By Rebecca Kitiona-Fenton, Ph.D.,
of the Institute for the Study of Previrtual Media
Just what to make of my great-great-uncle’s newspaper memoirs?
When Aunt Erica first told me of them, I did not know what to anticipate—they might, for all I knew, have been about whaling. I almost expected to read of harpoons and blubber boilers.
Typewriters existed outside museums back then. And those quaint old chronicles known as blogs had yet to bewilder and horrify the elite.
Washington, D.C., in skin color, was not so multihued. Rich, pale ladies born in the 1800s, the very century of Moby Dick, lingered on in gargoyled apartment buildings. Civil War widows still breathed.
Even before first seeing Uncle Jon’s memoirs about the Solomon scandals, I had known of George McWilliams. He had been Jon’s editor at the Washington Telegram and lorded over the most skilled of harpooners. Then one day his Ahab-like captaincy ended with a bloody denouement in the parking lot.
No matter where Uncle Jon is these days, and regardless of the usual academic strictures against sentimentality, I wish him the happiest and most accurate of harpooning.
–Rebecca Kitiona-Fenton, Ph.D., of the Institute for the Study of Previrtual Media, Washington, D.C., January 4, 2081
Wendy Blevin’s obituary in the Washington Telegram ran only 578 words—a notably miserly length. As much as anyone, she was a natural for a long feature in the “She had everything to live for” vein. I say this despite the Solomon scandals.
She was thirty-three, slender, and WASP-pretty, with pale blond hair that matched the coat of her Afghan hound. She earned $75,000 a year, as one of Washington’s best gossips in print and in person. She’d been president of her class at Sidwell Friends School while leading an un-Quaker-like social life. She won a short-story contest sponsored by one of the snobbier women’s magazines. She edited the yearbook at Vassar and was the first columnist on the student newspaper to use the F-Word with impunity.
Wendy marched against the Vietnam War. She lobbied for the environment, a cause made all the more attractive when a ticky-tacky development encroached on her family’s mansion in Potomac, Maryland. She was as highly pedigreed as her dog; she was eccentric rather than crazy. She jumped to her death off a balcony at the Watergate.
The day before her suicide, she was the subject of an exposé in her own paper—one, I am pleased to say, I had no part in writing.
And having said that much, I’ll stop. The Blevin obituary was a cover-up, all right, but no more than the Telegram‘s treatment of the scandals that preceded it. I’ll never forget how George McWilliams wavered on his way to journalistic immortality, how McWilliams the editor warred with McWilliams the friend.
■ ■ ■
Inside the glass booth in the middle of the newsroom, I saw a wrinkle-faced man in a dowdy plaid jacket.
Mac was small and had a sloping forehead and receding chin. But when he started speaking to you, quizzing you, trying to outmaneuver you, you felt as if he were a shark, preparing to steal dinner off the flesh of a larger fish.
I’ll always remember the glass shark tank that one of Mac’s foes suggested for the Sans Souci restaurant on Seventeenth Street, a VIP-gawker’s Eden. An embittered politician, he wanted the tank’s occupant to be named “Little Mac.” The Sans Souci originally threatened to banish the man to Little Tavern hamburger shops, but McWilliams caught wind of the customer’s malice and was captivated. Mac said he would only lunch at the Sans Souci if it brought in the baby shark.
■ ■ ■
Frowning, McWilliams lit up a Corona and leaned back in a plushly padded swivel chair.
My immediate boss and I sat on hard seats. E. J. Rawson—“E.J.” around the office, not just in his byline—was a national editor. He wore bifocals and had fled to Washington eons ago from a gothic-grim railroad town in West Virginia.
“Stone,” Mac said, after the third puff, “I hear you want to go after Seymour Solomon.”
“Not go after him. Investigate him.” Officially, the Telegram was objective—Mac kept his shit list only inside his head. “Jeez, he’s got fifty percent of the leases locked up in the D.C. area. A little payback for political donations?”
Vulture’s Point, Solomon’s rickety complex, housing no small number of IRS and CIA employees, never really came up in the beginning. I had yet to learn of the cracks in the slabs, the sexual blackmail from the Oval Office, the Papudoian connection, Wendy’s role in the scandals, or the other heads of the Hydra. The white-sheeted corpses existed just within the realm of the unthinkable.
Mac glanced at his gold Rolex, with which he personally timed reporters writing stories or pumping news sources on the phone. After six months on the job, you were safe from the more lethal aspects of the Rolex Treatment, although the watch served the entire newsroom as a reminder of the Telegram’s role as a high-speed word mill.
“I know Seymour Solomon—he’s a good friend.” McWilliams puffed an “O” and, with his fierce, dark eyes, stared at me as if hoping he could elicit a good flinch. “What I’m driving at, pal, is he’s not the sort to steal from anyone.”
So Mac had Solomon hooked up to a polygraph twenty-four hours a day?
“Including the government,” McWilliams blustered on. “Especially the government.”
I was touched. “Government” included President Eddy Bullard, Mac’s fellow OSS alum who, like him, had majored in French literature. At Burning Tree Country Club, they gleefully forsook regulation shoes for ragged sneakers. I could just imagine them in private, jabbering away in obscenity-laced French about Rousseau and putt shots.
“Do you know how much Solomon gave Washington Stage last year so they could build that new children’s theater in Reston?” McWilliams asked me. “Two million. Now that’s Sy. How many millionaires do you know who drive 1970 Mavericks?”
Mac himself drove a nondescript gray BMW. His job, Rolex, and the antiques in his mini-Versailles provided enough dazzle in his life to suit him; well, those and the Power People he’d befriended outside his word mill.
“Take it from me, pal,” Mac said, as if auditioning for a Humphrey Bogart movie, “Sy is a regular guy. Look, isn’t Judge Philips one of his investors?”
“That’s reassuring,” I said. “I’ll remember that next time he rules in a zoning case.”
Not once did E. J. Rawson—Ezekiel Jerome Rawson back in Thurmond, West Virginia—speak up for me. He was in his fifties, with crew-cut white hair, a weakened heart, and prudent decency toward his reporters despite fits of boss-man rhetoric. We had met through one of my parents’ neighbors in northern Virginia, when I’d returned for Passover from my newspaper job in Ohio and accepted an invitation to E.J.’s home.
The first thing that struck me was his excessive formality before he knew you. “I would like,” he said, “to discuss your career in the newspaper business.” No contractions, no “I’d.” Even in the ivy-covered brick Colonial he shared with his wife—a short, buxom Mississippian who had turned the basement into a seven-thousand-book library with thirteen dictionaries—he wore a white shirt and tie. It was as if he were distancing himself from the dust and grit of Thurmond.
I don’t remember drinking Scotch as E.J. went on about Dostoevsky, Melville, Faulkner, and the editor of the Saturday Review, and some odd but logical parallels among the four. Still, I could not imagine any other beverage in his off-hours life.
By the time E.J. was through, a dozen writers later, having discussed George McWilliams in the same reverent tones, I hadn’t the least doubt of my future as Mac’s successor.
My own father, a “public affairs” man for a PR and lobbying firm on K Street, toiled in a bazaar, not an editorial cathedral.
“Well?” I asked the priestly shark in the plaid jacket. “I’m not a regular guy, I’m a bastard, and I’m just enough of one to turn Stone loose on my friend Sy”—McWilliams glared at E.J.—“at your direction, pal.”
I wished that just once Mac would gulp down a tranquilizer or reach for some ulcer medicine or do anything else that would confirm his mortality. As if dismissing a pair of menials, McWilliams waved us out of the booth, the Shark’s Cage, as everyone called it, and I decided I was confusing mortality with humanity.
■ ■ ■
Rexwood Garst, renter of a converted carriage house in Georgetown, filled in for me on the national housing beat. He had a penchant for pipes and attaché cases and the other impedimenta of Washington stereotypes.
Garst knew he’d soon rise beyond his beat in Prince George’s County. “Serbo-Croatian,” he had told me, “that’s the key.” Pause. “I know how to speak it.”
“It’s how I’ll become Eastern European Correspondent.”
“Why not Polish?”
“Because Serbo-Croatian’s more unique.”
I’d shaken my head. “The real future’s in Korean.”
“How do you know?”
“Suit yourself,” I’d said, “but you’ll never make it big here if you don’t know Korean.”
McWilliams rejoiced in assigning two people to one task and seeing who’d come out on top. If Garst dug up too much at the Department of Housing and Urban Development while I was away, I might have to share my muck with him in the future.
■ ■ ■
The Telegram was that kind of a place—a whole newspaper re-made to reflect Mac’s ambitions for himself and the rest of us.
Mac had been born sixty-three years ago, the only son of a Scot and a Jew, and he’d put himself through Columbia University while reporting murders for the New York Daily News.
He had graduated summa cum laude; he had gone on to awe the dons of Oxford. In his thirties, after his days as a Herald Tribune prodigy and time in Washington with two secretive spy agencies, he had made a fortune as a bond and currency trader, outsmarting the Brahmins of Wall Street and beyond.
Mac’s econo-Versailles on the fringes of Maryland hunt country dwarfed his publisher’s Victorian mansion on the Chesapeake Bay.
No one could fathom why Mac had returned to newspapering as a flunky rather than doing the genteel thing and buying Knopf or The New Yorker. He might still be alive today if enough people had gotten curious and saved him from himself.
When McWilliams blew up at an underling, he might take a catcher’s mitt from his battered wooden desk and smack a baseball against it. The object of his temper would inevitably recoil, as if convinced McWilliams were about to bean him. Mac didn’t use the mitt that often but kept it on a shelf behind him, so that you might as well be a horse looking at a whip.
The Rolex, too, had inspired a few stories. McWilliams had bought it just a few years out of Columbia, an ever-ticking, ever-gleaming assurance that he had left Brooklyn behind.
His parents, a warehouseman and a nurse, were long dead, but his sister, crippled from polio, still lived in the old neighborhood. As divulged by a six-thousand-word profile in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times, she could barely support herself as a seamstress doing piecework—relentlessly paced by a dime-store watch.
Mac’s ambitions and quirks were fodder for the diligent ladies at The Elephant, the big-eared gossip column of a rival paper, which mailed its victims quarter-pound bags of Virginia peanuts. The Elephant sounded off enough about McWilliams for him to amass enough bags to feed half the denizens of the Washington zoo.
■ ■ ■
Driving home, I could see my obsessions all around me. Up and down Connecticut Avenue, the buildings of Seymour Solomon and associates loomed—each reaching Washington’s commercial height limit, each grabbing every dollar of space in the sky, each looking as if a giant George Babbitt had been at work with Scotch tape and an Erector Set.
Bureaucrats occupied Solomon’s buildings, along with stockbrokers, trade associations, and other staples of the local rental market. Every now and then rumors wafted about. The drones next to Barb’s Secretarial Service–were they Agriculture or CIA? Was another Manhattan Project aborning above Menkov’s Ladies’ Wear?
At Dupont Circle, I saw half a dozen couples playing catch, just as Eddy Bullard did with his wife. A policeman strutted near the fountain there, his walkie-talkie squawking in some mysterious mix of cop lingo and Citizens Bandese. I remembered Dupont when it had been the territory of beats and hippies and junkies: an Allen Ginsberg poem writ in life on Connecticut Avenue.
In recent years, however, it had become too expensive to be degenerate close to the Circle. Sy Solomon’s crowd had bulldozed away many of the cheaper rooming houses in the area, and they had priced the new apartments for the upper-level civil servants and lobbyists who worked in his office buildings. Washington was a veritable white-collar factory town run for management.
My own apartment building was a jumble of sooty red brick, a semislum named Cambridge Towers. I wondered how many years would creak by before Solomon’s crowd tore it down in favor of their kind of ugliness.
I tried to envision myself a competent white-collar criminal. The closest I normally came to Dynamic Executivehood, the local robber barons’ most common guise, was when I donned my suit from Garfinckel’s to infiltrate the stockholders’ meetings of the companies I exposed in my articles.
Never could I have passed for Solomon himself, and not simply because he was older by several decades. We were both tall, but I was reporter-thin, as I liked to style myself, and he was businessman-heavy. He had wide shoulders and thick limbs and looked as if, by sheer bulk, he could bully the rest of the world. I remembered the huge hands I’d seen in newspaper photographs. Both physically and financially, Solomon struck me as a born grabber.
“We’ve talked to you mothers already, and we’re tired of your bullshit. You know about Solomon’s fucking dime, don’t you?”
Lew Fenton, a union leader and source of the only critical quotes about Seymour Solomon in the Telegram‘s library, was eager to add to his distinction.
Solomon had quarreled with Fenton’s construction local over paying the men a dime more an hour. The upshot was a federal case, going up to the Supreme Court and inspiring editorial-page apologia for Sy along the way.
“Well,” Fenton jabbed at me over the phone, “that’s about it, mister, except one of his buildings’ll fall down. He’s just as cheap with his materials as he is with us. The floors—Vulture’s Point.”
I remembered that fifteen hundred clerks and bureaucrats worked for the Internal Revenue Service there. But I spoke not a word back to Fenton. More than once in my days as a reporter, I’d heard false alarms, whether about impending earthquakes likely to topple the Washington Monument, or anthrax in the mashed potatoes at the Kingswood Elementary School cafeteria.
“The slabs,” Fenton said. “He cheated on the rebars. It’s the difference between a building that’ll stay up and one that’ll fall. And the difference of a million bucks to put the mother up. And that’s just one thing—the concrete, the girders, you name it, mister, he cut it cheap all the way around.”
“But why,” I asked, “would Solomon gamble with human life?”
I was lost in my work, unmindful of the evening ahead with Donna Stackelbaum, an old friend with charms beyond the anatomy suggested by her name.
“The banks,” Fenton said. “His loans. The interest rates went up just before the loan, and he had to cut it real close.”
“How do you know?”
“The suit, mister. Buried in the middle of the trial records. All I know is that there’s cracks on the seventh floor, and a lot of fat-assed bureaucrats are gonna fall on their behinds. One of our guys knows someone in maintenance. At GSA.”
GSA was the General Services Administration, the government’s business and recordkeeping agency. It had doled out so many leases to Solomon that I suspected President Bullard of being his silent partner.
“You want another Skyline?” Fenton asked.
Not far from Vulture’s Point, in Fairfax County, the next county over, the center section of a huge condo building had caved in after the collapse of the twenty-fourth floor and a domino-like effect below. Many blamed the weight of a construction crane. Whatever the case, the official story was that a subcontractor had removed the concrete’s shoring too early.
Fines had added up to just $300 for the shoring problem and $13,000 for violation of worker safety codes. Manslaughter charges hadn’t stuck against the manager who had overseen the shoring at Skyline Plaza. Crimped by a local court ruling, prosecutors could not hold Skyline’s owner criminally responsible for the lapses of subcontractors.
I remembered a line from A Prairie Home Companion, one of my favorite public radio programs: “Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Yes, yes—welcome to Fairfax County, Virginia, where all the buildings are strong enough, and the business climate is always superior.
Skyline had killed fourteen workers and injured thirty-four. But could another collapse happen, in the adjacent county and the same decade? When it came to bad luck on such matters, northern Virginia had already exceeded its quota.
“How come the people in the building aren’t bitching?” I asked about Vulture’s Point.
“Because GSA and Solomon have a cover-up going,” Fenton said, “a real cover-up. A little reinforcement, pour more concrete, and plop down a carpet. Problem gone, and your upstairs storage area looks prettier. Just a little routine maintenance.”
I was getting much closer to being shocked, and I remembered the smashed corpses I had seen after a mine collapse in Sloansville, Pennsylvania—the bloodied, blackened men identified by their dental work and wedding rings.
“You disappoint me,” E.J. said when I shared Fenton’s alarm. “We had Swinburn check it out.”
“Before or after he went to the Real Estate section?” Or became a PR man for the Chamber of Commerce?
“You remember Skyline, don’t you?” I asked.
“Come on, Jon,” E.J. protested in the informal language he used with the already-hired, “that was a construction accident. A different animal altogether.”
“Maybe there’s some interbreeding,” I said. “Cracks are cracks.”
I recalled an essay that E.J. had written about growing up in Thurmond, where, as a foreman for the Chesapeake & Ohio, his father had bossed the Coaling Tower crews.
Like father, like son? I wondered what either would have done as a company man in Sloansville.
“Nothing to worry about,” E.J. persisted. “Routine stuff. Your story, it would fall apart long before the building did.”
■ ■ ■
Arriving in my apartment that night, I took off my Dynamic Executive suit, then headed toward the shower, where I could hear the water already running. Behind the steamed-up glass stood a tall, auburn-haired woman with enough curves for the most demanding of blackmail work. General Motors might well have used her as bait against Ralph Nader, in the Safeway cookie aisle, to try to drive him off his Corvair exposés.
“Sweetie,” said this fantasy come to life, my life, “your mom called. Seven-thirty Sunday: dinner with the Maxwells.”
No blackmailer, no slimy operative, private or public, needed to lure me into bed with the corporate sector or its government stooges. I’d already been there—on and off, between other affairs—for years. Donna Stackelbaum and I had gone to elementary and high school together, and religious school and the University of Virginia, too, or UVA as most referred to it. Nowadays she was a rising young lawyer-bureaucrat with an almost orgasmic eagerness to do the bidding of the nuclear power industry. Our parents had always hoped we would marry someday. They were touchingly unaware of the ballots her friends had stuffed to elect her as treasurer of the Student Government Association at Langley High.
Donna drew me against her, and we hugged enthusiastically, both of us, while I enjoyed the voluptuousness around me, my hand gliding over the well-defined waistline, then squeezing her gracefully rounded backside. Its firmness hinted of regular workouts at the health club that one of Seymour Solomon’s real estate partners owned a few blocks away.
I smelled Donna’s freshly shampooed hair, nuzzled into her generous breasts, and almost didn’t care if sex with her kept me out of Muckraker’s Heaven. How could I have resisted her good intentions? Donna’s future had been as palpable to her, ever since high school, as the ripe nipple I’d just tickled. If a prospective husband did not make enough money, and she was talking millions, not just upper-middle-class respectable, then she would do so herself without the hassles of sugar daddies.
Nothing mercenary impelled us, however, just a carnal fondness for each other in defiance of a values gap dwarfing the Mariana Trench.
At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Donna radiated a sunny obtuseness toward moral complexities—she regarded her work there as just a warm-up for her future lobbying duties for Corporate America. But she was more Civil Service-smart, more exam-smart, than brilliant in the Machiavellian style of energy lobbyists. The stuffed ballots were child’s play by Washington standards. With my job and worldview, I never could understand why she had chosen me as a confidant, except for our families’ propinquities, her lust for extra-tall, skinny men, and a bizarre and endearing appreciation of my quirks.
“Heard the latest on Papudo?” It was the setting of America’s latest oil-driven exigency.
“Sweetie, you’re running out of soap.” This response from a woman juggling a budget of tens of millions!
I rubbed the shrunken bar all over her, and she returned the favor while I silently reflected on her urge, off the job, for domesticity. Putz! I scolded myself—don’t let Papudo distract you. The bedroom awaited us. But even amid the ecstasies in the shower, I couldn’t help asking myself if Donna was criminal-brainy enough to reach a sleazy pinnacle as a lobbyist rather than slip off a cliff and into a prison cell.
My father, by contrast, had come by his public-affairs job honestly, the result of sheer canniness and diligence. No bribes need he dispense or receive. Most of his routine consisted of simply tutoring the guilty to avoid indictment—he might as well have been working in one of the cleaner jobs in a stockyard. He didn’t slaughter or clean up after the animals. Rather, he just herded the cattle along, except that his mission actually was to steer them away from the blades.
If Donna wanted to be a realistic sellout, then she should work for my father’s well-lawyered firm, a nice, safe pseudo–Civil Service, so to speak, for careerists keen on abetting the more obnoxious of the corporate profiteers.
Heated pleas from me notwithstanding, Donna failed to acknowledge her limits as a potential influence-peddler. And so in time we became simply “love buddies,” as she euphemistically called us—still good friends and happy with the joys of the moment but not looking far beyond. That was even before I learned of her preemployment deal with Quad-State Atomic. Risky career move. For the deal to fly, Donna had to enlist the help of enough compatibly ambitious coworkers to “adjust” federal oversight of Quad. At least for now, though, as with the stuffed ballots, Donna was getting her way. No one had squealed yet. Fish kept dying in hot discharges from Quad, while antiradiation precautions slackened to the level at which I expected the people nearby to be glowing a bright green.
To Donna’s horror, I glommed more on to the hazards of nuclear meltdowns and cooked fish than the crinkly kind of green destined for her three-hundred-dollar handbag. So we agreed to clam up about each other’s work, all the less for me to have to share with a grand jury someday, and all the more chance for her to retreat into pseudodomesticity. Though she had the key to my apartment, I warned her that it was not her fate to be forever domestic with me.
Despite our friendship, and despite her Mensian IQ, the crippled golden retriever she had rescued from the D.C. pound, the volunteer duties for the Humane Society, her prowess as a sailboater on Chesapeake Bay, the stamina both on the Appalachian Trail and in the bedroom, the curly auburn locks, the milky complexion, the little snub nose, the high cheekbones, the strong but feminine chin, the endless legs, not to mention the twin wonders so artfully hidden under the well-cut suits she affected at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—despite all her assets, I just could not stand the prospect of someday limiting my sex life to conjugal visits.
■ ■ ■
After our first trip to my bedroom that evening, Donna warmed up some lasagna in the kitchen while I watched President Bullard lie away on CBS News. He had shaggy gray hair, thick eyebrows, and deep wrinkles that looked as if a cartoonist had drawn them after too many martinis. The Telegram‘s editorialists had marveled at the compassion and concern for us all that the president’s furrowed forehead bespoke; I myself suspected the wrinkles were whiskey lines.
Walter Cronkite announced that the president was flunking the Gallup and Harris polls—the election was next year—and the Republicans were pouncing on him for being too soft on some on-again, off-again Reds in Papudo. Of course, Bullard was reacting like most other practically liberal Democrats in the White House. His latest speech had been bellicose enough to please the owner of a tank factory.
I was ingesting microwaved lasagna, and Walter’s latest on stocks, tumbling because of Papudo, when our publisher suddenly came to mind. Victoria Simpson owned the Telegram, but the real objects of her affections were a concert pavilion in suburban Maryland, the American Vivaldi Foundation, and invitations to the White House. She’d originally had a few misgivings about Eddy Bullard, a cocky commoner from Chicago, until he’d shown up at a picnic benefit for her pavilion. When one of the official White House photographers snapped a picture of the president that somehow made it seem as if he were rakishly leering her way, vanity overcame snobbery.
Mac had gone through eight music critics in five years, and I rejoiced that Bullard’s GSA was not a concert pavilion.
Larry Zumweltnar, chief PR man at GSA, was a relic from the Nixon days with a stentorian growl and a fleshy, pouty face—the look of a fat teenaged bully turned bald and dressed in a dark blue suit and tie.
Briefly avoiding his dourness, I sneaked past his Maginot Line, the agency’s inept central switchboard, and eventually reached a junior bureaucrat named Margo Danialson. As a rule I mistrusted Margos; too many seemed to be man-hating preppies or hookers. But this Margo pleased me, the way she was “really” sorry for having to buck me back to Mr. Pouty. So I indulged in the hunch that the voice belonged to a nice, rounded woman with long hair of the kind that delighted men. I hoped her postgovernment ambitions were sufficiently innocuous.
“I don’t mean to be nasty,” Margo said, “but why are you asking all these questions? You’re not quoting me in the papers, are you?” I told her I’d stick her name at the end of one of the letters in the lonely hearts column.
“Let’s just say we’re doing a story on certain real estate trends,” I said. That was no lie: There could be a trend–more and more leases going to Sy Solomon.
Margo and I bantered a little more, promising each other a celebratory lunch after GSA coughed up the leases. I couldn’t believe my luck. A sympathizer in the Augean Stables? So I wanted to think. With all the guile lurking within the mounds of shit, I might never know for sure.
I was about to dial another call when a news aide walked up with panic on her face. She looked as if she’d just heard McWilliams smack his mitt.
“You poor woman,” I said, knowing who must be on the line. I reached into my pocket for two quarters. “Here-buy yourself a Coke and drink up to the fact that neither of us works for him.”
I picked up the phone, wishing I’d had time to sneak in a martini at the Telegram Tavern across the street.
“Stone, what are you doing harassing our people again?” Most “information directors” at least feigned friendliness with troublesome newspeople, but Zumweltnar was forthright enough to let you know from the start that he hated your guts.
“You should talk, Zumweltnar. You’re the most accomplished bully of secretaries on the East Coast.”
“I’m getting tired of this, Stone. How many times have I told you—if you have any questions, just work through me, and I’ll do everything I can to help you. Okay?”
Zumweltnar spat out the “Okay?” as if he were kicking me karate style in the groin.
“Look,” I said, “maybe I feel masochistic enough to see you in person today. Three o’clock?”
“All right,” Zumweltnar said in his gloomy way, “but I’m doing this only because I believe in the free flow of information.”
I hung up, typed out a final copy of my request for the leases, stating where and how they were stored, and left for the GSA building at Eighteenth and F, one of the uglier legacies of the Wilson administration.
■ ■ ■
In the world of corruption, this neoclassical blight was a landmark. Once the building had housed Interior and a good number of those involved in the Teapot Dome scandal. GSA had been in existence and in the building only since the late forties. The Public Buildings Service and various supply agencies had been consolidated then, so that as much of the pork as possible was in one barrel. A huge agency plaque covered half the door of Zumweltnar’s office. I saw in bronze a public works project of another time, a pyramid, and it reminded me of many of GSA’s creations-imposing and wasteful.
The office itself was appointed in standard GSA executive modern; it looked like a cross between a Howard Johnson’s and the inside of an Amtrak Metroliner. Room C900 was long and narrow, with reddish orange cloth partitions. I wondered if they could ever muffle Zumweltnar enough when he was chewing out inquisitive reporters.
I winked at Zumweltnar’s deputy, a Southern-polite blond woman with a better disposition than he deserved. As she greeted me, I peered into her pencil tin and saw an empty bottle of tranquilizers.
Her boss was typing away on his own IBM, and that tickled me. It was a reminder of the grubby work he’d left for $49,000 a year and the privilege of lying as an official spokesman. Zumweltnar had actually been a newsman once, a bureau chief for one of the second-tier chains that were always boosting themselves in promotional ads in Editor & Publisher.
“All right, Stone,” he said. “What’s the smear you’re working on now?”
“Who says it’s a smear? Maybe I’m writing a man-bites-dog story about your agency doing something right.”
“I’m told you want to see every lease in the Washington area.”
I nodded—I wanted to find out how much Solomon and friends might be ripping off the taxpayers compared to the competition.
“You’re talking three ninety-seven, okay?” said Zumweltnar, and happily informed me that the “professional and clerical fees” would come to $2,000.
■ ■ ■
My mind wandered as I drove back to the Telegram from GSA. It was midspring in Washington, a blessed break between the March monsoons and the summer mugginess. I saw myself taking a little time off to hike on the Appalachian Trail south of Snickers Gap with my old friend Al Bergmann of the Associated Press.
E.J. had proposed me for an assistant editorship on the National Desk, and I felt as smug as any flunky in an insurance company. George McWilliams paid me $26,000 a year, which in those days was more than I could have earned at any paper other than the New York Times or The National Enquirer. I wasn’t money-mad, but I’d grown up in McLean, Virginia, where the Kennedys lived, and while I didn’t run with that crowd, I wasn’t ready for a tumble to Beltsville.
Paradoxically, the Solomon investigation might propel my career forward, given McWilliams’s fondness for chutzpah within bounds. If I didn’t make too much of a nuisance of myself about Mac’s friend Solomon, I’d be showing just the right amount of brashness.
Copyright information for the above text itself, nothing more: (c) 2009 by David H. Rothman.