S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 12 January 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Résumé Fodder

 

[Welcome aboard flight 98 to the moon. I m Emily and I ll be youre in flight hostess this evening. ]

The very rich aren't,

unfortunately, so different from

you and me. In a culture driven

by the driven, by the

unrelenting determination of the

wannabe nouveaux riches, those

who've actually made it to the

supposed top offer some odd

little lessons to those of us

who are stuck eating their dust;

success, it turns out, comes to

those who buy our shared

delusions in the econo-sized

box.

 

As 1997 limped its last couple

of months to the finish line,

one of the most instructive

human-interest tragedies

revolved around the high-profile

death of a rich dishonest person

- and we're not talking about

the passing of Europe's most

significant bulimic

divorcée. (Although that

was a pretty hot event, too,

judging by the ticket sales and

fudged movie sequels.) Our

favorite dead rich person was

the man with two first names to

match his two life stories, the

late diplomat who had dirt dug

up on him shortly before, um,

having dirt dug up off him. Our

favorite dead person playing the

role of metaphor-for-the-

decline-of-something-or-other

during the dubious-award

eligibility period of 1997 was,

and please do picture a short

drumroll here: Larry Lawrence,

late of the US Embassy in

Switzerland.

 

Lawrence lived a

big-bigger-biggest reality; he

was, in his 69 short years, very

nearly every kind of person we

wouldn't have liked: campaign

bagman, political appointee,

real estate developer,

unrelenting spotlight-seeker,

glib bullshitter. One government

official who had known the man

acknowledged, in an interview

with The Washington Post, that

Lawrence blew smoke up every ass

he could get his lips on: "(H)e

could embellish," the official

said, later adding with a

flourish of unintentional irony,

"With Larry, I'd always try to

dust things off and get to the

core."

 

Problem is, Lawrence also lived

an unreality that was simply too

damn big. Our dearly departed

was supposed to have been a

brave merchant seaman - badly

injured by a torpedo blast

during WWII, while his Liberty

ship was under attack by a

German submarine. But Lawrence

himself, government and media

investigators would eventually

conclude, was the sub-mariner;

in March 1945, while the SS

Horace Bushnell was taking fire

from a submerged attacker in the

chilly North Atlantic, Larry

Lawrence was an undergraduate

cramming for mid-terms at a

Chicago junior college.

 

No torpedo attacks are known to

have occurred on Illinois

campuses during WWII.

 

[We will be serving drinks after take off.]

Lawrence told his tall tale of

courage under fire to quite a

few people, but one of the most

interesting venues for his claim

was a job application. The job:

US Ambassador to the land of

Nazi gold and chiseled-jawed

Alpine skiers. State Department

diplomatic security officials

asked Lawrence to prove his

claim of wartime service, but

didn't exactly stress over it

when one of their

soon-to-be-ranking-officials

couldn't actually prove that

he'd done the thing he

claimed to have done; they were,

they would later explain, too

busy probing his "loans and

lawsuits." His nomination

confirmed, Lawrence shipped off

to drink and dine with the

Swiss. He died on the job.

 

Which, of course, is where

things get really interesting.

Lawrence wasn't eligible for

burial at Arlington National

Cemetery, the designated resting

place for members of the armed

services who die while on active

duty (subject, obviously, to the

wishes of their families). Note

that political appointees to the

diplomatic corps are not viewed,

under Arlington rules, as armed

servants. But Lawrence got the

Arlington burial he had wished

for, despite the little

ineligibility issue, after

Secretary of the Army Togo West

granted a waiver - which had

nothing to do with the many

checks the dead diplomat had

written to the political party

West's boss belongs to.

 

The rest is obvious: scandal,

discovery of truth,

disinterment. But there is one

highly baffling piece to

Lawrence's story. To sneak up on

this one from the back road,

let's compare a couple of

newspaper editors. No, really.

 

Shelby Coffey (er, Shelby Coffey

III) was, during his tenure as

the editor of the Los Angeles Times,

not widely respected by Los

Angeles journalists. When he

lost his job, a couple of months

before Larry Lawrence hit the

fan, a story by a former Times reporter

ran in the weekly New Times

under the quiet headline: "A

Legacy of Shame." One of writer

Jill Stewart's most charitable

statements about her former boss

began, "Though Coffey did not

direct every act of cowardice

personally,..." Under Coffey,

the Times quite reasonably came

to be viewed throughout the

city as disinterested,

disconnected, and distracted -

as, in short, an absentee

newspaper, on the porch every

morning but never really out on

the street.

 

[Meals will be distributed after you are all good and drunk.]

"It's incredible that a man like

that, such a lightweight and

such a coward, could be allowed

to run a big-city paper," said

another ex-Times reporter, who

had since moved on to another

Times on the other side of the

country. "When I compare Shelby

Coffey with the editors I work

with in New York, who are all

real journalists with guts and

brains, the difference is just

breathtaking."

 

So, yes, you see: not widely

respected.

 

Funny how that reporter

mentioned real journalists in

New York, with guts and brains;

we are, it happens, about to

compare Coffey to one Pete A

Drinking Life Hamill,

newspaperman for close to four

decades. "When I first walked

into a city room in the summer

of 1960," Hamill once wrote, "I

felt as if my life had finally

begun."

 

When Hamill took over as editor

of New York's Daily News, he

implemented a few personal

dictates: less "nose-pressed-

against-the-window" celebrities

gossip, less predictable

language (crimes occurring "in

broad daylight") that currently

keeps a whole industry of hacks

in paychecks, a return to

descriptive writing and

reporting that comes from a

grounding in the newspaper's

home city.

 

"I want these young reporters to

be able to write in a way that

reflects what you hear, provide

a sense of smell and taste,"

Hamill told an interviewer,

"because the reporters are going

where the vast majority of

readers can't go.... I mean,

'The body was lying on the

floor, and the blood dripped

over the second step, and there

was a packet of Kents in his

pocket.' It's the detail you

want, the things you can't catch

at all on TV, the odors and the

sounds."

 

Which is a precise prescription

for curing the worst ills of the

tired old news media. Many, many

observers knocked themselves

out singing Hamill's praises -

not for the first time. In

September, a month or so before

Shelby Coffey hit the fan,

Hamill walked down the hall for

a meeting with his boss - and

never returned to his own desk.

He had quit, sort of, after

running up against certain

insoluble differences of opinion

with his boss, Daily News owner

Mort Zuckerman.

 

[We will then be showing the film-what do dreams about seagulls mean? There will be prises for those who can answer that question]

Among the many differences

between Shelby Coffey and Pete

Hamill, one difference was

especially telling: Shelby

Coffey ran the editorial side of

the Times for eight years; Pete

Hamill edited the Daily News for eight

months.

 

And so Larry Lawrence's little

White House lie can best be

seen, finally, as a strangely

unnecessary act of

résumé inflation,

precisely akin to showing up at

a frat party with a keg of beer

and six porn starlets and

thinking that you'll have to be

a pretty smooth talker to get

through the front door; Lawrence

attempted to invent a combat

record to win a job from the

administration that named

civilian Pentagon lawyer and

Amherst graduate Sara Lister to

an important operations post - a

"muddy boots on the ground"

post, as Lister herself might

have put it - in the Army. And

he tried, more significantly, to

invent a history of personal

merit - bravery, service,

toughness - so that he could

advance in a culture that can't

even begin, or doesn't bother to

begin, to judge such an ancient

notion. He padded his

résumé to win

respect, a job, and a prime

piece of postmortem real estate

- in a time and place in which

Pete Hamill is judged to be less

worthy, as a newspaper editor,

than Shelby Coffey.

 

Larry Lawrence wrote big checks,

and postured well, and thought

he needed to do something else

to get what he wanted. We have

to wonder how people who

understand so little become so

wealthy, but the joke is on us;

this is, it turns out, a bit

like wondering why fish thrive

in water.




courtesy of Ambrose Beers