Fifty years ago this month — on July 22, 1963 — I began my career as a reporter at The Post. The newspaper was not yet the national household name it would become about a decade later, amid the Watergate scandal that would lead to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Jobs then were not that hard to get. I had to take a spelling test, and one of the words I was asked to spell was “personnel.” I was in the personnel office, with the word clearly visible, albeit backward, on the glass door. I spelled it right, and I got the job.
Friends assume I had a front-row seat at the pageant of history, and I suppose I did. A month after I began work, I was on the Mall with a phalanx of reporters when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. I was on the team of reporters that covered the riots in Washington after King’s assassination in 1968. During the Vietnam War, I did the rewrite on dozens of stories about antiwar rallies involving hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. Purely by happenstance, I wrote The Post’s first Watergate story — the story of the break-in — when the city editor looked up one Saturday morning in June 1972 and saw me sitting nearby, looking available.
But the spice and flavor of my years at The Post came in the quirky happenings, the oddball stories, the strange, the bizarre and the funny moments of the human variety show. Those memories — including that of a member of the Maryland legislature who declared on a vigorously debated issue, “As a matter of conscience, I can vote either way” — stand out above all others.
Early on, I wrote about a “palace revolt” in the Maryland State Poetry Society that became front-page news. A dissident group of poetry lovers had launched a campaign against the society president and poet laureate of Maryland, Vincent Godfrey Burns, trying to unseat him from both offices. They disliked his poetry and his politics, which they thought were too far to the right. At a stormy meeting that drew the attention of national wire services and network television, the dissidents ousted Burns as the president of the society, replacing him with the proprietor of a Baltimore dry cleaning shop. But Burns, who had been appointed poet laureate by the governor in 1962, held that office until he died in 1979.
One of the dissident leaders, a literature professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, mocked the poet laureate in doggerel:
God grant no student ever learns
To write like Vincent Godfrey Burns.
In 1966, I covered a trial in Cumberland, Md., where a woman was accused of murdering her husband by lacing the sandwiches she packed for his lunchbox with arsenic. He was a nasty man who beat her savagely, and many of the courtroom spectators thought he got what he deserved. The county sheriff let me use the jail typewriter to write my story, and the accused, young and attractive, read it over my shoulder as I was writing. She made some helpful editorial suggestions, which I followed. At one point she offered to fetch me a snack, which I declined.
The jury convicted her of contaminating his food.
After many years reporting on and then editing Metro news, I moved on to cover sports, arriving in time for the National Football League strike of 1982. It was long and tedious. One morning in the fourth or fifth week of the work stoppage — or, should I say, play stoppage — I called The Post to check in. “What’s going on?” an editor asked. “Nothing,” I said. There was a pause. “We need 800 words on it,” he told me.
Anyone who has ever tried to communicate through an interpreter has a version of this story. Here’s mine. More than 30 years ago, I interviewed Béla Károlyi, the Romanian coach of Olympic gold-medal-winning gymnast Nadia Comaneci. Károlyi defected to the United States in 1981. He spoke no English, so I took an interpreter with me.
My editors had told me to ask him whether he had ever given Comaneci drugs to delay the onset of puberty. Prepubescent girls are said to be at an advantage in women’s gymnastics.
When I put the question to Károlyi, there followed a verbal explosion, a torrent of words I did not understand, scowls, finger-pointing, arm-waving, snarls and fist-pounding. It went on for four or five minutes. When he finished, my interpreter consulted his notes and delivered his translation: “He says no.”
For the last 20 years of my career, I wrote obituaries about the famous and infamous: Joe DiMaggio, Katharine Hepburn, Leni Riefenstahl. There were also torrents of bureaucrats, policemen, teachers and lawyers. There was even one about a psychiatrist who drowned in a sensory deprivation tank.
A few weeks ago I was having dinner with two young friends, a couple in their late 20s. One of them asked, in all innocence, “What was Watergate?”
I was taken aback.
For so long, Watergate had been the dominating and defining element in The Post’s image and identity. Everyone who was there at the time, even those of us who had little or nothing to do with the story, can remember the presence of movie stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the newsroom. They were there to absorb its journalistic ambience in preparation for their roles as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the movie “All the President’s Men.”
Redford always seemed to be sitting at someone’s desk, talking on that person’s telephone. I wanted someday to catch him at mine, just for the pleasure of telling him to leave, but that never happened. I do remember editors sending Hoffman to the cafeteria for coffee.
After I retired in 2004, I returned to The Post on contract as a writer of obituaries, covering once again many of the people whom I first saw make history. I had to take a drug test to rejoin the paper, and I passed it. There was no spelling test the second time.