Whatever Gets You in the Game
If you knock long enough and loud enough at the gate you are bound to wake up somebody. —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
You cannot win if you’re not at the table. You have to be where the action is. —Ben Stein
It was the third night of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. I was anchoring MSNBC, Hardball-style, from a vantage point on Herald Square, a few blocks from Madison Square Garden. The uptown traffic was honking past on the left, the downtown drivers squeezing through on my right. In front of Macy’s, protesters were shouting their hatred of President Bush.
Just moments before, an angry Georgia Democrat, Senator Zell Miller, had taken the extraordinary step of addressing the GOP convention. He had delivered a contemptuous attack on his own party’s presidential nominee, John Kerry, in which he accused the Massachusetts senator of being weak on national defense. According to Miller, the Democratic candidate would fight the war on terrorism with “spitballs.” From my anchor desk on Broadway, I had Miller on a remote hookup from the convention floor. From the expression of the man looming on the giant TV screen before me, I could tell that here was a guy in no mood to answer tough questions.
“Get out of my face!” he told me threateningly. “If you’re going to ask a question, step back and let me answer. I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a man to a duel.”
Wow. Had I heard him right? How did I ever land such a job? How had someone like me, hooked on politics since I was a kid, found himself in the very crosshairs of American electoral warfare—to the point where some crazed U.S. senator was proposing a duel? On national television, no less?
Well, as the man said, just step back and let me answer. T
The fantasy explanation for how I began hosting Hardball five nights a week on MSNBC and The Chris Matthews Show on weekends is that someone heard what my dream job was and magically bestowed it upon me. The second—and better—answer is that more than a third of a century ago I managed to get in the game and then worked it from there.
When I came to Washington in 1971, after two years spent overseas, it was like arriving at a party where all the guests knew one another and no one knew me. The Senate and House offices of Capitol Hill were bustling and cozy—for those with jobs, that is. Everyone but me had a place to go in the morning, a snug workplace to leave at nightfall. I was on the outside looking in.
This is not to say I arrived in the nation’s capital feeling uninvited. Ever since the great Kennedy-Nixon fight of 1960 I had felt the allure of politics. The battle over who should run the country was what I had thought about, talked about—and, yes, argued about—since I was in grade school.
My defining goal that sunny Washington winter of my return to America was to become a part of that political world to which I was so deeply drawn. While still a Peace Corps volunteer in Swaziland, where I served from 1968 to the end of 1970, I had gotten a letter from a college friend telling me about his job as legislative assistant to a U.S. senator. The “LA,” I knew, was the staffer who helped his boss with the big-picture stuff: writing speeches, drafting legislation, thinking. It was the post that the great speechwriter Theodore Sorensen had held in the young John F. Kennedy’s Senate office. Transfixed, I had read Sorensen’s book Kennedy a few months earlier on the overnight train from Mozambique to Rhodesia.
When I arrived in Washington, my strategy for turning myself into a Capitol Hill LA was primitive but direct. I would go door-to-door on the Hill asking for such a job. I would start with the congressmen who were Irish Catholic Democrats from the Northeast. I figured that these would be the fellows most likely to hire a gung ho innocent who had gone to Holy Cross, a Jesuit college, and had just gotten home from two years in Africa with Jack Kennedy’s Peace Corps.
Though I didn’t see it that way at the time, this effort was the first heat in what would be a lifelong race. The goal was getting a job in one of those hallowed Senate or congressional offices. That would be my gate into the world of politics—and a base from which to start my life. I had less than two hundred dollars in my wallet, what was left of my Peace Corps “readjustment allowance” after a slow retreat home through Kenya, Israel, Egypt, and England.
The problem was that if I didn’t get a job on the Hill, I had no fallback plan. Though I didn’t consciously understand it at the time, the truth was that defeat in this campaign of mine was not an option. Lifewise, I had no other ambitions.
My routine was to go up to the Hill each morning and simply trudge from office to office, seeking that prize job of legislative assistant. My tactic—if I dare elevate it to that level—was to walk in bright-eyed and eager and start chatting up the congressman’s receptionist. My goal was to secure a meeting with the all-powerful “AA,” or administrative assistant, as Senate and House chiefs of staff were called then. That was the person with hire-and-fire authority.
Now, if you’re wondering what gave me the nerve to stroll into the offices of strangers like that, consider that I’d spent the previous two years riding my Suzuki 120 into Swazi villages and advising local storeowners in Zulu how to get on with their businesses. Stage fright, I’d learned of necessity, is something you can beat.
Yet as I went knocking on two hundred Senate and House doors, I was straight-armed again and again with every job-searcher’s catch-22. You know how it goes: You can’t get a job without experience; you can’t get experience without first getting a job.
Then one day it happened, just as I imagined and hoped it would. I walked into the office of a Democrat from New Jersey, a high-ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. As I begin my ritual approach to the receptionist, I turn and find myself greeted by a debonair, silver-haired gentleman who introduces himself as the congressman.
When I told him I was just back from the Peace Corps and looking for a job, he invited me into an adjoining room, where he pointed to a plaque on the wall displaying one of the pens that President Lyndon Johnson had used to sign the Peace Corps authorization bill. There was even a note on the plaque from LBJ expressing gratitude to the man now standing next to me for his help on the legislation.
I was overwhelmed by the congressman’s attention. Although he resembled nothing so much as a better-dressed, better-groomed version of one of my dad’s Knights of Columbus pals, he was in fact a real live United States representative—and there he was selling me on a job.
“You don’t want to work on the Foreign Affairs Committee,” he told me seriously. “You should be working in my office as a legislative assistant.” Stunned, I walked away from his office thinking I’d gotten everything I wanted. My planning had been perfect: Irish Catholic . . . Democrat . . . member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. At twenty-five, I was on the verge of being another Ted Sorensen.
So I waited several days to hear back. No word. I then began calling every morning to find out what was happening. I was never put through to the congressman. Finally, his Nurse Ratched–like AA got on the phone and delivered the message in a cold voice: “The congressman said to tell you that he couldn’t work it out.”
I would discover only later that the distinguished gentleman from New Jersey had problems on his hands far bigger than the need to fill a legislative assistant’s slot. Two years earlier, while I’d been out of the country, Life magazine, then still in its heyday, had run a two-part exposé headlined “The Congressman and the Hoodlum: The Case of a Respected Lawmaker Caught Up in the Grasp of Cosa Nostra.” An eight-month investigation had unveiled what the magazine called the congressman’s “second life.”
After klieg-lighting his jaunty charm, his commendations for heroism in World War II and Korea, and his place on Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 short list for running mate, it got to the dirty backstory:
“Behind the façade of prestige and respectability lives a man who time and time again has served as a tool and collaborator of a Cosa Nostra gang lord.” Life detailed the congressman’s tape-recorded phone conversations with the Democratic boss of Bayonne, New Jersey, as he interceded on behalf of a mob capo to stop the police from probing local gambling operations.
Then came the story’s sugarplum—an unsavory tale of the time in 1962 when the congressman had summoned a mob hit man to his house to remove the body of a local loan shark from the basement.
I learned all of this later, including the embattled congressman’s defense, that he was the victim of FBI anger over his support of federal legislation to restrict “invasions of privacy.”
So the congressman’s world was closing in on him in those early months of 1971. Chased by the law, he was also getting the bum’s rush from his political pals back in Bayonne. He would eventually serve time on federal tax- evasion charges.
Call me a romantic, but I’ve always chosen to believe that the congressman didn’t “work things out” for that LA job because he could see I was too nice a young man to be involved in all that.
A few days later, I renewed my campaign. This time I won what I’d set out to achieve so many times before—an interview with a real life AA. His name was Wayne Owens and he would change my life. Wayne ran the office for Senator Frank Moss, a well-known Utah Democrat. He had worked as Robert F. Kennedy’s western states coordinator during RFK’s ultimately tragic presidential campaign, and later as a top aide to Senator Ted Kennedy. I would soon learn that Wayne was planning his own race for Congress in his native state of Utah.
Most important to me, he loved the fact that I’d been in the Peace Corps. Also, it struck me later, he liked that I was a Catholic who’d gone to college in Massachusetts, that is, in Kennedy country. A devout Mormon from the West, he made it clear at our first meeting that he valued the assets I brought to the table. They may well have been the reason I got in to see him in the first place.
After that meeting with Wayne, the prospect of my becoming a U.S. senator’s legislative assistant suddenly looked a lot brighter. But, first, as a test of my abilities, he asked me to draft an answer to a complicated letter that a prominent Salt Lake City constituent had sent Senator Moss on a tax matter.
When I returned with it several days later—having leaned on staffers I’d gotten to know at my hometown Philadelphia congressman’s office, along with an IRS technical expert to whom they referred me—I was able to deliver exactly what Wayne was looking for.
Then came the bad news. Wayne wanted to hire me, but the only job he had available, even after my passing that grueling take-home exam, was the position of Capitol policeman. The idea was that I would toil in Moss’s office three or four hours a day answering complicated mail and writing short speeches for the boss to read on the Senate floor, then go to work from three to eleven p.m. as a cop guarding the Capitol.
It was one of those patronage gigs that senators and congressmen had to offer, like working in the mailroom or operating the House elevator. They were start-from-the-bottom slots usually awarded to well-connected sons or daughters attending Georgetown or George Washington.
In my case, I was being given a chance to say yes, grab the salary, put in my time—and wait to see what came next.
“It’ll pay for the groceries,” Wayne pointed out, seeing the disappointed expression on my face.
Glumly, I agreed. I had a college degree, a year behind me spent working on a doctorate in economics, two years of challenging service in Africa, and eighty dollars left in my pocket.
With a few hours of training on the House of Representatives firing range, I was soon walking around the Capitol with a .38 special in my holster. One night I sat armed and ready outside a door containing the “Pentagon Papers,” though they’d already been published by The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Usually I manned a lonely post somewhere deep in the Capitol basement, studying the Congressional Record, writing and rewriting speeches for Senator Moss. I met the other patronage cops who were paying for law school as they moonlighted in what one called a “Max Sennett costume.” But I also got to know the country boys, those former MPs who made long daily commutes from as far as West Virginia and guarded the U.S. Capitol with dedication.
“You know why the little man loves his country,” Sergeant Leroy Taylor once explained to me. “It’s because it’s all he’s got.” And I remember the middle-aged guy who stopped me on the West Front one sunny day before a big antiwar demonstration to say, “Hit one of them for me, will you?” Yeah, I remember that fellow. For someone who just spent two years in Africa with the Peace Corps, it was an abrupt but useful reunion with a country divided over Vietnam.
As I said, most of my time was spent reading and practicing speechwriting in an underground Capitol tunnel. When nightfall came and the tourists, the congressmen, and their staffers left, I was pretty much by myself down there. It was, in fact, the safest place in the neighborhood. The only danger I faced while on duty came during those evening jaunts across Pennsylvania Avenue to grab a quick supper at one of the old-style eateries that used to line the street.
What if an actual robbery had been under way in this then-high-crime neighborhood? What if someone—a bystander or the robber—had taken me for a real cop? It was a terrible possibility that luckily never happened. In the end, I developed a strange liking for the job. Every day at three p.m. I’d put on that starched police shirt, tie, trousers, and .38 and feel that a whole other life was kicking in. On top of that, the history really got to me. I remember one night lingering alone in the Capitol Rotunda, where John F. Kennedy had lain in state those cold November hours in 1963; I was lost in reverie, as I conjured up those memories.