My journalism career was what you might call peripheral, never at the big middle of things, but sometimes the outskirts provide a certain unique perspective.
So this is my Watergate Story.
1975, John Erlichman, who was one of Nixon’s two top assistants, was sentenced to prison for conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury. He wound up doing a year and a half.
After he was sentenced, but before he went in, Erlichman did a national publicity tour for a novel he had written called The Company (something about the CIA, not one word of which did I read).
In those ancient times, books were sold entirely from stores, and all of the publicity for them was in newspapers and magazines.
If a big-deal literary figure like John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates came through town on a tour, that interview went to the book critic. Not me.
If a celebrity author with a schlock pot-boiler book wanted to be interviewed, that assignment went to some grunt city desk reporter who had pissed off the city editor by coming in late that morning.
I picked up Erlichman at Detroit Metro, and from the first minute, he was dripping with arrogance and disdain.
He made me carry his bags to my Detroit Free Press company car, which was a beater. He complained about the car and asked if I couldn’t get a better one. (No.) He sat in the back while I drove.
He vetoed my itinerary for the interview and told me if I wanted him to talk, I would have to be his chauffeur to various TV and radio stations.
That pissed me off so much, I got out of the car and went to a pay phone (there were no cell phones). The city editor said, “Do what he wants. Serves you right for coming in late.”
In the TV interviews, which I watched, he was Dr. Charming. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. Then we’d get back in the car, and he’d go straight back to Col. Shithead: “Good God, your car gets worse as the day progresses. Did someone vomit in it?” (Probably.)
So I got really sick of him. Finally, early afternoon, using my voice of most helpful concern, I said, “What kind of martial arts training are you doing?”
He looked really taken aback. He said, “You mean like Karate? Don’t be absurd. Why would I do that?”
I said, “Well. you know. Inside. Lotta bad shit can happen. Especially if they see you can’t take care of yourself.”
I forget exactly what he said, but he was very derisive, called me “young fellow,”
and said I clearly had no idea who he was, meaning how important.
I said, yeah, that’s who they go for, the really important guys, because you guys have such nice soft hands.
He was absolutely silent for the rest of the day, just sitting back there staring straight ahead. Sadly, back at the airport we parted with no adieu.
I could be wrong, but my memory is that my editor said my story was boring and killed it. If that’s what happened, it’s because I was young and stupid and made it about the novel I hadn’t read instead of about the martial arts chat.