More questions than answers (Keith Olbermann)
SECAUCUS — As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein continued to work on their promised front page opus in Thursday’s Washington Post — no doubt hoping to avoid the title if not the premise of “Now It Can Be Told!” — there are certainly hundreds of questions they feel are worthy of answering.
There may be some surprises — among the questions as well as the answers — but if the following eight headline queries aren’t addressed, they’ll have to write more than just the one piece for the Post.
Question #1. About the 18-Minute gap — the infamous “erasure” on one of the tapes recorded inside the Oval Office — which Nixon tried to blame on an “accident” involving his faithful secretary, Rose Mary Woods. In November, 1973, long before the gap was public knowledge, Woodward wrote that he learned of its “suspicious nature” from Deep Throat.
But Mark Felt, passed over for promotion, had left the FBI five months earlier. Where did he get the information about the tape? Gossip? Old friends?
Question #2. What old friends? Was Felt-Throat now no better than a third hand source? Were there also Not-So-Deep-Throats — OTHER sources — whose information was now combined with that from Felt? Did Felt himself mine sources inside the White House and pass that information, and earlier stuff, on to the reporters?
Question #3. Is that journalistically ethical? Or did Woodward, Bernstein, the Post — and Felt as Throat — abuse the concept of the confidential source?
Question #4. How old was Deep Throat and how likely was Mark Felt to have been, as Woodward described him, “my friend,” even prior to Watergate? In a preliminary manuscript of “All The President’s Men,” John Dean has found him described as creating antidotes “to inexperience and lack of knowledge.” Mark Felt was 58-years-old on the day of the Watergate break-in. When he left the FBI — he retired. Woodward was 29 at the time.
Question #5. What happened to the “public role” Woodward once said Deep Throat still had? In 1997, Woodward told former White House counsel and continuing Throat sleuth Leonard Garment that “Deep Throat’s public role and public persona had changed radically since Watergate days; it was now so discordant with his former garage-skulking behavior that Deep Throat would never come forward to identify himself.” What public role was that? Mark Felt was never well-known and would never be as well-known as the day he retired from the FBI in 1973 — at least until now.
Question #6. Garage-skulking. All The President’s Men has Felt-Throat meeting Woodward at all hours of the night, in at least one underground parking lot. He has Felt Throat writing notes inside Woodward’s home delivered copies of the New York Times, and watching Woodward’s patio to see if the reporter was asking him for a meeting by sticking a red flag in a flower pot. Asked about that by Ted Koppel yesterday, Felt-Throat’s attorney and Vanity Fair biographer John O’Connor said simply “You got me — Mark certainly doesn’t remember it.”
Question #7. Never mind why he did whatever he did in 1972 and 1973 — what about Felt-Throat’s current motive? His lawyer/biographer O’Connor tried to sell the story to Vanity Fair, then sell it as a book. Now O’Connor says that was just a ruse to get Felt-Throat to open up by playing on his understandable desire to secure the finances of his descendants.
But why didn’t Felt-Throat give any heads-up about his self-outing to the three men who were most loyal to him? Woodward kept his secret for 33 years, Bernstein 32, Ben Bradlee 31. Felt let Vanity Fair not just scoop them and the Post, but left the Post, to borrow a Watergate phrase, “Twisting slowly, slowly in the wind.”
And if not loyalty to Woodward and Bernstein — what about to James W. Brawley of Media General News Service? Who’s he? He’s Mark Felt’s nephew-in-law. He called him “Uncle Mark” his whole life, including his 20 years as a reporter. He even asked “Uncle Mark” if he was Deep Throat, many times. The answer “I don’t talk about rumors.” Brawley today — scooped by his own Uncle — says only “I just wish he had called me first.”
And Question #8 — the lightest of them all. That name. W. Mark Felt. Was it coincidence, or an audacious clue. Woodward, fond of anagrams and other word games, referred to his source as Throat only in his BOOK. Around the Washington Post, he was, quote “My Friend.”
My Friend — as in M. F. — as in Mark Felt.
To raise it one higher level of farce: sometimes, editors like Ben Bradlee, Howard Simons, and Harry Rosenfeld called the source “Woodward’s Friend”.
Woodward’s Friend — as in W.F. — as in W. Mark Felt.
John Dean joins me on Countdown tonight to have a shot at some of these questions — plus the ones about Felt-Throat’s role as hero or villain, law-saver, or law-breaker. Plus, we’ll have on the head of the college project that didn’t pick Felt as the likeliest Deep Throat, and the once eight-year-old friend of Carl Bernstein’s son, who did! 8 p.m. and Midnight ET on MSNBC.
What questions do you have? E-mail: KOlbermann@msnbc.com
What did W. Mark Felt know, and when did he know it? (Keith Olbermann)
NEW YORK - So, just 17 days shy of the exact 33rd anniversary of the break-in that unleashed the whole Watergate scandal, we finally know the identity of the secret source, Deep Throat, who helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein keep the story alive in the pages of The Washington Post, while virtually every other news organization of the time had concluded it wasn’t worth pursuing.
Deep Throat is Mark Felt, the former deputy associate director of the FBI — except for the parts of Deep Throat that clearly aren’t Mark Felt, like all the stuff Throat supposedly confirmed after Felt left the FBI in June, 1973.
Well, that’s going to be something of a problem, isn’t it?
Woodward and Bernstein, working together in harness again for the first time in years, were captured by an NBC camera at sunset Tuesday, entering the former’s home in Washington’s Georgetown section. They bantered jovially with the photographer, with Woodward telling him that they were “in for the night” and that they “need to get some work done.”
You bet they do.
Felt’s self-identification in the pages of Vanity Fair — onlyconfirmed an uncomfortable six hours later by the Post — seems to raise more questions than it answers, and signals not the end of the Throat mystery, but merely its mutation into something stranger and maybe more pertinent. As John Dean, Richard Nixon’s own White House Counsel, and in the ensuing years, the most dogged pursuer of Throat’s identity, told me on Countdown: “Now we have a new mystery… focusing on Woodward’s journalism.
“How is he going to explain Felt having some of the information he had,” Dean continued, “when it just isn’t in the realm of possibility that he had access to it, even as third or fourth hand hearsay?”
Dean’s e-book for Salon three years ago was called Unmasking Deep Throat, and unlike all the other attempts to identify Throat, it is meticulous and scholarly. It is based, ironically enough, on a variation of Senate Watergate Committee member Howard Baker’s famous rhetorical question about Nixon’s involvement (and thus culpability) in the scandal itself. To paraphrase Baker, “What did Deep Throat know and when did he know it?”
Dean analyzed the meetings Woodward describes in All The Presidents’ Men and methodically analyzes what others have glossed over. For Woodward’s version to be literally correct, his source had to be able to have access to specific information (and disinformation — Dean estimated last night that half of what Throat told Woodward was materially wrong) at specific times. He also had to be physically in Washington to conduct the meetings Woodward wrote about in the book, which were presumably relied upon in the vital day-to-day coverage he and Bernstein wrote for the Post in 1972, 1973, and 1974.
Dean will doubtless enumerate, in other venues, the many disconnects. For us, he offered the startling fact that possibly the most vital information Throat gave Woodward — that there were “erasures” on at least one of the surreptitious tapes of Richard Nixon’s Oval Office conversations (the infamous “18 minute gap”) — was dispensed in November, 1973 — nearly five months after Felt had left his position in the FBI.
So where did Felt-Throat get that information? Gossip? Where from?
Are there, in fact, Mini-Throats within Deep Throats?
“It’s going to be a problem,” Dean added. Woodward and Bernstein have continually denied that Throat was a ‘composite’ character added to the narrative to simplify the sourcing process, and give the story (and the movie) the pivotal image of one super-knowledgeable, if not omniscient, Hal Holbrook-style tattletale.
There is an explanation offered by Shakespearean conspiracy theorists that may well apply to Deep Throat and Watergate. Scholars and experts in a dozen fields, from the law to the sea, insist the great playwright was so versed in the particulars of a given profession that he must have been a member of that profession. This being understandably impossible, a second theory has evolved from it: that Shakespeare simply stuck his name on the works of several different authors, perhaps including himself, to protect them. Much of the “Shakespeare” plays were politically dangerous at the time they were written, in an Elizabethan England in which it seemed like every third person was a spy for the government. If everybody knew that Shakespeare was just a business manager and perhaps a play doctor, he risked nothing in claiming “official” authorship, and protected many from prosecution. Shakespeare is now not a mere front man or composite, but a composite who could’ve done some of the work — a kind of centerpiece to the composite.
So might Mark Felt be, as well. Perhaps he’s 60% of Deep Throat, with the product of other sources conveniently mixed in, both to protect them, and smooth down the book’s otherwise anonymous-source laden plotline.
“Felt just doesn’t seem to me,” Dean said, in agreeing with the modified-composite theory, “to be somebody who had all the information that Deep Throat had when he gave it to Woodward.”
This might also explain why Felt so frequently denied being Deep Throat. He may have provided some of the information generally attributed to Throat, but not specific parts of it — perhaps the parts that most damaged Richard Nixon, or reflected most poorly on his own probable motive (rancor at not being promoted after the death of J. Edgar Hoover) for being a White House source to many reporters, not just Woodward. Remember what he said to the Hartford Courant when he last publicly denied being Throat, in 1999: “I would have done better. I would have been more effective. Deep Throat didn't exactly bring the White House crashing down, did he?"
The mystery of the man's motives, his attitude towards himself and what it tonight proves he did, are all perhaps explained by those quotes to the Hartford Courant in 1999, and a statement he made to his own grandson that he didn't think being Deep Throat "was anything to be proud of..." It was a mixture of loathing that he did any of it, and loathing that he didn't do more.
“What’s striking to me,” Dean told me last night, “is that in coming forward at this time, (Felt) didn’t drop so much as any inside information that would corroborate this. How did Felt get the New York Times and circle page 20 of Bob Woodward’s paper to signal he wanted to talk to him? How did Felt manage, while he’s running the bureau’s day-to-day operations, to keep an eye on the flower pot on Woodward’s balcony to see if the red flag was out?”
Of course, those issues of signaling when either wanted to meet might be explained by Felt’s position in the FBI. Maybe those details were handled by agents, sympathetic to Felt, or just doing what he told them to do. Of more tangible concern is what Dean wrote in his analysis of 'Throat’s identity in 2002. He says Woodward dropped plenty of hints in the text of All The President’s Men — and Dean even quoted page numbers to underscore the point that if there was only one Throat, he had to have worked in the White House, not some place else, like the FBI:
“Deep Throat worked for the federal goverrnment (page 23), in the Executive Branch (p 71); his position was "extremely sensitive"; and he was in a "unique position to observe the Executive Branch, with access to information at the Committee to Re-Elect The President as well as at the White House (p 71)... In fact, at one point Deep Throat tells Woodward that the FBI doesn't know what is truly happening (p 72)..." Dean’s other sifting of how Woodward described Throat doesn’t add up to a picture of Mark Felt — or, at least, it doesn’t add up to a picture of just Mark Felt. Dean notes Woodward called him an “old friend,” gave him the characteristics of a night owl and a bachelor, a man of extreme temper, journalistically savvy but loathing of their “inexactitude and shallowness.”
Dean told me last night that years ago, Bob Woodward told him what he’d told many others, that when Throat was finally identified, there’d be a “why didn’t I think of that?” moment — a light-bulb over the head, an epiphany of the soul, a full, and immediately understood revelation and understanding.
Dean doesn’t buy it and neither do I. “I’m waiting for my epiphany.”
Presumably that’s what Woodward and Bernstein are brewing up in Woodward’s home. If not, they have a lot of journalistic explaining to do.
Watch Keith each weeknight at 8 p.m. ETas he counts down the best, the worst, and the oddest news stories of the day.
What letter of resignation? (Keith Olbermann)
SECAUCUS — Honestly, sometimes you wonder how they’ve lived so long without accidentally walking into an airplane propeller, or sticking their tongues against a metal pole in midwinter and not figuring out any way to get loose before they freeze to death.
You know the type. Every minute of every day is a wonderful surprise to them. What’s the big orange thing in the sky? Why is my chest moving? What’s my name again?
We all have them in our lives. My newest one is named Les Kinsolving.
He is a syndicated writer and radio guy from Baltimore, and he invoked my name at the White House press briefing today, and promptly pulled the radio into the bathtub with him while trying to change the station.
With White House Deputy Press Secretary Trent Duffy standing in for Scott McClellan, Kinsolving rose to ask a question vital to the nation’s survival: “Since MSNBC's Keith Olbermann wrote about Scott's alleged letter of resignation, you can assure us that the president regards this as being as asinine and abusive as the network bullying of Scott, can't you?”
Amid the laughter, somebody might have been good enough to slip Les a note or something. Honestly. Throw him a bone. Not about people laughing at him rather than with him, but just about the fact that I never wrote about any “alleged letter of resignation” and that his question made him look like a guy who was running with scissors.
The headline for the blog entry from Monday night — you can read it below — is “The Resignation of Scott McClellan.” But anybody who doesn’t see the hypothetical nature of the reference (I was calling for his resignation, not saying he’d submitted it) either didn’t read the piece, or doesn’t read English frequently.
Duffy tried to avoid adding to Kinsolving’s embarrassment, but the questioner wouldn’t let him. From the transcript today:
Kinsolving: About the letter of resignation, this...
Duffy: I think we've covered...
Kinsolving: …thing about the letter of resignation and the bullying of Scott?
Duffy: I think we've covered Newsweek cover to cover. Dick?
Kinsolving: No comment? Scott has not submitted a letter of resignation, has he?
Unidentified reporter: He’s gone.
Duffy: Les, we all serve at the pleasure of the president. Scott has not offered any letter of resignation.
Kinsolving: So that is just absolutely rubbish.
Duffy: Thank you, Les.
Rubbish indeed. It would be lovely to leave it at that, this vignette of an irascible guy hearing something vague about some whipper-snipper at MSNBC claiming McClellan had offered a resignation, or seeing a headline on the internet and the top of his head blowing off before he could read the actual story and see that obviously, there was no such claim. We could all have a good laugh and a nice weekend.
But you see what this was, don’t you? Kinsolving was hoping to be able to get some fresh meat to throw at his listeners or his readers, the ones who don’t realize he has no idea what he’s talking about. Here he hoped to get McClellan’s assistant to call me “asinine” or to disparage my or my news organization’s reporting in some way. Or better still, to bootstrap his way into getting Duffy to make some remark about how ABC’s Terry Moran said to McClellan on Wednesday, “with respect, who made you the editor of Newsweek?” State a falsehood, get reaction to it, drop the original falsehood, report only the reaction. You know — what Newsweek is accused of.
Well, at least I got mentioned at the White House news briefing. For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He marks — not that you won or lost — but if you got mentioned alongside Jeff Gannon.
And here come the grandstanders (Keith Olbermann)
SECAUCUS — Back when I was at Cornell, they had a Government Laboratory class in which we all played roles in an imaginary small city. It met only once a week, and I had to ring up 28 credits in the last semester or not graduate before Dad’s money ran out. This Lab counted for four of them — so I took it.
The training for those of us who played the local politicians was simple — whatever happened, we were supposed to either issue a press release about it, or introduce legislation pertinent to it, as quickly as possible. It didn't matter if the legislation was unconstitutional or ridiculous, and it didn't matter if we had done nothing to merit our names in the paper about the event.
Well, it's nice to see that some current members of Congress took the same class I did. It's the Newsweek Story: the press release and ridiculous legislation edition. Congressman Randy Neugebauer of Texas today introduced a non-binding resolution condemning the magazine for quote "irresponsible and inaccurate" journalism — a phrase used seven times in the six-paragraph resolution. As a non-binding resolution (but a binding press release), its actual content by weight is something like 37 percent “Whereases.” The primary one reads: "Whereas the prevalent media culture encourages journalists to 'get the story first' rather than to ensure that reports are accurate and factual..."
Meantime, Representative Deborah Price of Ohio, Chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, has urged a Newsweek boycott on the Hill. "I urge the magazine and members of the media to return to the journalistic integrity that the public deserves," the Congresswoman said, "and I encourage every Congressional office to cancel their subscription to Newsweek until accountability is restored." This would ring a little less tinnily were it not for the fact that a large number of those offices get Newsweek for free. If they didn't, those in the waiting room would be checking out Goofus and Gallant from an October 1964 edition of Highlights Magazine.
Meantime at the White House, Press Secretary Scott McClellan today got a little more specific about what he meant when he said yesterday that Newsweek had to help repair the "damage.” He wants its editors to appear on Arab television networks to explain the story and how badly they screwed it up. Sounds like a great precedent, provided politicians of all parties are willing to appear on television, in this country and others, whenever they screw it up — which would pretty much be a full-time job.
As to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose comments have kind of made the White House approach to this whole thing look like they were the guys in my Government Lab who all got a C+ because the professor thought they had forgotten to do anything, ever, besides politics, General Richard Myers piped up today, for the first time since last Thursday. He said he has not revisited the original conclusion from Lieutenant General Eikenberry on the ground there, that the violence in Afghanistan which killed 17 people, began not over the Newsweek article, but over local politics. He did add today — with Secretary Rumsfeld standing by his side — that the Newsweek piece quote "certainly doesn’t help."
There is also tonight a flip side to the flap.
The Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee have called a forum for next Tuesday about media bias, reports that some outlets are avoiding stories because they're fearful of Bush Administration retribution, and the Administration's response to the Newsweek story.
I’m also delighted to be able to tell you that I’ve been informed that I’m in the right on this, by simple dint of two events. One, I got an email from a viewer who insisted that even if the Newsweek story ultimately proves true, the magazine shouldn’t have reported it because it was bad for the nation (you know, like Watergate was, or My Lai, or the Stamp Act). And two — that absolute benchmark of logical success: I’ve had something I said, misreported in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. The publication was founded in 1889 and ever since, if the subtlety of your point gets steamrollered by the fevered editorialists who scratch their quill pens at the Journal, you know you’ve made it into the brilliant, sustaining sunshine of righteousness.
Today, it’s Newsweek’s former religion writer saying that desecrating a Qu’ran would not be “like flushing pages from the Bible down the drain — as Keith Olbermann on MSNBC and other commentators have suggested.” Actually, the only comparisons between Bibles and Qu’rans came on Monday night’s Countdown, when I said, “What would foment more violence in this country and other Western nations, some sort of Muslim group burning down a Bible-publishing plant, killing all the employees, or the same group burning one copy of the Bible? Our answer would almost unanimously be, burning down the plant. Not in the Muslim world.”
And one more note on the original subject — "Qu'ran Abuse" — which somehow got lost in the frenzy of the last four days.
On Sunday, May 1, the New York Times reported that as the military investigated abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the paper had spoken to a former detainee named Nasser Nijer Naser al-Mutairi. He said that in his three years at Gitmo, there were three major hunger strikes by detainees — one of them after guards there had piled up copies of the Qu'ran, and stepped on them.
Al-Mutairi said that action was so bad, that even a senior officer at Gitmo got on the camp public address system, promised that abuse of the Qu'ran would stop, and apologized for it.
The Times also quoted an unidentified former U.S. interrogator at Guantanamo, who confirmed the hunger strike, and the broadcast apology, although he evidently did not witness the piling up of, and stepping on, the Qu'rans.
The resignation of Scott McClellan (Keith Olbermann)
SECAUCUS — I smell something — and it ain’t a copy of the Qu’ran sopping wet from being stuck in a toilet in Guantanamo Bay. It’s the ink drying on Scott McClellan’s resignation, and in an only partly imperfect world, it would be drifting out over Washington, and imminently.
Last Thursday, General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Donald Rumsfeld’s go-to guy whenever the situation calls for the kind of gravitas the Secretary himself can’t supply, told reporters at the Pentagon that rioting in Afghanistan was related more to the on-going political reconciliation process there, than it was to a controversial note buried in the pages of Newsweek claiming that the government was investigating whether or not some nitwit interrogator at Gitmo really had desecrated a Muslim holy book.
But Monday afternoon, while offering himself up to the networks for a series of rare, almost unprecedented sit-down interviews on the White House lawn, Press Secretary McClellan said, in effect, that General Myers, and the head of the after-action report following the disturbances in Jalalabad, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, were dead wrong. The Newsweek story, McClellan said, “has done damage to our image abroad and it has done damage to the credibility of the media and Newsweek in particular. People have lost lives. This report has had serious consequences.”
Whenever I hear Scott McClellan talking about ‘media credibility,’ I strain to remember who it was who admitted Jeff Gannon to the White House press room and called on him all those times.
Whenever I hear this White House talking about ‘doing to damage to our image abroad’ and how ‘people have lost lives,’ I strain to remember who it was who went traipsing into Iraq looking for WMD that will apparently turn up just after the Holy Grail will — and at what human cost.
Newsweek’s version of this story has varied from the others over the last two years — ones in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, and British and Russian news organizations — only in that it quoted a government source who now says he didn’t have firsthand knowledge of whether or not the investigation took place (oops, sorry, shoulda mentioned that, buh-bye). All of its other government connections — the ones past which it ran the story — have gone from saying nothing like ‘don’t print this, it ain’t true’ or ‘don’t print this, it may be true but it’ll start riots,’ to looking slightly confused and symbolically saying ‘Newsweek? Newsweek who?’
Whatever I smell comes from this odd sequence of events: Newsweek gets blasted by the White House, apologizes over the weekend but doesn't retract its story. Then McClellan offers his Journalism 101 outdoor seminar and blasts the magazine further. Finally, just before 5 p.m. Monday, the Dan Rather drama replaying itself in its collective corporate mind, Newsweek retracts.
I’m always warning about the logical fallacy — the illusion that just because one event follows another, the latter must have necessarily caused the former. But when I wondered tonight on Countdown if it applied here, Craig Crawford reassured me. “The dots connect.”
The real point, of course, is that you’d have to be pretty dumb to think that making a threat at Gitmo akin to ‘Spill the beans or we’ll kill this Qu’ran’ would have any effect on the prisoners, other than to eventually leak out and inflame anti-American feelings somewhere. Of course, everybody in the prosecution of the so-called ‘war on terror’ has done something dumb, dating back to the President’s worst-possible-word-selection (“crusade”) on September 16, 2001. So why wouldn’t some mid-level interrogator stuck in Cuba think it would be a good idea to desecrate a holy book? Jack Rice, the former CIA special agent and now radio host, said on Countdown that it would be a “knuckleheaded” thing to do, but “plausible.”
One of the most under-publicized analyses of 9/11 concludes that Osama Bin Laden assumed that the attacks on the U.S. would galvanize Islamic anger towards this country, and they'd overthrow their secular governments and woo-hoo we've got an international religious war. Obviously it didn't happen. It didn't even happen when the West went into Iraq. But if stuff like the Newsweek version of a now two-year-old tale about toilets and Qu’rans is enough to set off rioting in the streets of countries whose nationals were not even the supposed recipients of the ‘abuse’, then weren’t those members of the military or the government with whom Newsweek vetted the plausibility of its item, honor-bound to say “you can’t print this”?
Or would somebody rather play politics with this? The way Craig Crawford reconstructed it, this one went similarly to the way the Killian Memos story evolved at the White House. The news organization turns to the administration for a denial. The administration says nothing. The news organization runs the story. The administration jumps on the necks of the news organization with both feet — or has its proxies do it for them.
That’s beyond shameful. It’s treasonous.
It’s also not very smart. While places like the Fox News Channel (which, only today, I finally recognized — it’s the newscast perpetually running on the giant video screens in the movie “1984”) ask how many heads should roll at Newsweek, it forgets in its fervor that both the story and the phony controversy around it are not so cut-and-dried this time.
Firstly, the principal reporter on the Gitmo story was Michael Isikoff — “Spikey” in a different lifetime; Linda Tripp’s favorite journalist, and one of the ten people most responsible (intentionally or otherwise) for the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Spikey isn’t just a hero to the Right — the Right owes him.
And larger still, in terms of politics, this isn't well-defined, is it? I mean Conservatives might parrot McClellan and say ‘Newsweek put this country in a bad light.’ But they could just as easily thump their chests and say ‘See, this is what we do to those prisoners at Gitmo! You guys better watch your asses!’
Ultimately, though, the administration may have effected its biggest mistake over this saga, in making the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs look like a liar or naïf, just to draw a little blood out of Newsweek’s hide. Either way — and also for that tasteless, soul-less conclusion that deaths in Afghanistan should be lain at the magazine’s doorstep — Scott McClellan should resign. The expiration on his carton full of blank-eyed bully-collaborator act passed this afternoon as he sat reeling off those holier-than-thou remarks. Ah, that’s what I smelled.
Watch Keith each weeknight at 8 p.m. ETas he Counts down the best, the worst, and the oddest news stories of the day.
This couldn't be true, could it? (Keith Olbermann)
SECAUCUS— Do you know who O. Henry was?
His real name was William Henry Porter, and at the dawn of the 20th Century, he wrote ironic short stories that endure to this day. The plots are often simple or thoroughly implausible— as in “The Gift Of The Magi,” where a poor husband sells his prized watch to buy a set of combs for his wife's beautiful hair, just as she's cutting off her hair to buy him a fob for his watch. But he did them with such grace, humor, and tenderness, that they became tiny masterpieces.
Well, I don't have his grace, humor, or tenderness. But even if I did, I don't think O. Henry would believe this story. Hell, I barely believe it.
Nevertheless. The other night, we needed some video images of my days working for CNN at The World Trade Center in New York. Conveniently, my ego's always operated on all cylinders— I've managed to tape maybe 50 percent of all the broadcasts I've ever done, radio and television alike. This means that I still have an archive of the sportscasts I did from that locale, even though I left there in 1984, and so too did CNN.
But there was a complication. I needed to find these visuals literally overnight, and all but three of the twenty or thirty VHS tapes I have from those CNN days are in a New York storage warehouse. Conveniently, I readily found the images I needed on the first two tapes, and was ready to pack in the hunt for the night, when I decided I'd take a cursory trip down the rest of memory lane still offered by the third of the three cassettes.
It hadn't been rewound— I don't think I'd looked at the thing in a decade or more— so I just backed it up about an hour from the end, and started screening through it at high speed. I got myself quick glimpses of my first tv work days in '81 and '82— to Baltimore to cover The Preakness horse race, to the Museum of Natural History to narrate a display of baseball art and artifacts, to Yankee Stadium to report on the return of Reggie Jackson to New York for the first time after he'd left the Yankees to join the then-California Angels.
And that's when I stopped believing what I was seeing.
On the tape, there were two different stories about Jackson. I immediately remembered why. Our very hands-on network president, Reese Schonfeld, had seen the first piece and demanded a second one. He was flabbergasted that the Yankee fans, who had regularly booed the controversial Jackson for the length of his New York career, had uniformly roared for him upon his return, even though he was now wearing the uniform of another team. “I didn't hear from any of the goddamned fans, kid!,” he screamed at me from headquarters in Atlanta. I think he was using the phone, but with his voice, he could have just been yelling out the window. “Go back up there and interview some goddamned fans!”
I hated doing that.
I don't think I have done it— or its news equivalent, the “man on the street interview”— more than half a dozen times in my career. Nothing against fans, nor men on the street, mind you. But turn on a camera light in an uncontrolled environment and you never know what's going to happen. Dozens of us have been in that scenario and the result's always the same. The people you wind up interviewing are morons, or drunk. And the ones who you don't talk to, jump in front of the camera, or shout obscenities— or are drunken morons who jump in front of the camera and shout obscenities. You often wind up getting crushed and having to physically shove people out of the way.
It's like moths to the candle— and you're the candelabra.
It was even more daunting back then. On top of the swarming whenever the camera was turned on, there came the inevitable disappointment on the part of the interviewees, because they'd never heard of us. The typical response was “what's a CNN?” It's hard to convince even the veterans with whom I work— like Countdown's Executive Producer, Izzy Povich— but cable was still such a rarity at that time that in New York, only part of Manhattan had it— none of the other boroughs and only pockets of the suburbs. In all of greater Washington, D.C., we were seen only at the Pentagon. Literally, I once phoned a sports team for credentials and identified myself as representing Cable News Network. After a brief silence, the publicist asked, “You mean the people who own the newsstands downtown?” I was completely flummoxed until the guy at the newspaper stand right outside the Trade Center told me that he worked for the Cabell News Company. We were less well-known than the people who owned the newsstands downtown.
Try telling that to somebody like Izzy Povich. The best possible co-worker, she; uniformly encouraging yet realistic, and a dedicated family woman who leaves her 22 children at MSNBC (the Countdown staff, myself at the top of the kinder list), and heads home to tend to her own two kids, as well as a taller, third one, an affable and bright guy whom she identifies as her husband. I “inherited” Izzy, and Greg Kordick— the show producer whom we have previously discussed here as the “Angel of Death” because whenever he takes a day off, a celebrity dies. They were already at MSNBC when I returned to the network in 2003, and even though I'd never met them before, we, and some other vets like our logistical maven Rich Stockwell (you may have seen him in the mock-documentary on the making of “Michael Jackson Puppet Theatre”) fell in together as an immediate and cohesive team. Izzy and I, especially, had some commonality of background: natives of out-lying boroughs of the city, children of architects, graduates of Cornell University, baseball fans dating back to our respective youths (I was the historian-in-training, keeping meticulous scorecards; she was standing outside the park as the players arrived, professing her eternal love for players like Bucky Dent and Rick Cerone). It was if she and Greg and Rich and I had been— I know it sounds corny— destined to work together.
All that having been said, none of them could imagine putting themselves in the situation I faced, heading to Yankee Stadium so many springs ago to ask these fans about why they suddenly loved Reggie again. It wasn't all bad, of course— these were baseball fans, and where I would find them, they'd likely be so wired up that I'd be able to conduct a couple of interviews before they realized I was from a station they couldn't see, and started throwing rotten vegetables at me. These fans would be lined up outside the entrance to Yankee Stadium used to this day by reporters and players. Held back by bright blue New York Police Department “saw horses,” they'd stay there for hours just to get a glimpse at their heroes— or villains— and occasionally grab an autograph or a picture.
There, on the late afternoon of Wednesday, April 28, 1982, I found an especially varied and surprisingly articulate group— most of them waiting for Reggie Jackson to sidle off the Angels' bus and proceed, with purposeful strides, into the Stadium where he was once, in his own words, “the straw that stirred the drink.”
Now, again, these memories were all dormant in my mind, conjured up only by the unlikely fact that I needed to find those World Trade Center pictures on that particular night, and that the results of these interviews were on one of the only three CNN tapes that I happened to have not stowed away in a warehouse miles— and hours— out of my reach. I shouldn't have even seen this tape— I'd found what I was looking for on the first two. Had some wisp of whimsy not encouraged me to pop that last tape into the VCR that night— or had I screened it from the front and not the back— the extraordinary realization that followed would still be awaiting discovery— or would never have been discovered at all.
In my report on the fans' sudden unanimous affection to the ex-Yankee version of Jackson, I interviewed an elderly African-American woman who noted sweetly that, the night before, Reggie had permitted her to plant a kiss on his cheek. An older male fan compared the fans' love-hate with Jackson to the polarized response to Muhammad Ali. And, as the tape showed me, I got a particularly piquant answer from a teenaged girl— one of the hordes who used to screech adolescent love at the sight of the Yankees' matinee idols (in those days, the Bucky Dents and Rick Cerones; today, the Derek Jeters).
It was her comment, playing back at me over the distance of 23 years, that caused me to drop the remote on the sofa.
It was Izzy Povich.
I had interviewed my Executive Producer 23 years ago.
I had interviewed my Executive Producer 21 years before I met her.
I had interviewed my Executive Producer when she was a screeching teenager waiting to shout her undying affection towards Bucky Dent and Rick Cerone.
I had interviewed my Executive Producer in what was exactly the 38th story I'd ever done in a television career now in its 25th year.
I had looked at this tape, of all of my tapes. I had this tape to look at, of all of my tapes.
As my mind-reeled, there were practical considerations. This was not the Izzy Povich I've described to you above, of course. This wasn't the Executive Producer who pulled our show out of the fire on so many occasions. This was— at least to my ability to judge the thing— just an average Yankee Stadium screeching teenager, who happened to be a dead-ringer for my current colleague. There was always a chance, especially given that the voice of the girl on the tape came complete with a city accent that was the rival of any of my Bronx ancestors and not the cosmopolitan, Ivy League trained voice of the Ms. Povich of today, that this was just a look-alike, or maybe a relative.
Who was I kidding?
I would be remiss if I did not flesh out this story with the observation that I probably included her comments in the story because they fell into that ‘I know what she means' category of public comment. I had asked her why the fans cheered Jackson in 1982, when they had booed him in 1981. “That's a good question!” she began. “Why didn't these people cheer him when he was here instead of while— ” Here it got a little complex. “Instead of while he is here, y'know, while he's not here.”
Izzy, having bravely and good-naturedly enjoyed the playing of this tape in front of a meeting of the Countdown staff, and then in front of the afternoon meeting of the MSNBC executive staff, in the process earned herself an automatic answer to almost any inquiry made of her. “That's a good question!”— which is, after all, what a host most wants to hear when he testily asks why such-and-such a disaster occurred.
There also proves to be something of a foreshadowing of her career on that tape. She claims to have been aspiring to become a sportswriter— although every time she's mentioned this, she's focused a little too strongly on the part of the job where you get to go into a clubhouse full of half-naked baseball players. But I think she was already in route to her television work— and not because I happened to interview her. The guy I mentioned who made the comparison between Jackson and Ali? In the clip of him that I used, way in the back, is a teenaged girl standing, pretending not to look at the camera. Izzy again.
There is, of course, one final touch to this story of the Executive Producer I met 21 years before I met her, one that even O. Henry would not have dared put on the printed page. On the morning that this ancient interview surfaced, the back page of the New York Post trumpeted the Yankees' attempt to salvage the season of their troubled player Jason Giambi, by having one of their old-time stars begin to instruct him. You guessed it: the back cover of the paper, that very morning, featured a big picture of Jackson and Giambi, with the headline “Reggie To The Rescue.”
Izzy left work early that day. She said she was going to go play the lottery, using combinations of Reggie's various uniform numbers and the date I interviewed her.
I'll have to dig the rest of those ‘80s CNN tapes out of storage. For all I know, on one of them I'll find myself reading the winning lottery numbers for June 15, 2005. And then we can all retire, and remind ourselves, “That's a good question!”
SECAUCUS - They were just a few feet tall and not even as solidly constructed as the old architectural models my father would sometimes bring home from the office for me when I was a kid - but they affected me in a way I never would have imagined.
The towers of The World Trade Center.
They were in our studios yesterday, plastic recreations of the originals, dragged in by groups who are taking advantage of the security concerns about the planned “Freedom Tower” to push the simple idea that the best way to memorialize the victims and restore the community is to re-build the towers exactly as they stood until three and a half years ago.
They're absolutely right - with one minor caveat. One of the towers should be exactly 229 feet, four inches shorter than the other. I'll explain why in a bit.
Video: Rebuilding WTC Before that, I have a confession to make. My first job in television was in the lobby of WTC #1 (as they used to call it; I never heard “North Tower” or “South Tower” until the day of the attacks). That's where CNN's New York bureau was located until 1984 - behind a two-story thick glass wall that, when we put the studio lights on, made us look like a very cheap high school science experiment.
I hated the place. I mean, if you work in the city's tallest building and you're stuck in the lobby, you develop a mean streak about it. The place was comically understaffed (the first two years, we didn't have a receptionist - whoever was closest to the front door opened it, for staffers, visitors, and bag ladies alike). The commute - from almost anywhere else in the city - was wearying. The mall beneath the towers was a desert, and the neighborhood a wasteland (the dilapidated old West Side Highway still stood - kinda - out the doors to West Street, and the only amusements were those days when big hunks of it would crash to the roadway below). Worst of all, the air conditioning used to go out on an almost regular basis. You've never known heat until you've worked in a television studio without ventilation. Suits pressed while you wear them.
As I hinted above, my father's an architect, so I had inherited the typical aesthetic condescension of his profession. What the heck was this Trade Center design supposed to be? The world's largest salute to Oblong, perhaps - with the faux-gothic grillwork on the outside tacked on in a fruitless attempt to class up the joint.
I went in there to clean out my desk on the afternoon of Saturday, March 31, 1984. I would not return until September 11, 2001.
Suddenly, of course, the sense of drudgery that only a disliked workplace can represent had been transformed into the terrible meaning we all now intuit. And that gaudy grillwork - the only remains standing - stuck out against the smoking pyre of the place with the starkness, and the sudden antiquity, of the Roman Colloseum. The feelings, I needn't tell you. 40 days as a street reporter in and around the scene of the catastrophe managed to reshape even my memories of the buildings I once dismissed as merely a great deal of weight sitting on top of the place I did my sportscasts.
And as the searing pain of those first few weeks gradually gave way to sadness and thoughts of what, if anything, should be placed on this most hallowed ground, the only thing, the only thing that seemed to make sense, was the towers recreated, as originally designed, oblong boxiness and all - with that one minor caveat about the 229 feet and four inches. I wasn't among the voices insisting that only rebuilding it as it was would show we hadn't been “beaten” - merely that all other forms of construction there would offend the sensibility, and diminish, not enhance, the remembrance.
I hadn't thought much of it lately. The process of healing is a regretful one in a way. We're designed to forget - not forget the whole, but merely the sharp edges. I hadn't forgotten the Trade Center, nor my three years in it. Nor had I forgotten the fact that some creatures had managed to use two planes that each contained a friend of mine (Ace Bailey, the former hockey player and executive, was on one, and Tom Pecorelli, who had been one of the studio cameramen for my shows at Fox Sports, was on the other), to kill so many innocents in the buildings, including two college classmates of mine (Mike Tanner and Eamon McEneaney, who happened also to have been the quarterback and the receiver for Cornell University in the first sporting event I ever actually got paid to cover).
Those things hadn't passed, and they won't. Nor will the simple reality that it all happened - a reality that will still of a morning unexpectedly punch me in the stomach, or make me wonder for a moment if something so horrible could've actually occurred, or if I must have imagined it in a consummate moment in a dream from an endless night.
But I'd forgotten about the rightness of putting the Trade Center back where it stood. Forgotten it, until I saw that model yesterday, and it all came back to me.
The “Freedom Tower” design wasn't somebody trying to be disrespectful; it was just the unavoidable project of an architectural trend in which everything must look like somebody just built it with a kid's erector set. The Hearst/Conde Nast building is just getting finished not far from my home, and it's that same style: Attach Beam A to Side Support B, Tap Support B with a pen to make sure it sounds as tinny as it looks.
But it was wrong.
The best way - the only way - to further soothe the pain is, as the proponents including Donald Trump are suggesting, to rebuild it as it was. Which brings me to my caveat.
I'd use the original blueprints and design the “new” Trade Center exactly as it had been. But I'd insist that one of the towers be exactly 229 feet, four inches shorter than the other. It's an uncomplicated gimmick to guarantee remembrance. Because, as long as these new towers would stand, someone unaware would ask, “why is one of them shorter than the other?” Whereupon an old-timer could explain, solemnly, that the difference between the heights of the towers is intentional - it's exactly 2,752 inches.
One inch for each of the victims.
It's all the memorial we really need.
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