Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms: My Life in American Politicsby Ed Rollins
Always outspoken and famously candid, political consultant Ed Rollins pulls no punches in the Washington equivalent of "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again". From the Reagan presidency to the campaigns of Ross Perot and Christine Todd Whitman, Ed Rollins has long been at the red-hot center of things. Now he gives readers the inside story of Washington and many… See more details below
Always outspoken and famously candid, political consultant Ed Rollins pulls no punches in the Washington equivalent of "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again". From the Reagan presidency to the campaigns of Ross Perot and Christine Todd Whitman, Ed Rollins has long been at the red-hot center of things. Now he gives readers the inside story of Washington and many of its prominent players.
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Bare Knuckles and Back RoomsMy Life in American Politics
By Ed Rollins
Broadway BooksCopyright © 1997 Ed Rollins
All right reserved.
SON OF A SHIPYARD
They say you can't go home again. I say: Bullshit. I lived in Washington for twenty years, yet it was never really home. Home was always the shipyard town of Vallejo, California, a scruffy, scrappy, lunch-pail kind of place that has zero tolerance for anyone with pretensions. I left Vallejo in 1965, but I carried it with me everywhere I went. It's in my marrow; there's a piece of it in every drop of blood in my body, and I go home again every time I hear the beat of my heart.
In June of 1982, I went back to the place itself. My old friend John Herrington, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, invited me to join him on an official inspection tour of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. As if I needed any encouragement, in a wonderful gesture John arranged for my father, who spent nearly three decades working at Mare Island, to join us for the day. And a great day it was: Of all the memories I have from my years working for Ronald Reagan, I treasure this one the most.
The secretary's party arrived at ten o'clock in the morning, drove across the short drawbridge over the Mare Island Strait, and was met at the maingate by Captain Ernest Scheyder, the base commander. The shipyard had been spruced up for the arrival of a Navy big shot from Washington, but the ganglia of cranes and drydocks, the bustle of new construction, the roar of heavy equipment, and the view of San Francisco Bay to the south looked precisely the same as it did the first time I'd seen it as a kid.
We began at the administration building, where my father's personnel records had been pulled so we could see the name of every ship he'd help build. Then we were issued hard hats and set off on a tour of a place I knew by heart. We visited a submarine under construction in drydock, then were hosted for lunch at Quarters A, the turn-of-the-century colonial residence of the base commander.
I was embarrassed when Captain Scheyder introduced me as the highest-ranking government official in history to have grown up in Vallejo. I'm sure that several Dominican nuns and a few members of the Vallejo Police Department's juvenile division would have been shocked and surprised by such accolades.
After lunch, our party boarded the nuclear attack submarine USS Skipjack which was being overhauled. Bustling with workmen, the interior was dark, noisy, dusty, and incredibly congested. This must be what it's like to work in a coal mine, I thought. It's what my dad had done for nearly thirty years: wiring submarines. I walked off the sub so much more appreciative of what he'd done for his family--and even more grateful he'd insisted I not follow in his footsteps.
Continuing our tour, we drove by a very familiar sight. I asked the commander if we could detour for a moment and take a look inside the old base gymnasium.
It hadn't changed at all in the two decades since I'd first swaggered through the front door as a streetwise fifteen-year-old. I walked across the basketball court to a corner I knew as well as my parents' home. As I took a few punches at the heavy leather bag, I could hear the voice of my old coach Mike Denton bellowing in my ears: "Keep the jab up, keep the chin down."
When we ended our tour, each member of our party was presented with a handsome mahogany plaque. As usual, my dad got in the last word. "I spent thirty years here," he said. "You spent five hours, and you got a fancier plaque."
But I didn't need a piece of wood to commemorate my visit to this place. As I turned for a final look at the forest of cranes and other maritime equipment that jutted into the clear California sky, I sensed the sort of simple peace you can only feel when you're home. I thought to myself: I live in the nation's capital. I work for the President of the United States. But what really matters is this--my father's home, my home, the place that made me who I am.
But before vallejo, there was Boston, the city of my birth. I was born into a blue-collar Irish Catholic household during a snowstorm in 1943. It was March 19, St. Joseph's Day. I was named after my father, who was stationed in the Aleutians and could do no more than register his objections long distance. My mother wanted to keep his name because she was afraid he'd never return, but my father didn't think any kid should be stuck with being called Junior. Unlike the Brahmin strongholds on the other side of town, the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Roxbury didn't boast many Juniors, Thirds, and Fourths.
Much to the delight of James Francis Henehan, I was the first grandchild on my mother's side of the family. In 1912, at age twenty-two, Big Jim had immigrated to East Boston from County Roscommon, Ireland. He took a job as a streetcar conductor, and three years later married Anna Bridget Timmins, a waitress at a small restaurant along his streetcar route who'd recently emigrated from County Cavan. Eventually they settled in Roxbury and had six children; my mother, Mary Elizabeth, was their eldest. Big Jim, like so many of his friends and neighbors, was a staunch New Deal Democrat and a union man to his core.
My paternal great-grandfather, William Pierce Rollins, was an inventor and a colleague of Thomas Edison. His son Walter--the grandfather I came to know as Pa Rollins--dropped out of school after the third grade and by his teens was one of Boston's first electricians. He was twenty when he married Ellen Jennings, who'd recently arrived from County Roscommon and was a nanny for a wealthy Boston family. My father was the fifth of their eight children, the youngest of four boys. All were trained by their father as electricians, spent summers wiring carnivals throughout the Northeast, and worked in the family electrical business the rest of the year.
My dad was a brawny man who played semi-pro football after high school. He was strong and tough, but underneath that rugged exterior was a gentle and generous nature. He started seeing my mother when he was nineteen. With her flaming red hair and light complexion, she was the most gorgeous woman he'd ever seen. He never dated anyone else.
In February 1939, he joined the First Corps of Cadets, Boston's elite National Guard unit. His outfit got called up on September 16, 1940, and shipped out to Camp Hulen in Texas. Thirteen months later, he and my mom were married during a one-week furlough shortly before his unit deployed to a secret location in the Philippines. And had it not been for a little-known episode in American history, I might not be here to tell this story.
The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, just after sunset, a squadron of Japanese planes flew off a carrier inland over unprotected airspace near San Francisco. Turning north, they flew over Vallejo and the blacked-out naval installation at Mare Island, the largest submarine base on the West Coast. The planes returned after midnight and again before dawn, but dropped no bombs. The psychological trauma of the incident reverberated all the way to the War Department. Even after Pearl Harbor, nobody dreamed the West Coast of the United States could be in danger from an enemy nation more than five thousand miles away.
My father's antiaircraft battalion was already on its way west by train when the Japanese fighters buzzed the Bay Area. Instead of continuing on to the Pacific, his battalion was diverted to Vallejo to defend against another aerial invasion. A different unit was sent on to the Philippines in its place; when the Japanese captured the Pacific Islands, that replacement unit was virtually annihilated.
My father's battalion stayed on in Vallejo, and in May 1942, my newlywed mother took the train from Boston and joined him. She went to work at Benicia Arsenal, a nearby Army base. But their second honeymoon lasted only three months; in August, after the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor in Alaska, my father's unit was reassigned to the Aleutian Islands. My mother, pregnant with yours truly, went back to Boston in November 1942 to await my arrival. My father wouldn't return until I was fourteen months old.
As it fumed out, there wasn't much fighting in the Aleutians. My dad spent twenty-two frigid months operating a searchlight unit and thinking about sunny California. While stationed in Vallejo, he'd been impressed by what he'd heard about California's educational system, especially the fact that every kid in the state could go to college for free. He made up his mind to return to California as soon as possible.
My father was discharged from the service in 1945, and in August 1947 my parents moved back to Vallejo. I was four years old. It was a courageous move on their part, since my father hadn't lined up a new job or a place to live. He took three weeks' vacation from his job as an electrician with the Boston Edison Company, and bought roundtrip train tickets for the three of us. If he couldn't find a job in three weeks, we'd go home. Luckily, he found work immediately as an electrician in the naval shipyard; he never left, and by the time he retired he'd put in thirty-two years of federal service.
My dad worked in New Ship Construction, where they built the submarines. It was dirty, hard work in dark, claustrophobic spaces. The early subs were over four hundred feet long but only fifteen feet wide. The electricians were among the first workers on board after the steel hull was laid, and they worked side by side with the welders, sheetmetal workers, and pipe fitters. He often worked twelve-hour shifts and six- or seven-day weeks--sometimes for thirty days straight. Every bit of overtime he could get was needed for his growing family.
He hardly ever missed a day of work, but the job took its toll. Several years ago, when he was facing heart-bypass surgery, my dad was told by his doctor that he had to quit smoking. In fact, he'd never smoked a cigarette in his life, but thanks to the asbestos used to line the pipes and wiring in the early subs, his lungs were scarred like a six-pack-a-day man.
My dad is a simple, quiet man, blessed with great wisdom. He taught me two great life lessons. The first was humility. "If you're good," he'd say, "you don't have to tell the world about it. If you're no good, all the bragging in the world won't make you good." And from the moment I could talk, he told me to always tell the truth. "I don't care what you've done," he'd say, "but lying about it is worse. I may punish you if you've done something bad. But you'll always get a worse punishment if I catch you lying."
Like all kids, there's a lot of stuff I never told him. But to this day, I've never lied to him. My father felt there was no more important trait in a man than honesty. He's the most ethical and honest man I've ever known, and his judgment and values are very important to me.
Home was a housing project called Federal Terrace, one of several such projects built in Vallejo for civilian workers during the war, when the base swelled with fifty thousand military and civilian employees. The town became quite notorious during this period. In a two-block stretch of Georgia Avenue, the main street adjacent to the shipyard, more than one hundred bars and several whorehouses awaited the men coming off their shifts and the off-duty sailors and Marines.
I loved living in "The Terrace." There was a baseball field across the street, and a half-block away, next to the firehouse with the first television in town, there was a public recreation center with a fully equipped gym. It was there I put on my first pair of boxing gloves and got my first bloody nose.
Even though I came from a family of electricians, my father was bound and determined I was not going to follow him into the family trade or work in the shipyard. I was going to college. That was his dream, but there were many times he must have doubted I could make it come true.
At St. Vincent Ferrer Grammar and High School, I loved to read, and was always placed in the advanced groups. But I was a B student at best. The Dominican nuns rolled their eyes heavenward and told my parents how smart I was--if only I would apply myself. What they didn't know was that I was applying myself plenty. It was hard work playing every possible sport, watching as much television as I could sneak in, and studying as little as possible to get by.
My class had a reputation as the worst in St. Vincent's century-old history, and since I was the best schoolyard fighter and fastest runner, I was viewed by the nuns as one of its ringleaders. Even then, I took my role as a class leader seriously. I expressed opinions on matters the nuns thought were none of my business: how they taught, how much homework they assigned, and whether their punishments for bad behavior were appropriate. But the nuns didn't think these were suitable matters for debate, especially not by a student who didn't study, didn't do homework, and wouldn't respond to discipline.
Unfortunately, both my second- and fifth-grade teachers went to meet their Maker while teaching our class. To add to our troubles, one of them had taken sadistic delight in warning us, "If I die, it will be because of you." From then on, we were known as the "Nun Killers."
Our reputation was further tarnished when, in the fourth grade, our class lined up in the first row of the parade route and booed the great war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 1952 Republican candidate for president, who was making a campaign appearance in Vallejo. The nuns were appalled, and those arbitrarily tagged as the culprits each received an F in Deportment for un-Catholic discourtesy. It was my first F and created enormous trauma on the home front. In my family, the nuns were always right. If you were punished at school, you knew you were going to get it again at home. It didn't help that we'd cheered loudly at a similar appearance by Adlai Stevenson a few weeks earlier. I'm convinced the first Republicans I ever met were hidden behind those black-and-white habits.
Meanwhile, our family was expanding: I now had a brother and three sisters, and I took my role as big brother very seriously. The two-bedroom, one-bath apartment at Federal Terrace wasn't adequate for all of us, so my parents scraped and saved enough that, with the help of a GI Bill loan, they were able to buy our first home. It was a brand-new $7,000 three-bedroom, one-bath, flat-roofed tract house on the outer edge of South Vallejo.
It looked like a matchbox, but we were all mighty proud of our new house. It didn't have a ball field across the street or a gym half a block away, but it had hundreds of acres of farmland close by. Some of my fondest boyhood memories are of hiking in the hills every day after school, alone with my dog Duke. San Francisco Bay was just a little over a mile from our house, and I spent many hours every week, sitting on the cliffs overlooking the Carquinez Strait, watching the great tankers come into Standard Oil or the sugar ships arriving at C&H Sugar's big processing plants across the straits. I always thought how wonderful it would be to sail off to Hawaii or beyond. Even then, I was a dreamer and a real loner. From my earliest years, dogs have been some of my closest companions.
My first real interest in politics surfaced in the summer of 1956 during the Democratic Convention in Chicago. I watched the entire proceedings on television, fascinated with John Kennedy's bid to become Stevenson's running mate. As a fellow Boston Irish Catholic, Kennedy was the candidate for me. I was deeply disappointed when he lost out to Estes Kefauver. But the convention hooked me on politics and my new hero: JFK. Over the next four years, I read everything I could about him, and there wasn't a happier kid in Vallejo when he was elected president in 1960. Ironically, a dozen years later I'd be working for the guy Kennedy beat that year: Richard Nixon.
My mother was the best mom a kid could have. Having raised her five siblings from the age of sixteen after the death of their mother, she knew every parenting trick in the book. I was her first child, and we were always very close. My father was an extremely hardworking man, but he always had time for his children. And I can't blame my foul mouth on him; incredibly for a shipyard worker, he never swore, or at least not around me.
Nothing in either of my parent's lives came ahead of their five kids. They were devout Catholics and raised us accordingly. They had great inner strength; they taught us to take care of each other; and they always struck the right balance between love and discipline. Much later in life, I would work in campaigns where "family values" was used as a potent code phrase, a weapon that could make just about any opponent seem morally deficient. But to me, it was never an abstract or cynical concept. My family--as loving and close-knit as anyone could ask for--gave me all the best values I have.
For as long as I can remember, fighting has dominated my life. From ages thirteen to twenty-three, I was an amateur boxer. During those years, I was as disciplined as I've ever been. I thought of myself as a fighter, I acted like a fighter, and l was respected for being a fighter. I won several major West Coast amateur titles and had many offers to turn pro. I never took the plunge, mainly because I knew I wouldn't be able to play college sports if I did.
My first coach was a cop named Andy Myers. Andy ran the police department's juvenile division and had been a great amateur fighter in his day. He saw me win a schoolyard fight in seventh grade and decided to teach me to box. He worked with me for a couple of months, teaching me the fundamentals. I had a terrible temper as a kid, and he taught me to control it. An angry fighter is out of control, he used to tell me, a pushover to beat. From Andy I learned to fight with a cool head.
"Wait for your shot."
"Don't swing back when you're first hurt."
"Be patient and wait for your opening."
Those were Andy's rules, and they worked.
After grammar school, over the intense objections of my parents, who thought I was too young to enter the seminary, I went off to St. Joseph's, a junior seminary at Mountain View, sixty miles south of home not far from San Jose. I stuck it out for a year before returning to Vallejo and St. Vincent's, but it was there that I found my first real boxing coach.
He was a big-hearted Catholic priest who will remain anonymous here because he used to sneak me out of the seminary when I was fourteen and take me to San Francisco for Catholic Youth Organization and Police Athletic League bouts. He'd once been the New York State CYO champion, and he was a great coach. Despite my parents' hopes, the good father wasn't working on my spiritual life as much as my jab. That wonderful priest really got me into boxing, and for better or for worse, the influence of the sport stayed with me a hell of a lot longer than the influence of the seminary.
Back at St. Vincent's, I plunged into high school activities big time. I was starting fullback on the varsity football team, ran the 100-and 220-yard dashes on the track team, and wrestled. I was class president and held a few other offices--none of which means a damn today but seemed terribly important at the time. Because I was an athlete, I didn't drink, smoke, or use drugs. (I'd be surprised if anyone else in the school did drugs, either.) Sex was also taboo, but I can't blame that on sports. The nuns kept those girls pretty well intimidated, and the mere thought of sex was grounds for eternal damnation.
Most important, though, my boxing career started up again under the tutelage of one of the toughest men I've ever known. Mike Denton was a rugged little man then in his sixties, with a body and fists that were still rock hard. He'd come to the States as a young man after a career as a professional boxer in Europe, including a stint as lightweight champion in the twenties. When I met him, he was the athletic director at Mare Island Naval Shipyard and coached all the Navy sports teams. His true love was boxing, and his teams were always championship caliber--well disciplined and superbly conditioned. Mike used to say, "Fights aren't won in the ring; they're won by running hundreds of miles in the early-morning darkness."
I was introduced to Denton when one of my classmates whose father was a Navy captain invited me to work out at the Mare Island gym. Watching me pound the heavy bag, Mike decided he saw great promise, and offered to coach me. I was fifteen, and never had a tougher taskmaster, before or since.
With Coach Denton, you did it his way or you didn't play. I'd been boxing for about two years and was undefeated in twenty bouts when I began to train alongside the sailors and Marines who fought on his teams. Even though I was only a sophomore in high school, Mike would make me spar with the toughest guys he could find. I tried never to show it, but when you're still just a kid, fighting guys ten years older than yourself is damn intimidating. The service guys pulled no punches. In fact, they tried to knock me around a little more than usual so no one would rag them about fighting a kid. Over time, my confidence and skills grew. After a while, nobody screwed with the kid any more.
One day, Mike asked if I could go over to the naval station at Treasure Island that night and box with the team. His middleweight had gotten hurt in a shipboard accident, and he wanted to sneak me in just this once to fight for the Navy.
On the ride over, we thought up an alias for me. That night, Eddie O'Hara was in the ring with the toughest guy I'd ever fought. I got the daylights kicked out of me the first two rounds. Back in my corner, Mike said, "I'm proud of you, kid, but you're losing." The news came as no surprise.
"Listen, the only way you can win is to knock this guy out. If you don't think you can do it, just tie him up and try not to get hurt. But if you think you can hold out for three more minutes--and if you want to win--work his body for the first part of the round." My head was beginning to clear, and I hung on Mike's every word.
"When he starts to bring his hands down to protect his body, go to the head." The bell sounded, and I got to my feet.
I followed Mike's instructions to the letter. When my opponent dropped his hands late in the round, I got lucky and landed a killer shot that put him down. I jumped on him as soon as he got up and sent him down again. The referee stopped the fight. So began my naval boxing career.
It wasn't until the drive home that Mike informed me the sailor I'd just beaten was the Twelfth Naval District defending champion and had been the runner-up in the Pacific Fleet championships. I was ten feet off the ground. The other guys on the team were all over me with congrats. One of them started calling me "The Sandman"--"'Cuz when you hits 'em, kid, they goes to sleep."
Mike was careful to use me sparingly. If he got caught boxing a high school kid, it would have cost him his job. In those days, California law said you couldn't fight until eighteen.
The Mare Island team fought other military teams, college teams from California and Nevada, and prison teams from Folsom, San Quentin, and Vacaville. Mike let me fight the college boys, as he called them, and occasionally in the prisons. Of course, there weren't any traveling squads out of San Quentin, so we fought inside the walls. One of my worst experiences as a boxer was a bout at the Vacaville state facility for the mentally insane. I didn't like going to the prisons and especially didn't like Vacaville, where Charlie Manson and other wackos are incarcerated. One night, my nutcase opponent broke out into a weird, goofy laugh every time I hit him. He scared the hell out of me, so I tried to finish him off fast. After I smashed him with a really good right, he started grinning, spit out his mouthpiece, jumped me, and bit my shoulder. The ref and my corner guys pulled him away and stopped it, but I had deep bite marks on my shoulder. I found out later he was in for murdering his ex-wife and her lover. No more prisons, I told Mike on the way home. To this day, I can't drive through Vacaville without thinking about that crazy bastard who bit me like a dog.
In my senior year, I hurt my back playing football and couldn't train like before. Mike thought I wasn't training hard enough. In fairness to him, he probably didn't know the extent of my injuries. But I wasn't willing to take his constant riding any longer.
By now, I'd been honing my boxing technique on the mean streets of Vallejo. I was muscular, strong, and fast, but I wasn't a big kid and didn't look intimidating. For several years the local kids knew my reputation or had seen me box, so they wanted no part of me. But there were always plenty of service guys, out-of-/owners, and drunks.
Every few weeks, a new group of Marines would arrive for sixteen weeks of combat training. Fresh from basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, these kids were always looking for opportunities to test their new skills on the townies, and we were only too oblige. Nearly every weekend, a brawl could be had for the asking. Unlike today, where every punk kid over the age of fourteen has a gun or switchblade, the boys and men of Vallejo fought with their fists. You could get hurt badly, but you didn't get killed. Every so often somebody would pull a chain or knife, but a gun was rare. I never started a fight, but I never walked away from one, either. And once I got into one, I fought to win.
I guess I still do: More than twenty-five years later, for instance, I was working in the White House for Don Regan, the crusty chief of staff and ex-Marine officer. One day he said to me, "The problem with you, Rollins, is you weren't a Marine. A little Marine training would have taught you to follow orders."
Convinced my job was to give counsel to the president, not follow orders blindly, I arrogantly replied, "Don, when I was in high school, I made a career out of kicking the shit out of Marines. I trained them." I don't think he ever forgave me.
Mike Denton taught me two invaluable lessons, in the ring and out. Number one: "The guy who lands the first good punch usually wins." To help me be that guy, he taught me to throw a left hook. Executed well, the left hook is the most deadly punch there is. It's especially valuable when some idiot tries to hit you with a lead overhand right. The counter left hook will always beat him to the punch.
Number two: "Every fighter gets knocked down. A bad fighter doesn't get up. A good fighter jumps right back up and starts swinging. A great fighter gets up on one knee, takes an eight count, clears his head, thinks about what he's going to do next, then stands up and starts fighting again with a plan to survive."
Old Mike's been dead for a number of years now, but his advice has always stood me in good stead.
After leaving Mike, I started training under Johnny Murray, who owned Vallejo's only boxing gym. Johnny was a wiry, craggyfaced guy, a former pro boxer who looked like he'd taken every punch thrown at him square in the face. He managed a number of professional fighters around the Bay Area, and from the moment I turned eighteen, Johnny was hot for me to turn pro. He was convinced he could groom me into a serious professional and make lots of money for both of us. I kept resisting. I was thinking about what Mike Denton had said to me: "Kid, stay in school, go to college. This sport, no matter how good you are, always leads to a dead end. Fight for a while and then get out before you get hurt. No matter how good you are, there's always someone in that next gym or that next town who's tougher than you are." Besides, I knew it would break my mother's heart.
Johnny said I had three things going for me: I was a heavy puncher; I could take a beating; and I was white. To his mind, the last was my greatest asset. There weren't many good white boxers at the time, and promoters believed white fighters were a bigger draw. They don't admit it, but they're still looking for the Great White Hope.
If Mike Denton showed me the clean side of the sport, Johnny Murray exposed me to its dark side. His gym was across from the old city hall and police station, in the basement of a ramshackle office building. It was little more than a sixteen- by sixteen-foot ring in a furnace room, which always made it hotter than hell. The heavy aroma of sweat permeated the air, whether anyone was working out or not. It had a heavy bag and a few speed bags, but nothing like you'd find in a modern gym today. Except for the cops who worked out there after their shifts, I usually had the place to myself.
Even though I wouldn't turn pro, Johnny still fought me for money. To keep my amateur status, he paid me under the table. He'd book me every couple of weeks into private smokers, and I'd earn a couple of hundred bucks to fight some ex-pro or some up-and-coming local hotshot. Gambling was the main entertainment of the evening; thousands of dollars were bet illegally on the fights.
I fought in rented halls all around the Bay Area: Richmond, Oakland, San Jose. The crowds were small, drunk, and rowdy, and bouts were longer than my three-round amateur contests. Most were four rounds of three minutes each, and the main event was usually six to eight rounds. The gloves were smaller and the referees let it get a little rougher than usual. They weren't inclined to stop a fight over blood or technicalities until one man was out. The length of the round didn't always matter: When two guys were really going at it, the bell never seemed to ring until the action stopped.
One day, after I'd won five or six of these matches by knockout, Johnny was sitting next to me in the steambath after a workout. Smelling of booze as he always did, he said, "You know, kid, you could make a lot more money if you'd go down in one of these fights and not get up."
I was now fighting main events, and big bets were laid on my winning. In other words, if I took a dive, gamblers in the know could make a lot of dough.
I blew up and called him every name in the book. I came very close to punching his lights out. He told me to calm down and think about it. He claimed he could probably get me a thousand bucks, a small fortune to a nineteen-year-old kid. I told him to go fuck himself, and stayed away from the gym a few weeks. When I came back, the incident was never mentioned again by either of us, but he started charging me $15 a month to work out. There were never more than two or three guys in there at a time, so I figured Johnny needed the dough. I also quit doing the smokers for a while and just fought regular amateur cards.
A few months later, Johnny's gym burned to the ground. The firefighters said it was arson. They also told me it was strange no equipment was found inside the gym after the fire. Nobody was ever charged, but I never saw Johnny again. I went back to Mike Denton, and he accepted me like a prodigal son.
I learned a hell of a lot about life from boxing. It taught me how to live with fear. I can't imagine many things more fearful than climbing into a ring to face a man whose sole goal is to hurt you. Every time I sat in a locker room waiting for a bout, I felt that rush of fear. But no matter how often I asked myself what I was doing there, no matter how often I told myself I hated the fucking sport, I always went into the ring ready to fight.
It also taught me to live with pain. I've fought on after being knocked semiconscious. I've kept on fighting when my nose was broken, my eye was swollen closed or gashed open, or my mouth was full of my own blood. I've dragged myself to the shower not knowing whether I'd won or lost, or anything that happened in the last round.
Boxing taught me a lot about people. When you fight a man, you develop a relationship unlike any other. You either hate him or respect him, but a bond develops that's deep and shared. It's elementary: When two men face off against each other, armed with nothing more than a pair of eight- to ten-ounce gloves, rubber mouthpiece, and a protective cup, the last thing they think about is education, race, religion, or nationality. What they do think about is how tough the other bastard is and how hard can he hit. You learn to watch men's faces. You look for pain or fear in their eyes. You watch their nostrils and mouths for signs they're gasping for breath. You look for energy or despair within the scars and creases of their faces, because that can spell the difference between defeat or victory.
I also learned that quitting is never an option. Before a fight, you always think you can lose or be seriously hurt. But you also know you can win. No matter how often I swore the next fight would be my last, the chance of winning kept me coming back for more. Because when it's over and you've won, there's no greater thrill.
I scored a lot of knockouts in my day, and as barbaric as it seems to me today, I know that hitting someone and knocking them down gives me a rush unlike anything I've ever experienced. That magic moment when you know you've won a campaign comes close to that rush, but it's a shared experience and it's fleeting. The next day your candidate goes off to govern and you look for the next challenge. But a victory in the ring, or in the street or a bar, is something else, and yours alone.
So are the defeats. I won over 160 fights in my boxing career, but they're all a blur: the faces, the arenas, the towns all forgotten. But I remember every detail--every punch, every pain, every mistake--of my two losses. With politics, I vividly remember both the victories and the defeats, but I tend to replay the campaigns I've lost, especially the close ones.
Most days I feel older than my biological age. A nose broken six times, five concussions, numerous shattered bones in my hands and fingers, too many stitches to count, and a stroke brought on by a boxing injury to my carotid artery over a quarter century ago are the physical tolls of my career. It's been more than twenty-five years since my last bout, and I certainly don't have a fighter's body anymore. But I still have a fighter's heart. My love-hate relationship with boxing molded me, toughened me, and made me a survivor. Mike Denton's school of hard knocks was the basic training for the big leagues of American politics. Any dreams I had of going off to a brand-name college on a sports scholarship collapsed in the third football game of my senior year. I was the starting fullback, and we were on the way to an undefeated season. I was trying to spin out of a tackle when a linebacker planted his helmet square in the middle of my back.
I knew I was hurt bad, but when you're young and stupid, you think you're indestructible. I played the rest of the season with three broken vertebrae in my lower spine and two protruding disks. Despite severe back and leg pains, I played five more games shot up with Novocain and cortisone. My brother Michael, with whom I shared a room, pulled my legs out of bed, stood me up each morning, and helped dress me. This was early training for his future career in nursing.
The first of the six back operations I've had in my life was performed the day after I graduated from high school in 1961. While my classmates went off to the beach, I began the longest and most miserable summer of my life, flat on my back in Kaiser Hospital. The first operation gave me no relief from constant pain, so I had a second surgery in September. Instead of starting college, I spent the next several months in the hospital and recuperating at home, immobilized in a body cast from my neck to knees, while my weight dropped from 175 to 135. After I was discharged, I wore a full steel and leather brace for another year.
My orthopedic surgeon told me I'd never play sports again and should be damn grateful I could still walk. I was determined to prove him wrong. Going away to school was a dream I had to postpone. I enrolled at the local junior college a year behind my class and started the long process of rebuilding myself physically and emotionally. I had a third operation eighteen months later, and three more in later life. But giving up sports was never an option for me. Two days after coming home from the hospital after my first operation, my mother came home from work and caught me lifting weights in the garage. The pain and anger in her Irish eyes is something I'll never forget.
I was active in student government in junior college and became student body president my sophomore year. I belonged to the Greek Letter Society, a small fraternity of thirty guys that included Tug McGraw, the All-Star major league relief pitcher and World Series hero, and Sylvester "Sly" Stewart, better known as the lead singer of Sly and the Family Stone. It was 1964, and I was having a hell of a lot better time than so many of my friends who were shipped off to Vietnam to fight a war nobody understood.
I was a war supporter. Hell, it was easy for me. Because of my back, I had a medical deferment. I was pretty upset when I flunked my Selective Service physical, scotching any plans I had to enlist in the Marines. But in hindsight, being a Marine grunt in those days was a one-way ticket to the toughest fighting in Vietnam, and I'm sure I was blessed in not having to go. Still, I felt guilty being in college playing sports when my friends were going off to Vietnam. Back home, a lot of boys were getting drafted. Most of the folks in Vallejo supported the war. How could you not in a Navy town where almost everyone's father was building Polaris submarines armed with nuclear missiles? If the president and those smart guys back in Washington said we needed to be there, then by God, we needed to be there.
Travis Air Force Base in nearby Fairfield was a major staging area for troops and equipment going to Vietnam. Each week, thousands of troops would fly out of Travis for Saigon, and hundreds of body bags would come back. The coffins would be stacked up on the runway to be sent on for burial. There always seemed to be a picture of those coffins in the Friday edition of the Vallejo Times Herald, along with the body count of how many kids and Viet Cong had died that week.
The war really came home to me when one of my fraternity brothers, Fred Frome, also from Boston, flunked out and was drafted. Fred was my drinking buddy, and a bigger screw-off never lived. It was bad enough to be drafted, but Fred was drafted into the Marines. After his basic training, I was an usher in his wedding. Seven months later, I was one of his pallbearers. Fred actually got shot twice in the same day. After the first time, they patched him up and sent him back into battle to die that afternoon. The first set of Marines came to his mother's house to tell her he'd been wounded. Three hours later, another set came to tell her he was dead.
In 1965, after completing my associate degree at Vallejo Junior College, I transferred to San Jose State. I'd been offered a boxing scholarship there when I was in high school. San Jose State had one of the best programs in the country in the fifties but had dropped boxing in 1960 after one of its fighters killed his opponent at the NCAA championships. Many other colleges followed suit. I thought I could play football, and San Jose State was still a good place to get an education.
Because of my back injury, I flunked the football physical. So, after one semester, I transferred to California State University at Chico, which still had a boxing team. It was one of the best moves I've ever made in my life. Chico was a wonderful place to go to school. I loved the small town in the northern part of the state. The campus was beautiful--and it was the friendliest environment I've ever experienced.
And it was some party school. As a matter of fact, Playboy magazine has picked it as one of the top party schools in the country for three decades now. I did my part by reading Playboy every month and partying like hell whenever the opportunity arose. I certainly recognized there's a lot more to college than parties and sports. It's just what I did better than anything else.
Chico was where I found myself, and the man who had the greatest influence on me was a professor named Willie Simmons, who became my mentor, coach, and special friend. Willie was a small, sinewy Irishman from Providence, Rhode Island, who headed up the phys. ed. department and was the varsity boxing coach. He had a doctorate in education, but woe to anyone who called him Dr. Simmons. To students and faculty alike, he was just Willie. My first week on campus, I went to see him about boxing on his team. He remembered that I'd fought for the Navy against one of his kids several years earlier. After I laid out my boxing career, he told
me I had too much experience for the college level. After the 1960 tragedy, kids who'd fought in the Golden Gloves or had more than a few fights weren't allowed to compete against less experienced college boxers. But Willie asked me to help him coach the team. It was a troubled time for me. I was still struggling with the aftermath of the back injuries, and unsure of my future. Willie settled me down, focused my energies, and made me believe in myself. He was more surrogate father than coach.
I can never repay him for all he did for me. He trained me for my last fight, and ironically he was the guy who brought my career to an inglorious end by throwing in the towel.
In the fall of 1966, I decided to resume competitive boxing. Helping Willie coach reminded me just how much I missed the fight game. My back was fully healed now, and I'd finished most of my course work for graduation. My goal was to make the 1968 Olympic team. I'd been fighting at near-Olympic caliber when I'd stopped. I thought I had a legitimate shot.
I also needed to exorcise a demon. In my last fight in 1964, I missed a punch at the end of the second round and threw out my back. At the end of the one-minute rest period, I couldn't get up from my stool. The referee took one look at me and stopped the fight. I'd won the first two rounds on points, but the fight went into the record books as a TKO. My opponent was the defending 178-pound national champion, and he went on to make the Olympic team. I went on to another back operation. My last fight had been my first and only loss. I didn't want to go out a loser.
Under Willie's watchful eye, I plunged into the most grueling training regimen of my career. For six months, I ran three to four miles every morning before sunlight and did it again every evening. I spent a good three hours a day in the gym pounding the bags and sparring. I lost fifteen pounds, and didn't have a drink the entire six months.
By February 1967, I was ready. Willie entered me in the Pacific Coast AAU championships. Because of my previous experience, I was seeded into the open middleweight semifinals. It was Valentine's Day. But what I did that night was no game for lovers.
It was the worst mismatch of my career. My body was ready, but my psyche wasn't. My opponent was a tall left-harder, who for three years had been the national collegiate champion and was on his way to becoming the national amateur champ. In the first exchange of the fight, I caught my thumb on his elbow and broke my right hand. Against a left-harder, the right is crucial. I could barely defend myself the rest of the way. But like all fighters who don't know when to quit, I wanted to fight on. I was still convinced I could finish the fight on my feet and if lucky take him out with one good shot, the way Mike Denton had taught me. That's not the way it happened. Almost from the opening bell, I was little more than a punching bag, knocked into the ropes repeatedly and battered unmercifully in my corner. Willie stopped the fight in the second round. My boxing career was over.
The two-and-a-half-hour ride back to Chico was the longest of my life. We stopped in my old hometown to grab a quick dinner at Terry's, the late-night hangout off Interstate 80. By the time I got there, I was burning up with fever and sweating profusely.
By the time our food arrived, so had the all-too-familiar signs of a concussion: screaming headache, nausea, blurred vision, white flashes. I excused myself to begin the vomiting I knew would continue for several hours. I went out to the car and lay down in the back seat. Willie wanted to take me to the nearest hospital. I couldn't stand the thought of ending my career in a Vallejo hospital where word would quickly spread among my friends. I also didn't want my parents to know I was fighting again.
"No way," I barked through my pain. "Get me to Chico."
I was admitted late that night to Enloe Community Hospital in Chico with a severe concussion, broken right hand, broken thumb, and the most serious injury of all, shattered pride.
The next morning, the neurosurgeon told me another shot to the head could be life-threatening and my days of contact sports were finished. But I knew that already. As we'd driven north through the darkness the night before, I realized Willie had been right to stop the fight. I was furious with him when he did it. I knew I was hurt, but I thought he'd panicked. Now I realized I would never fight again. I was nearly twenty-four years old, about to graduate from college with a degree in political science. It was time for another focus in my life a new passion that would turn out to be just as cruel and fickle a master.
Like most institutions of higher learning, Chico State had its share of characters on the faculty. One of them, Ben Franklin, was my favorite professor. A crusty old bastard, Ben was a dyed-in-the-wool FDR liberal, and one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action. Ben would start his political science class each semester by asking students their political persuasion. First he'd ask if there were any Republicans, and would suggest they drop his class because they'd probably flunk anyway. He then made everyone else define what kind of Democrat they were. Pat Brown Democrats could expect C's. Alan Cranston Democrats could expect B's. And Jess Unruh Democrats could expect to ace the course. At the time, I was still a Democrat, and even though I was never sure if he really meant it, having already taken one of Ben's classes, I knew enough to define myself as an Unruh Democrat.
Chico State had a first-rate political science department headed by Jim Gregg, who'd been the education adviser to Governor Pat Brown. Gregg developed a special internship program for Chico State students in the state legislature that was superb. I can't remember whether it was Ben Franklin or Jim Gregg who got me my internship with Jess Unruh, the legendary Speaker of the state assembly. I started in 1967, working three days a week for the better part of my last two college years. I did what all gofers do--clipping, speechwriting, constituent mail, and occasionally traveling with the boss.
Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh was a genuine piece of work. He weighed nearly 300 pounds. His robust appetites for food, liquor, fancy clothes, money, and most of all women are still the stuff of legend in Sacramento. And he was able to indulge those vices to the fullest in his position as the most powerful assembly Speaker in California history. He was one of the most mesmerizing figures I've ever known in politics.
Jess was elected to the assembly on his third try in 1954. Only seven years later, at the tender age of thirty-nine, he was selected assembly Speaker, second only in power to the governor.
Unruh's creed of governing was deceptively simple. "Every man has a price," he loved to bellow. "For some men it's booze. For some men it's money. For others it's women.
"Every so often, you find one that's different. They can drink your booze, take your money, fuck your women, and then vote their conscience. But my secret is to make their conscience say, 'I better do what old Jess wants.' Those are the ones you can't buy for any price, but you can usually rent them for a while. You, young man, have to decide whether you're going to be for rent or for sale."
The life-style of a California legislator in the sixties was wild and freewheeling. It wasn't bad being a legislative staffer, either. Unruh had almost unlimited power as Speaker, and he used and abused it for good and ill alike. He sponsored the most far-reaching civil rights package in state history. He transformed the legislature into a full-time body with huge permanent staffs and made it the most professional and effective in the country.
On the other hand, Jess manipulated the spoils system with the gusto of a Tammany Hall boss. Early on, he figured out how to tap into the largesse of what was known as the legislature's "Third House"--the lobbyists. Before long, the special interests learned that the price for not doing Jess's bidding was too horrible to contemplate. To an unprecedented degree, Unruh controlled campaign contributions from lobbyists, and that allowed him to pick and choose who got to run for office. Many of Unruh's lieutenants, for example, were former aides elected to the assembly from districts in which they never lived. Once in office, they eagerly did his bidding.
It was an exhilarating time for me, my first real taste of political power. It was also disillusioning. I'd expected all the legislators I worked around to be serious, bright, and principled. In fact, most had the same foibles as the jocks and fret boys I knew at Chico State. Getting drunk and chasing broads was an agenda pursued as relentlessly as any piece of legislation. On any given day, the priority of many legislators was seeing how many naked women they could entice into the Speaker's shower. I was young and impressionable, filled with the idealism of youth, and the personal excesses of Sacramento bothered me. It was the beginning of a cynicism that would steadily grow over the next quarter century.
One of the more valuable truths I learned from Jess Unruh is that good deeds are often the products of less than perfect people. Whatever the motivation or the morality behind them, the good deeds stand. And who the hell am I to judge anyone else's morals? Those quickest to condemn, I've learned, are often the greatest hypocrites of all.
More than anything else, Jess Unruh tutored me in the game--how it's really played, and how you win it. In later life, Unruh liked to brag that he'd made every good legislator in the Capitol and trained every good Democratic political operative in the state. He'd even done his bit for Affirmative Action, he liked to add, by training the only good Republican operative in the state--me.
Another important thing Jess did for me was to get me involved in Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. Unruh was a Kennedy guy through and through. He'd been the Southern California chairman for Jack Kennedy in 1960, and was Bobby's state chairman during the 1968 primaries. Unruh's political machine was crucial to Bobby's chances. Without it, even a president as unpopular as Lyndon Johnson would have crushed him in California. Jess got me started as a part-time campus coordinator in the winter of 1968. When I finished school in early May, I went to work full time as a Northern California operative.
I met Robert Kennedy a week before the primary election, which was the first Tuesday in June. He was coming to San Francisco and had asked to visit Hunters Point, a housing project near the airport. His advisers thought his time could be better spent elsewhere; most of the residents didn't vote, and he already had the ones who did. Bobby didn't care. His campaign was about people and their problems, and he wanted to hear about their lives firsthand.
I met him in a small office at the project being used as a holding room. He was rail-thin, and had the Kennedy hair and features. But there was something else--an energy that radiated from his tired and bloodshot eyes.
Over a brown-bag lunch, he asked me how the college kids would vote. I reassured him that he had great support on the campuses; the only problem, I said, was that it was hard to tell with school out how many kids would actually vote. He was very direct in reply.
"I need those kids," he told me. "I can't win without them. I know you'll help me get them."
He asked where I'd gone to school, and what it was like there. As he left, I said to myself, This man really cares about me. I'm sure everyone he ever met felt the same way. It was an unforgettable encounter with a vibrant and passionate man. I left there that day absolutely determined to work harder than ever--and to get those college kids to turn out.
On election day, I was working on getting out the vote in the Bay Area. Unruh had invited me to the victory celebration at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and a private party afterwards at a nightclub called The Factory. My field boss vetoed the idea. There would be plenty of time to celebrate later, he told me.
An hour after the polls closed at 8:00 P.M., I hit the road north for Chico. I stopped in Vallejo to get a quick dinner at Terry's and catch some election returns. One newscast was predicting Bobby would beat Gene McCarthy by a margin of 46 to 42 percent and was also projecting he'd win the South Dakota primary. I was ecstatic. The California winner-take-all primary would give Kennedy 198 delegates and a huge psychological advantage. The next big test was New York, where he'd surely do well as an incumbent senator. We're going to do it, I told myself. We're going to win this thing.
I decided against spending the night with my parents and got back on the road to Chico. Somewhere on a back road shortly after midnight, I listened to Bobby's victory speech live from the Ambassador. Among the last words I heard were these: "I think we can end the divisions within the United States, the violence."
I switched the dial to a music station. Ten minutes later, a bulletin cut in with the news that Bobby Kennedy had been shot. The announcer said he'd been critically wounded in the head. I pulled over to the side of the road and sobbed uncontrollably for what seemed like an hour. I drove the rest of the way to Chico in a daze, pulled into a bar near campus, and drank myself into oblivion.
The television was blaring special reports. Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin, had been captured by former Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson and Roosevelt Grier, an all-pro defensive lineman for the Los Angeles Rams, who had been Bobby's personal bodyguard during the campaign. In one of the crowd scenes I saw Jess Unruh leaning over his friend, who was bleeding profusely from a head wound. Then I saw shots of the police dragging Sirhan out of the hotel past inflamed spectators.
"Kill the bastard," I screamed at the television. The next day's newspaper accounts reported that one man in authority had yelled at the cops, "I want him alive. I want him alive." The man whose words helped calm the mob was Speaker Unruh. My own anger masked a sorrow as deep as any I've ever felt in my life. It was as though someone in my own family had been struck down.
Robert Francis Kennedy held on to life for another 25 hours and 27 minutes. He died at 1:44 A.M. on June 6, 1968. Had he lived, he surely would have altered America profoundly for the better. Had he won the presidency, I almost certainly would never have become a Republican. Sixteen years later, I sat next to Roosevelt Grier on Air Force One during the closing days of Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign. Rosey was now an ordained minister and antidrug crusader. I was Reagan's campaign manager; he was the national co-chairman of Democrats for Reagan. At one point, I told him my first presidential primary had been Bobby's; he seemed surprised at first, then talked freely about what Bobby had meant to him.
As we recalled one of the worst nights of our lives, he said, simply: "Will you bow your head with me and say a prayer for Bobby's soul?" For a silent minute, two Kennedy Democrats prayed for Robert Kennedy aboard Ronald Reagan's presidential aircraft.
Excerpted from Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms by Ed Rollins Copyright © 1997 by Ed Rollins. Excerpted by permission.
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