Thanks a lot, Gary Eberhartersatzpence, or whatever your name really is. A month ago, just when I was ready to go to press with an exclusive story about the carnal behavior of another powerful and famous politician, complete with gross allegations and a dramatic surveillance episode, you came along, exploded like an overheated Pacer chugging up Pikes Peak in July, and in the process made my "scoop" seem pretty darn . . . minor. Still, I've decided to run with it, if for no other reason than that I had my heart set on doing some navel gazing about the propriety of my actions.
This is a true story. It started a week before the Hart debacle, in a bar, where I fell into a conversation with a friendly congressional staffer and asked if "anything interesting" was happening on the Hill. This of course prompted a half-hour wheeze on the Trade Bill that sent me straight down into the chair legs, where I writhed about like a sun-blinded mole until I managed to wheeze: "I meant . . . funny interesting."
"Oh. Let's see. Well, you probably already know about Strom Thurmond's insatiable appetite -- "
"Yeah, yeah. He married a 22-year-old Miss South Carolina when he was 66, and they've had four kids. Everybody -- "
"Actually, I meant his insatiable appetite for hors d'oeuvres." Say what? My reporter's nostrils flared like those of a hungry tourist about to wrap his lips around the aromatic wares of the Wienie Buddy carts on the Mall. "Tell me more!"
"He's a legend. Eighty-four years old and he still packs it away like a summer intern. He'll come into a reception, look around, and you can see a -- a gleam come into his eyes when he sees the spread. Then he does a quick jog through the crowd, shakes a few hands, says something like 'Where's the shreemp! Where's the shreemp!' -- he whizzed by me one time, and I actually heard him say that -- heads for the table and makes like -- "
"An out-of-control robot Disposall?"
"Exactly. And when he's full, or if he has to leave, he'll wrap the stuff up in napkins -- shrimp, buffalo wings, beef biscuits, you name it -- and put it in his coat. His press secretary told me he has polyurethane-lined pockets. He was joking, of course. I think . . ."
At home later that night, as I agonized over whether this sort of thing was the public's business, I reflected on the many great gluttons who strode and plopped through the pages of literature and history. I thought of Trimalchio -- the fictional Roman host who at a typical sitting would cram in a meal consisting of honey-dipped dormice rolled in poppy seed, fried orioles inside pastry eggshells, virgin porkbelly, capons, "a hare tricked out with wings to look like Pegasus" and a wild sow -- and, from our century, I called on such greats as Orson Welles, Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, Jabba the Hutt and our most famous tubby politico, President William Howard "Maximum Displacement" Taft.
That's when it hit me: These men all developed butts the size of blue-ribbon pumpkins. So how come Sen. Thurmond is still trim and solid as a drill sergeant? With the element of doubt introduced, I was torn by the same type of stark ethical questions that emerged in the Hart affair. Had anyone been harmed by these men's gastronomic forays, aside from several thousand platoons of chickens, cows and oinkers and one or two overburdened waiters? Regarding Thurmond in particular I wondered: Maybe my "source" was boozed or . . . insane. Besides, isn't a little harmless chowing down irrelevant to one's performance as a lawmaker? Or could I boilerplate that by finding a psychologist willing to postulate a bogus "causal" link between overeating and pork-barreling? And from where within my rabbit's soul would I summon up the nerve to call Thurmond's press secretary and bait him with something along the lines of, "Uh, I have two sources who saw the senator cramming a sausage Po' Boy, a plate of bologna triangles with olive accents, five miniature blinis with sour cream, a can of Sterno and a two-foot ice bust of Henry Clay into a pair of balloon pants with a secret flap. Care to comment?"
In the end, I tossed out all these questions except the first. As for that, well, a little research showed that the old Dixiecrat is a fitness buff who, according to People magazine, doesn't drink or smoke and keeps in trim with a "low-sugar, high-protein diet." Hmm, yes, that would fit in with the reported battle cry for "shreemp." And everything else I read about the senator indicated that here was a man who, in the grand tradition of LBJ, worked off his hi-cal intake with sprawling and lusty political doings. In 1957, for example, Thurmond exhaled the longest filibuster on record -- 24 hours and 18 minutes of non-stop talking with no trips to the bathroom. "I dehydrated my body for several days," he told reporters, "for I had anticipated this."
That of course was a much younger Thurmond -- possibly a hungrier Thurmond? -- and I knew that to verify the new information, I'd have to do the professional thing and crash a reception where I could spy on him. This I did on May 4, choosing a small early-evening Michelin fete at the Hyatt Regency that, sources told me, would feature "real good eats." I arrived early, inspected the fare, approved it and loaded up my own plate so heavily that various items were sliding over the edges. (Don't even think about criticizing me. I'm underweight, so I'm supposed to be encouraged to eat as much as I want.) All in all -- the vast and useless crudite's section notwithstanding -- the assembled morsels seemed just right for my man: lots of boiled shrimp, thick rare slices of beef tenderloin, crab salad and those odd but irresistible little chicken coins with spinach in the middle. I posted myself near a gravy fountain and waited. And waited. And reloaded my plate. And waited. Was I edgy, or were the Michelin people staring at me with expressions that said: Who are you, thin person, and why are you eating all our stuff?
But Providence saved me. The senator walked in and started working the room. Something on my plate distracted me, and when I looked up he -- Oh my Gawd! He was coming right at me! A moment later we were shaking hands. "How are you doing this ebenin', young fella?"
"Fine, Senator," I replied, and then, sacrificing whatever tiny shred of journalistic integrity I had left, I held up a shrimp, wiggled it and said, "And I'm sure enjoying these tasty little boiled guys." This "bait" did not work. The senator gave me a funny look, walked away, shook a few more hands and left without so much as a nibble.
Later, I angrily confronted my source with what happened -- or didn't happen. "It's pretty obvious, isn't it?" he said, laughing nervously. "The senator was, uh, off his feed. Yeah. That, or he was going to a reception with better snacks. Or, ah, he had just come from Arby's."
"Uh-huh. That's exactly what I thought," I said, smiling grimly as I cradled the phone. "But I just wanted to hear you admit it." ::