I met Maggie Thorensen as planned, at the small reception room on Sands' floor of Bethesda Naval Hospital. The Tennessee congressman's doctor was with us, both nervous and thrilled to be part of Great Events. The doctor had set it up as I suggested: Maggie's mission to her reluctant censurer; in the noble tradition of the House; I along simply as an old friend of both parties, a role that Marvin Sands almost balked at. Hospitalized for high blood pressure after being stricken in the midst of the censure debate, he obviously didn't want to see me, as the doctor elliptically let me know. But I had to be there and it had been managed.
Maggie had never looked worse. A non-member of Congress finds hard to understand the devastating impact of the ritual censure declared by the speaker at the bar of the House. The Ohio congresswoman was still firm in her conviction that she had served the country best by flouting security rules to leak the classified FBI documents which showed how three oil companies and a pipeline company conspired to fix prices. But the pain of Chairman Sands' welshing on his pledge to me not to support the censure, followed by yesterday's 211-204 vote against her, followed by Speaker McWharter's solemn pronouncing of the censure, had taken its toll.
I squeezed Maggie's hand as I pecked her on the cheek. There was no need for us to be linked, even in the doctor's suspicions, as an "item." It was better that he see us - Maggie the liberal congresswoman, me the public interest lobbyist - simply as powerful allies in the great crusade against Big Oil.
Sands had been plumped into the VIP suite with carpets, restful paintings and indirect lighting. By his bed, an attentive nurse rose, salaamed to Sands and the doctor and withdrew.
"Maggie," he said, with genuine pleasure, and then, "Henry," with a certain caution.
"Everybody did what they had to," Maggie sighed. The hell of it was that she was so damned decent, she meant what she said even while she was there to find out, contradictorily, what had led Sands to switch. A little flush of self-forgiving happiness came into his cheeks. But now the Ethics Committee chairman had to take the curse off his lie to me.
"Henry, I thank you for coming. I do." He'd obviously been thinking what to say, for he launched right into it. "I want to tell you what made me change. I feel it was only the slightest shift from the posture of our talk to my final decision, only the slightest, and I'd like to explain why I say that."
To my surprise, and pleasure, he signaled the doctor out of the room with a courtly "Doctor, it's political talk, you might be bored . . ."
I had been a lawyer, a mean one, for too long to let a witness finish a self-serving phrase if I could prevent it. "Mr. Chairman, you say you counseled with others." I hunched my chair up toward his bed and fixed him with what I hoped with a sympathetic gaze. "You know, when we talked, I made what I thought you might take for a veiled threat about campaigning against you down there. I worried about that, that you might think it such. I do not want to campaign against you. You welshed on me, Mr. Chairman. But I know it was something troublous that made you do it . . ."
"I did not welsh, Henry," he said quietly, lying. "But I want to explain . . ."
"Henry," said Maggie remonstratively to me.
"Maggie," I said to her, meaning it for him, "I am not as kind as you, not as forgiving. But I want to forgive. But, Mr. Chairman, in return for forgiveness could you not tell me who came to you, counseled in the night with you to turn around on this thing?
"Johnson?" I encouraged him. The ranking minority man on the committee would be an obvious guess. I knew the oil industry itself would not come to him directly.
He shook his head. "No." I felt the familiar tingle of electricity that comes with instinctive insights. With a mongoose lunge, my mind hit it. Pemberly! Sure. That was why the snake-like Alabama congressman had lain low during the debate. House-wise Maggie picked up the meaning of his denial with the same certainty.
"You didn't let Pemberly talk you . . .?" That wasn't quite the way to ask and she quickly realized it. "Did Pemberly talk with you after Henry did?"
"I talked with a lot of people, Maggie. He was one of them." Sands dissembled readily. But out-and-out lying came hard to him.
"Pemberly," Maggie said, my deadly sister in this most important hunt. She put her hand gently on his arm. "Marvin, why?"
Sands' face pinched, grew a bit petulant.
"I talked to a lot of people, Maggie."
"Mr. Chairman, there is only one thing that a man like Pemberly could convince you with," I said. He cowed, dread in his eyes, then tried to brace himself against the accusation he knew was coming. "Pemberly is a nobody. He is a junior congressman. You are a chairman, a man of prestige and honor. You have trouble with labor. They have a candidate for the primary. I know that. Their candidate is a nasty little opportunist but your district is changing. You need TV time, ads." I said it without passion, almost in a drone, but with force behind it. "You do not need me to go in there too and work against you, Mr. Chairman. To the contrary, you need me to resist the blandishments from my ally, the labor movement, who will seek to have me campaign against you. When I resist labor it is at my hazard, Mr. Chairman." So now I was taking my own commitment an ugly step further.
"But I will resist labor, Mr. Chairman, if you clear up this business to my satisfaction. You can be spared. You can be spared," I repeated. "Pemberly made you a promise of support?"
Maggie threw him just the right [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] Her blue gaze [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
"You couldn't have turned on us without a promise that he could help in the campaign, Marvin."
Poor Sands sighed. His chin dipped a fraction, affirming it, saying to us in this docile assent that he was helpless in the fact of Pemberly's, that is, Oil's arguments: his changing district, his younger opponent, the ominous bankroll of Big Labor.
Still gentle, full of pity, if her voice were to be believed, she said to him, "You gave in, Marvin. You let him have your vote for his promise of help. You" - she paused - "you let me be censured, the first person in 60 years, when if you'd held out. . . ." Her voice cracked and the tears surged up in her eyes. "For a promise of a contribution, for $10,000, $20,000, what, $30,000?" Thank God. She hadn't said bribe.
Maggie's tears were falling now onto the clean, impersonal hospital sheet. Sands looked at her there, weeping silently, and his own dam burst.
No, he shook his head. Not for a mere $10,000. He would not sell out his friend for $10,000. He remained silent, mutely imploring. Maggie's tears still falling, she studied his face intently.
"He promised you $100,000," she said, at last her voice so shaken that only the "hundred thousand" came out clearly. I saw on his now-transparent features that she had hit close or on the button. My God, they had bought the old man for $100,000, the way you would buy a bull or a horse.
He shut his eyes and I saw from under the lids the tears come in a stream. He nodded yes, and then began to weep, his body shaken with sobbing.
We had the cards now. Firmly and quietly, I told him.
"The die's cast, Mr. Chairman. If you tried to go back on what you've told us today, what you bravely explained to us" - I did not say confessed - "then we would swear an affidavit, and I suspect that Mrs. Thorensen would too, to what you told us. We would take it before your own committee, the Ethics Committee, and we would seek to have both you and Pemberly censured. Whether people believed us or you, it is a circus that no one would want to go through with."
He put his hand over his eyes. For an instant I feared he would have an attack, and, panicky myself, I looked for the doctor. But we waited, and after a long minute he looked up at us with calmer eyes.
"I think" - my mind working busily now with the framework of the House I had monitored so long - "we can get Pemberly to concede these things to the House: that he already had a promise of Oil's support; that he came to you, not because Oil told him to, but because he genuinely believed that Maggie should be censured; that while talking he mentioned in passing that Oil might be willing to help you out in your campaign; that he did the same with a few other congressmen.
"If he stands on privilege in not saying whom he spoke with, other than you, and if the House will forgo asking him who the bagman for the oil industry was, then I think it will fly. The alternative for him might well be a bribery charge at Justice. The alternative for the House would be even nastier censure for you, maybe expulsion proceedings for him, which the House doesn't need . . ."
"No . . ." Sands agreed.
"So," I went on, "Pemberly can save his tail from prosecution, I would think, by making a graceful little floor speech just as I outlined it and saying he would like unanimous consent from the House to change his vote from 'yea' to 'present.' Pemberly's arguments had no effect on you, but you can say in view of the promise to him by the industry and his suggestion that Oil might have some money for you that you were now officially neutral. Since you didn't vote, it's easier for you."
"It'll work," said Sands. "It'll work. If Pemberly. . . ."
"Pemberly will," I said. "If you talk with him."
At my office, I frantically paged through the material I had collected while fighting Maggie's censure. I could scent a reversal and I needed precedents. I vaguely remembered one and found it in a history of the House.
A Congressman Sherrod Williams of Kentucky had been censured in 1836 for antagonistically ordering a chairman to sit down, a major breach of House rules. Two days later, after apology, the House expunged its censure.
Perfect! Just the kind of history that could be used to convince McWharter and the House that there was an important legal precedent for taking the excommunication off Maggie.
That afternoon, I called Bruce Pemberly. Not until I told his secretary that it was something that was as important as his career as it was to me did he come on the line. We fenced briefly about why I wanted to see him and where to meet. Finally, we agreed on the steps of the Supreme Court at 8 p.m. There wasn't any symbolism in it. It was reasonably convenient for me, very convenient for him, and since the court personnel generally quit on time, we would be alone.
I got there first, and tiredly sat on the steps waiting. When he arrived, I saw how short he was, something I had not remembered. He stuck out his hand and I let it hang out there.
"We're past that," I said. There was some kind of festival in Texas, I recalled, where people paid a certain admission fee to stomp rattlesnakes to death. That would seem, on its face, a repulsive way to spend a Saturday afternoon. But right now, I understood its pleasures.
"Okay," he said, Alabama tough guy. "You talk."
"Maggie and I spoke with Sands," I began, watching his face in the gloom. If Pemberly's expression changed, I could not see it. "For his own reasons, however complex they may be, the chairman confessed you had offered him a very large sum of money - offered his campaign a large sum - to switch and vote against Mrs. Thorensen.
"You're funny as hell," he snarled.
"You'll be calling Sands to find out how funny I am," I picked up. "I think he will suggest that, as a matter of good conscience, you'll want to admit you saw him, offered him a big contribution, and talked about Mrs. Thorensen's censure."
I paused. No reaction.
"You were a prosecutor, Mr. Pemberly. I am a lawyer. I can prove that you offered a bribe if you like the idea of going before a grand jury better than getting a crack at a cop-out on the House floor."
"Is that all you have to say?" he asked after another pause. But now I could smell the worry. God, I hated him.
"I believe you did the same with others. I believe with a little time I can prove those cases too."
"Are you crazy?" he interrupted. "Are you crazy?" he growled, barely holding it under a scream.
"No, man," I said quietly. "I'm not crazy. I'm ready to file a criminal complaint against you by noon tomorrow. Mrs. Thorensen would back it up, and I am convinced the chairman would too. No, it's you who are crazy."
"Ah," he said, "you miserable son of a bitch, you goddamn son of a bitch." Now I had gotten to him and it was beginning to taste very sweet. "That's what you want, is it?" he gasped. "Me to go on the floor and say I offered him a bribe?"
"That's where the mercy comes in," I said. "You can call it a campaign contribution. You can maybe get by without an indictment. You can just say you were getting some Oil money and that you went by Sands and asked if he needed $100,000 or so, and in the course of talk you questioned the Thorensen [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and how you felt about it. Then you could ask the House whether in view of your reconsideration of the case you could change your vote from 'yea' to 'present.' That's all. Minimum fairness."
He was thinking now instead of shrieking. He was thinking how he could cut his losses, maybe even make it look so mild that he could run again down in Alabama.
"What else are you asking?"
"Just that fairness be done. Not that you go to jail where you belong," I said.
"Well, you can shove it," he said, now only a facade of resistance, of guts. He had broken so easily I was disappointed. I had wanted to watch him bleed.
"Think about it overnight," I said. "Call me by ten. My definition of fairness gets closer to Justice" - an intentional pun - "as noon gets closer."
The Alabama Flash called me at ten sharp. Our talk had the restraint of two partisan seconds discussing a duel. It was clear he had talked with Sands. Now he wanted to know how far he would have to go to avoid being turned over to the Justice Department.
We devised the ritual to be played out two days hence.
Once more in that chamber which had become so central to our fight against Big Oil, so central to my life, I watched the members gather. The machinery was adjusted this time to erase - as expeditiously as tradition permitted - a historic error.
The House understood that the malfunction had occurred, not in the committee, but in the vote. And it was the vote alone that needed correction. As Pemberly stood, and was recognized by the speaker, I felt for him a grudged pity.
It was a classic House fiction, medieval in its simplicity, a morality play whose clear theme was as destructive to Pemberly as the entire true story of Sands' complicity would have been. For as it played out, Pemberly alone would be seen as guilty. The leadership, for its propitiation, would insist that he be sacrified.
"Mr. Speaker," he pronounced, his face stoic on the small pin-stripe-clad form, "on House Resolution 1420 I cast my vote among the yeas. I cast it based on my true feelings that the facts warranted it as reflected in the report of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, of which I was a member."
"Was" was important; he had been removed from the Ethics Committee the day before, transferred ignominiously to the House District of Columbia Committee. Pemberly went on with his peccavi :
"But I erred in not informing the House of circumstances relating to the case of the gentlewoman from Ohio." He went past her title as bland as milk. Yet it must have scalded his tongue to utter it.
"Three days before this body met on House Resolution 1420, I had occasion to visit the committee chairman, the distinguished gentleman from Tennessee, who I hope will be returning to this floor shortly. At that time, as part of a discussion" - he had wanted to say "general" discussion, but I had forced that word out - "surrounding the case, I stated that the chairman might expect monetary support from individuals connected with the petroleum industry."
He had balked at naming them. At least, I thought, he stayed bought.
From the floor, he was continuing his crow-eat:
"In conversation, I made similar statements to four more members of this House whose names I would like at this time, by unanimous consent, to withhold as a matter of privilege since none of them by word or deed indicated he was of my turn of mind, and indeed one of them was recorded as voting 'nay.'"
Eventually, I was willing to bet, all four names would leak out. It was too juicy a secret to be kept.
Pemberly paused, McWharter waited a split moment.
"Without objection," said McWharter.
"In view of this circumstance, Mr. Speaker, I would also like unanimous consent for my name to be expunged from the recorded 'ayes' on House Resolution 1420. May I note that were I able to recast my vote, it would be numbered among those who answered 'present'?"
Again, McWharter paused. Again, no voice was raised.
"Without objection," he intoned.
Now Congressman Cogart was up, reading from his carefully prepared notes.
"Mr. Speaker, I now offer a privileged motion to rescind the action of this House taken on House Resolution 1420. This would remove the stigma from the gentlewoman from Ohio. If this motion passes, I will offer a second motion on the report of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct dated July 14 so that we may be in the posture of voting afresh on that report concerning Representative Thorensen."
I look down at Maggie. She was as relaxed now as she had been broomstick-stiff during the censure. But I knew that in her relaxation was the satisfied knowledge that she was seeing her victim ritually burned as he had burned her.
McWharter sought unanimous consent for Cogart's motion to rescind, but it was too much to hope that the factious House could hold that long to a prepared script. When he tried to get a voice vote, he failed again to get unanimous consent. The absence of a quorum was suggested, and it was clear there would be a recorded vote.
I watched the old House creak and wheeze, moving as fast as it could. There was such wackiness, such diversity among the 435 members. Still, it worked, and now at last it was working for us.
Unlike the traumas during the vote for censure, the vote to uncensure, once it began, went without an iota of strain. It carried 280-157, thus putting the case back at ground zero. Not recognizing that the bigger fight was to come. The galleries exploded and McWharter angrily banged them into silence.
I looked down and saw Maggie excitedly gripping the hand of Guillenski, a middle-aged nonentity next to her, and, God bless her, she looked back gratefully to where she knew I would be sitting. Now she was clean again.
But in the cantankerous House, there was still the formalities. First there was debate on whether McWharter should conduct an uncensuring ceremony before the House moved on to vote on the report. After consulting with the parliamentarian, the Chair took notice that Maggie was no longer under censure, but reserved ceremonies until such time as the second motion had been voted on.
Now the speeches. The hell with it, I thought, and went back to my office until I sensed from the TV coverage that the vote approached.
I got into the House gallery just as Cogart moved the previous resolution; to vote down the report of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Loughlin perfunctorily demanded a recorded vote. The lights again dimmed, but I had no sense of drama this time.
On the floor, the members crowded around the slots, eager now to be done with it. By the time the totals on the electronic scoreboard slowed, it was in the bag for us, 201-122, and still climbing. At the end, Maggie had won, the report rejected, by a 259-162 vote, an enormous turnaround.
There remained only the ceremony of removing the anathema. For this, even the ancient House had few precedents, and McWharter, probably after a talk the night before with the parliamentarian, decided to take the censure off just as he had put it on.
Maggie was every bit the bride as the speaker said, with partisan pleasure, "The sergeant at arms will escort" - rather than "bring," as before - "Congresswoman Thorensen to the bar of the House." Down she came, by herself, unable now to resist a smile. I looked into the Republican benches, and damned if Pemberly was not stiffing it out.
Once again, McWharter lumbered down the steps but this time he took her by the arm and went with her to the lectern microphone where he could be heard: "Congresswoman Thorensen, by a vote in this House of 280-157, the House has rescinded its censure of you. In accordance with the will of the House, and as its representative, I notify you that under the rules of this House, the previous vote of censure having been rescinded, the action ordered by that vote is null and void."
McWharter turned with her a step and, I suppose, thinking he was out of range of the microphone, said in his Boston whisper, "Well, Maggie, rejoin the human race." He looked around startled, then huffy, over the boo-boo. The House laughed explosively at his gaffe. With a smile and no effort to calm the galleries and floor, he mounted again on high to resume the regular business of the House. In the well, Maggie's colleagues gathered around to shake her hand.
On the TV news that evening, all the networkds carried her happy American face - grateful, sure and intelligent. And all three networks also picked up as their and shot Pemberly, features coldly set, making for the doors - the pin-striped Villian Vanquished.
I had made up my mind, as my last chore in the censure matter, to force him to resign. It wouldn't be necessary. His best torture would be the months remaining to him before his term expired. Like Joe McCarthy and Tom Dodd after their humiliation, he would be shunned, a congressional corpse.