you see what those bastards are trying to do to my party?” The voice on the other end of a cellular phone screeched. It was the determined rant of an angered female named Joannie, one with a boulder-chip on her shoulder and probably the same disturbing gleam in a right eye that never seemed to blink. In all the time I’d taken her frenzied calls, I’d never heard her so all-hell riled up. It was a voice, yes, but more like the disturbing, repetitive screech of a rabid ferret gnawing its way through a metal cage. “In the holy name of Ronald Reagan,” she bellowed, “the idea is to win!”

Friends like Joannie come around once in a lifetime; well versed in political rhetoric and amped-up on fourteen cups of java a day, railing about one injustice after another. That’s the way true underground journalists work: a phone in one hand and a micro cassette recorder in the other, freelancing like a Times Square hooker for every twisted story dangling on the professional bate line.

But Joannie is just a child in this business; squeaky clean and emerald green from the sprawling fields of Michigan, thrust into the shark-infested waters of Washington DC like a bleeding minnow. She is one of those beautiful examples of wide-eyed optimists running rampart through the new world of the Fourth Estate.

I, on the other hand, have seen the ugly truth of real politics, foul dealings and back-room rugby scrums for the removal of a traffic light, much less the increase on tariffs or the deployment of troops. Joannie and me had always made an interesting team.

I first met her at a Trenton State campus rally for unfair parking permits back in 1982. Fresh from winning a journalism award for an expose on pregnant women’s abuse of certain grain alcohol’s and the effects on their fetuses, Joannie already exuded a ravenous appetite for a story. I had won a similar, meaningless award from the American Cancer Society for a story I’d written about a middle-aged man who refused to quit smoking even after his wife had died of lung cancer from his second hand smoke. The judges were especially impressed with my description of the deranged cretin smoking no-filter Lucky Strikes through the tracheotomy hole in his neck.

Joannie was a whiny liberal then, so full of passion for helping the destitute and saving whatever aquatic creature was rumored to be endangered. Although struggling with the morality of abortion, she found it almost impossible to balance her fervent defense of women’s rights and the power of any government to demand that a thirteen year-old, freckled-faced girl carry her rapist’s love child for nine months. In the end, though, it was economics and the charm of Ronald Reagan that convinced her to register Republican in 1984, ironically opposing the first presidential ticket with a woman on it. “Ferraro is a goddamn mobster’s wife,” she hissed, that fateful November day.

On a professional level, politics was never Joannie’s bag. She chose instead to delve into movie reviews and cooking blurbs, nailing the odd interview with a Midwestern town comptroller or local congressman for most of the 1980s’. But then, as with most newspaper work, the money dried up. “I’m going to the heart of journalism now,” she told me four short years ago.

Once in our nation’s capitol, Joannie found herself in the mouth of the dragon with nothing but her valiant heart. There was little covered in her Civics 101 or Introduction of Mass Media that prepared her for such a vile disregard for humanity, and on one particularly humorous call, I received in her first month there, she told me that only Dante himself could find the proper adjectives to describe the netherworld lurking inside the Beltway.

Certainly, nowhere in the text of any respected college course could one find the type of vitriol Joannie was presently spewing into my right ear as I surfed the cable channels for a decent sports highlight show. “There is no direction in the Grand Old Party anymore,” she continued, building mind-bending momentum. “Too many frightened people crawling behind a veil of weak apathy and phony posturing. Too many goddamn polls on fucking CNN! Who the hell runs these wretched things?!”

“Calm down,” I pleaded, attempting to swing the conversation into innocuous banter about spring fashions and the royal divorce. “How can you bark about such banal crap when Princess Di is left all alone,” I began. “This is a gender issue of grave importance.”

“Fuck that English cunt,” she blurted. “The Republican Party is imploding quietly under the weight of stale boredom, and that scumbag Clinton is going to rule the free world for four more fucking years!”

I knew her tantrum would lead to it. Every manic conversation with her lately had gone the way of the loyal opposition. Slick talking southern Democrats with the lilt of a country carnival barker always rubbed Joannie’s skin raw like fresh sandpaper on an open wound. Even above the incessant crackling of our conversation and the drone of the television I could hear her teeth grinding.

But she had it all wrong this time. “Bill Clinton is not the enemy,” I told her, carefully considering her fragile state of mind. “Oh I know that,” she said. “The enemy is bullshit! How to manufacture it, market it, and sell it. The Grand Old Party has forgotten how! Where have you gone Ronnie, our nation’s turns its lonely eyes to you!”

“Ronald Reagan dies in 1983,” I barked. “Everyone in Washington knew it at the time. They stuffed him and spliced together old tapes of speeches whenever they wheeled the carcass in front of the press. Do you think for one minute the Gipper would have let a dullard like Ollie North embarrass him like that?”

“Just how do you suppose a dottering old fool like Bob Dole will fare in a debate with the likes of Bill Clinton?” she asked, becoming more frantic. “Dole couldn’t debate that idiot Steve Forbes and he never even ran for school board!”

Just then, I happened by a news channel running the same tired footage of Pat Buchanan on the stump down South where he was repeatedly slaughtered by Rappin’ Robert Dole in practically every state that held a primary. Uncle Pat was busy waving his fist like some televangilist demanding money to keep Jesus from stealing the Statue of Liberty. God bless his mangled heart, I thought to myself, he is the only man demented enough to topple a vicious professional like Bill Clinton.

Uncle Pat was a pit bull with a spiked collar and a lusty taste for blood long before Big Bill even dreamed of running for class hall monitor. Not even the long arm of Dick Nixon could keep him from whipping up a few venomous lines for Spiro Agnew to read as part of a harmless ribbon cutting ceremony in Demoins, Iowa for the Knights of Columbus.

Oh, how the tiny hairs on the back of Bob Halderman’s neck would stand at attention when he would be forced to brief the president of some speech Buchanan handed Agnew. No target was too small for Uncle Pat’s sharp ideological arrows. He would proudly stand in the wings cackling as each sentence angered anyone within earshot who even remotely used their conscience.

After all, it was Uncle Pat who told a frazzled Nixon to “start a bonfire with those goddamn tapes,” when the Supreme Court came-a-knockin’ for the president’s impeachment. It was Uncle Pat who nestled at the bosom of such evil brutes like John Mitchell and Ed Meese during the bulk of the Nixon and Reagan empires, displaying sheer brilliance at keeping his hands clean and his fat ass out of jail. These are key assets for a candidate who entertains the challenge for the ultimate office.

Bob Dole couldn’t get a sniff of those type of activities. Nixon’s top aids would laugh like mischievous school boys whenever Rappin’ Rob would leave the room. He was a small player at the crap table and never did like to get his hands dirty. No one who gives half a shit about the future of the Republican Party would seriously cast a vote for Bob Dole. I know it, and apparently Joannie had come similar conclusions. Rappin’ Rob might have been a wounded in the Big One, but he would be lucky to come out of a real hard political battle with Big Bill with his dick still attached.

The president was even now revving up his campaign engines, stopping in the Lincoln bedroom to spark a joint and hold his breath. The truly connected people can tell its party time when a political bagman like James Carvillle starts spending quality time on every talk show from Ophra to Larry King, giggling like a mental patient at the thought of stomping a nice, bland old man like Bob Dole.

“It had better be Dole,” Carville shuttered. “Cause Buchanan’s got full color photos of the president screwing half the street walkers on Pennsylvania Avenue, Larry! Christ, we can’t deal with that bastard without serious ammunition!”

The more I thought about it, Joannie was right. But the further she raged on, the more muddled and diluted her thoughts had become, like a feverish child babbling about the cute purple dinosaur ripping up through the box spring to eat her alive. “I’m working for the party,” she whispered, when I concocted an excuse to hang up. “What?” I cried. “You’ve slipped into the abyss, never to return! No tabloid, or television station will have you now. Look what happened to that fucker at channel four! Your soiled, corrupted, finished in this business!”

A sudden clicking sound interrupted my tirade.

“Your other line is ringing,” I offered.

“I don’t have call-waiting,” she said nervously.

I knew it wasn’t me, having dropped that particular service as part of a tantrum I pulled during tempestuous negotiations with NYNEX not long after they tried to charge me for running six computers out of my house when I didn’t even own a computer. I remember frantically trying to call the FCC in a huff, but the lines were busy.

“Your fucking phone is tapped,” I barked, quickly slamming down the receiver.

I ran to my car and yanked the gear shift into first, grinding up one of the many hills surrounding my house in the thicket of Putnam County, New York. The nearest pay phone is a twenty-minute ride in any direction, but I managed to make it in ten, ignoring the double yellow lines and two stop signs.

On ring. Two rings. There was no answer. Whomever had tapped her line obviously alerted someone of her dangerous babbling and gotten to her. The chances were very good those involved had traced my number and would certainly be coming after me. If Bob Woodward had to carry a pistol around downtown Washington D.C., only God knows how easy it would be to get to a relative novice like Joannie. Especially if the Republican Party had her address, phone number and vital information.

As I stood in that phone booth, listening to one unanswered ring after the other, her predicament became clearer to me. She’d probably been stewing for days, maybe weeks, throwing back martinis in a bar across the street from the FBI building and going on and on about the party imploding while Bill Clinton ruled the world. It could easily have been the type of hysterical outburst that would perk the ear of any official in the know. For all Joannie knew, she was under surveillance for months and had given them all the evidence they needed for a covert kidnapping.

I fumbled through my wallet for the number of several publications that I’d freelanced for before, but it was late and I was having trouble trying to find the right words to present my reasons for running off to Washington DC in an attempt to rescue a crazed journalist from committing professional suicide. Not mention the possible ugly results of going toe to toe with angry Republican insiders.

That’s when the name Dan Davis popped into my swimming head. After all, it was Dirty Dan, who as a young reporter, had brought the Pet Rock industry to its knees. He was the editor of the leading underground newspaper on the East Coast, known far and wide for his profound drunken boasts on how he’d stretched the credibility of the First Amendment further than Howard Stern, Lenny Bruce and Cybersmut junkies. Luckily, his card was still in my wallet.

“It’s two o’clock in the goddamn morning, Campion!” he bellowed from the other end.

“Important feces has hit the fan, Davis,” I began.

“I have no money,” he interrupted, quickly surmising my train of thought.

“Hear me out,” I argued, feeling my final solution slipping through the cracks. I hurriedly explained the crisis while dumping a slew of change into the cold coin slot.

“I’ve never heard of this Joannie character,” he barked. “Call me when they beat up Dan Rather again.”

“This is a story that could lead to the steps of the Republican Convention in San Diego,” I cried pounding my hand on the glass in from of me. “There is trouble and there will be hell to pay by November!” Can you imagine a kidnapping in the heart of our nation’s capitol? Possible ties to the FBI, the CIA and most likely the fucking Kennedy assassination! It’s not O.J., but it’s gound-floor insurrection!”

“Sober up and call a psychatrist,” he calmly retorted. “I’m going back to sleep.”

“Joannie is a ticking time bomb,” I said, trying desperately to keep him on the line. “Even if nothing happened to her there’s a great chance she’ll do something bizarre. I’ll be in the eye of the storm I tell you. The whole presidential campaign could break wide open!”

“O.K., I’ll tell you what,” he slowly exhaled. “I’m not giving you dime-one to get to Washington. But if you find this chick, get to California, and manage credentials to the convention…” he hesitated, bringing my sense of urgency to dangerous levels of pure fear. “…then I’ll pay for the story as it develops.” Then he hung up.

That’s really all I needed to hear. Once a journalist has the pulpit in which to scratch the bloody surface of a story, the details become minutiae. I had just enough gasoline to get to an airport and plenty of plastic credit to get to DC, but one question remained: would Joannie still be there when I arrived?

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