Lots of emails last week about my column on dealing with Tom DeLay while I ran the political programs division of The National Association of Realtors.
“How,” one wanted to know, “did you go from lobbying to journalism?”
Good question. Wrong question. Wrong assumption. I went from journalism to Congressional staff work to politics and then back to journalism. It was, with apologies to Jerry Garcia, a long strange road.
In 1981, I needed a break from the daily grind of journalism. I had been working nonstop as a reporter, photographer, columnist and editor since high school – almost 20 years. So when Congressman Paul Findley of Illinois offered a job as his press secretary, I took it with a promise to myself and my new wife to stay in Washington no more than two years.
“Two years in Washington to learn how the government works,” I told myself. “No more.”
I almost didn’t make it a year. I didn’t care for the life and was talking with a newspaper in Tennessee about returning to journalism in late 1981 when Eddie Mahe, a longtime political strategist, asked me to go to New Mexico to work on the campaign of longtime Congressman Manuel Lujan.
After a year on the campaign, the adrenaline of political life took over and I was hooked. I spent two years as chief of staff to a freshman Congressman and then returned to Lujan to work as his special assistant on the House Committee on Science and Technology. In election years, I took leaves of absence to work on Congressional, Senatorial and Presidential campaigns. In 1987, the giant National Association of Realtors came calling and I found myself running the largest political operation in Washington, along with the country’s largest trade association political action committee.
But reality overcame adrenaline. The money, the power and the ego trip of being a player in Washington couldn’t overcome my growing disgust at how the game of politics ruined everything it touched. The deals, the payments for votes and access, the wink and “look the other way” nature of rationalizing what we did drove me into a deep depression and I drank more and more to deal with it.
I walked away from that world in 1992, but it took another two years to get my life back under control. Like many alcoholics I had to crash and crash hard, hitting bottom in June of 1994. On June 6, 1994 – the 50th anniversary of D-Day – I walked into the basement of a church in Arlington, Virginia, and took the first of 12 steps to dealing with the alcohol, the bitterness and the depression that had taken over my life. My two-year sabbatical from the only thing I was born to do, became an 11-year journey through the dark side of politics and damn near destroyed my marriage and my life.
Ironically, Eddie Mahe and his partner Ladonna Lee, came to the rescue by offering me a job in their firm, which had morphed from a political consulting company into a “strategic business communications” operation. In a few days I was off to Montana to work with a business client. More importantly, I was far away from Washington and politics.
Later that year, on a Saturday morning, I sipped coffee in the den of our home in Arlington and logged onto my Internet account. My ISP announced it was offering 5 MB of free disk space that could be used to launch a web site so I sat down, wrote a commentary about the corruption of politics in Washington and posted it on the web under the name “Capitol Hill Blue.” I gave it that name, I think, because of the pornography of politics and government.
The cleansing process started to take hold. There would be more bumps, more struggles and more reawakening but the road ahead promised so much more. . The journalist re-emerged. I dusted off my long-neglected cameras and never looked back.
Yes,.what a long strange trip it’s been. It’s also one I will never take again.