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.”


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