As a young journalist, I had one goal. That was to become a reporter in Washington, D.C.
I got that opportunity in 1978 for Newsweek. I arrived in the nation’s capital on a snowy day in January as Jimmy Carter was starting his second year in office.
As a general assignment reporter, I covered labor and a piece of the economic beat. After a few months, I hated what I was doing.
Why? Being a journalist in Washington often doesn’t involve much reporting. Since Newsweek was an important magazine back then, I had access to almost anyone I wanted to talk to. Everyone sent you documents, press releases and statements by messenger service, so you didn’t have to do much except an occasional telephone call. It made today’s reporting, where most journalists never venture outside of the office, seem difficult.
I worked on the second- and third-string stories about how the Carter Administration didn’t know what it was doing. It was pretty easy because all of the Washington hands didn’t like an outsider like Carter and his Georgia boys. Moreover, the Carter team didn’t really know how to get things right.
I got into some serious trouble when I called the State Department to reach the head of the Afghanistan desk after the ambassador in Kabul was killed. The guy told me everything I wanted to know. I was unaware–until my boss yelled at me–that I was supposed to get everything from the press office.
At social occasions, here’s how a conversation in Washington went:
What do you do?
Who do you work for?
Where do you live?
Where did you go to school?
If you passed these tests, then you might give someone your name or get someone’s name.
I spent a lot of time at The Class Reunion, which was a Republican bar. Someone told me it was a good place to get dirt about how the Carter Administration was messed up. It was.
In my time in Washington, I attended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner once—an experience that underlined my belief that reporters and politicians spent too much time cozying up to one another.
The best part of the job was getting sent out of town. I spent time in the hollers of West Virginia during a coal strike and was sent to cover the mass deaths at Jonestown, Guyana.
After about, a year in Washington, my soon-to-be wife suggested we find another place to live. I agreed, so I spoke with the chief of correspondents at Newsweek.
I thought maybe we could move back to Chicago. Maybe Boston or Atlanta.
Instead, he said that Beirut was open. I laughed because Lebanon was in the middle of a civil war. My wife and I decided, however, that Beirut had to better than Washington. It was.
During my time as a reporter, I met some of the leading lights in today’s Washington milieu. Tommy Friedman never showed me much in Beirut. In fact, he almost got fired from United Press International, which was just across the corridor from the Newsweek office.
E.J. Dionne, then of The New York Times, threw conniption fits about American television coverage in Rome, where I served as bureau chief for ABC News. In both the cases of Friedman and Dionne, Loren Jenkins of The Washington Post, cleaned their clocks on a regular basis.
I met David Ignatius of The Washington Post when we both covered the steel industry. Then I saw him again in the Middle East. I used to think he was a good reporter; I don’t think much of him as a columnist.
Gloria Borger seemed all right at the time but not so much now.
George Will used to call you up if you had the lead story in Newsweek to pick your brain for his column there. He stole your lines and never gave you credit. I didn’t call him back after the second time he contacted me.
Carl Bernstein may have gotten Watergate right, but he was an awful bureau chief for ABC News in Washington.
I still enjoy P.J. O’Rourke, but it’s hard to forgive him for telling people to vote for Hillary.
I did meet some good reporters in Washington, but they didn’t hit the big time. Maybe they didn’t go to the right school or lived in the wrong neighborhood.
Nevertheless, I’m happy I had the opportunity to experience my Washington dream early on. I’m also glad I realized how empty that dream was. Unfortunately, not much has changed about the inanity of Washington journalism since I left nearly 40 years ago.
Christopher Harper teaches media law.