Excerpt: Off With His Talking Head

Chapter 1 — Down Goes the Columnist

 

“You tell your publisher, tell Katie Graham she’s gonna get her tit caught in a big wringer if that’s published.”… He really said that about Mrs. Graham? Well, I’d cut the words “her tit” and print it. This is a family newspaper. Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, from All the President’s Men

 

David Wainwright picked up two flutes of champagne from a passing waiter and handed one to Laura Delaney. They clinked glasses and looked around the high-ceilinged gallery.

Laura and David were on the sixth floor of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., at a black-tie fundraiser for the Political Reporters’ Action Network, or PRAN, a new professional organization David belonged to as part of his job as a reporter for the Washington Herald. They’d ridden a glass elevator to the top floor, but the place was so jammed with people, Laura could barely see any exhibits. Instead, she saw tables scattered around the floor, topped with white tablecloths and multi-colored floral arrangements, with tuxedoed men and gowned women crowded around each table or milling around, schmoozing.

High above, against one wall, a large screen showed a captioned video — Laura figured no one could hear a soundtrack over the noise of so many conversations — with images of famous political reporters. Some of the captions explained how money raised tonight through PRAN would fund college scholarships.

At the top of the video screen was an unchanging headline, “POLITCAL REPORTERS’ ACTION NETWORK: Delivering the news America needs.”

Laura pointed out the typo of the missing “i” in “political” to David. “Looks like someone needed an editor.”

David did a classic face-palm and shook his head as Laura laughed.

Laura had met David over the summer in Washington at a national convention of the Progressive Coalition, or Prog Coal, as it was known. Laura was there to network with other activists and to look for a new job. David, who usually covered Congress, was there to write political stories for the Herald. But they bonded quickly after Laura discovered a dead body backstage at a trivia contest, and the two of them joined forces to solve the murder. They searched for clues online, and in the course of their investigation, they discovered their shared fascination for politics, Star Trek — and each other.

Now that Laura had a new job in Washington working for an environmental group, the two were exploring where their new relationship was headed. And it seemed to be moving faster than a gaggle of reporters chasing an indicted congressman.

I wonder why we get along so well, she wondered, then answered her own unspoken question: Because we’re both political nerds.

David offered her his arm. “Shall we?”

“By all means.” Laura adjusted the strap of her black evening bag against her bare shoulder as she took David’s elbow.

“You know, you really do look gorgeous tonight,” David said as he led her through the throng of people. “The maroon color of that gown is perfect for you.”

“You look pretty good yourself.” Even with her heels, the four-inch difference in their height meant Laura could look up into the brown eyes that David’s tortoiseshell glasses didn’t hide. She saw that his often-rumpled dark brown hair had gotten trimmed today, and he’d told her he owned rather than rented his tuxedo, which draped perfectly over his trim body. The killer smile that had attracted her in the first place was still in place.

Laura gazed around the crowded room. She had never seen such a glittering array of people in fine dress. She recognized many reporters, anchors, and commentators she’d seen on television. Even though she didn’t know their faces, Laura figured she probably would know the names of other writers whose bylines she had seen in print or online.

Laura had moved from Chicago to Washington six weeks ago, and at age 25, she worried about being around so many of Washington’s opinion makers. She felt confident of her professional skills, especially in social media, but she was unsure if she really belonged in the halls of power.

Will I seem like a Midwest rube? She wondered. “I’m a little nervous, meeting all these people,” she admitted to David. “What am I going to talk about?”

“Nervous? Just say you work on environmental issues and that global warming might hurt pandas.”

Laura raised her eyebrows. “Pandas? Seriously?”

“Well, sure. Everyone in Washington goes crazy for the pandas at the National Zoo.”

“You mean because climate change might cut down on the growth of the bamboo that pandas eat? That’s the argument you want me to make?”

“OK, just start explaining why carbon emission levels have to go down. Trust me — you’ll fit right in, and some wonk will start lecturing you right back.”

Laura shook her head and laughed. “What do people do at these events, anyway?”

David shrugged. “Drink. Eat. Network. Look for new jobs. Avoid their bosses, if possible.”

“How about you?”

“Me?” He patted her hand. “I just want to show you off.”

“Show me off?”

“Sure. It’s not every day I arrive with a beautiful woman on my arm.”

They smiled at each other.

“With all of this flattery, David, I suspect you might be harboring less than honorable intentions for later tonight.”

David put a hand over his heart. “A man can only dream.”

As they wended their way into the crowd, David introduced Laura to so many people that she knew she would never remember their names. Some were work colleagues, including David’s editor and others from the Herald; some were acquaintances from the Hill; and some, Laura could tell, were close friends.

“So this is Laura!” said Bob Heilman, a short, friendly looking spectacled man whom David introduced as a reporter for Time magazine.

Sounds like David’s been mentioning me, Laura thought.

She shook hands with Bob and his wife, Amy Friedman, who said she worked at the Department of Justice. “I understand you just moved here from Chicago,” Amy said as she invited Laura to sit at a small table.

Laura accepted a new flute of champagne that David snagged from a passing waiter. “Yes. I’m working in social media and legislation at the National Environmental Defense Organization. We usually just call it NEDO.”

They chatted about PRAN and their jobs, and then Amy said, “I hope you two will come over after the fundraiser. We figured every restaurant around here will be packed, so we thought we’d have a few people over for a dinner buffet.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

“In the meantime,” David said, “I’m going to grab a few hors d’oeuvres.” He stopped a another passing waiter and picked up a plate, piling it with stuffed mushrooms and mini crab cakes to share.

“How much you think they’ll raise at this fundraiser?” Bob asked David before popping a mushroom into his mouth.

“No idea. I know the intent was to raise enough for several scholarships, like the White House Correspondents’ Association.”

“Yeah, but PRAN has a much broader membership. The group is supposed to serve as a network for political reporters — especially those who are getting laid off at newspapers. I hear they’re launching a new website, too — sort of a LinkedIn for political writers.”

Laura didn’t know much about these organizations. “Isn’t the White House Correspondents’ Association the group that sponsors the big dinner every spring? The one they call the ‘Nerd Prom’?”

“Yeah,” Bob said. “Another name is ‘Hollywood for Ugly People.’ ”

Laura laughed. “Ooh, that’s harsh.”

“Hey, I didn’t make it up, I’m just reporting it.”

Laura sipped her champagne. “Do reporters really do that? A lot of networking and sharing? I thought it would be more competitive.”

“It’s competitive if you’ve got an exclusive, but if you’re all covering the same thing, then yeah, there’s cooperation,” David said, picking up a crab cake. “The White House reporters form a pool so that not everyone has to be at every single event when they’re traveling.” He looked wistful as he chewed. “It would be great to have the White House beat one day.”

Laura felt a momentary pang. “Wouldn’t that mean a lot of travel?” Despite their busy schedules, she was glad they were finally living in the same town and that their apartments were only one Metro stop apart. She hated the thought of David not being around.

David smiled and squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry — I’m not going anywhere. Since I’m only 27 and I’ve only been at the Herald a few years, maybe they think I need more seasoning.”

Amy stood and turned to her husband, gathering her bag. “Honey, we really need to relieve the baby-sitter.”

“Hold on.” Bob nodded his head toward the elevator. “This place is about to be invaded by The Quartet.”

David rolled his eyes. “Man, I hoped I could avoid them tonight, especially Tom Hutchinson.” Bob and Amy both nodded sympathetically.

Laura stood and looked around the crowded room, curious about the object of so much interest. “OK, you’ll have to explain to the new kid what — or who — the quartet is.”

“Tom Hutchinson is a conservative political columnist at the Herald,” David explained. “He and three cohorts have a show on the local PBS station on Sundays at noon where they talk about politics. It’s called The Quartet.”

“But they use the name to describe themselves around town,” Bob added. “They’re known for hanging out at top restaurants and closing down bars — many bars — in Washington.”

“It’s a local show, you said?” Laura scanned the crowd. “I don’t recall seeing it on PBS in Chicago.”

“No, it’s definitely a local show,” Amy said. “But it’s ‘must-watch’ TV in this town. Sort of like reading the Politico Playbook.”

More and more, Laura realized that there was still a lot she needed to learn about Washington. She was glad she had a willing teacher in David. “Is their TV show any good?”

“It really isn’t — I don’t think so, at any rate,” Bob said. “But everyone in power seems to watch it. And because the show is so successful, the four of them have broadened their base to land book contracts and become commentators on cable news shows. That’s where they’re making their real money.”

“Excuse us,” David said quickly. He steered Laura to the right, but it was too late.

“DAVID WAINWRIGHT!” roared a man out of Laura’s line of vision.

David sighed as a ruddy-faced, middle-aged man in a slightly rumpled tuxedo approached. “Hello, Tom,” he said, offering a handshake. “Laura, I’d like you to meet one of the columnists on the Washington Herald, Thomas Hutchinson. Tom, this is Laura Delaney.”

Laura stared. She realized she had seen Tom Hutchinson once before, outside the Senate visitor’s gallery. It was one of her worst experiences in Washington so far.

She’d been on the Hill to follow the debate on some environmental legislation NEDO was tracking. The bill didn’t go anywhere, and she’d left the Senate to head back to the office.

Down the hallway, raucous laughter caught her attention, and she turned to see some GOP senators talking to a man she judged to be in his late fifties. She headed toward the elevator, pressed the down button, and waited.

“Not much happening today, is there?”

Laura jumped; she hadn’t heard anyone approaching behind her. It was the man who’d been talking to the senators. “No — just a cloture vote that failed.” The elevator car arrived, and they both stepped in.

“So why are you here?” the man asked. He was well-dressed in a black pinstriped suit, crisp white shirt, and red and gold striped tie, but Laura thought he still appeared a little disheveled somehow — maybe it was the fact that his thinning blond hair was mussed, and his skin was mottled. Laura thought she could smell alcohol on his breath, too.

“Just sitting in the visitor’s gallery,” she said neutrally.

As the elevator car stopped on the ground floor, the man stumbled and knocked into Laura. She felt his hand brush the front of her suit jacket at the level of her bust and cup her breast.

“HEY!” she shouted. “Watch it, will you?”

He gave her a grinning leer. “Sorry. It was an accident.”

She glared at him and strode out of the elevator. Laura figured it just her luck to have the environmental bill go nowhere and to end up in the elevator with an old lecher.

The memory was burned into her brain. And now, here was the same creep who’d groped her in the elevator.

David and Tom both were looking at her questioningly; she realized they must be wondering why she was silent for so long. She would rather have ignored him, but for David’s sake, she offered Tom her hand, along with a stilted, “Hello.”

“Oh, we can be more chummy than that!” Tom said as he grabbed her arm and leaned forward to kiss her. Laura avoided his mouth only by turning her face at the last minute.

To her relief, David managed to step between them. “Hey! Tom, Laura is here as my date, so — hands off, please.” He said it forcefully, and Tom let her go.

Laura could see that Tom apparently had an early start on drinking tonight. She figured he must have been handsome in earlier days, but a red nose, blotchy red skin with spider-webbed veins, and bloodshot eyes had degraded his good looks.

She didn’t resist when David took her arm and pulled her in the other direction. “What a jerk!” she said when they were some distance away.

David sighed again. “Tom Hutchinson used to be a very talented reporter. His claim to fame was uncovering a scandal in upstate New York government in the 1980s. He even won a Pulitzer Prize — that’s how he got his job and column covering politics at the Herald. But he started drinking more and doing less work. Every now and then he still writes a good column, but mostly he just repeats conventional wisdom talking points without doing any real analysis. It’s as if he can’t be bothered to develop original ideas anymore.

“I suppose I should feel bad for him. I know his wife died of breast cancer a few years ago, and his drinking got worse after that. But he’s become a real lech to women in the office. That’s why I wanted to get you away from there. And I can’t believe he was so rude to try to kiss you. I suppose he would have claimed it was an air kiss.”

Or he would claim it was an “accident,” Laura thought, just like he did when he groped me in the elevator.

“Part of the trouble is that our publisher loves him. I don’t understand why, but he does. So we all have to be polite to Hutchinson and treat him with kid gloves.”

Laura looked back and saw Tom putting his arm around another young woman after rejoining his group. “David, I actually ran into Tom earlier this week, when I went to the Senate to watch the debate on that environmental bill. I didn’t know who he was, but he got a little familiar. I almost slapped him.”

“He got ‘familiar’?”

“He tried to grab my breast.”

What?

“Right in the elevator outside the visitor’s gallery. I couldn’t believe it. He claimed it was accidental, but I knew better.”

Laura could see that David was seething. He turned toward Tom, but Laura stopped him.

“It’s not worth it,” she said quietly. “Let’s just walk away.” He was still breathing hard.

Laura saw that several other people had joined Tom and his group. “I think I recognize a few people in that bunch — the guy with the crew cut and the guy with the bad comb-over — as GOP congressmen from Texas and Louisiana, and I think the blonde woman on the left has a show on Fox,” she said, hoping her conversation would calm David down. “I don’t know who the others are. Are those three on the far right side in The Quartet? Who are they?”

“Yeah,” David said, taking a deep breath before visibly relaxing. “They’re all on the show. They made their marks earlier in their careers, and now they earn their money mostly as talking heads.

“The blonde woman in the green outfit is Sally Adams. She broke a scandal in the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration. She’s now at Fox News.”

Laura studied the other three closely. She could see that Sally’s blonde hair was perfectly coifed in an updo. She was wearing what looked like a jade green brocade jacket and gown with matching bag. I doubt she bought those at a secondhand shop, Laura thought.

Laura looked down at her own dress. Her close friend and former college roommate at the University of Michigan, Jamie Bergstrand, had dragged Laura to several of Washington’s vintage clothing stores in Jamie’s U Street neighborhood to look for a gown for the fundraiser.

“Laura, this town has a lot of formal events,” Jamie had told her. “Women who can afford it don’t want to be seen in the same dress twice. So they make a little money back by offering them at a shop like this.

“The best time to come is really after an inauguration. You wouldn’t believe what you find. For the last inauguration, I found a fabulous gown in light blue satin. Seventeen dollars.”

They’d settled on the deep cranberry dress of crinkled chiffon that suited Laura’s coloring perfectly, bringing warmth to her porcelain skin and giving a nice balance to her collarbone-length dark brown hair. The cut was flattering to what Laura always considered too-wide hips.

One of the many things Laura liked about Jamie was that, even though she was a strong feminist in her job as a communications staffer for a Massachusetts congresswoman, that didn’t stop her from being a fashionista. She’d nixed many of the dresses Laura had tried on: a black jersey dress (“Looks too cheap,” Jamie said); a dusty rose full-skirted tulle gown (“Looks like a bridesmaid dress” was Jamie’s verdict); and a strapless, fitted teal Georgette gown with provocative cutouts (“You look like a Kardashian” was how Jamie put it).

Laura returned her focus to The Quartet.

“The guy on the far right, the short one with glasses, is Ed Golderman,” David continued. “He did the original reporting on the Wall Street insider trading scandal in the 1980s. He’s now at CNBC.

“And the older man, the taller one with white hair, is Paul Styne. He made his mark with his stories about some improprieties at the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Ford administration in the 1970s. He’s also a commentator on CNN.”

All the men were in tuxedos, as Laura would expect. She found it hard to judge them at a distance. Still, she noticed that Ed Golderman seemed animated in his conversation, while the older man, Paul Styne, the patrician-looking one, seemed to be leaning back, listening to the others.

“Are they all right-wingers?” Laura asked.

“No, that’s the funny thing. Paul Styne is known as a liberal voice on CNN. Sally Adams is definitely a conservative commentator on Fox, and Ed Golderman mostly just talks about business. I’ve never been able to figure out why the four of them get along so well.”

“Maybe they all just like to drink.” Laura watched as the group, including the four members of The Quartet, erupted into loud laughter. Tom, who had been telling some kind of story, staggered sideways slightly and started making his way back to the bar.

“I’ll get it, Tom,” Paul said loudly. “Why don’t you sit down over at this table? Sally, would you —?”

“I’m fine,” Tom said.

“Better listen to him, Tom,” said the congressman with the crew cut, whom Laura now recognized as Sam Beaumont from Texas.

“C’mon, Tom, let’s sit over here,” Ed said, leading him to a chair. Sally gently pushed Tom onto the chair and adjusted his jacket for him.

“Only if this little girl comes with us,” Tom said, trying to grab the arm of a young woman on his right. “What did you say your name was again?”

“Why don’t we see who’s at another exhibit?” David asked, drawing Laura’s attention away from the scene at the table.

“Good idea,” she said. “Let’s see if we can avoid that group.”

The room was crowded enough so that they had to squeeze between people to make their way to the other side of the room. Unfortunately, Tom spied David again.

“DAVID!” he shouted. “C’mere. I want to ask you something.”

Laura saw David hesitate, take a deep breath, and then lead her to where Tom was sitting. Paul had returned with several drinks, and Tom took one.

“So how do you like covering Congress?” Tom said loudly.

“It’s fine,” David said coldly. “I’ve been covering a series of congressional hearings all week.”

“You need to get out there!” Tom wagged a finger sideways at what Laura figured was some unknown adversary. “Do some real investigative journalism! That’s how I got started.”

“I know.”

Tom looked at Laura. “Are you a reporter, too? Didn’t I see you in the Senate the other day?”

“No.” Laura was a little taken aback that Tom remembered her. “I’m not a reporter. I work for an environmental group.” She wasn’t about to give him any more information than she had to.

“I suppose you’re one of those tree hugger types. There’s no such thing as global warming. Why was it so cold last January? Why was there so much snow?”

“Just about every scientist in the world disagrees with you.” Laura tried to keep her voice neutral, even though she felt like slapping him. “It was cold because it was winter. While North America was having below-zero weather and the Northeast had record snowfall, parts of the Southern Hemisphere were having record high temperatures. It was 125 degrees in Australia.”

Tom ignored what Laura was saying. “Why don’t you sit over here?” He patted the chair next to him.

David pointed to the far side of the room. “Actually, Tom, we were just heading over there to see —”

“Oh, c’mon. I want to talk to your date about global warming. Sounds like she needs some warming up.” He grabbed Laura’s arm before she could move away. The action pulled her off balance, but she was able to catch herself on the table before she fell into Tom’s lap. It also allowed Tom’s hand to again “accidentally” brush against her breast, as he had done in the elevator outside the Senate.

OK, “Midwestern nice” wasn’t cutting it anymore, Laura thought. She had had enough of this sleazeball.

Laura picked up Tom’s drink where he had placed it on the table and threw it in his face. “Get your goddamned hands off me, you son of a bitch!” she said — not too loudly — but with just enough force to get her message across and to make sure others nearby heard her.

Before she turned to walk away, she could see several other women around them start applauding. The other members of The Quartet just watched in shock.

Congressman Beaumont broke out into loud guffaws. “Looks like someone finally called your bluff, Tom. I’ll get you another drink.” He stood and walked toward the bar.

The congressman with the bad comb-over, whom Laura now recognized as Lamar Kemp from Louisiana, just sniffed. “That’s what you get from taking so many liberties with women.”

“Maybe Tom could use something to eat, sort of soak up a little of the alcohol,” Ed said. “I’ll get us a plate of hors d’oeuvres.”

The other blonde woman in the group took Kleenex from her bag and passed it to Tom so he could mop his face. She stared down her nose at Laura. “Looks like some ladies like to call attention to themselves,” she said. Laura now remembered her name. She was Sandra Hammerstring, who had a popular show on Fox News, Bringing Down the Hammer.

Laura, nonplussed, stared back; she could tell she was getting support from many other women in the room. She smiled to herself as she saw several women give her a silent thumbs-up.

Laura and David turned and made their way through the crowd to cross to the other side of the room. David just shook his head and gazed at her admiringly. “That,” he said, “was totally awesome.”

“Yeah, well, he deserved it!”

“You know, I was really glad you did that. Threw the drink at him, I mean. I felt like I should have defended your honor or something, but when it comes to Tom, my hands are tied.”

“Why? Besides, I can defend myself.”

He took her hand. “I know you can, Laura — you’re a strong woman. I just want you to understand. I once confronted Tom over one of his columns — he was repeating a lot of Beltway conventional wisdom talking points that have no basis in fact — and I called him out over it, pointing out a major error. He complained to the publisher, and I almost lost my job.”

“Really? You’re so good at what you do! You write so many stories. Sometimes I wonder how that paper can function without you.”

“Yeah, well … I’ve never understood the hold that Tom has on our publisher. Maybe Tom has naked pictures of the publisher with a chimpanzee.”

Laura would have asked more about the run-in with Tom, but David spied some friends near another table, and he led Laura over to talk to them. He introduced her to Michael Hoy, who worked for Yahoo News, and his partner, Dean Pearson, who worked on the Hill. David explained that Michael had been part of a layoff at the Herald but that he’d landed on his feet online.

“I’m living proof that there’s life after newspapers,” Michael said.

“I think I’ve read some of the things you’ve written,” Laura said. “You write a lot about health care, right?”

“Exactly. This is a time when we need a lot of explanation about health care, even though the Herald didn’t seem to think so. I’m glad I can do it elsewhere. That’s how Dean and I met — he’s a congressional aide who has written a lot of health legislation for Democratic senators.” Michael and Dean launched into a discussion about what Laura could tell was one of their favorite topics.

“Don’t get them started,” David warned Laura. “We’ll be talking health policy all night. Another time, guys? We’re about to head out.”

“No problem,” Dean said. “We’ll join you. Let’s go downstairs.”

The four started walking toward the stairs that would take them down to the Newseum’s next level but stopped when they heard raised voices across the room near The Quartet’s table. As Laura looked back, she could see that Tom Hutchinson seemed to be grabbing at his chest and heaving, as if he were having trouble breathing.

“Aren’t you feeling well?” Sally asked. “Tom? Can we get you anything?”

“Ep —” Tom sputtered. He grabbed at the lapel of his tuxedo jacket.

“Tom!” Ed called. “Should we try to get a doctor? You don’t look well at all.”

Several voices started asking if anyone in the room was a doctor. In a room full of journalists, there didn’t seem to be anyone close by.

Laura was alarmed. “Did I do that? By throwing a drink at him?”

David shook his head. “No, I’m sure it had nothing to do with you, Laura.

“I can’t believe I have to do this,” David muttered. He wove his way through the crowd to the bar and asked the bartender if anyone on staff could come to Tom’s aid.

The bartender shrugged. “Sorry, we’re just with catering.”

David took out his cell phone and punched in 9-1-1 to report Tom’s condition. “I don’t know,” David said into the phone, “but he seems to be having trouble breathing.” He paused to listen to the questions from the emergency dispatcher. “I don’t know if he’s got a heart condition. He looked like he was grabbing his chest. It seems like he’s had plenty to drink tonight, though.”

A gray-haired man in a navy tuxedo tried to make his way through the crowd toward Tom. “I’m a physician. Please let me through.”

By this time, Tom was slumped over. The doctor loosened Tom’s collar and felt for a pulse. He looked around the group of people. “Did anyone call 9-1-1?”

David stepped forward. “I did. The dispatcher said they’d send someone right away.”

“Hang in there, Tom,” Sally said. “An ambulance will be here soon.”

“We’ll just sit here with him,” said Congressman Kemp.

Paramedics arrived within minutes and cleared the area around Tom, who now seemed unconscious. Laura and David tried to stand close enough to see what was going on, but the area was getting even more crowded.

Laura saw the physician talking to the EMTs. He was shaking his head. “Well, we’re required to call the police,” Laura could hear one of the paramedics saying as the other spoke into a cell phone.

David and Laura looked at each other. “Is he dead?” Laura asked.

“Seems that way,” David said. “Not a very celebratory atmosphere, is it?” He started to make a call.

“Who are you calling?”

“The office. If Tom is dead, they’ll probably want to put something on the website and in tomorrow’s edition. I’m also going to try to catch my editor if he’s still in the building.

“Ah, he’s never going to hear his phone in all of this noise. Maybe he’ll notice a text.” David sent out a quick message.

They didn’t have long to wait before the police arrived. A tall, graying African-American detective in a navy suit walked over, put his hands on his hips, and looked at Tom. He took charge of the scene, directing those around him to stay in place. Then he looked up, saw Laura, and walked over to her.

“Well, well, well. If it isn’t Miss Nancy Drew herself. All dressed up, but with another dead body.”

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