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Theo Goes to Washington

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How I got kicked out of the Capitol & shook hands with Newt

Graduating from college is, for most people, a moment of truth. The "real world" looms, bills beckon, jobs are scarce, and the first words on everyone else's lips are: "So. What's next?"

I was, much as I hated to admit it, no exception.

My summer was taken care of, with two months learning German and visiting relatives in Munich. Yet I still had to find something to do come August.

What I did was go to Washington.

I didn't go on my own, of course. The Washington Center for Politics & Journalism had accepted me for its Politics and Journalism Internship (now its Politics and Journalism Semester), a series of political-reporting seminars coupled with a newsroom internship -- in my case in the D.C. bureau of theChicago Tribune.

I would spend the next four months covering press conferences, researching 1994 campaign spending and writing articles for the Tribune, all while watching the GOP take control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. 

The city

It was a normal D.C. August when I arrived in the capital and unpacked my boxes in the room I rented high up on 18th Street N.W., about halfway between downtown and the northern corner of the district at Silver Springs, Md. The National Zoo, a short bike ride away, was still full with summer visitors, and Congress wasn't yet back in session.

I had a few days before I would begin my internship, and I spent them getting to know the least interesting part of the city: downtown. It shuts down promptly at 6 p.m., and the only eatery I found open after 9 p.m. was a seedy Burger King two blocks from the Tribune's old suite on L Street.

My first full day in the city, I walked by the scene of an armored-car robbery just minutes after an ambulance took the fatally wounded guard away.

My third day, a Sunday, I accidentally wandered into the Capitol basement while making a cursory circuit of sights around the Mall. It took the security guards a little over half an hour to notice me and find me; they didn't even ask my name as they escorted me out. "Another lost tourist," one guard told another over his handset. 

The Tribune

The day I walked into the Tribune offices on the second floor of a red- marble and gold-trim building on L Street, there was only one reporter there. The bureau chief, Jim Warren, and Michael Tackett (then associate bureau-chief) walked in an hour later, a little surprised to find me there.

Soon, however, I found my niche, and even before that, Lynn Marek, the office's librarian, found me work: Clip each day's Tribune, file the half-dozen newspapers that arrived each morning, help office manager Helen McGinnis distribute the mail, make sure faxes reached the right people, hand out transcripts from the Federal News Service...

Not all was clerical, however. I spent some of my time just talking with the other reporters there: Bill Neikirk, the White House reporter; Steve Daly, then the political reporter; Elaine Povich, who covered Congress. And, in time, I did more and more reporting.

It was the fall of the United States' non-invasion of Haiti, and as the tension built, each of the reporters in the bureau got busier. After a few hours, I was no exception. One reporter wanted to know what "roll-on, roll-off" ships were -- vehicles that, suddenly, everyone seemed to know everything about, from Wolf Blitzer to anonymous military officers. Someone else wanted to know more about the officer leading American forces. Later in the day, I was sent to an off-the-record briefing at the Pentagon, just in case. (The briefing, it turned out, was also covered by the transcription service, and the office had a transcript before I got back).

Throughout the fall, I lent a hand when needed and otherwise sought out my own stories. I wrote about a report that showed hunger increasing in the United States while falling elsewhere; the Washington Post picked up the Tribune's version. I wrote about another report showing drug use by U.S. teenagers going up. I covered a hearing on heroin trafficking and helped cover one of the very first FCC auctions of wireless-frequency licenses. When the FAA investigated a series of commuter-plane crashes, I wrote one end of a story with the paper's Chicago-based transportation reporter. And all the while, I was heading down to the FEC to check on Dan Rostenkowski and Mel Reynolds and their campaign finances.

A little before the election, I began noticing some political signs that were just a little more interesting than most of those sprouting on lamp posts and stop lights throughout the city: A goofy looking young man in a lemon-yellow suit looked out from them, holding a mixed drink in one hand and a corkscrew in the other. "If you want to get screwed," the sign said, "elect a politician. If you want to be served, elect a bartender." From there, I wrote my article about maverick candidate Russell Hirshon, who claimed to be taking on Marion Barry and his Republican opponent, Carol Schwartz, for the mayor's office. (You can read that story, and others I've written, on this site).

The Center for Politics & Journalism

I did not intern at the Tribune in a void. Twice a week, I and 12 other interns around the city met in a conference room loaned to the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism, headed by former Democratic mover and shakerTerry Michael.

There, while snacking on the cookies and juice he provided, we heard Terry and his guests talk about what makes Washington tick. From direct-mail consultants to Washington Gov. Michael Lowry, we heard about the good, the bad and the inescapably partisan.

Terry founded the program, he told us, after years of watching political reporters missing the point, covering the inside baseball of campaign politics and all but ignoring wider public and policy issues. So he set out to make a difference where he still could -- in the minds and hearts of impressionable and eager young reporters. Until recently a one-man show, Terry's center hits up Republicans and Democrats, television journalists and inky wretches, even the parents of former participants, for money and expertise.

The result: a star-studed speaking lineup and the best route in town to top-notch D.C.-bureau internships. (Indeed, the internships were so attractive that Terry soon shifted the focus away from them; once the Politics & Journalism Internship, his program became the Politics & Journalism Seminar.)

Like other interns, the events that made my day were the kind of things that ruined a more seaseoned reporter's. Twice I spelled Bill Neikirk at the White House for a 6 a.m. press-pool call to follow President Clinton on his morning jog. The first time, with Yeltsin in town for a state visit, I rode with two dozen or so reporters, photographers and others to a Secret Service-approved ambush spot on the Mall. We wated as Bill jogged toward us, chatted with some passers by, and then ambled on past with a wave. "Why didn't you bring Yeltsin with you?" called out Helen Thomas, the gathering's dean. "Wish I could have," Bill chuckled, running on.

We piled back into the black Secret Service vans, drove to the other side of the Mall and piled out again. This time when Bill sauntered by, Helen was on the phone and he was off the hook.

The second time I got to go jogging with the prez, we didn't get so close. Not long before, an angry pilot had buzzed the Washington Monument and crashed into the side of the White House, scuffing the siding badly. It wasn't the only disturbance that fall --Ýone man squeezed off a few shots at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue before the Secret Service tackled him; someone else escaped after a drive-by shooting from the Ellipse; later, presidential palace guards shot a homeless man to death on the sidewalk because he had taped a knife to his hand. So, the plane-crash apparently rattling Bill's keepers, we didn't even get within shouting distance of him on the second jog.

To be sure, a D.C. intern's life is made of such near-misses. Ed Rollins once caused a stir at a Sperling Breakfast -- saying he had paid off black preachers in a Northeast primary -- so skads of reporters-in-training arrive at each of the morning feeds, hungry and bleary-eyed, picking at muffins and fruit, listening to Dick Gephardt drone on and watching enviously as the few seasoned veterans leave early after downing a few eggs, sausages and sides of bacon. Occasionally, a near-thing becomes a complete miss: Once, looking for Sperling's event, I stumbled into a room full of beefy, suited men, sure I was in the right place. But muffins and fruit were as scarce as the pork-products were plentiful, and I soon left -- I had crashed a hog-grower's convention.

Sometimes, however, fame and notoriety beckoned -- or at least shook hands.

It all started, in a sense, with the bureau's fax machine. It was one of those thermal-paper faxes that spat missives out from one long roll, slicing each page off and letting it fall, curling into a little tube, into a bin below. My job was to smooth the pages out, match pages one through 99, staple them, and figure out who wanted which. Most of the time, the answer was, "No one."

Take, for example, Bill Kristol. These days lauded as a "conservative commentator," "editor of the Weekly Standard" or even, "conservative journalist," Kristol, to me in 1994, was northing less than a menace. He alone kept our fax machine whirring three hours out of four, mostly with his countdown to the GOP's master stroke, the one event that, he promised, would seal the November Congressional elections for his party. (The rest of the time he was chortling over the party's mulishness; "Keep on obstructin'!" one fax crowed, exhorting Newt and Co. to bottle Congress up entirely.)

As read Kristol's faxes on the much-vaunted Contract With America, I wondered who would cover it. So, the day before the event, I asked. Mike Tackett asked around. No one, he said. "You want to?" So I did.

The day of the press conference on the Capitol steps, I picked up the hefty packet of press summaries, proposed legislation, solemn promises and political philsophizing. Leafing through it, something struck me, and as the the gathering broke up, I legged it after Newt himself, catching him alone for a moment as he headed for the Capitol steps.

"Mr. Gingrich," I began after clumsily introducing myself, "I couldn't help noticing that the term limits provision doesn't apply to people like you, who are already in office. Why not?" He muttered something about the importance of regularly turning over the ranks of Congress. I was stymied -- he hadn't answered, and he was beginning to turn away. Then he and I realized we were surrounded -- other reporters, a few cameras, even a TV crew had zeroed in on the master of ceremonies. Another reporter jumped on the question: Why not? Other inquiries followed, a we were scribbling for nearly an hour.

(The next day, newspapers across the nation ran front-page packages on the Contract With America and Democratic jibes about the Contract On America. In Chicago, Tribune subscribers could read all about it on Page 20, in my eight-paragraph article. But I'm not complaining -- I got a great clip.)

Despite the fun and the first-rate education -- and despite the Tribune's generosity -- with its $250-a-month stipend, WCPJ was no free ride. And all the while, the real world crouched just out of earshot, drumming its fingers idly and waiting to pounce once again. What was I to do?