She was a senior at Fairfax High School with a journalism paper due the next week. So she called and wondered if she could ask me some questions.
I'm a hopeless sucker for this sort of thing. It isn't so much vanity-thy-name-is-Levey as it is hey-kid-I've-been-there.
I figure that high school is tough enough without some overfed scribe telling a 17-year-old that he's too busy to stop typing for five minutes. So I told the Fairfax senior, "I'm ready when you are."
Her first question was how journalism had changed in my time at The Washington Post.
Almost totally, I said. Not only do they clean the carpets more often than they did in 1967, but the atmosphere in the newsroom is totally different.
My first city editor used to stand over my shoulder and rip "takes" out of my typewriter as quickly as I could produce them, I told the student. Everyone feared him the way you fear the landlord on the first of the month.
Today you're much more likely to get a week to do a story if you need it. Today you're much more likely to be able to follow a story down its logical path, rather than in the direction an editor orders. And no more ripping takes: the computer has made that little exercise in intimidation obsolete.
Her next question was whether Washington is a truthful city in which to be a journalist.
Depends on how you mean it, I replied. If you're asking whether reporters can learn the truth here, the answer is yes. There is more accurate, thorough information in this city than in any other -- most of it easily available. Being a reporter here is like being a farmer in Iowa, I said. The soil is forever fertile.
But if the student meant that the truth is always laid out before you in Washington, like a Sunday buffet at the Marriott, the answer is no.
I told the student about a memorable day back in the '60s, when I was covering Capitol Hill. I needed to ask a senator a question. His press aide agreed, but he said I'd have to wait while the senator taped a TV spot for a station back home.
To do so, His Augustness used a studio somewhere in the innards of the Hill. There weren't any windows within a couple of hundred yards in any direction.
But the view they saw back home was of the Senator seated at a desk that was apparently his. Behind him was a phony-baloney window, with a phony-baloney view of the Capitol dome, beside which was a phony-baloney American flag waving in the phony-baloney wind.
Even worse, I told the student, was what the press aide told me about this little piece of deceit. He said the folks back home often wrote to say how great it was that their senator commanded an office with such a beautiful view of the Capitol. The letters were passed around the office to great guffaws, the aide said -- but with no effort to set the constituents straight.
Her next question was whether journalism is a high-paying profession.
I didn't mean to be rude, but I laughed over this gem for one minute and 33 seconds, thus breaking the previous world record of 1:31:56. The student could obviously take a hint. She said, "Okay, never mind, I think I know the answer."
Her next question was whether working on your high school newspaper prepares a would-be journalist for The Real Thing.
Like nothing else, I said.
First of all, you learn what it's like to bat out a story under real pressure. The average high school student thinks that finishing a history paper on time is a big deal, I said. But if you're trying to finish a feature story on the new French teacher, and the front page is literally sitting there with a hole in it, and your colleagues are glaring at you . . . that, friends and neighbors, is pressure.
Besides, I said, you will confront ethical questions in high school that will test your objectivity and news judgment down to their socks.
I recalled the time the editor of our high school paper ran out of willing victims to cover a varsity basketball game. So he assigned the game to me.
Only trouble was, I was playing in it. Even bigger trouble was, I turned out to be the leading scorer and the guy who sank the winning basket.
So, when Typewriter Time came, I had a tough call. Should I write the truth ("Bob Levey scored 23 points and made the winning shot in leading the boys' varsity . . . . ")? Or should I stand the story on its head to avoid appearing to brag ("Led by the water-toting of John Jones and the towel-dispensing of James Smith, the boys' varsity . . . . )?
I told the student that I'd chosen Option A, and would do so again. But I can still remember the hoots in the halls the day the paper came out.
Her final question was whether I had anything I wanted to add.
Just one thing, I said. It's about Washington.
A lot of people here make important decisions. A lot make big dough. But there's only one group of people here who have fun, day in and day out.
"Somehow," I said, "I think you know who they are." She agreed that somehow she did.