Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Election Day – My Past in Covering Politics

Today is election day—though not in very many places since it is an odd-numbered year—but nevertheless it brings back a lot of memories that have little to do with who won or who lost elections.

When I was a kid growing up in New York City, my parents always drove out to Shelter Island on Election Day to vote. They did so because the Town of Shelter Island was so small that there were years where elections were decided by fewer than 10 votes and there was one year where the election for Town Supervisor was decided by one vote. And you think Bush-Gore was controversial.

When we were little, my grandmother would come and spend the day with us. Mom and dad would drive the two hours to Shelter Island, check on our house out there, vote and then stop someplace to eat on the way home. I still remember my grandmother explaining to me that when she graduated from NYU law school in 1908, she wasn’t allowed to vote. In fact, it wasn’t until 12 years later that women were given the right to vote. Mind-boggling if you think about it.

If sports was my passion growing up, politics was second. I actually met President Johnson at a fundraiser in 1964 on my first trip to Washington. My uncle Charlie was the head of the Small Business Bureau (I think that’s what it was called) and we went to a Johnson fundraiser at, I think the old D.C. Armory. I was very little but I remember Johnson was huge and the highlight of the evening was the late comedian Alan Sherman singing a son he wrote called, “Once in Love with Lyndon, Always in Love with Lyndon.” That didn’t quite turn out to be the case a few years later.

I met Bobby Kennedy in 1968, about two months before he was killed, when he came to New York on a campaign trip and did a walk-through at his headquarters at 81st and Broadway (it was an old Schrafft’s restaurant) and I was in there helping stuff envelopes. He was NOT very big, surprisingly slight in fact.

The first election I was eligible to vote in was 1976, when I was in college. I voted absentee and then drove down to Burlington, North Carolina at 5 a.m. on election day to canvas voters coming out of the polls for The Burlington Times-News. My old college roommate, David Arneke, was working there then and he recruited me to help him out. I think I got paid $10 and David bought breakfast at McDonald’s when we took a break.

In 1982 and 1983, I covered Maryland politics for The Washington Post. I think I’ve mentioned here before that the gubernatorial race in Maryland that year was between Harry Hughes, the Democratic incumbent and Bob Pascal, the county executive in Montgomery County. Pascal had played football at Duke with Sonny Jurgensen in the 50s and when he found out I was a Duke graduate I think he expected me to be supportive even though he told me constantly, “I know all you Post guys are Democrats.”

Most of us probably were—although, for those who don’t remember, Bob Woodward was a registered Republican when he was working on The Watergate stories—but I can honestly say that never affected the way I covered Pascal. I liked him but it was pretty apparent from the start he wasn’t getting elected. Hughes had done a very good job rebuilding the state government in the wake of the scandal that forced Marvin Mandel out of office and the state leans heavily Democrat most of the time anyway.

Pascal was being pushed hard from the right on the abortion issue. One day, as we were driving in his car to a campaign speech, I asked him how he would deal with a hypothetical: if one of his four daughters got pregnant and told him she just couldn’t deal with having the baby how would he handle it.

“I would try to talk her out of it,” he said.

“But what if she was insistent.”

“Then I would support her decision.”

I wrote that and all hell broke loose in the Pascal campaign. They were demanding a correction saying that Pascal was absolutely pro-life 100 percent of the time. I went back to Pascal and went through the questions again. His answers—to his credit because he was an honest guy—were the same.

I finally said, ‘Bob, this is a pro-choice position. If this is the way you feel, the pro-lifers will consider you pro-choice.’

“Okay,” he said. “But I’m NOT as pro-choice as Harry Hughes.”

None of it really mattered in the end. Hughes got 63 percent of the vote. I was in Pascal’s hotel suite with several other reporters at 8 o’clock on election night when the polls closed. Pascal had been talking all day about how “shocked,” we were all going to be that night. He came bouncing into the room at 8 on the dot just in time to see Hughes’s face on the TV.

“NBC News is now projecting that Maryland Governor Harry Hughes will be re-elected with about 63 percent of the vote,” said the anchor—can’t remember who it was right now, maybe Tom Brokaw.

I still remember the stunned look on Pascal’s face. It occurred to me at that moment that he really HAD expected to somehow win. Politicians always believe there is going to be a miracle no matter what the polling data says. I’ll bet John McCain went into election day last year believing he was going to win too.

Pascal shut himself in the bedroom for about an hour before going downstairs to concede defeat. When he finally came out, we all rode downstairs to the ballroom in a freight elevator. Pascal was on the elevator with his wife Nancy (still one of the nicest people I’ve ever met) his mother, two of his daughters, a couple of state troopers and about five of us who had covered the campaign.

As we rode down, packed in tight, Pascal’s mom was standing directly in front of me. She was very short. She turned around to look at me, pointed a finger straight up in my face and said, “my son would have made a great governor and it’s your fault he lost.”

There was dead silence in the elevator. What was I supposed to do, argue with a 75-year-old woman who was about a foot shorter than I was? “M’am,” I finally said. “I’m truly sorry you feel that way but I don’t believe that’s true.”

 “You tell him mom,” Pascal said.

A year later I covered the mayoral election in Baltimore—which was more like a coronation for William Donald Schaefer, who was running for a fourth term. Schaefer was a heroic figure in the city having rebuilt the inner harbor and having completely changed the city’s image. (He was elected governor in 1986). But he was, to say the least, quirky. There were all sort of stories about his temper and, in a lengthy profile I wrote on him which was what people in my business call a puff piece (it was tough to say anything bad about him given the job he had done) I described one of them.

According to his staffers, if The Baltimore Sun wrote ANYTHING critical about him, Schaefer would lock himself in his office and spend an hour watering his plants—and he had a LOT of plants in there. I used that anecdote as an example of how sensitive Schaefer was to criticism.

On election day, I was assigned to be there when Schaefer voted, which he did as soon as the polls opened at 7 a.m. so he could spend the day traveling around the city urging people to get out and vote. That meant another 5 a.m. election day wake up. I didn’t mind. It was fun.

When Schaefer came out of the polling place, about a dozen of us surrounded him. Someone asked him—naturally—whom he had voted for. I asked some harmless question about what percentage of the vote he hoped to get (the final number was, I believe, about 87 percent).

Shaefer looked at me, pointed his finger at me (I seemed to get that a lot on election day) and said, “I’m not speaking to you!”

I thought he was kidding. I was still getting a hard time from people not so much for writing a puff piece on Schaefer but for writing the LONGEST puff piece anyone had seen on Schaefer.

 “Not speaking to me Mayor?” I said. “Why in the world not?”

 “How dare you,” he thundered, “write that I’m sensitive to criticism!”

He stormed off. I can’t imagine where I ever got the notion that he was sensitive to crit


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting those stories on an election day which - outside maybe NJ and VA - will go largely unnoticed.

Have you ever considered doing a book on politics?

I would love to see you dedicate an entire book to the confluence of politics and sports. ptwiley

I guess it would be hard to get most of the people you have covered to open up about their politics, but if you could get even a small percentage of them to do so, I think it would make for fascinating reading.

Also - since I didn't get a chance to post on this when it was a subject some time ago - I would love to see you write about Curt Flood and Marvin Miller; one of the great under-reported sports stories of the 20th century, IMO

dcsooner said...

"I’ll bet John McCain went into election day last year believing he was going to win too."

John, ya gotta think his running mate thought they would win too, but that's because the sky is plaid in her world.

dcsooner said...


Do you plan to post anything about the recent kerfuffle at the WaPo? It seems the moral of the story is Don't F with a Crusty Retired Marine.

On an unrelated note, any insight why John Thompson II is so adamantly against fans wanting to boycott Danny's team? His "be true to your school" mantra rings hollow after he dropped the BS bomb (twice!) on his show with regard to Zorn losing his play calling duties.

Anonymous said...

Bob Pascal was County Exec of Anne Arundel, not Montgomery, County. Maybe that's why you moved from politics to sports.