The problem wasn’t the complete lack of romance in my request. It was what prompted me to take the plunge in the first place: I’d been inspired by a small-minded, self-absorbed television loudmouth whose work I despised.
It was 1988. We were sitting on the grass at the Rosedale Conservancy on Newark Street in Northwest Washington on a warm summer day with my dog, Ernie. I turned to my girlfriend, Connie, and said, “I think it’s time to get married.” Clearly, I didn’t put a lot of mustard on that pitch.
We’d been together for nearly a year, and while we’d discussed the possibility, I previously resisted. So Connie wasn’t shocked. But she was curious. “Why now?” she asked. “Why today?”
“No reason,” I said, lying.
My beloved shifted into cross-examination mode. “That can’t be,” she said. “Something must have happened.”
She stared. I gave a nervous little laugh. She kept staring.
“Well, actually, it was something Morton Downey Jr. said.”
Morton Downey Jr. was, at the time, a syndicated television talk show host who found out that it paid to be foul and obnoxious. He’d honed a populist shtick and invited masochistic liberals onto his show so he could shout them down in a spray of insults.
I lived at the opposite end of the broadcast universe, as the audio-board operator for “The Diane Rehm Show” on WAMU. Downey had been her guest that morning. During the segment, the meticulous Rehm asked Downey what research he did before a show. “I don’t do any,” he replied. Books, apparently, were for weenies: “I don’t need to read anything. When you know something, you know it.”
The pitiful thing is, that drivel was exactly what I needed to hear. I knew I loved Connie. The time for weighing and reflection was over. So that afternoon at the park, I shed my weenie-dom.
But under Connie’s interrogation, I naively revealed the source of my mojo. She was spectacularly irritated. She had spent months cultivating the relationship, figuring out what made me tick, making sure my dog loved her as much as he did me. After all that, to have a jerk like Downey as the catalyst was intolerable.
“I don’t accept,” she said.
I immediately made things worse by chuckling.
“No, I really mean it,” she said. “I might accept at some point, but not now. This is too ridiculous.” We had a very chilly walk home.
Neither of us remembers how or when things thawed. After a few days, they did. Parents were called, housemates were informed, plans were made, and my lackluster proposal faded into history.
But I have harbored a latent desire to make amends and redeem a disastrous salvo that succeeded in spite of itself. So, a few months ago, with Valentine’s Day in mind, I set out to learn the date of that moment in the park. It was my secret research project. All I needed was the day Rehm interviewed Downey.
I visited WAMU, but Rehm had retired, and the station lacked records of guests going back that far. I emailed a sympathetic librarian at the University of Maryland, where some of the Rehm archives are kept. I even harassed the producer of “Evocateur,” an enjoyable documentary about Downey. Dead ends, all.
I almost gave up, but I make my living doing research at PolitiFact, and it crossed my mind that if New Jersey-based Downey had been promoting himself on the Rehm show, he probably had done other media hits in town. And if he had, The Washington Post would have written about him.
It’s amazing how quickly a puzzle resolves itself once you start with the right piece. A few minutes — literally — with the online Post archives, and I had it, though not where I expected. In the days before the Web, newspapers published lists of upcoming guests on news shows. The Post ran this blurb on July 15, 1988: “Talk: 10 a.m. — WAMU-FM (88.5) Diane Rehm Show. A panel of journalists reviews the week’s top news stories. Then TV talk show host Morton Downey Jr. discusses his new book, ‘Mort! Mort! Mort!’ ”
Victorious, I delightedly shared my discovery with Connie. She was pleased that I had finally spent some time thinking about what a hash I’d made of the moment, and I was pleased because I finally had put a touch of romance into that day.
Now, 30 years later, we have a date for July 15 at the Rosedale Conservancy on Newark Street NW.