Can you add this picture to today’s post? Caption: Andy Ferguson likes to let the humor emerge naturally from his material.
At the Washingtonian I searched hard for writers who could make readers laugh about the city. It wasn’t easy. In the 1970s, the reigning funny writer in Washington was Art Buchwald, a syndicated columnist who did some freelancing. I invited him to lunch at Sans Souci, then the in-crowd restaurant, and asked him to do a humor piece for the Washingtonian. He liked one of the ideas I tossed out and agreed to do it for $1,500. The deadline came and went and I called to ask how he was doing. “Oh,” he said, “I sold that to Playboy for $3,000.”
In July 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, Queen Elizabeth was visiting Washington and Simon Winchester, a British journalist based in DC, wrote a funny piece, “What Do You Say to a Queen.” Eugene McCarthy, after life as a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, teamed with cartoonist Jeff MacNelly in 1978 on a wonderful “Political Bestiary.”
Getting the most laughs in the 1980s was Joe Bob Briggs, a Texas writer who mostly made fun of movies but did some pieces for the Washingtonian when he needed money. The one that got the most laughs was his April 1988 story “Brunch of the Living Dead.” The deck line: “Joe Bob Briggs, king of the drive-in-movie reviewers, turns his redneck eye on Washington’s television pundits.” He had the most fun with the bombastic John McLaughlin and his group.
The star of the 90s was Andrew Ferguson, now at the Weekly Standard and still a feature writer who can make readers smile. Andy had the most fun at the Washingtonian with “Crashing the Country Clubs: You Can Get Into a Country Club If You Have the Time and Money and Can Play the Game, But Don’t Call.” His best moments came when he called clubs like Congressional and Burning Tree to ask: “Hi. My name’s Andy Ferguson, and I was wondering who I might speak to about applying for membership in the club….”
At the Washington Post in the 1970s and 80s, Henry Mitchell did wonderful stories about gardening and life that made everyone smile, and Tony Kornheiser wrote a lot of funny columns, mostly about sports, in the 1980s and 90s but then started making so much money talking on television that his Post columns faded away.
Washington after 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the 2016 election hasn’t seemed as funny. Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post gets some smiles. Gene Weingarten, Buchwald’s successor as journalism’s number one humor columnist, writes a weekly column in the Washington Post Magazine.
I asked one of the city’s smartest journalists what he thinks of him: “Weingarten writes with the sole purpose of trying to make you laugh. Anyone who tries that on a weekly basis has my sympathies. The most effective humor is the kind that occurs along the way while the writer is taking you someplace else. If he’s wearing a big sandwich board that says ‘I’m Being Funny Now,’ he’s made an insurmountable burden for himself. But if he’s explaining an idea or reporting an event or telling a story and the humor emerges naturally from his handling of the material, it will be much more satisfying.”
After the h0lidays I’m having lunch with two other editors—the one in his 40s edits a magazine, the one in his 60s edited a newspaper and now teaches at a J school. I’m in my 80s and edited newspapers and then the Washingtonian magazine.
Three generations and how different our lives in journalism have been.
In 1952 I graduated from a small-town Wisconsin high school just as the world was changing in so many ways. We had gone through the Depression and World War Two. Our world was mostly shaped by radio and newspapers—television was emerging but in 1952 there was little to watch beyond the Ed Sullivan show.
During the war President Roosevelt connected with the American people most effectively by radio, by what were called Fireside Chats. He’d talk for 30 or 40 minutes, giving Americans hope in tough, uncertain times.
The dramatic visuals of the war mostly came from Movietone News; it provided short films that showed the war being fought along with stirring, sometimes ominous music. You saw the Movietone news coverage before the feature film at movie theaters.
Daily newspapers were the most important way to keep up with the news. In my hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, the local paper, the Post-Crescent, was delivered to just about every home in the city. We read it for news, for sports, for who was getting married, who had a baby, who died. Divorce? Growing up in Appleton I wasn’t aware of anyone whose parents were divorced. Very few people could afford it.
For young boys, the most exciting entertainment was reading comic books and going to a movie theater on Saturday morning to see the cowboy serials—Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers. Much of our play as little kids involved cowboys and Indians. We had toy pistols and bows and arrows and we fought over who was going to be a cowboy and who an Indian and then go hide so we could find him.
It was before much air travel. Visitors arrived by train. At age 18 I had never left Wisconsin and we didn’t know much about the world beyond our hometown.
Race relations? In our city of 30,000, there were no African-Americans, Hispanics, or Asian-Americans. Lots of people—mostly Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians—whose grandparents had come from Europe in the 19th century. My father’s family had come from Germany in the 1850s, my mother’s from Norway in the 1860s.
Women’s liberation? In high school there were no athletic teams for girls. The girls who were good athletes competed to become cheerleaders for the boys’ teams.
Most the girls in my high school class of 337 expected to get married fairly soon after graduation. Two of my sisters graduated from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in home economics—you went to college to learn how to be good wives and mothers.
For those boys who went to college, going out of state was almost never talked about. A few kids went to Northwestern but the rest of us went to a state college or university. When I started at UW in 1952, the in-state tuition was $95 a year. To cover the rest of the cost, many of us worked at part-time jobs. We’d never heard of anything called financial aid or student loans.
A lot of the boys in my 1952 high school class were anxious to get married because it was the only way they could get a girl into bed. It was before birth control, before abortion. My guess is that 95 percent of the girls in our high school class were virgins—despite the best efforts of boys, the girls were terrified of getting pregnant outside of marriage.
It was before pornography. The first issue of Playboy was published in December 1953. So that, we discovered, was what girls looked liked without any clothes on.
Music? It was the Glenn Miller orchestra for ballroom dancing, Nat King Cole singing love songs on the jukebox. Elvin Presley and rock music were a few years away.
Medical care? We had a family doctor and he took care of everything. It was before the Salk vaccine and in 1950 the star of our high school basketball team came down with polio. At a basketball game the next year he limped onto the court with everyone cheering but he never played again.
Dental care? I didn’t know any kid who wore braces. But lots of us had cavities because Appleton was one of the few cities where the water wasn’t fluoridated. It was considered by the city’s conservatives to be a Communist plot.
One of the Appleton area politicians, Joe McCarthy, took the fight against Communism to Washington where he made a lot of headlines in the Senate and then died a disgraced alcoholic.
Shopping? Local department stores, local grocery stores, local drug stores. And the Sears catalog—wow, the stuff you could buy from Sears Roebuck by mail.
The law? If a cop talked to you, you didn’t even think about any backtalk. You respected cops and teachers or your parents would sit you done for a talk. Guns? Lots of rifles for deer hunting and shotguns for duck and pheasant hunting but there was very little crime involving guns.
A world that now seems far away.
At the coming lunch, I’ll resist going back to the 1950s and be interested in hearing from the other two editors how they’re coping with the 21st century changes in journalism.
Where are the readers who’ll pay for news? With Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon ever richer, where’s the money coming from to pay for good journalism?
The titles of novels, like the heds on feature stories, are a challenge for editors. One famous writer-editor disagreement was between author F. Scott Fitzgerald and book editor Max Perkins. After Fitzgerald finished his most famous novel he wanted the title to be Trimalchio in West Egg.
After much discussion, Perkins convinced Fitzgerald that Trimalchio in West Egg was too vague, uninteresting, and hard to pronounce and the book became The Great Gatsby.
Agent Running in the Field somehow doesn’t sound like the title of a book by an author of such bestsellers as:
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Our Kind of Traitor
The Honourable Schoolboy
A Perfect Spy
A Murder of Quality
The Naive and Sentimental Lover
An editor might guess that Agent Running in the Field was the author’s choice (he turns 88 next year) and after 24 previous best-sellers the Viking editors let him have his way.
That said, there are no rules for book titles and feature story heds. What has a ring to it and seems somewhat interesting? Some examples:
To Kill a Mockingbird—intriguing but what’s it about? In the same category: Gone With the Wind. Charlotte’s Web. One Hundred Years of Solitude. The Catcher in the Rye.
Intriguing and a little clearer: Bonfire of the Vanities. The Lord of the Rings. And Then There Were None. The Da Vince Code. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The Eagle Has Landed.
At the Washingtonian, the heds on stories that won National Magazine Awards:
The Saving of the President (about President Reagan’s medical treatment after he was shot by John Hinckley).
Like Something the Lord Made (about an African-American physician’s assistant who helped devise life-saving surgical techniques at Johns Hopkins Hospital).
Where Have All the Warriors Gone? (about how the Pentagon became more interested in bureaucratic warfare than actual warfare).
Life and Death on the Fast Track (about a train crash with dramatic rescue stories).
How to Save Your Life (about finding Washington’s best emergency care).
On one story, a National Magazine Award finalist, I spent two days trying to come up with an appropriate and intriguing headline.
It was the story of Paul Adkins, a thoracic surgeon who looked at an x-ray of his chest and realized that he’d be dead within a year from lung cancer. Finally, in the Bible, I found a line from Corinthians that seemed to match the emotion of the story:
Since the passing Friday of George H.W. Bush, there have been many recollections of the most famous lines or most memorable speeches by the 41st president. His “thousand points of light” remark from his acceptance and inaugural speeches was used by the current White House to celebrate the former commander in chief just months after President Trump openly ridiculed it. Bush’s “read my lips” promise got pulled into round-up after round-up of the former president’s most famous sayings.
Yet presidential rhetoric scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson said in an interview Monday that what’s even more memorable are the remarks he never made: Any kind of big public speech after the Berlin Wall fell, at a time when many expected one.
“He could have said ‘we did it. The U.S. is victorious‚’ ” said Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. “But he did not do that. And as a result he didn’t get the kind of credit in that moment that he might have.”. .
The lack of a big showy speech was a reminder, Jamieson said, that “sometimes the right thing to do is not celebrate and engage in a rhetoric of triumph.”
As Jamieson put it: “When you evaluate a presidency, you ask ‘did the president, in difficult times, make decisions that were good for the country even if they were not in his political interest?’ ”
British editor Alan Rusbridger at his first newspaper job at the Cambridge Evening News:
The newspaper was owned by one Lord Iliffe of Yatttendon, a largely absent figure who owned a 9,000-acre estate 100 miles away in Berkshire. More important to me was Fulton Gillespie, the chief reporter, known as Jock—a growling silver-haired Glaswegian with dark glasses and the stub of a cigar permanently lodged between bearded lips.
Jock became my personal tutor. He was not a graduate, but a coal miner’s son who had left school with no certificates of any kind and had started work as an apprentice printer. . . .
Early in my time as a trainee reporter Jock told us about the ritual for covering Scottish hangings. This involved befriending the murderer’s soon-to-be-widow by promising to write a sympathetic account, possibly hinting at a campaign to demand a 11th-hour reprieve. Once he’d extracted the quotes and purloined the family photographs the reporter would, on exit, shout at the distraught soon-to-be-widow that her husband was a evil bastard who deserved to rot in hell.
‘Why did you do that?’
‘So the next reporter to turn up wouldn’t get through the door.’
That was what real reporting was about. Get the story, stuff the opposition.
After this photo of George H.W. Bush’s service dog Sully, with the slug “Mission Complete,” went viral, Slate writer Ruth Graham made one of the great counter-narrative moves in the history of digital journalism with a piece headlined, “Don’t Spend Your Emotional Energy on Sully H.W. Bush.”
The key graf:
It’s wonderful for Bush that he had a trained service animal like Sully available to him in his last months. It’s a good thing that the dog is moving on to another gig where he can be helpful to other people (rather than becoming another Bush family pet). But it’s a bit demented to project soul-wrenching grief onto a dog’s decision to lie down in front of a casket. Is Sully “heroic” for learning to obey the human beings who taught him to perform certain tasks? Does the photo say anything special about this dog’s particular loyalty or judgment, or is he just … there?
Some of the reaction:
Slate torched over article about George HW Bush’s service dog Sully – The Hill
Twitter Users Bite Hard Over Barking Mad Story on Sully – HuffPost
Critics bite hard over Slate Magazine’s article – CBS
Slate belittles George HW Bush’s service dog Sully – Washington Times
George HW Bush’s service dog ‘Sully” isn’t a Democrat or Republican—It’s doggone crazy to attack him – Fox News
A note Bush sent to AP photographer Mark Duncan thanking him for this picture.
From Connecting, a daily newsletter compiled by Paul Stevens for current and former AP journalists.
Remembering this genuinely nice man’s personal attributes
From Carl P. Leubsdorf – I first met George Bush on a fall day in 1970, as he toured Texas, campaigning for the U.S. Senate in his chartered DC-3. The lanky, youthful looking Houston congressman struck me as open and friendly, moderate in manner and approach.
But when he spoke, I was struck by the contrast between his manner and his sharply conservative comments. That contrast always seemed present as the man who grew up among the liberal Republicans of his New England youth rose to political power in the far more conservative GOP of his adopted Texas home.
He eagerly embraced the latter’s ideology, as a youthful critic of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in his sometimes harsh 1988 presidential campaign and in picking abortion rights foes for the federal bench. But he always seemed vaguely uncomfortable doing what he felt he had to do to succeed politically. It may explain why he always seemed more at ease dealing with foreign policy.
One thing never changed: his inherent decency and graciousness, whether dealing with fellow Republicans who undercut his efforts to curb the budget deficit or a press that sometimes treated him unfairly by calling this genuine World War II hero a “wimp” or taking advantage of his good manners to suggest he was out of touch with technological advance.
As Americans mourn the 41st president, I’d rather recall this genuinely nice man’s personal attributes, rather than his occasional political missteps.
I remember the gracious host who made visitors feel welcome at his seaside Maine home, in the Vice President’s hillside mansion and in the White House, who welcomed dozens of journalists and their families to his Kennebunkport estate each summer and to the same holiday parties with officials, lawmakers and family friends, instead of segregating them like other presidents and vice presidents.
When I was working on a major profile of him, he invited me and my wife Susan Page to dinner and theater, making sure we met an old friend starring in the show, “Chuck” Heston.
Like many others, I got one of those little notes he wrote to everyone from journalists to county chairmen to heads of state. It chided me for a tongue-in-cheek column in which I predicted his various offspring would emulate his son George and run Texas sports teams.
In the process, I omitted Mrs. Bush. “What about the silver fox?” he asked.
I got another after a 2014 column citing his receipt of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and praising his good manners in going out of the way to welcome President Barack Obama to Houston at a time many fellow Republicans were showing him little respect. After saying the JFK Award “means a great deal to me,” he added, “Your nice comments were icing on the cake.”
Bush had a great, sometimes childish sense of humor. In her memoirs, the former first lady recalled how she discovered some grandchildren had downloaded porno pictures using her computer. Several weeks later, she got a letter summoning her to a regional Federal Trade Commission office to discuss the matter.
She asked the former President to read the letter aloud but, when she noticed lots of smiles, “it came to me that my husband had composed this letter. I fell hook, line and sinker—again!”
Voters saw his somewhat goofy side, when he denounced Al Gore as “ozone man…far out” in the 1992 campaign and, bemoaning his troubles, inexplicably exclaimed, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”
But the term that best characterized him was loyalty; members of the Bush family often said they believed “loyalty is not a character flaw,” and they remembered those who stood by him—and those who did not.
They were especially grateful to those who remained by his side in 1992, even when it became evident he would probably lose.
Similarly, the man friends affectionately called “41” remained totally loyal to his presidential son, known as “43,” even when it was widely believed he disapproved of the latter’s decision to attack Iraq; after all, in his 1998 book with National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Bush described the problems he would have faced had he tried to overthrow Saddam Hussein after the Persian Gulf War.
They closely resembled what transpired under his son.
The ultimate irony was that 43’s efforts to make up for 41’s perceived failures, both politically and in Iraq, only made the first President Bush look better.
History won’t likely rate him as a great president, though his management of the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War look even better today than when he left office. But no more decent, honorable and genuinely nice man ever occupied the Presidency.
Bush 41 About Press Photographers
Bush composed this nod to press photographers at the request of the AP in 2012, and his comments were used to introduce AP’s “The American President” photo exhibit the same year.
Like most —if not all —who have been privileged to serve as president of the United States, I did not always have the warmest of relations with the news media. In fact, it wasn’t until after I left the White House and joined a local chapter of “Press Bashers Anonymous” that I realized every chief executive dating back to President Washington has been routinely criticized and second-guessed by the Fourth Estate.
But for me, relations were always much warmer with the news photographers —or “photodogs,” as I called them —who covered the White House. Without exception, the photodogs I knew were a decent, hard-working and good-natured group of dedicated professionals who were passionate about their work. It could be that I loved the photodogs because they wielded their talents behind the camera, and let their work speak for them. Yet, there was something more to it. They were fun, and always so nice to Barbara and me.
President Trump’s reaction to a new guilty plea Thursday from his longtime attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, was predictably pugnacious: Cohen, one of Trump’s strongest defenders for more than a decade, was “a weak person and not a very smart person.” Asked why he had kept such a character on his payroll for so many years, the president sounded like a parody of a lousy mob movie: “Because a long time ago, he did me a favor.”
That was predictable, too.
An affinity for mobsters and their rhetoric has been a consistent thread through Trump’s adult life. From his early professional mentor, the New York lawyer and power broker Roy Cohn , to his many years of dealing with mob-connected union and construction industry bosses, Trump has formed close alliances with renegades and rogues who sometimes ended up on the wrong side of the law. He’s long learned from and looked up to tough, street-smart guys who didn’t mind breaking some rules to get things done. Trump also admires mobsters’ no-nonsense language and basis for action; he cites “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” among his favorite movies.
Last year Ezra Klein also suggested the Trump-Mafia connection, which brought back these 2017 memories of a Washingtonian story, by Vic Gold, titled “If a Mafia Boss Ran the Country.”
The Boss of Bosses takes the oath.
Trump would have made a great mafia boss. Not sure he’s going to make a great president.
—Ezra Klein on Twitter, June 7, 2017
Vic Gold, who died Monday night after a long career in politics and journalism, wrote a 1980 Washingtonian story about what it’d be like if things got so bad that the American people would elect a Mafia boss to run the country. Excerpts from Vic’s story:
— You Say the Country Wants Strong Leadership? You’re Tired of the Bungling Georgia Mafia? “Gonna Tell You Once”
It was an offer, as Time magazine pointed out, we couldn’t refuse. We were a nation in search of leadership.
So it was that by 1980 the American people, disgusted by the President Jimmy Carter’s bungling Georgia Mafia, were ready to to turn the real thing—the Mafia Mafia….
As the Boss of Bosses informed us in his inaugural address, we were going to be “one happy family.” He was speaking figuratively, since under the new regime’s territorial divisions, the country would actually be run by four families, headed by a quartet of underbosses who reported to the Boss of Bosses.
Right from the start—the memorable address from the Capitol steps—we knew we had a man in charge. According to Evans and Novak, the speech had been written by the number-one White House speechwriter, Jimmy Breslin. Germond and Witcover, however, claimed that Breslin’s draft had been rewritten by the new administration’s resident intellectual, Mario Puzo. Whatever the case, the text, which was delivered in short, staccato bursts, was notable for its raw simplicity.
“Gonna tell you once,” rasped the new President, glaring into the cameras, “I’m not going to repeat myself.”
The following morning, the Boss of Bosses held his first and only news conference. He was asked to spell out his agenda for the country. “That’s a good question,” he replied. “Don’t ask it again.”
No hemming and hawing: finally there was someone in the Oval Office who wouldn’t bend to the winds of public opinion.
The Washington Post complained about infringements on press freedom, and the Washington Star objected when members of the Cabinet—renamed the Commission—refused to speak to reporters. But the vast majority of Americans were ready for a leadership that gave them more action and less talk….
“For the first time in years,” wrote one reporter, “we have a woman in the White House who, when asked, says she doesn’t know what her husband’s business is and doesn’t want to know.”…
He is, as his closest aides describe him, “a very, very private man.” On quiet evenings at home, he prefers the company of trusted friends, engaging in long dialogues with his favorite economist, Meyer Lansky. His favorite actor is Sly Stallone. His favorite sports team is the Washington Bullets. His favorite hymn is “Shall We Gather by the River?”His favorite song is “Stayin’ Alive.”…
After reordering the priorities of his administration team, the Boss of Bosses was ready to tackle the problem of world peace, which he did in December 1981 at the Appalachian summit meeting. Or, as he preferred to call it, “The Big Sit-Down.”
Every major world leader, along with a few territorial capos, was in attendance. That was a historic first. But the real first was that for once the American people were sending a chief executive into the negotiations with foreign leaders figuring our side had the edge.
For an example, the Big Boss had no difficulty in arriving at an agreement with his Russian counterpart. Still, ceremonial appearances were maintained: The Russian gave our leader a sleek black Zis sedan as a token of esteem, and in return our leader gave the Russian a sleek black Cadillac hearse.
Nobody ever claimed to see anything subtle in the way the Big Boss got his ideas across.
On the morning preceding the big sit-down, the Ayatollah Khomeini and Muammar Qaddafi each woke up to find a sacred ram’s head at the foot of the bed.
Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, King Khalid, and Yasser Arafat found themselves stuck in the same elevator between floors for six hours.
By noon of the second day, forever after known as the Day of a Hundred Embraces, it was all wrapped up. Signed, sealed, and delivered.
Peace—it was wonderful. And with the Big Boss cut in for the percentage of the action, we knew those Middle East wells would keep pumping.
The Washington Post under Amazon’s Jeff Bezos continues to push digital growth—see Digiday on “How the Washington Post is reorienting for digital subscriptions.” A spokesperson is quoted as saying the Post’s “subscriber base has more than tripled in size over the past two years”—subscriber base meaning digital readers. Digiday says the Post declined to share hard numbers; in October 2017, the Post said that “it had amassed 1 million subscribers.” How many people read the Post as a print newspaper? It’s hard to tell. The Bezos-owned Post is a private company that doesn’t have to report to stockholders or the SEC. In 2013 the paper said it had 377,466 daily print readers and 568,365 Sunday readers. Five years later are 200,000 readers sticking with the print newspaper?
I’ve been getting the Post home delivered for 40 years and how they deliver the paper sort of symbolizes the decline of print. In the 1980s and into the ’90s, the paper was delivered by teenage carriers who lived in the neighborhood. About 630 every morning I’d hear Nicole, the young girl who lived two blocks from our house, walking the street and dropping the paper by the front door. She had a golden retriever who walked with her and sometimes you could hear her calling the dog.
In the 1990s, the Graham family replaced the neighborhood teenagers with adults driving SUVs that sped through the neighborhood with the driver tossing papers onto front lawns. To their credit, they delivered the paper by 630 no matter the weather. Keeping one tradition, in December the paper would include an envelope inviting you to give a holiday tip to the anonymous carrier.
This morning, perfectly timed with the Digiday story about the Post’s digital growth at the expense of print, the SUV driver missed the front lawn and the Post was out in the street by the curb—a cynic might say out in the gutter.