Friday, November 16, 2012

Tennessee Trip

I had a nice trip over the long weekend to visit Anna’s relatives in Tennessee (good folks ranging in age from one to ninety-one). Here are a few thoughts from the weekend…

• On the way down, we stopped at the Tamarack Center just off the West Virginia Turnpike near Beckley. Tamarack was created nearly twenty years ago to showcase the creative talents of West Virginia artisans. It is a beautiful circular building that sells all sorts of West Virginia items. They have a great “cafeteria” featuring West Virginia foods, as cooked by recipes from the Greenbrier—I like their fried green tomato sandwiches.

On the way back, we stopped at the new Heartwood Center along I-81 at Abingdon, Virginia. Heartwood is “western” Virginia’s version of Tamarack which was built a few years ago. It is smaller than Tamarack, and doesn’t have studios to watch craftsmen at work or large meeting spaces. We ate at their restaurant, but it doesn’t compare to Tamarack. They also showcase local foods, but because it is not cafeteria style, it takes longer to get in and get out. I’m glad we stopped and gave it a try, but I think it was a “one and done” experience for me.

• Whenever I am near the southern end of the West Virginia Turnpike, I like to listen to “Little Buddy Radio” on 93.1. This FM station broadcasts from Princeton, and is run by Bob Denver’s widow (Denver is best known as his famous character “Gilligan”). His wife was from West Virginia, so he moved to southern West Virginia with her and they set up this radio station before he died. As an independent station, they play an eclectic mix of music, including some of the more obscure oldies that don’t seem to get played much on oldies radio station.

• While in Tennessee, we stopped at a Food City grocery store so I could stock up on Cheerwine, a black cherry soda bottled and sold in southeastern states. I first became familiar with Cheerwine when they sponsored Morgan Shepherd’s race car years ago. I like the taste and always enjoy getting unusual “pop”—when teaching I usually had something to drink at my desk in case my throat got dry, so when traveling I would always look for pop that wasn’t available in Parkersburg. On this particular trip, not only did I find Cheerwine on sale, but I also purchased some Junior Johnson Root Beer.

• I enjoyed seeing all the tributes on Facebook for Veterans Day, but one in particular caught my eye. A high school classmate of mine (Glenn D., who is a veteran himself, and who survived the attack on the American barracks in Beirut in 1983) posted a picture of his great-great-great grandfather in his Civil War uniform. His grandfather had the same last name as my great-great-great grandfather who also fought (although in a different West Virginia infantry regiment). After some discussion, we have determined that our thrice great-grandfathers were cousins (meaning we have the same great-great-great-great-great grandfather). It was nice to figure out we are distantly related!

• We also made a slight detour on the way back so I could see Bristol Speedway. Bristol is a nice town whose main street straddles the state line between Virginia and Tennessee. It is known as the birthplace of country music, in addition to its famous half-mile race track. I attended my first NASCAR race in 1965 (the Daytona 500, won by Fred Lorenzen), but my last race was in 1989 for the Bristol night race (won by Darrell Waltrip). Since my previous visit, Bristol has expanded dramatically. There were no seats between turns one and two when I watched on that August night 23 years ago, but this attached picture gives you an idea how many seats have been built just in turn two since then. It is humongous!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

My Presidential Campaign

On election night 32 years ago, I was eagerly watching the presidential returns, primarily because my final paycheck depended on it. After graduating in the spring of 1980, I landed a paid position as a field coordinator with the presidential campaign of John B. Anderson. He was a fiscally conservative, socially moderate, ten-term Republican congressman from Illinois, who initially ran in the GOP primaries. Once Reagan had secured the GOP nomination, Anderson ran as an independent to offer a third choice for president (yes, he was “mavericky” long before that term was coined).

As an idealistic 22 year old, right out of college, it was a whirlwind campaign year. Initially, I worked in the Charleston office, getting Anderson on the West Virginia ballot. I’ve previously shared the story of how I got to meet singer/songwriter James Taylor, an Anderson fan who came to perform a benefit concert at the Municipal Auditorium (I “saved” the concert that night because he broke his guitar string in the hotel room, and I had to run to Gorby’s Music Store and get him a replacement).

Later, I worked petition drives to secure ballot access in Oklahoma during June, Missouri during July, and Alabama during August. It was hard work but lots of fun seeing parts of the country I had never seen before. I fondly recall my trip inside the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the flat interstate between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and the high-tech town of Huntsville compared to the old South feel of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery.

For the fall months, I was the coordinator for the southern half (also known as “downstate”) of Anderson’s home state of Illinois. Our main office was in downtown Springfield, Illinois, across from the historic old State Capitol, and less than a block from Lincoln’s law office (I learned a lot about Lincoln during this time). We also had offices in Champaign/Urbana (home of the University of Illinois), Alton (suburban St. Louis on the Illinois side of the river), Carbondale (home of Southern Illinois University), and Charleston (home of Eastern Illinois University). I should point out that this was in the era before personal computers—telephones and 3x5 index cards were the preferred methods in those days.

I got to travel all around this area, and coordinated a few visits with Anderson’s wife Kiki and his daughter Eleanora Anderson Kettler. Kiki traveled with Secret Service protection, and it was interesting to work with her officers, who did all the driving around the state with Kiki and me in the back seat. I got to talk with her a good bit, and this paid off at the end of the campaign.

The last day of campaigning before election day, Anderson came back to his alma mater and spoke that evening at the University of Illinois. As I greeted him on the steps of the auditorium, he asked me if I would come to Washington, DC, and work the remainder of his term in his Congressional office. Holy cow! I was amazed and thrilled at this unexpected job offer.

It turns out that Kiki had learned from several days of traveling with me that rather than staying in hotels, I was saving the campaign money by living on a cot in the back of our office (along with the other staffer in the office) in what had been dressing rooms when the building was used as a clothing store. We purchased cheap memberships at the local YMCA and walked down the street each morning—not to work out, but simply to take our showers. Kiki also was aware that I had worked on Capitol Hill during the fall of 1979, and thus knew my way around the House Office Buildings and the Capitol itself. Finally, she knew that I had won a fellowship to grad school at WVU, and could take a job that would only last from early November to early January. It was apparently at her urging that I was rewarded with a new job.

So after an exciting campaign season, I got to continue working for John Anderson by joining his Congressional staff his final few months. It was a great experience! [It also dawned on me that if Anderson had actually won the presidency, I would likely have landed a job in the White House!]

But my stint on Capitol Hill came after spending a tense election night at our campaign office near the University of Illinois, on folding metal chairs filled with many “Fighting Illini” students who had supported our cause. Even though Anderson had earlier been pulling strong double-digit polling numbers, they had dropped from being in the twenties down through the teens and below as the election day approached (the race was seen as going down to the wire and folks didn’t want to waste their vote on an independent candidate who couldn’t win). However, he was still popular with college students and intellectuals. Thus, on election night 32 years ago, I was just hoping we would get at least 5%, because my final paycheck was dependent on qualifying for Federal Election Commission matching funding, and 5% was their threshold number. Luckily, we got over 7%, and I got paid.

I’m sure the paycheck was important at the time, but it was really the experience itself that was most valuable. On nights like this, it is nice to reminisce about my personal presidential campaign, and the close camaraderie that comes with such quixotic efforts. Oh to be young again!

Congressman John B. Anderson

Thursday, November 1, 2012

My CIA File

As a career employee with the government, I must get periodic background checks, including interviews with government security investigators. It isn’t as if I deal with a lot of government secrets—this is just standard protocol for many civil servants to have their security clearance renewed. Whenever I am interviewed, I always convey one of my darkest secrets to the investigators—because my name probably appears in a CIA file somewhere. You see, I have had dealings in the past with a hostile foreign government.

I realize that many of you who know me find this news to be a surprise. I am hardly the James Bond type, and especially not a Benedict Arnold traitor. Yet it is important that I “fess up” to this experience whenever my investigation is due again. Not admitting to it is what supposedly gets you into trouble.

It all started so innocently. In the late ‘70s, as a young college student, I got involved with the student government on our campus. I was elected vice-president for my sophomore year and then president my junior year (I then did an internship in Washington during the fall semester of my senior year).

During this same time period, Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba published a weekly English newspaper entitled “Granma”—indeed, it is still the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party. This newspaper arrived each week in the student government mailbox even though we had not subscribed to it. Apparently the Cubans assumed that student government offices on college campuses were a hotbed for radical Marxism, and thus provided free subscriptions because they wanted to spread their “gospel according to Fidel.”

Our copy generally ended up in the trash without being looked at. However, when I became president, I decided that was wasteful. Perhaps some student doing research on Cuba—or on propaganda—could benefit from looking at this publication. It seemed to me that if they insisted on sending it to us, it was better for it to go to the library than to take up room in our mailbox. I must admit that I didn’t coordinate my idea with the library staff—I had already learned from other student government activities that it is often easier to ask forgiveness afterwards than to ask for permission beforehand.

So I took it upon myself to write a letter to the publisher at the address shown inside, explaining the desire for it to be re-routed to the library. I took it to the local post office and mailed it to Havana, Cuba. Soon the newspaper was no longer clogging our mailbox. It seemed as if I had done a good thing.

Later that year, our college hosted a special speaker*—I don’t remember his name but he had written a book about his experiences with the CIA, and was now working the campus lecture circuit. His talk made me think of my letter to Cuba, so I went up and asked him about it after his speech. He explained to me that all mail bound for Cuba gets routed through the Miami CIA office for “review.” While there was nothing sinister with what I had done, my interaction with the Cuban government would likely be recorded, in case I started getting more involved with them in the future.

He warned me that if I ever was interviewed by government or military officials for a job or whatever, a standard question is whether or not one has ever traveled to or had dealings with a hostile foreign government. He advised I must always remember to answer yes to this question, because if I am under oath and say that I have never done so, they have that information in my file to show that I am lying. One of the primary purposes for government investigations is to determine someone’s trustworthiness, and thus I would fail that test. What I did was not all that bad, but neglecting to acknowledge it would be bad. Such a failure could jeopardize my ability to get a government job, or a secret clearance, or whatever.

Thus, ever since my first civil service background check back in the ‘80s, I have always told investigators the story of my letter to Cuba. I don’t want to find out whether this college lecturer really knew what he was talking about—I just routinely trot out my story as soon as they ask the question. Honesty truly is the best policy. In conclusion, I trust that there is nothing else about my boring life that would be worthy of inclusion in my CIA file. I hope it is a very narrow binder!
*During my undergraduate years, I enjoyed attending a number of special speakers on the UC campus. These included then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, actor Jack Palance, former Nixon aide John Dean, theologian William Sloane Coffin, author Jeremy Rifkin, numerous state political figures, and others (such as the CIA guy) whom I have probably forgotten over the years.