The conversation took place on the second floor of the State House, in one of those offices where ceilings are high enough to accommodate a pole vaulter and windowsills are large enough for Fred Astaire to take a turn.
One participant was a reporter trying to confirm a juicy rumor about a supposed confrontation between two powerful state officials. The other, an aide to Gov. Harry Hughes, was a little bemused by the tale the reporter was telling and a little concerned about what type of article might appear.
"The trouble with you guys," the aide was saying, "is that you approach state government as if it were theater. You keep looking for a dramatic moment that illustrates what you're talking about. . .
"In this case, some of the underlying feelings are there. The thrust of what you're saying is correct. But the incident you're talking about didn't happen. There was no dramatic confrontation."
A little more checking revealed that the aide was right -- or that no one involved in the incident was willing to say exactly what happened. But the aide's analysis of how the news media approach state government contained more than a little truth.
Take the case of the "anti-Louise Keelty bill." This short-lived measure, sponsored by Senate President James Clark Jr., would have required the office of Appointments Secretary Louise Keelty to inform legislators when certain gubernatorial appointments affecting their districts were made.
The bill was introduced Monday, Feb. 11, amid the last-minute rush of legislation filed minutes before the deadline for the introduction of bills.
For weeks before, certain legislators had been sniping volubly at Keelty, a former nun who more than a year ago was given the unpopular job of trying to depoliticize the appointments process.
The legislators complained that her style was brusque, or that her office was inefficient or lackadaisical about keeping them informed. Most of all, however, they complained that their recommendations for appointments to this state board or that were not being followed.
For weeks reporters had been hearing these complaints. Some stories were written about the reshuffling of the governor's staff, and these touched on Keelty's unpopularity with some legislators. But if reporters wrote stories about all the griping legislators do in the course of one 12-week session, they would have no time to write about anything else.
Then, on Tueday, word filtered out about Clark's bill. Here, it seemed, was the president of the Senate telling Louise Keelty how to do her job. In the next two days, five newspapers either printed articles about the incident or mentioned it in other stories about state appointments.
The story, in fact, was more complicated than a simple confrontation. The bill was suggested by Clark's staff and the president said, in effect, that he sponsored it on their say-so and never read it after it was drafted. Eventually he withdrew it at the governor's request. Only Clark knows exactly what he intended when he agreed to sponsor the bill.
But the media's eargerness to pounce on the situation had far more to do with their having heard a month's worth of complaints about Keelty than with the bill's short history. In seemed to solidify a feeling that everyone knew was in the air, and it gave dramatic substance to all the bitching that had gone before.
That eagerness also reflects, perhaps, a general pressroom frustration usually felt in the doldrums of the session. It is felt more acutely this year -- when the governor's office is occupied by a man with a low-key and deliberate approach to his job, especially in comparsion with the hoopla in the legislative chambers beneath his office.
In effect, the press corps is afflicted with an itchiness reminiscent of moviegovers who set out to see 'Tora Tora Tora" and stumble instead into a theater showing a seven-hour Andy Warhol flick about a hen trying to hatch some eggs.
The search for the dramatic in state government has its rewards. It produces stories that not only tell readers what happened, but explain the motives of the government officials who made it happen. It also has its pitfalls: the search for drama can lead to over-simplification, which can distort situations.
But in the end, the governor's aide was only partly right. If state government had nothing in common with theater, how could there be such marvelous acting as one can see in the Senate and House chambers on any given day of the session?