My Brushes With Electoral Greatness
I've been a Washington journalist for more than 25 years, but I'm not necessarily one of those who gets to hang out with the big guns. I go to the hearings, I listen to the senators and congressmen pontificate, but I'm not one of the Bob Schieffers or Wolf Blitzers who debates Iraq war policy in cigar-smoke-filled backrooms, glasses of 12-year-old Glenfiddich in hand, with Ted Kennedy and Trent Lott. So when I saw the cover of the current "Weekly Standard"--featuring a caricature of the GOP flavor-of-the-month presidential hopeful, Fred Thompson--I remembered with a shock that I had met him once, many years ago.
It wasn't in Washington, but in Lancaster, Ohio, that I had my encounter with future greatness. As a reporter for "The Reaction," the student newspaper for Ohio University-Lancaster Campus, I was assigned to cover the speech at the campus of the minority counsel for the Watergate hearings--an up-and-coming Tennessee lawyer named Fred D. Thompson.
This was years before "Law and Order," before "Wiseguy" and "The Hunt for Red October," before his battles as senator with Jane Alexander over whether the government should continue to fund the National Endowment for the Arts. (Alexander, who was Bill Clinton's NEA chairman, said Thompson believed that if an arts project couldn't attract Hollywood money, it couldn't be any good.) I don't remember Thompson's speech very well, except that he used the phrase "bite the bullet" several times. In this time of national trouble, he said, it was good that the government could bite the bullet and face the endemic problems that Watergate signified.
Thompson certainly wouldn't remember me; I was one of about eight people after the speech, sitting around a booth at Old Bill Bailey's Bar, swilling pitchers of Rolling Rock and listening to Tom Ryan, "The Reaction's" photographer, reel off several choice excerpts from his inexhaustible fund of dirty stories. I remember Thompson, beer in hand, looking vaguely embarrassed and very, very tired.
Tom Ryan died a year later, in a car crash. Fred Thompson is on the cover of the "Weekly Standard," and I'm here, typing.
I forgot to mention I also knew Sen. Chuck Hagel way back when; he was government affairs director for Firestone when I first came to Washington. In the Reagan administration, he headed some White House commission or another; he called me to his office to give me a big interview about what he and the commission were doing. When he was elected senator, neither he nor his staff returned my calls. In the words of the late Kurt Vonnegut, "So it goes."