BROOKE GLADSTONE: As Thomas Ricks just said, originally he planned to write a thumb-sucker. Thumb-suckers abound in the dog days of summer when all your sources are out of town and all your leads grow cold, but there's something else about August that just when you settle into the glacial pace, something huge pops up. August causes anxiety -- at least in me -- so I decided to call a reporter who loves working in August -- Thomas Oliphant, long time Washington columnist for the Boston Globe. Hello Tom.
THOMAS OLIPHANT: Hi, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you get the same August anxiety I do?
THOMAS OLIPHANT:All the time! And it's why I work in August! [LAUGHTER] The first reason I love to work in August is that if everything goes right, you get to basically work at about half to three quarters speed getting paid full time! I hope my boss isn't listening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don't worry; he's not.
THOMAS OLIPHANT:That's good. But-- in the back of my head I also know that on a regular basis, August has this wonderful habit of sneaking up behind you and biting you in the rear end with some really big stories that become, I think, especially enjoyable just as pure journalism, because all the usual suspects are gone and they're hard stories to do!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me some examples.
THOMAS OLIPHANT:Well it started for me when I was a baby here. [LAUGHTER] I was low man on the totem pole which meant I had to work in August! And it was quiet; there was nothing going on. Get this call from the White House to come over because there's going to be a big announcement. And it turns out that was when Nixon sprang his surprise imposition of wage and price controls and the complete ending of the dollar's relationship to gold.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this was pandemonium.
THOMAS OLIPHANT:It was a gift that kept on giving throughout [LAUGHTER] the month, and here I was about 28 years old with this delicious thing basically all to myself for a few days. But it was not the only time this has happened to me in my life. Watergate exploded over the summer of 1973, and of course Nixon resigned, the climax came in the first week of August of 1974.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:We had a journalism historian on a few weeks ago who said that the summertime was the time for scandal; it tended to dominate the news. And I cast my mind back to last August -- we were up to our eyeballs [LAUGHTER] in Gary Condit!
THOMAS OLIPHANT:We were. Scandals can go crazy out of all proportion in August. They don't always, but Gary Condit is certainly a classic example. Another example back in 1977, August was when the disclosure that created the brouhaha over Bert Lance [sp?], Jimmy Carter's budget director and his banking past. There had been aspects of this story that had surfaced months before [LAUGHS] when there was a lot of other news going on, and it hadn't made that much of a splash. But in August, it sure did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So let's take those two examples. If something were to be disclosed about you --something you really would prefer people didn't pay much attention to, you wouldn't have it disclosed if you had a choice. When would the press be too busy to pay any attention?
THOMAS OLIPHANT:Well february, because there's so much of the major ritualistic events in Washington are unfolding at that time. The new session of Congress, the president's state of the union message, his budget. In the case of Lance and Condit, I'm not sure either one could possibly have had the run it did against a normal diet of serious news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But the reason why they did have that run perhaps is because of the traditional August doldrums. How do people usually deal with the doldrums?
THOMAS OLIPHANT:In my end of the business which is column writing, there has been a little tendency over the years to rely on what some people call "evergreens," a column that can run any time [LAUGHS]; it isn't at all related to something specifically going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what's a story that smells like an evergreen?
THOMAS OLIPHANT:Well, if you were to read your favorite columnist saying that by golly global warming really is a serious problem [LAUGHTER] and we better do something about it. I mean the classic one is if you see somebody writing to recommend what you should take with you to read on the beach.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well how are you dealing with August this time around then? What, what is your column this week?
THOMAS OLIPHANT:Well, remember the month is early. I took the first week in August off, and when I came back the following Tuesday, I had to have a piece ready. I was thinking as that first week in August was drawing to a close thank God we just got reports on successive days about the gross domestic product and the unemployment situation -- both of them indicating that the recovery's going to be a little slower and less vibrant than people thought it was going to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Good news for you.
THOMAS OLIPHANT:Quite apart from the substance of the issue, I just remember thinking oh, my God - thank God - a little trend. That'll do. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well Tommy, I want to thank you for opening up like that.
THOMAS OLIPHANT: [LAUGHS] I'll deny it. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thomas Oliphant is a Washington columnist for the Boston Globe. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the case for media violence -- for kids, anyway, and a goodbye to the Bard of Basketball.
"Gettin' a Little Hipper"
by James Brown