Sunday, July 28, 2019

Thank You for Stroking

My first live televised debate was opposite Katherine Prescott, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I played the role of the bad guy.

When I got to the FOX studios, I was escorted to the “green room,” which is basically a fancy holding cell for the show’s guests. Green room mixers are usually congenial affairs where the more well-known talking heads (everyone else) use the less well-known talking heads (me) as sounding boards to practice their pitch or, more likely, to boast about their latest book.

But, given the mix of guests that morning, the mood in this particular green room was less than convivial.

There was the aforementioned Ms. Prescott, of course; her handler, (then) Brandy Anderson; yours truly; and quite coincidentally, political satirist, Chris Buckley, who was there to promote “Thank You for Smoking,” his brilliantly funny new book about lobbyists for the alcohol, tobacco, and firearms industries who he affectionately dubbed “the Merchants of Death.”  

(Quick note: at the time, I was representing two of those three industries. I hit the trifecta some years after that.)

To break the chilly silence in the room, Ms. Prescott asked Chris what his book was about, and without missing a beat he pointed to me and said, “It’s about him, actually.” It wasn’t really, but at the time there was a lot of speculation that it was about the guy I worked for, a man so Merchant-of-Death-y that “60 Minutes” did an entire segment on him entitled “Meet Dr. Evil.”

(Another quick note: I’d often wondered if that exchange—and everything else that followed—really happened as I remembered it. When I recently asked my now dear friend Brandy if I was remembering correctly, she looked up from her gazpacho, smiled, and said, “Ayup.”)

It was a seven-minute segment, which is a decent chunk of time. But under the lights, time runs faster than a dingo with a baby so it’s imperative to get your points across as quickly and effectively as possible. For five minutes we were both on our game, thrusting with sound bites and parrying with eye rolls.

But then Katherine stopped talking. She just sat there staring at me as I rattled off my talkers, which actually threw me off my game a little because—much like sex—debate is often more fun when you’re doing it with someone else.

After the segment wrapped up, I went to the green room to get my coat and noticed on my way out that Katherine was still seated on the set with a bunch of people—including Chris Buckley—standing around her. I figured she must be pretty famous.

When I got back to the office about 20 minutes later, the receptionist said Jeff Becker was hold for me. The Jeff Becker—President and CEO of the Beer Institute. (Yes, there really is a Beer Institute. This is Washington.)

Becker: “Congratulations, man. You got your first kill!”
Me: “Ummm … excuse me?”
Becker: “You didn’t hear? Prescott had a stroke during your debate. Way to go!”
Becker: “Did you hear what I just said?”
Me: “Ayup.”

Katherine recovered fully. Sadly, cancer killed Jeff in January of 2010. I saw a lot of Washington’s elite at his wake, including then-House Minority Leader John Boehner. But most impressive of all was the decked-out Budweiser Clydesdale that Anheuser Busch sent to stand vigil.

As I walked past the massive horse, I thought of the line from Buckley’s novel, “Tobacco takes care of its own.”

I always found it difficult to explain what it is I actually did for a living back then. But after Buckley’s book came out, I’d just say, “Have you read Thank You for Smoking? That pretty much sums it up.”

Monday, June 24, 2019

Taking Equal Opportunity to Extremes

“Dad, please don’t make a scene” is the request my girls make every time we step into an Apple store. This time it was Claire. We were there to get her a Mac Daddy Probe, or whatever it’s called, for Christmas.

I promised to “try.”

Things got off to an auspicious start. We were greeted by a tall, red-headed self-labeled “genius” who listened to Claire’s request, opened one of the cupboards under the Genius Bar and, finding it bare, went to the Genius Storeroom in search of the laptop. But things quickly soured when it became clear that Young Red had decided to take a Genius Break.

We stood there simmering for 10 minutes. Well, I simmered.

Then, in an effort to not make a scene, I calmly approached another genius standing alone against the wall clutching a tablet to his chest and asked if he could help us. He smiled, pointed to his right ear, extended the tablet with his left hand and gestured that he wanted me to type my request.

I was not going to type my request.

I’m not saying he wasn’t deaf. By all indications, he was profoundly deaf, which is why I knew he knew exactly what I had just said. And he knew I knew he knew.

“All I need is someone to help my daughter buy a laptop.”

He offered the tablet again, this time in both hands, head slightly bowed, eyebrows raised as if doing everything in his power to help me, which is exactly what he wanted the small but growing crowd watching us to think. And he knew I knew that’s what he was up to.

So recalling the lessons I learned in my Wonder Years from communicating with my brother, Michael, who has always been hard of hearing, I looked Tablet Boy square in the eyes and slowly and clearly articulated, “I need someone to help my daughter” – turn head slowly, point to Claire, turn head back – “buy a laptop.”

He offered me the tablet for the third time, wide smile, raised eyebrows.

“Look,” I said slowly and clearly, looking straight into his eyes, “this is very simple, I need …”

Well, I guess technically I was making a scene at this point because Young Red cut his break short and rushed over to explain to me that, “in case you were unaware,” Tablet Boy is deaf “so we would all greatly appreciate it if you would simply type your request.”

"You know exactly what I want. I told you 15 minutes ago," I said (in my head).

There wasn’t a chance in Hell I was taking that tablet from that kid’s earnestly outstretched hands. The store had gotten quiet and people were watching us. I had to think fast.

Do you remember that scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” where Butch and Sundance were trapped on a high cliff with La Forge and his men on one side and a raging river at the bottom of the cliff? Butch (Paul Newman) was trying to convince Sundance (Robert Redford) that they had to jump into the river before La Forge and his gang shot them. After arguing that he’d rather stand and fight, Sundance finally admitted he couldn’t swim.

And it was with that scene in mind when I finally “admitted” to the two Apple geniuses and the crowd we had attracted that, “I can’t read!”

Young Red could not have been more embarrassed for, well, basically all of us. He rushed back to the Genius Storeroom and got the Mac Boy Prone and gave it to Claire. I gave him my AmEx which he plugged it into his Genius register hanging from his belt. Then, not knowing exactly how to proceed, he handed the device to Claire so she could sign for her illiterate dad.

Yes, it was humiliating. But it was worth it to see the expression on Tablet Boy’s face because—understanding every word I said—he knew exactly what had just gone down. And he knew I knew he knew … even before I winked at him.