Monday, October 6, 2008

The whole story


I guess I got that off my chest (see the previous post, “Intercepted email”).

In retrospect, the “Fuck you” seems a little gratuitous. But it was exactly the way I was feeling at the time. And frankly, I just thought it was a direct re-statement of Sallie’s email, only with the euphemism stripped away. You see, she had told me just two days earlier that she was going to run the op-ed in this week’s Hampshire Review, along with an update at the end that I would call in from Charleston after the WV Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday. So you can understand why I felt betrayed.

You may not understand why I was so very, very angry. Every writer gets rejection slips. Isn’t this kind of an overreaction?

For many years now, I have kept silent about the story of how I came to quit writing the column in the Hampshire Review, a job I dearly loved. Some of it came out in my first “epic” post, “Radical Pantheism.” But just what happened in Charlie See’s office that day is a story that’s only been shared with a few friends, for a variety of reasons: to protect the reputations of important local people who have their flaws, like every human being (the “cross” we have to bear), but whose lives, on the whole, are an overwhelmingly positive contribution to their community—people I always considered friends, despite their many personal betrayals; to keep a civil discourse that would help us function together in projects we worked on (for example, me buying ads for civic events in their paper); and because, if you’re organizing in local politics, you don’t want to make an enemy of the county newspaper.

Now, obviously, the time has come to tell the whole story. And ultimately, it is a story of my personal skirmish in the national culture war, as well as a friendship gone bad.

When Charlie first approached me about writing the “transplant” (the nickname by which county natives refer to the immigrants moving into the third fastest-growing county in the state) side of a transplant/native column format, my friend Michael O’Brien, a reporter for the paper, told me that Charlie had asked him if I was a conservative. I had sent the Review a 1,200-word op-ed responding to the negative comments in the man-in-the-street column they’d run the week of George Washington’s birthday. The interviewees were unanimously pessimistic about what Washington would think of the current state of the country—the unspoken subtext being the presidency of Bill Clinton.

I wrote an upbeat piece about how Washington would tell these people to buck up, how he was a get-up-and-go, can-do kind of guy, the model American, and how, if we just follow his example and roll up our sleeves, we can do the same thing today—he would expect it of us. I was experimenting with using patriotic language to express the same beliefs I always had, but to an audience of rural conservatives instead of the progressive urban sophisticates who read the left-wing newsletters I’d always written for before this. It fooled Charlie, the editor (at that time) of the Review.

When the column started in May 1996, my counterpart, the chair of the county Republican party, and I agreed that we wanted to conduct a civil dialogue. But it was an election year, and it wasn’t long before the culture war reared its massive ugly head. In an indirect response to my third column, something about the modern ramifications of the American Civil War, my counterpart’s fourth column was headlined, “Liberals lie.” He didn’t mention me by name.

We got pretty brutal—as you may have realized by now, I’m not exactly a milquetoast liberal—but we never got off speaking terms when we’d see each other around the county. He’s basically a good-humored good ol’ boy; and we were in fundamental agreement about our politics, despite the left/right thing, because he’s out of the party’s libertarian wing, and he’s just as afraid of the Council on Foreign Relations as I am.

Things changed when he ran for the state senate after two years on the column, and his little brother took over. We started with the same civil agreement, but it got real ugly, real fast. And he’s meaner than his brother.

The worst of it came when his political patron, the president of the county commission, tried to sell the county hospital to a friend who then leased it, and I became privy to information that led me to mount a “save the hospital” campaign in the column. After my former counterpart was elected to the county commission in 2000 and provided the majority vote to sell the building, I found out from a friend of mine in the Attorney General’s office about a provision in the WV Constitution that allows citizens to petition to sell county property. We opponents of the sale formed a committee and gathered enough signatures within days—which voided the commission vote. In the 2002 GOP primary, the county commission president was defeated (despite being voted “Republican of the year” in 2001), and the citizens voted 3-1 not to sell the hospital.

All this time, my counterpart was attacking me for “sour grapes,” by constantly bringing up my partner Nancy, who had worked as a nurse practitioner for the company that leased the hospital, at a separate clinic. When the clinic closed, her secretary, who was suing one of the company doctors for sexual harassment, was hired by the hospital, but Nancy wasn’t (most people think it was to get at me, for my columns). Every time, I reminded readers that I had started writing against the hospital sale while the clinic was still open, and there was no talk of closing it; and I knew for a fact that the company was lying about the clinic’s patient numbers, at the county commission hearing on the closure.

This would shut him up for awhile, but a few weeks later, he’d bring it up again, because he knew that it bothered me. I would sit in Charlie’s office in agony, because of course it embarrassed Nancy, but Charlie would say, “If I censor Scott, I’ll have to censor you, too.” And naturally, I didn’t want to lose what little freedom I had in my first real gig in mainstream media, so I suffered along. I begged him to separate the columns, so I wouldn’t be forced to answer some of the more outrageous vomit coming from the right. He would tell me about going to statewide editor/publisher conferences, and all these guys coming up to him in wonderment that he was printing my stuff, and saying they would never do it. “Michael,” he said, “I could never publish a guy like you without somebody to balance you.”

Freedom of the press? In America?


I told him I was going to quit in the spring of 2002, I was so sick of the back-and-forth. But he convinced me to hold out until after the general election, when he was going to get rid of Scott, because he’d found out that Scott’s brother had filed papers (partnering with a guy who recently pled guilty to embezzling the county) with the Secretary of State’s office, to start another newspaper in Hampshire County, and Charlie was pissed about this. I figured I could hold out that much longer.

After the election, I kept waiting for the change to happen, and occasionally dropping hints, but it never did. I came up with several candidates to replace Scott, Republican friends of mine, but for one reason or another, Charlie would dismiss the idea.

I wrote in “Radical Pantheism” about how nervous Charlie was at that time that I was against the coming war with Iraq, and how I kept talking about how Bush was lying about everything. It was our traditional practice since I began writing the column for me to come in on Monday mornings and hand-deliver it, to make sure it was acceptable (I only had two rejected in seven years), and because Charlie and I genuinely enjoy sitting around and talking about stuff. (At least, we used to. He confessed to me recently that my column had caused him “many sleepless nights.” I didn’t tell him the experience was mutual.)

One Monday morning in January 2003, I came in with a column that was mostly about Bush’s lies about Iraqi WMD, but had a short coda responding to Scott’s previous column. I don’t have a fulltime job, since I spend most of my time working around the farm, and he had alluded to me being lazy. I had answered with a list of some of the things I do around here, and closed with something like, “Anybody who confesses to being too fat to walk in the woods [as he had in his Thanksgiving column] should be careful about mentioning work.”

It was humorous, but Nancy had been embarrassed about being publicly linked to a shiftless husband type, so it was the last straw for me. I confronted Charlie and told him that, if he didn’t fire Scott or at least separate the columns, I was quitting. He got mad and said I didn’t have any right to put him on the spot like that. I reminded him of his promise a year before to fire Scott, and he says, “I said, I was thinking about firing Scott,” and I say, “That’s not the way I heard it” (remembering how mad he was at the time), and then say, “If you’re not going to fire Scott or separate the columns, I quit,” and he says, “Fine!” and I say, “Well give me back that column. I don’t want you to publish that one, either,” and he says, “Fine.”

Throughout this time, of course, our voices are getting louder and louder, and we kept on arguing. Now here’s something that might jog Charlie’s “memory” about what really happened that day (the last time I talked with him—this spring, as I recall—he kept hinting for me to agree with him that our separation was a mutual decision, but I let it pass): right in the middle of this heated argument, I suddenly stopped and said, “Wait a minute. Are you getting rid of Scott, too? Because I’m not quitting, if you’re not getting rid of Scott.” It was a suicide bomber’s logic. And Charlie said, “Scott’s going too,” and then we resumed our argument.

We argued until we exhausted ourselves, and then we stood up and shook hands, in the interest of the comity I mentioned above, and I left. Two days later, the column was replaced by a vague, sentimental editorial from Charlie about how things change, and sometimes you just have to move on.

In the next issue, somebody wrote in to say how glad he was that “Thinking Locally” had ended, because he was tired of the personal and ideological garbage. Naively thinking that I could still join the conversation, I wrote a letter to the editor in reply, saying how much I agreed with the reader, and that was exactly the reason I quit. Charlie didn’t print it. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe he was letting me take the rap for all this shit, when he knew better than anyone else in the county, except Nancy, that I had been begging him to make it stop for at least three years, for him to properly exercise his editorial discretion and cease the false and unfairly personal attacks.

But he was going to be above it all.

Well, this story has already gone on much longer than I intended, and there’s still a lot to tell, about further betrayals, and how drugs and religion and crooked state politics all fit into the picture. But I have to get ready for my drive to Charleston this afternoon, for tomorrow’s West Virginia Supreme Court hearing on the case, Committee to Reform Hampshire County Government v. West Virginia Speaker of the House of Delegates and President of the Senate, in which I’m a plaintiff (the legislature’s appealing).

I’ll be back on Wednesday to resume the story, and to give you an update on what happened in court.

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