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OUT OF HARM'S WAY
By JACK THOMPSON
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.Copyright © 2005 Jack Thompson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTO THE GATES OF HELL
On October 6, 2004, shock jock Howard Stern threw in the towel. He sat before his microphone in his New York studio at WXRK 92.3 FM and told the millions listening to his syndicated show via Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting that he was done with broadcasting on the public airwaves.
"I'm going to satellite radio because the FCC has made it impossible for me to continue doing what I do, a pornographic radio show. They have tied my hands. I can't give you, my fans, what you want and deserve," he said. "Starting January 1, 2006, I'll be on Sirius, and the FCC won't be able to touch me. Broadcast radio is dead."
Howard Stern then turned his wrath on me. "There's this lunatic lawyer in Miami who got me off the air in South Florida, off all Clear Channel stations across the country. One man did that. That's how insane this has gotten."
I knew I was the "lunatic lawyer" to whom Stern was referring. I had been the one who convinced Clear Channel to dump him from all of its stations. I had been the one to secure a $495,000 FCC fine against The Howard Stern Show, all in the months leading up to this moment.
Seventeen years of battling with other shock jocks over the same is sues-the portrayal of women as objects to be humiliated, the distribution of pornography to children, all in violation of state and federal laws-had culminated in the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" declaring victory in order to hide his defeat.
His new name should be Coward Stern. Although he claimed this fight was all about his freedom of speech as an American, here he was fleeing the public airwaves, unwilling to fight for his version of the First Amendment. Howard Stern was blaming everyone but Howard Stern. This moment had been worth the seventeen years of effort and pain I had gone through to get here. It didn't get much better than this, but at times, it had been much worse.
* * *
Life hadn't always been this complicated. In fact, it had started out rather simply. I first met Patricia Halvorson when we were fellow classmates at Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, Tennessee. On May 15, 1976, we missed our graduation ceremony to get married in her hometown of Hudson, Wisconsin. I'm certain we had more fun at our ceremony than our classmates did at theirs. Our honeymoon was spent pulling a U-Haul, which was attached to the bumper of our Pontiac, to Miami, Florida, a distance of 1,800 miles.
We rented a little concrete block home on Key Biscayne, with the rent reduced thirty dollars to $220 per month because I agreed to mow the grass. Few people in Miami mowed their own yards then, even fewer now. But on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, everyone mowed his own yard. Midwestern habits are hard to shake.
That first Miami summer, Patricia and I studied for the Florida bar exam, which we had to pass in order to practice law. My wife had a job lined up, having served the summer before as a clerk in an old, respected Miami firm. The partners liked her so much they offered her a position as an associate when she graduated the next year. Patricia had worked her way through college as a waitress, taking out student loans when she had to. She would eventually become the first woman partner in that firm.
I hadn't found a job yet, but I wasn't concerned. I knew that once I passed the bar, I would be sure to find something.
It's not as if I hadn't already had opportunities. In my final year of law school I had flown from Nashville to Miami during Thanksgiving break to interview for a job I hoped to begin upon graduation. Florida has eleven judicial circuits, each one with its own local prosecutor called a state attorney. I wanted to begin my law career as a prosecutor, so I arranged an interview with the office of Dade County State Attorney Richard Gerstein.
When I arrived I was told I would be interviewed by Gerstein's first assistant, a woman by the name of Janet Reno.
I walked into Janet Reno's office and immediately noticed how tall she was. I'm six feet, or at least I was then, and I had to look up pretty steeply to make eye contact. I extended my hand and said, "Nice to meet you, Ms. Reno."
"Nice to meet you, too, Mr. Thompson. Have a seat."
Ms. Reno, wearing a blue, flower-print dress, pushed her chair backwards, sat down, and put one foot and then the other on her desktop blotter. Her feet were apart, pointed at me, toes up, without either the ankles or legs crossed. The only thing crossed at that moment in that office were my fingers, hoping that Janet Reno would not do the whole interview in this, shall we say, posture.
Then it got worse. The interview lasted about ten minutes, roughly half of which were consumed by a lawyer named Hank Adorno (who be came Reno's first assistant when she was appointed Dade County State Attorney upon Richard Gerstein's resignation in 1978) repeatedly running in and out of her office, asking her questions about cases.
I was confused. I was a student with next to no spending money. I had bought a ticket to fly down to Miami to interview for this job, but Janet Reno couldn't give me ten uninterrupted minutes of discourse-and even that had to take place between her shoes as if they were conversational goalposts. I felt that I was being intimidated rather than interviewed. But why?
I became even more confused by Ms. Reno's line of questioning. She didn't ask me anything about my academic or professional background. She didn't seem to care whether or not I was prepared to be a prosecutor. Instead, Janet Reno posed three hypothetical crime investigations to me in which the police had acted improperly. She wanted to know if I agreed that the cases should be thrown out. I think she was fishing to find out if I shared her ideology about how to run a criminal justice system. I considered each scenario, and told her that in all three of these hypothetical cases, the police had acted in ways that were defensible and that the prosecutions could be salvaged.
"Are you ever skeptical of the police version of a case, Mr. Thompson?"
"Not generally," I said. "Seems to me that's the criminal defense lawyer's job."
Years later I would read one account of Janet Reno's life that helped me to understand what I couldn't have known then. Sandy D'Alemberte, Reno's mentor at the powerful law firm of Steel, Hector & Davis, tells how he had lined up a job for her as a prosecutor in Gerstein's office. When D'Alemberte suggested to Reno that she should go work in the state attorney's office, she shouted, "Why would I want to do that? I hate the police!" I believe that she wound up taking the job for that very reason, since prosecutors who hate the police can frustrate them in their jobs far more effectively than a defense lawyer can. The Trojans had used that horse for a reason.
Janet Reno's parents had been reporters for the two newspapers in town, the Miami Herald and the Miami News, the latter now out of business. Her father, Robert Reno, was the police beat reporter for the Herald. Maybe she got her enmity for the "thin blue line" from that parental vocation.
Indeed, years later, in a Miami Herald profile of Kathy Fernandez Rundle, Assistant Dade County State Attorney, her boss, State Attorney Reno is described as a "frustrated social worker."
Boy, did I learn that on that November morning in 1975 in Janet Reno's office.
I was relieved, after my ten minutes of pain were up, to get out of Reno's "garment district," but I was more than a little dismayed that a gung-ho, lock-up-the-bad-guys fellow like me couldn't work in the prosecutor's office in Miami. I liked the police. But I think that's why Janet didn't like me.
Oh well, I thought. I won't have to fool with her again.
* * *
I went into the July 1976 Florida bar exam more confident than my wife. I've always been confident about everything, even when I have no reason to be. But fear is an appropriate thing to feel for anyone taking a bar exam because, as Yogi Berra once said, "Your whole future is ahead of you." My wife studied harder than I did. She did not want to fail the exam. I knew I would not fail it.
We got our bar results in September. My wife passed; I failed.
I was crushed, embarrassed, and angry at myself. What a great way to start a marriage! Your wife can capitalize on three years of law school and practice law, and you can't. Nice going.
My parents had always told me that I was special, that I was bright, that there was nothing I could not do. And they always selflessly gave me the means by which to prove them right.
Now I had let them down. I had let my wife down too. It was worse than a bad dream-it was a really bad reality.
This was the first time in my life that something had felt like failure. It certainly was the first time I felt like a failure in anything significant. What was I going to do? Once the shock wore off, I began to rationalize. I blamed others, of course, as well as other "things"-certainly not myself.
I told my wife that I didn't want to live in Florida anymore, certainly not Miami. I hated Miami-the people weren't friendly, and it was too hot. I accused her: "You're the one who wanted to come to Miami. You're the reason I'm in this horrible state whose bar exam is unfair." Fully half of the people who took the exam that year had failed it, which convinced me that the exam itself must have been unfair. Anything to hang my hat on other than my own mistake.
I wanted out of Florida, out of a lot of things, maybe even out of the marriage that had brought me here. I loved my wife, but I loved the feeling of invincibility even more.
Things continued on this downhill course until Patricia said to me, "Jack, you're understandably depressed and frustrated. Why don't we go to church this Sunday for a little bit of encouragement? I miss church, and you promised me when we were engaged that you and I would go when we got married."
"Fine. We'll go to church." It will be stupid, I thought, and that will be the end of that obligation.
We had been married in the Presbyterian church right on my in-laws' street in Wisconsin, so it was natural to walk to Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church, a mere two hundred yards away from our rented home. I felt better about it when I realized that this was the church Richard Nixon attended when he was president. The "Southern White House" had been right there on the same street as the church. The helipad at which Navy One had landed was one of the first things I went to see when we arrived there in the spring. Looking at it, I remembered holding a sign for Nixon on my elementary school playground on Election Day, November 8, 1960. Nine years old and already part of what Hillary Clinton later called a "vast right-wing conspiracy."
That Sunday we went to church, all dressed up the way folks at that time looked when they went to church in the Midwest. I wore a coat and tie, despite it being a typical 90/90 Miami day: 90-degree heat and 90 percent humidity.
When we arrived, I took note of three remarkable things. First it was a church in the round. The minister's pulpit was located in the middle of the sanctuary with the choir behind him and the congregation wrapped around him on the other three sides. Wow, I thought. This looks like the summer theater in Canal Fulton, Ohio, that my parents used to take my sister and me to. More importantly, there was no place to hide in the back of the church. Rats.
The next remarkable thing was that, as far as I could tell, I was the only person under forty with a tie on, let alone a coat. The older worshippers were in what I, and obviously they, thought of as their traditional Sunday best, but nobody else was.
The majority of the younger attendees were dressed casually-in golf shirts, beach sandals, and even shorts. Shorts! I had never seen such a thing in a church during a Sunday worship service anywhere. But this was Miami, which at the time was running a national tourism ad that said: "Come to Miami. The rules are different here." I'll say.
But even though this was Miami, I wondered if I had wandered into a hippie commune. No, I told myself, this is a Presbyterian church. Presbyterians aren't hippies. Richard Nixon, although raised a Quaker, went here, for heaven's sake! Nixon wouldn't go to a hippie church. He fought with the hippies over the Vietnam War. No, it must just be "casual Sunday" this week. Maybe there is a beachside picnic after church.
And then the third remarkable thing struck me, after I had soaked in the first two visually disconcerting elements of Key Biscayne Presbyterian: the noise. This didn't sound like a sanctuary just before a worship service. This sounded like a restaurant on a busy Saturday night.
People weren't seated in pews whispering to one another in hushed tones. They were standing up to wave and shout greetings at one another across the sanctuary. People were laughing loudly; kids were scurrying; folks were smiling. People were, well, raucous. What is going on here? I thought. I didn't like this. Church was supposed to be solemn, like a funeral. Church had always been a place I didn't want to be. Doing something you didn't want to do seemed to be a better way to fulfill a duty.
But there was something intangible in the air-in this place that didn't feel like a church. There was not just noise. There was an immeasurable, mysterious electricity, the kind that is in the air at the very be ginning of a football game as the kicker positions the ball on the tee. You can't describe it. It isn't a sound, really, but it's there. You can feel it more than hear it. It is an anticipation that something exciting is about to happen.
So, amid the din and the anticipation, my wife and I sat down a ways from where the preacher would be standing, just in case what felt to me like an impending building explosion might disintegrate the altar. I didn't want to be at ground zero.
We sat down next to a couple who seemed to be about fifteen years older than we were. He had on a coat and tie, so I felt like he possibly represented a little sanity in what seemed like a holy nuthouse.
We smiled at them, but the last thing I wanted to do was talk with any one. Frankly, despite the fact that I had agreed to come to church, I didn't want to give Patricia the opportunity to say, "See, there are friendly people in Miami."
Too late for that, however, as this couple, Jim and Marcia Youngblood, asked us if we were visiting the church for the fast time. I smiled again wanly, as my wife told them that yes, we had just gotten married in the spring and had come down to Miami to live, having graduated from Vanderbilt.
"Vanderbilt!" they both exclaimed. "Our son Doug goes there. He just loves Nashville. Oh, we're so glad you are here...." The talking continued, I going through appropriate facial expressions, and my wife carrying nearly all of our side of the conversation. I was uneasy with the creeping notion that this couple was genuinely pleasant, genuinely funny, and genuinely pleased we were there. This did not seem like an act to get us to attend and then join the church.
I remember thinking these were the first people I had met in Miami that I might want to see again. I didn't like that feeling; in fact, I hated it.
The service began as the minister, a man by the name of Steve Brown, walked in to take his seat at what one would have to call, in this place, "center stage." Pastor Brown was tall, lanky, balding, his friendly face punctuated by brown eyes.
It proved to be a traditional, fully Presbyterian service. A wonderful choir, wonderful hymns, but a very unusual pastoral prayer just before the sermon. "Father, forgive the preacher his sins, for You know they are many. Let those here see not him, but rather only Your Son, crucified, in whose name we pray. Amen."
A pastor publicly speaking of his sins? That was a new one for me. Maybe this guy, Steve Brown, would have something else strange to say.
I listened as best I could, distracted by my growing confusion. I remember hearing things that rang true but also things that didn't make sense. Grace-what was that?
Excerpted from OUT OF HARM'S WAY by JACK THOMPSON Copyright © 2005 by Jack Thompson.
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