Travels and times as a political agnostic

A decision to take a break from journalism to, I thought, learn about how government works in Washington turned into a decade of alcoholism, politics, deception and mistakes. Took too long to learn a valuable lesson.
On the staff of the Congressional Science and Technology Committee in 1986. (Photo by Ed Kashi for Macworld magazine)

In 1981,I moved with a new wife to the National Capital Area of Washington, DC. in March of 1981 after 12 years with The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois, part of the metro area of St. Louis. I went to work for Congress as part of the then-called “Reagan revolution” to work as Press Secretary to House of Representatives Rep. Paul Findley, a long-time Republican Congressman from Illinois. New wife Amy, an actress and director of play and commercials, had more opportunities in the area and easy access to the media-mecca of New York City.

Findley knew I wasn’t a Republican. I was, and remain, a political agnostic with a journalistic cynicism about electerd officials. I didn’t really trust them but felt working in DC for a couple of years would give me an education in how government really works so I could return to my primary profession as a newspaperman.

By the end of 1981, I was unhappy with that choice and was talking with newspapers about coming back to where I belonged. However, a staff member of the National Republican Congressional Committee asked me to talk with GOP political consultant Eddie Mahe,, one of the party professionals considered part of the group that saved the party and helped bring it back from the disasters of Richard Nixon and Watergate.

Mahe was an interesting character with a flat-top haircut, wore short-sleeve white shirts and a thin black tie loose at the neck. He apparently had also followed some of the work I had done in Findley’s office and with other GOP congressional media operatives in Congress. He suggested a meeting with New Mexico Rep. Manuel Lujan, Jr., who had been in Congress for several terms but almost lost a close race with challenger Bill Richardson, an up-and-comer in the Democratic Party.

“Manuel is a nice guy who is known more for constituent service than legislating .” Mahe told me. He said the NRCC felt like I had new ideas that could to use in a tough Congressional race.

“I think you can go in there and put your new ideas to work to try and save the seat. A lot of people think Manuel will lose, no matter what, so no one will blame you. But if he wins, you will get a lot of the credit and you can write your own ticket here in DC. If he loses, I can get you a job at other places or you can return to newspapers,” he said.

Fair enough, I thought as I met Lujan the next evening in the bar of the Capitol Hill Club. We talked for more than three hours, consumed a fair amount of scotch and stood together at the urinals in the restroom when he said “let me think about it. I may call you soon,”

I told him that I was interviewing for a job as managing editor at the newspaper in Kingsport in Tennessee the following week. “I’ll make a decision this week,” Lujan said.

Because of the scotch in me, I caught Metro (Washington’s new subway) home to our condo in Arlington and told my wife that “I may have a new job. At least, it seemed like it.”

I was at my desk in Findley’s office shortly after 9 a.m. the next day when Lujan called and asked me to come the House Dining Room for lunch.

“I want you on our team,” he said. “But one things bothers me: Your beard. I’ve never had someone with a beard on my staff. I’m not sure how it might play with constituents.” I told him I had had the beard for more than a decade and a new wife who had never seen me without it. I offered to shave it for $5,000 more a year in the salary he was offering.

Former Congressman and Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan.

“Keep the beard,” the Congressman said. “The job is yours if you want and I need you on board by the start of 1982.” The salary, even without an extra $5,000, was a good increase from the one I had.

In Findley’s office, I had been called on the carpet by his chief of staff for not always addressing the boss as “the Congressman” or “Rep. Findley.” I had known Findley for years before he offered me the job and I always called him “Paul” and we had always used our first names to address each other. When I asked Paul about it, he said some on the staff felt it showed disrespect.

I asked Lujan how he like to addressed by his staff. “My name is Manuel,” he said. That’s what my friends call me and I consider those here my friends. Just don’t call me ‘Manny.’ My real friends know I hate that nickname. Please just called me ‘Manuel’ or ‘Lujan’ and you are ‘Doug.’ Fair enough?”

That clinched my decision to take the job and spend at least another year in Washington. Manuel won, which surprised many, and the margin of victory, some said, was because of my presence on his staff. I accepted the praise but wasn’t sure it was me.

Mahe said two things I did convinced him that he had made the right decision about me.

First, I traveled to Albuquerque on my first week on the job and, while looking over results of the previous election, noticed that the South Valley of the city did not vote for the New Mexican on the ticket. Most of the valley were Hispanics and most spoke Spanish on the job.

“Most Hispanics pull the lever to vote for all Democrats on the ballot,” Mahe said. Too many of them know Manuel and think he is going a good job but they are trained to vote a straight ticket and too many of them don’t realize he is a Republican. The major reason is that most Hispanics pull the lever to vote for all Democrats on the ballot. Too many of them know Manuel and think he is doing a good job but they are trained to vote a straight ticket and too many of them don’t realize he is a Republican. They just assumed he was a Democrat.”

Lujan hated party labels and seldom mentioned the party when talking with constituents. He lated losing the South Valley but said he would not play up party to try and win them over. His opponent in 1982 was New Mexico State Treasurer Jan Hartke, son of former Indiana Senator Vance Hartke, a politician so corrupt that when he served with the other senator, Birch Bayh, the joke among Hoosiers was that “Indiana has two Senators: Bayh and Bought.”

Hartke was blonde and looked like the all-American boy. So, before the election, every home in the South Valley of Albuquerque woke up two weeks before voting day with hanging cards on the front doors with this on one side: “How to you say ‘Hartke’ in Spanish?” On the other side was a photo of blonde-haired Hartke with the word “GRINGO!” underneath. The card also had instructions on how to vote for Lujan on the ballot and just him instead of a straight.

Hartke’s campaign staff cried foul but the card did not come from the Congressman’s campaign. It was an “independent expenditure” paid for by a city car dealer who supported him. Did i have anything to do with it? “Of course not,” I would answer. That was my story and I stuck to it.

On the weekend before the election, a letter with details on how to vote for Lujan and then the other democrats in the race, arrived at each home. The letter came from the the car dealer and said it was not from the campaign.

Secondly, the election also had one televised debate on the weekend before the voting. Hartke had run a vicious attack campaign, accusing Lujan of ignoring constituents, which was untrue, and had was controlled by the energy companies that had, he claimed, raped the state. That was also a lie.

As the campaign communications consultant, I had negotiated the debate rules and agreed to let Hartke speak first, which Mahe argued against, but that gave Lujan the closing argument. Before the debate started, I gave him an index card with writing on one side.

“If Hartke attacks, which we figrue he will, please turn this card over and say what is written ont eh card,” I told him gefore he went out to take his seat for the debate.

“You know I don’t like prepared statements,” he said. “Trust me on this one,” I said.

Hartke did attack, even claiming that the Congressman was “chopping down the scenic trees of this beautiful land.” He had used that line before and I was hoping he would do so again. While Hartke was lying, I saw Manuel turn the card over and read it. He smiled.

“I’ll be damned,” I thought. “He is going to use what’s written on the card.”

When his turn came, Manuel said: “You know, my daddy once told me that there were two ways for a man to grow and get strong and be the tallest tree in the forest.. You can either work hard, be honest, serve the people and grow to be the tallest tree or you can just chop down the other trees to remain the only one still standing. I would not want to be your Congressman by chopping down any trees in our Land of Enchantment.”

The broadcast closed with the crowd cheering and Hartke scowling. Mentioning his daddy, a popualr former mayor of Santa Fe and founder of the family’s insurance business that served many residents, would help, I hoped.

After the debate, a smiling Lujan said “that was great. Where did you tet that quote?”

“I’ll tell you after the election,” I said. I waited because I found the words came from Adolf Hitler in a passage in the book, Mein Kopf, considered the bible of those who wanted to learn the tricks of using propaganda to accomplish just about anything. He said he would not have used it if he had known the words were Hitler’s.

“They weren’t his exact words,” I said. “I paraphrased extensively and it would have taken a history scholar to figure it out. Manuel said he hoped so. He later told me that I would have had to fire him if the source had become public.

Manuel often said I went too far. During the first debate preparation, shortly after I came on board the campaign, I felt the Congressman’s speaking style was, frankly, boring.

To make the point, I told him: “If you had been masturbating behind that podium, you hand would be asleep,” I said. “and your Johnson would be soft as jello.”

Manuel looked wounded. “It wasn’t that bad was it,”

“It was worse,” I said. “The comparison was the closest I could come to illustrate how bad.”

Mahe told me after the campaign that Lujan cosnsidered firing me for that comment but later said “Doug can be blunt and obscene but the points he made kept me in office.” When the campaign went into debt by the end of the election, a first for him, he told me to get him out of debt before the end of the year. I did it by Thanksgiving.

My work in the campaign led to a chief of staff job for a new member of Congress the following year but I returned to Lujan’s staff two years later as his new special assistant to the ranking GOP member of the House Committee on Science and Technology. I worked on many projects for him at the committee, including investigation of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger that killed seven astronauts and the first teacher in space. We flew down to Houston on Air Force One for the memorial. On the flight back, he said he was tired and thinking abut retiring.

Columbia lands at White Sands in 1982

As his staff member on his Congressional office, we traveled throgout the state of New Mexico, incuding three days at White Sands, where the first atom bomb was tested, for the landing of the Space Shuttle after an original landing spot at Edwards Air Force Base. I brought a film crew to the site to film campaign footage for the election.

On the Science and Technology Committee, staff. We traveled to the Paris Air Show one year, to Israel, Italy and London.

At his insistence, Amy was a guest to that trip. I made more a dozen overseas trips with the Committee, some with Manuel, sometimes with other staff or alone.

Shortly after taking that job, newly-elected president George H,.W. Bush asked Lujan to become his Cabinet Secretary of the Interior. I worked with the team to prepare him for the nomination hearings. He asked me to come over as his new chief of staff but I had to decline.

In 1987, he told me privately that he would not seek another term in Congress and would return to life in New Mexico. I became the new Divisional Vice President at the National Association of Realtors, managing the largest political action committee in Washington. The Senior Vice President, a long-time Republican whose wife was chief of staff for GOP Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, hired me and made the offer over lunch at strip club in downtown DC.

“You can’t afford me,” I said. My new job also included many perks, but there was a bigger problem..

“That post requires White House clearance and I have to show that I am a Republican with a party registration,” I said “They will discover I am not , nor have I ever, been, registered as a Republican or a member of the party.”

Manuel’s eyes opened wide. “How dd that happen? You worked for me twice. You worked for other Republicans. Hell, you did field work for the Congressional committee, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. How in the hell did I hire someone who wasn’t a Republican?

“Simple,” I said. “You did not ask.” I did serve as an informal member of his “cabinet advirsors “and played poker with him and others at his office, a tradition that started when he was in Congress. We remained friends and in touch for the rest of his life. Sadly, Manuel Lujan died on April 25, 2019.

I stayed at the Realtors for five years and the PAC supported Democrats and Republicans, making maximum contributions to more than 425 members in each campaign. In a televised appearance on CNN about money and politics, I represented political action committees and Congressman Guy Vander Jaqt was chairman of the NRCC.

Vander Jagt called PACs “whores” for supporting political politicians.

“Congressman, you have a problem with your comparison,” I responded. “Where I came from, whores are the ones who demand money for services thay are only promising to deliver. That sounds like members of Congress who, like you, are constantly soliciting PACs like mine for contributions with promises to support something we went.

“I believe that the very best we can expect from whores like you is to get screwed,” I concluded.

I had worked previously with the Congressman as a field consultant on races but he never spoke to me again.

My response to him was reported by several newspapers and media outlets back then. A few weeks later, I was speaking in Las Vegas to the state Realtors and during the Q&A afterwards, a new Realtor raised her hand and asked: “You keep mentioning PACs. What does ‘PAC’ stand for?”

“Purchase a Congressman,” I said to laughter in the room. “In reality, it means Political Action Committee and the donations we make are, at best, a rental of their attention for a short time. Too often, we are get a lemon and a spoiled one at that.”

I took a sabbatical from the Realtors in 1991 to accept an offer to shoot news photos for wire services during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and left the association shortly afterward to return to journalism. What I had originally thought would be one or two or three years away from my chosen profession, it became a decade and I left that life for good in 1994, the same year I joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

I worked for a while for Mahe’s business crisis communicates firm but quickly returned to the profession I love, with much-lower income but it was a much better way, I think, to serve. I had worked for what was then two good newspapers, The Telegraph in Illinois and The Roanoke Times in Virginia before the political sabbatical. After leaving politics, I worked as a reporting and photojournalism contractor for wire services, The New York Times, Washington Post, MSNBC and CNN. I traveled the world on assignments, covered 9/11 and news in Afghanistan, Iraq and other hotspots.

As this is written, I have been sober for 29 years, two months and three days and we live in retirement in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia. I shoot photos and write articles for our locall newspaper but that is a love, not a job.

And, yes, I am still a poltiical agnostic. When health struggles allow me to ride my beaten and battered 2009 Harley-Davidson Dyna, with more than 100,000 miles on the odometer (a figure reached in 2012), I wear a full-face helmet that has a sticker on the back.”I am not a Democrat or a Republican,” it reads. “I am an American and there is a difference.”

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