BROOKE GLADSTONE: The nation's capital is full of highly skilled, diligent journalists -- but we're not going to talk about them. Instead we turn our attention to the pompous columnists who stud various Washington bureaus and the Sabbath gasbags, as Calvin Trillin calls them, who ornament the Sunday morning chat shows. Specifically we'll be taking up the matter of Brandon Sladder who epitomizes the worst impulses of both. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
"BRANDON SLADDER": I was learning a basic technique of journalism -- that extending the hand of friendship may lead your fingers into the pocket of revelation. For example, I became attentive to an older woman in the newspaper's personnel office and from her learned the retirement dates of several colleagues. One must, in short, be able to relate in a human way to men and women of lesser ability and diminished circumstance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Brandon Sladder is the star of The Columnist, a novel by Jeffrey Frank, now of the New Yorker Magazine, formerly of the Washington Post and the Washington Star. Jeff, welcome to On the Media.
JEFFREY FRANK: Brooke I'm really glad to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I would like you to begin with as full blown a description of The Columnist as you can.
JEFFREY FRANK: People think he's a, he's a total swine, and he does manage to sort of -- without realizing it he's sort of a dangerous character --almost everyone he tries to befriend seems to be damaged by his company, and so it's sort of an unf--unfailing trail of, of not literal bodies but bodies in his wake throughout his, his career - from his - say his first college roommate to his parents to his, to his employers, to his, to his wives. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And, and his wives? What motivates him in his own mind is, is a search for a journalistic truth and honesty at whatever cost to anybody else, I guess with the exception of himself.
JEFFREY FRANK: Well he's a very comfortable person. He's very comfortable with powerful people, and he, he seems to be happiest in the company of powerful people, some of whom are, are real --I think Dean Rusk makes a walk on, and others do -- but he's also motivated by his own success and by his own ambition and, and he dreams more than any, anything of being a syndicated columnist. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
"BRANDON SLADDER": People born in an age of television may not understand what it meant to get a column of one's own, but that was my good fortune in the spring of 1968. From the start I felt the keenest of pleasures. It was as if I'd been starving and Strawberry Shortcake covered by warm chocolate was served up or as if I'd not been able to gratify myself, and a woman with creamy skin and wondrous breasts, her sweet hot limbs parted, lay eagerly beside me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brandon's proximity to power helped form opinions that turned out to be wholly incorrect. You know-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
JEFFREY FRANK:Well but you, you're talking about the sort of coziness of - between journalists and, and insiders in Washington and this is the sort of thing that sort of journalist-ethicists write about all the time. I don't condemn it. I think Washington's a, a really small place. I mean having lived there -- it's much smaller than people think. The city itself is only about 400,000 people now. Among those 400,000 people there's sort of a very tiny archipelago of neighborhoods where, where these people hang out, and they all sort of know each other, so there's almost no way you can avoid being a so-called insider there. And how you react to that is, is of course something else. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Is-- Of course you can help it. I mean Izzy Stone spent most of his professional life in Washington; made it a point of honor not to cultivate insider sources--
JEFFREY FRANK: True.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- and wouldn't Brandon have been a better columnist if he'd spoken to more people critical of those who hold the reins of power and people on the margins? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
JEFFREY FRANK: Oh! Oh, you're wondering what Brandon would have been if he'd been a reporter! [LAUGHTER] You mean if he'd actually questioned what he'd been told. Oh, I'm sorry. No, I didn't, I didn't understand. [LAUGHTER] Yes. If he had followed the, the model of Izzy Stone or in fact any wr-- or even - or a reporting columnist like Mary McGrory he, he might have been someone who we would be more accepting of and perhaps we'd have more respect for him as an independent journalist, but-- that was not Brandon's way. Brandon tended to sort of be comfortable with people and tended to sort of believe what he was told.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are the kinds of journalistic sins that you think Sladder commits in his day to day life?
JEFFREY FRANK:I think it's one sin that we're talking about, and the one sin is basically that he really believes that his own opinions carry weight and that simply to express his opinion is to say something important. Ultimately it's a sin of laziness and a sin of vanity, but these, these are sort of human sins as opposed to journal-- journalistic sins. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BRANDON SLADDER: I'm wanted, or so they tell me, because I offer a rare kind of depth. As George Bush the elder said when he encouraged me to take this autobiographical leap, I've been there; I've been privileged to know and sometimes befriend the most vital people of our time. I've rubbed shoulders, literally so and the phrase resonates for me, with everyone, and we've met at receptions, dinner parties, foreign capitals, television studios and funerals. A great waltz across history's stage. [MUSIC FINISHES]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that Washington would be buzzing so much if this novel weren't so very close to the truth?
BOB GARFIELD:I realized I was trying to write a Washington novel without falling into the traps of the genre, and the genre is pretty deadly. The genre -- when I was a kid I read Alan Drury's Advise and Consent which I'd loved, but be--but the, that genre has now mutated into sort of books about - with intelligence agencies and politicians and books that begin: The president woke up on the floor of the Holiday Inn with his trousers around his knees and had no idea how he'd gotten there. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It is the most unforgiving portrait of Washington and Washington journalists of a certain type that could ever be imagined! I mean why did you choose this? Why did this capture your imagination?
JEFFREY FRANK: Well as I say, I just, I really, I really was just sort of fascinated by a certain Washington type, and it wasn't until I moved to New York 5 and a half years ago that I saw of began to see that I could write about Washington in, in a sort of fresh way, and I didn't even -- I don't think I realized how I felt about Washington until this - until the book was done. It's a very-- insulated place. It's a very isolated place in a way that you only see when you, when you get away from it. The conversation tends to be -- or at least in the com-- in these communities of, of lawyers, journalists, diplomats and politicians tends to be about one thing only. And I think when you get away you begin to see that the world is, is larger than this and that the vendettas that people have against each other perhaps don't matter as much as they matter to the people, the people there, and that the motives for people to write and say this and that begin to look sort of different and, and almost amusing and -- from a distance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I thought the whole book, as funny as it was, left me with a sad and, and maybe even slightly-- sick feeling. Maybe it's all the years that I spent in Washington.
JEFFREY FRANK: Yeah, I, I'm - I, I, I don't know what to say to that. I've-- [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER] do you - do you ever want to go live there again Brooke? [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Never, never, never.
JEFFREY FRANK: That's, that's the unqualified answer, isn't it? [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How about you?
JEFFREY FRANK: No. [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeffrey Frank. Thank you very much for coming on the show.
JEFFREY FRANK: Brooke Gladstone, it was really a pleasure. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] 58:00
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers, engineered by George Edwards and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from David Serchuk, Kathleen Horan and the NPR Program Living on Earth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.