All he wanted to do was write plays, but Michael Hammond took down the Soviet Union instead. Maybe.
“I can tell you exactly what I did with precision,” he says, “and other people can reach a conclusion of whether it was significant. Or whether I was a joke who was allowed to somehow witness history.”
History is written by men who achieve positions of power, but it’s made by men who find the levers of power — men who have mid-level bureaucratic titles like “general counsel of the Senate Steering Committee,” which was Michael Hammond’s in the 1980s. He was in his 30s then, armed with a law degree he didn’t want, working in a place he didn’t want to be. His heart was in writing classes at Georgetown. His brain was in the right-wing faction of the Republican Party, analyzing every piece of legislation.
“I’m not going anywhere here, or anywhere that I want to go,” Hammond recalls thinking during his years in the Senate, when he wished he was writing plays.
“I’m not saying I wasn’t good at it.”
He was good at it — “it” being the dark arts of Capitol Hill. He knew the rules of the Senate better than most, and therein were the levers of power. He knew how to force consensus, how to torpedo progressive legislation, how to use an earmark as either a battering ram or a steak knife. The Senate Steering Committee, despite sounding bipartisan, was actually a cabal of hard-line conservatives, and Hammond was its strategist. He was manic, eccentric, too smart — or too arrogant — to suffer the niceties of Congress.
Multiple people remember him, on the floor of the Senate, wearing a camouflage jacket from the Cold War Patrick Swayze movie “Red Dawn”; Hammond says he only wore it a few times, and never on the floor. One Senate staffer remembers Hammond shoving Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) because she was in his way; Hammond dismisses this while inflating that very legend.
“The lore was that I was just literally running for the [Senate] well for some parliamentary procedure, and Bobby Byrd was on one side, and Howard Baker was on the other side, and I knocked them both over,” he says. “I don’t think it’s true.”
The point is: Hammond had a certain reputation in Congress.
“He was dogged and determined, almost to the point of being psychotic,” says the Senate staffer, who requested anonymity to be forthright in a manner unbecoming of the upper chamber. “He saw the world in an apocalyptic view — that, but for his efforts, we were going to descend into a hellhole.”
Did Michael Hammond — using legislative jujitsu in 1987 — save the free world from a Soviet apocalypse, by funding the resistance movement in Poland?
Or is he a theatrical player whose relevance is more imagined than real?
We’ll explore that in a minute, because Hammond, now 67, would rather talk about his new play. He fled Washington 17 years ago to write plays, and finally one of them is being produced.
It’s called “Repentance.” It opened last week as part of the Capital Fringe Festival, and will be staged Thursday and Saturday this week. It’s about an older priest visiting a young man in prison, and what may have happened between them years earlier.
It’s 90 minutes of two characters battling their demons, and each other. The Maryland Theatre Guide calls it “a surrealist religious horror show” that “descends into a riveting pre-mortem dialogue.”
“It’s ‘My Dinner With André,’ ” Hammond says, “but without all the frills.”
Sample dialogue, from the priest: “Your flimsy scrotum will evaporate almost immediately and your nuts will drop into the abyss.”
“It’s a deeply funny play,” Hammond insists.
Perhaps even more intriguing than the play is Hammond’s work in the Senate — for which he was given a national honor by Poland in May: the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit.
The story goes: In 1987 a group of conservative Hill staffers took a meeting with representatives of the Solidarity trade union, the repressed Polish workers group that was resisting communist rule. Solidarity was looking for support, which they couldn’t get from the Reagan White House, and Hammond pulled aside their reps afterward. He could funnel them a million dollars, he said, in an appropriations bill that was moving through Congress. He envisioned reviving Solidarity and getting it to go on strike, which would kneecap the Polish regime, which would stagger the rest of communist Eastern Europe.
“And no one in the universe believed that that was true,” he says of that strategy. “And I didn’t fully believe that was true.”
Hammond worked with Liz Wasiutynski, one of the Solidarity reps, to get constituents of key members to call Congress in support of the union. With enough bipartisan support, Hammond helped to wedge a few million dollars earmarked for Solidarity into appropriations bills in ’87 and ’88. A million dollars was nothing to the U.S. budget, but it was everything to the Poles.
Solidarity now had money from — and the de facto endorsement of — the American people.
“Solidarity must be legalized,” Hammond told the Associated Press at an unofficial human-rights conference in Krakow in August 1988, as workers were striking and the movement grew in strength.
Solidarity won a slew of seats in parliament in early 1989, and communism fell there by the summer. It fell in Czechoslovakia that November, in Romania that December, and in East Germany, Bulgaria and Hungary the following year. The Soviet Union dissolved in ’91.
Some people speak of Hammond as if he’s akin to Pope John Paul II, who is credited for stoking democratic fervor in Poland and triggering the fall of the Soviet bloc.
That earmark “was more meaningful than the toppling of the Berlin Wall,” says Wasiutynski, now 71, from her home in Connecticut. Hammond is a “genius” who helped make “a political set of movements, which brought about an unimaginable success — and that was breaking the back of the Soviet Union.”
It’s a tantalizing interpretation of history, of one man’s nudging of world events, supported by anecdotes and memory if not historical scholarship.
Hammond just sees the world differently, says his friend Dan Perrin, who worked for him in the ’80s; his vision is unclouded by social graces, by hesitation or equivocation, and Perrin, too, credits Hammond with changing the course of history through both his intellect and affect.
“Sometimes I think it’s like the Vulcans and humans in ‘Star Trek,’” Perrin says of Hammond’s relationship to the Senate. “Where Mike is the Vulcan.” Hammond “devoted himself to promoting the Polish cause in the halls of Congress,” says Poland’s ambassador to the United States, Piotr Wilczek, in a statement to the Post. His “actions were crucial in helping secure U.S. financial support for the Polish people and the Solidarity movement.”
Hammond “devoted himself to promoting the Polish cause in the halls of Congress,” says Poland’s ambassador to the United States, Piotr Wilczek, in a statement to the Post. His “actions were crucial in helping secure U.S. financial support for the Polish people and the Solidarity movement.”
These days Hammond writes inflammatory op-eds for the Daily Caller (“Democrats are preparing to enfranchise 10-20,000,000 illegals”) and Townhall (“. . . there’s a universe of things I find disgusting, starting out with each morning’s edition of the New York Times”). He is also the legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America, which is somehow to the right of the NRA.
“My waiting-tables job,” Hammond says dismissively, before claiming that he’s “probably” the guy who, after the Newtown massacre, killed the bipartisan bill that would’ve required background checks on commercial sales of guns. He had “a very big role” in designing opposition in the Senate, confirms Erich Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America.
“It’s something I’m good at,” Hammond says again of his political maneuverings, before maneuvering himself: “But I’m really a playwright.”
Right, right, the plays. He moved to rural New Hampshire around 2000 so he could renounce modern technology and finally devote himself to fiction instead of faction. “Repentance” is inspired by events in Hammond’s childhood in Kansas City, where he attended a high school that had an abusive teacher on staff, he says.
Now Hammond is sitting in a classroom at the Catholic University of America, watching a rehearsal of his play, which his D.C. friends submitted to the Fringe Festival on his behalf. Those friends, some of whom are conservative acolytes from his years in Congress, also got him a burner phone so he can communicate like a normal 21st-century person during his theatrical debut in Washington. The play is a cry, or a cackle, from a haunted past.
“I found it useful to use the play in order to try to work out my issues,” Hammond says. “I hope if I had any anger, I don’t have any anger anymore.”
After a run-through of the show, Hammond speaks from a desk at the side of the room. He has a clear vision for the end of the play. He’d like the young prisoner to somehow vanish like an apparition, he tells the director. The audience shouldn’t know whether the character was hero or demon, real or imaginary. It should be open to interpretation.
Budget and space preclude such an effect, the director says.
Hammond turns in his seat, a deadpan look on his face, the levers of power beyond his reach.
“The playwright never gets what he wants,” he says.