ONCE HE FLEW to foreign lands in sleek government planes and once you had to see him before you could see his boss and once he helped give out the jobs. Once he could call for a car and have the gates of the White House compound opened for him - no questions asked. Once he was a big shot and once he was the loyal staff man and once he was near the top of the Washington heap. Big bucks were on the horizon and easy street was where he was going to live. It never happened.
Now he is busted flat. Now he is out of work and now, he says, no one will hire him - past associations and all that. So now, on this particular day, he is sitting in Room 120 of the District's Unemployment Compensation Board and he is waiting for his name to be called. The woman in front of him has been waiting two hours and the woman down the row is prepared to wait so long she sends her husband to a movie, and so he is prepared to wait also. He has brought a book and his papers.
His papers say that he is Arthur Sohmer and what he was, among other things, chief of staff to Sniro T. Agnew when he was Vice President of the United States. Before Agnew copped a plea, Sohmer was an important man in this town. Once he would not have had to wait in any line.
Art Sohmer is a Washington story. If this was a different town and it did different things then columnists like me would maybe find a former sports star who is now shining shoes and we'd talk to him about how what happened to him, say something about his sport. Or maybe you could find some former movie star, someone with a name that would ring a bell in your head, and tell how he's working at a car wash and how he says his life is better now - cleaner and simpler and better. They always say that.
But this is Washington and so the names are often not familiar and the faces mean nothing, but the fall, when it comes, is just as steep. So now Sohmer walks around town like some faded actor going to booking agents and he can't find work. Some people have told him it's because he once worked for Agnew. They have said that to his face - sorry, Art, and all that, but you're hard to explain. The newspaper will call and the questions will come and, frankly, Art, we don't need the aggravation. You understand, fella.
When I met Sohmer down at the unemployment office, he was dressed in a glen plaid suit and a tie with little brass eagles for a design. His hair is a bit curly and he is what you would call pleasant looking and he smiles nicely, easily. He is likable and he was very matter-of-fact about what has happened to him and you have to wonder why he was not crying. He is 51, and his mountains are behind him and he has taken the word "no" so many times in the face that he must be punchy. But Sohmer says he is not bitten or angry or depressed, although he admits to being all of those things at one time. Right now he is a very basic sort of fellow.
"All I want is a job," he said.
The thing about Sohmer is that once he had it knocked. He had planned to leave Agnew someday and return to private industry and then he was going to do what so many have done before him - use his government experience to make money. He had the connections and if Agnew went on to the presidency, he had the connections that really counted. He is honest about that and blunt about that and truthful when he says he was only thinking along well established Washington lines.
"It's traditional," he says, "the man who knows the man."
But, of course, that never happened. Instead, Agnew resigned and instead Sohmer went to work for the U.S. Railway Association, and when that job ended he went to work for no one. It was hard to believe, but there was no job for him, and with the exception of a short stint with GSA in a political post, there has been no real job at all.
So he was sitting in the unemployment office and he was saying how this constant rejection erodes your confidence and maybe he is not the man he thinks he is and maybe he is not worth what he things he is and maybe it is the economy. Things have been slow, after all. But then he smiles and says that none of that strikes him as true. It's the Agnew connection. People have told him so. "I'm told by some people, 'Well, it's your past association,'" he says. He recounts how at one firm where he applied for a job he had to listen to one partner explain how his other partners hated Agnew. Sohmer listened, said he understood, and asked what all that had to do with him.
Anyway, now the phone doesn't ring as much as it once did and now his social life isn't what it once was and now some people he counted as friends have turned out to be something else. Live and learn, he says, and then he listens to the names being called. Not yet. Then he looks back at me and we talk some more and in my head I start asking myself whether the story of Art Sohmer is a story about Washington or about blacklists or about something else. Then we talk about Agnew and how he's supposed to be making lots of money and I knew right off what this is about.
It's about how sometimes there is no justice.
"I have never been silent or neutral in any significant election that has had a direct impact on the lives of the people of (D.C.)," he said.