The Columnist

The Columnist

by Jeffrey Frank


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Years of backstabbing and betrayal start to catch up with one of Washington’s elite opinion writers, “a character that deserves to jump outside the Beltway and enter the language like ‘Uncle Tom,’ ‘Peter Pan,’ or ‘Scrooge.’” (Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor).

During a cocktail party, George H. W. Bush encourages Brandon Sladder, the prominent Washington columnist, to write his memoirs. Sladder has, after all, known just about everyone of importance. From talking on intimate terms with world leaders, being a witness to enormous change, and expressing his weighty opinions on matters of state, he believes that his own story could add so much more than a footnote to our age. But what is meant to be a look back at his life and our times turns out to be far more revealing.

The Columnist is Sladder’s attempt to burnish his image for posterity. What emerges is something else: the misadventures of an irresistibly loathsome man—self-important, social climbing, dangerously oblivious, “an unforgettable character who is lovably hateable” (Susan Orlean, author of The Library Book) and one of the most memorable rogues in contemporary fiction. The Columnist is a dead-on, elegantly written portrait of the media and politics of the second half of the twentieth century—“It’s Balzac as word-processed by Philip Roth, only, for my two cents...funnier...[A] great American novel” (Christopher Buckley, author of Thank You for Smoking).

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982138967
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 10/06/2020
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.38(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jeffrey Frank was a senior editor at The New Yorker, the deputy editor of The Washington Post’s Outlook section, and is the author of Ike and Dick. He has published four novels, among them the Washington Trilogy—The Columnist, Bad Publicity, and Trudy Hopedale—and is the coauthor, with Diana Crone Frank, of a new translation of Hans Christian Andersen stories, which won the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Prize. He is a contributor to The New Yorker, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Bookforum, and Vogue, among other publications.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

My father, as he lay dying, was astounded when I told him that I was writing a memoir, with its claims on the tradition of a Bildungsroman, and perhaps he was right to be skeptical. What is ordinarily wanted from someone like me are observations about consequential people, and certainly I have my impressions of famous men and women, and how it was to be quite near them for a time. I will get to that. But there are other matters that need explanation, wounds that still require stitches.

I'm in my study on a bright day in October at the end of the century. On my shelves are the mementos that one collects (photographs, prizes); I'm surrounded by books, most of them history and biography (the important David McCullough), along with a smattering of excellent fiction. I began to jot down my recollections after a conversation with George Bush the elder, at a cocktail party in the home of a wise Cabinet officer, one of those happy occasions when everything is "off the record," when we're Americans first and antagonists second.

"I've always thought that you tried to be fair, Brandon," Bush said, chuckling gamely. "Not that you weren't tough, but you always put your country first."

I nodded with gratitude and, as a white-jacketed black man passed us with a pewter tray, reached for a spinach quiche the size of a half-dollar. The former President looked lank and fit. As we spoke, I sensed that others close by were trying to overhear, perhaps in the hope of learning yet another detail about matters of which I've never spoken publicly. I disappointed them.

"You've had an interesting life," Bush continued. "I was talking about this only the other day with Bar, and we were saying that Brandon Sladder must know everyone who matters. We never missed your column. Of course, you guys in the media get the last word."

Now it was my turn to chuckle, for it is a commonly held view that we have that advantage.

"I've been lucky, Mr. President," I said, and saw that he was pleased at the honorific. Over the years, I've discovered that people enjoy hearing their titles: Mr. Ambassador, Senator, what-have-you.

"It's more than that," said Bush, and he gave me a warm look. "You've been there, Brandon. You were there when I met Mr. Gorbachev, but you were there when Kennedy sat in my favorite chair."

I knew Jack Kennedy, of course, and supposed that I had a story or two to tell about him. But I knew Jack only slightly; he belonged to another era -- to men like Joe Alsop and Scotty Reston. I quickly corrected the former President on that score.

"You still ought to write it down, Brandon," Bush continued and he patted me softly on my right shoulder, letting his fingers linger there for an extra, affectionate second. "Don't hold back," he added.

A few minutes later, I spoke to our host. We'd known each other for years, and he looked at me with enormous sympathy as he told me about an important policy change toward another of those hostile little nations that remind one of poisonous insects. By this time, though, my thoughts were elsewhere -- on my next column, of course (I permitted myself a quick, private tour d'horizon), and what I'd say on my television appearance that very evening. As I drove to the studio, I found myself haunted by the former President's suggestion that I could add considerably more than a footnote to a chronicle of our time.

Copyright © 2001 by Jeffrey Frank

Chapter Two

In the spirit of a Bildungsroman, I may as well begin in the fall of 1957, when I was eighteen and enrolled at Darleigh College (founded in 1799 in the leafy village of Old Drake, Massachusetts). Even as a young man, I was frustrated at the smallness of my surroundings and a shortage of serious people. Compared to Buffalo, my birthplace, Old Drake was a backwater.

I got off to a particularly bad start in my freshman year, when it was my misfortune to get a roommate whose personal habits were cloddish. The large and hairy George Kipler III -- his few friends called him "Kip" -- refused for weeks to bathe, or spray, and had a habit of cackling suddenly and announcing that he'd "cut the cheese." That was bad enough, and I pleaded with him to reform; but as that first year progressed, Kip flouted the rules and began to bring his girlfriend into our small quarters. Soon enough, they became unbearable. His friend, who had an unforgettable red pimple on her buttocks and asymmetrical breasts, paraded about, although I tried not to notice, and the two of them made it clear, as they ground together beneath his spotted pink blanket, that they wanted to be alone. I warned them several times that my studies came first; and when I reluctantly acted in my own best interest and reported their behavior, the consequences were severe. Kip and his friend were suspended, and decided to transfer to more permissive schools. Of course, I paid a severe price, too; Kip urinated on my clothing, and many Darleigh students, who heard about the episode, ostracized me for doing what I thought was right. This was my first real experience with strangers who unaccountably wanted to hurt me.

In my sophomore year, I was living in relative isolation, and perhaps that is what took me away from my studies and toward something new -- the Drakonian, the college's weekly newspaper. I was not a good athlete, although I've always been drawn to sports for their metaphorical richness. I tried to join the drama club, but I was blocked, or so I was told, by an acquaintance of Kip's; and Kipist forces also blackballed me in every fraternity, even the one that admitted outcasts. The Drakonian, though, slowly welcomed me, and for the first time at Darleigh, I felt a sense of belonging and purpose; I spent hours in the paper's soiled basement offices, tapping out stories on the keys of a gray Underwood with a sticking K, and much of my junior year passed by there. I cannot say that I respected most of my associates; in truth, I became numb with boredom when one of them brought up yet another issue of alleged interest to our school. But a few of us were excited by the world beyond Old Drake, and I felt this especially with Carol Ann Margolies, a Jewish girl who wore a J.F.K. button in the middle of her blue cashmere sweater. Carol Ann was not only a gifted reporter, but had a probing intellect; I itched to become closer to her.

By the time our senior year began, in the fall of 1960, Carol Ann and I shared a similar contempt for what T. S. Eliot once called the "confused cries of the newspaper critics and the susurrus of population repetition that follows." I recall particularly the night that a dozen or so of us got together in our darkish "newsroom" and watched Kennedy debate Nixon as we chewed on slivers of an immense pizza covered by pepperoni, sausage, and anchovies. When the hour was over, and our group had dispersed, only Carol Ann and myself were left, lingering on the couch, four or five curled slices of cold pizza lying in the box. As I remember, we sat silently for a while, and as I watched the button winking from her sweater, I had a sudden impulse: Although endorsing a candidate would breach generations of Drakonian tradition, I wanted to support Jack Kennedy.

Carol Ann's lips twitched, for she was far more nervous than I at taking such a step without consulting the others. I remember that as we sat together on a bench and I typed, my arm would now and then brush against her cashmere sweater. I do not think this was intentional on either her part or mine, but as I wrote words I've since forgotten (now and then smacking the flawed Underwood, with its K-less ennedys), I felt aroused and guessed, from Carol Ann's breathing, that her plumpish body was affected, too. It was my first experience of this sort (her panties were ripped in our heated hurrying), and it was an ironical coincidence that this occurred on the day of my debut column.

Not surprisingly, several on the Drakonian staff protested; some went so far as to insist that I resign or they would. I believe that I was right to stand my ground, although I wish the others hadn't quit in such a snit. Had I left, I could not have given myself a column. Had I not done that, I would not have discovered at such an early age the heady rewards of writing one.

Copyright © 2001 by Jeffrey Frank

Chapter Three

My family lived in Buffalo, sooty and robust in the days of my serene childhood in the late forties and early fifties. My father was a successful insurance man and my mother was rarely happy, except while tending to her garden, which surrounded our comfortable little house on Cleveland Avenue.

My father held strong, favorable opinions about the Democratic Party, and his plump face would redden when I questioned his judgments about such men as Averell Harriman and Herbert Lehman, as well as figures like Joseph Crangle, who helped to run Buffalo; and sometimes our arguments at dinner became so fevered that he would leave the table. Still, I respected my father as the sort of white-collar personage who forms the spine of America. (He lived, as Max Weber once said, in the belief that "a man does not 'by nature' wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live.") My parents were people from whom a kind of wisdom may be distilled -- that is, if one listens carefully. I cannot say that I agreed with most of what I heard from my father; nor, in any case, do I remember very much. But growing up as his son undoubtedly helped me to become the person I am.

I graduated from Darleigh in the spring of 1961 (my senior year clouded in a haze of sensuality; often, Carol Ann Margolies and I sat side by side, and found ourselves caught in nature's urgent grip, shedding garments even as final sentences were composed), and as soon as I got my diploma, a magna, my father asked what I intended to do with myself. We'd held similar conversations over the years, and I had always tried, while being tactful, to make clear that I had no intention of following his example. When I mentioned a career in journalism, I saw despair distort his features, so I quickly went on to explain. "I don't intend to be the sort who rushes all about and writes about fires and crime," I said. "I intend to write about the fabric of our time."

My father shook his head. "Someday you'll want to marry, to have a family," he said. "I know one newspaperman, Fred something-or-other, who bought a whole-life policy from me. I believe that Fred earns ninety dollars a week."

I suppressed a chuckle. "I believe that Mr. Walter Lippmann earns many times that amount," I replied, and went on to mention several others who did, too.

My father had no good answer at the ready, and said, "You've got big ideas, Brandon."

My father, as I've tried to suggest, had a good heart, but he was not quite able to comprehend what mattered to someone like me and frequently repeated his small-minded belief that I had "big ideas." That was certainly true, but I also understood, as Napoleon said, that ability is of little account without opportunity. In any case, I'd heard about an opening at a Buffalo newspaper from a high school acquaintance (someone who had not gone to college, and worked in the sports department). It was not a prestigious venue, but I believed that I would have a chance to learn the "ropes," in a way that might not have been possible elsewhere.

The Buffalo Vindicator was on Main Street. Carved above the doorway in Gothic type was the newspaper's name and in the lobby was a mural forty feet long and fifteen feet high. It contained, among its many elements, a rendering of Thomas Jefferson reading a newspaper, alongside Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, doing likewise. In the background was the great dome of City Hall, and Lake Erie, and if one looked closely, it was possible to see countless skillfully painted windows and through them more people reading more newspapers. It was a sight listed in guidebooks of the time, and the image has undoubtedly influenced my thinking about the profession.

My city editor, Julius Portino, was, like myself, a native Buffalonian. He had sleepy brown eyes and soft, drooping bags beneath them; and he told me that starting reporters got paid seventy-two dollars a week and were expected to write about fires and crime. Portino clearly was content to spend a lifetime with the Vindicator, and to respond to news without trying to understand its deeper import. I was struck by his utter lack of curiosity.

I had been on the job for two or three months when it occurred to me that an inordinate number of fires were breaking out and that a larger story might be lurking behind the many smaller ones. Portino, however, merely shrugged when I went into his office and told him this with the fervor of a young reporter. "There are a lot of frame houses in Buffalo, Brandon," he said, and lighted another of his many cigarettes. "Some of them burn."

Julius Portino had been drafted after high school and had gone to Korea, an experience that certainly shaped his view that the unexamined life is greatly to be preferred. We were, beyond a doubt, from two different worlds, and I believe that if we had not disagreed about the fires that kept breaking out around the Queen City, something else would have led to a clash.

What precipitated the break between us was my decision to speak directly to his superior. Even now, I can visualize Wriston (Chet) Budge, who had been the newspaper's editor in chief since 1935: with his shredding unlit cigar, the ashes that made their powdery way down his unbuttoned vest, and his reddened, gray cheeks, it was as if he had shaped himself into his idea of a small-town newspaperman. Mr. Budge had won a Pulitzer Prize for deadline reporting in 1928, when he was, like myself, a recent Darleigh graduate. I think that this shared background helped us to forge a bond, although Mr. Budge by the time we met was in his middle fifties. I had also heard that he was disappointed at his lot in life, and he often complained that writing editorials for his Buffalo readers had become an unwelcome chore.

I proposed to Mr. Budge that I pen a series of commentaries on the outbreak of possible arson. There would be no reckless claims (I stressed the word "possible"), but we would ask for increased vigilance from the fire department, the police, and the mayor's office. As I went on, Mr. Budge seemed barely to pay attention, yet he also seemed overjoyed at the prospect that I would be willing to jot down my thoughts; and before I'd finished laying out my thesis, he clapped his hands with enthusiasm. Moments later, he summoned the city editor to join us.

I was horrified at Julius's display of uncontrolled anger, particularly when he turned to me, in front of Mr. Budge, and said, "You went over my head, you fuckface sneak." I could not meet his eyes, nor could I watch the spittle at the corner of his mouth, and my gaze drifted over to Mr. Budge's Pulitzer citation, which hung alongside his Darleigh diploma.

"I told our young friend," Portino said to Mr. Budge, his teeth quivering, "that he ought to do a few months of reporting before jumping to ridiculous conclusions." I noticed that his face had become darker. "But our young friend appears to prefer going behind my back."

I understood how he could have reached that conclusion, but I was nevertheless stunned. My ambition, after all, was modest: to examine a puzzling situation, and to put authorities on notice -- trying, in short, to do my job. I did not know what Julius Portino's private agenda was, or even if he had one (as far as I knew, his Italian family, although it imported olive oil, was upright), but his words made me suspect his motives.

"That's a curious statement," I said, looking directly at Mr. Budge, who looked at his watch.

"Look," Mr. Budge said, "I haven't the time for this, but what is there to lose, Julius? Why don't you calm down?"

Portino seemed unable to speak. Nor did he say much more to me during the time that I remained at the Vindicator, although now and then I thought I heard him mumble curses, and it was clear that he would always regard me with irrational anger.

There was another reason that I chose to begin my career in Buffalo: the chance to lodge in my childhood home, which allowed me to become better acquainted with my parents while setting aside money that would otherwise have gone for rent. But after six months, it came to a stop; my mother wept, and it's probably true that, in my zeal, I might have taken too little heed of others. (In some ways, my own son has mirrored my conduct of that time; I've not been able to avoid thinking that a certain portion of just deserts has been served up.) In my case, there were the usual small things that widen a family's gulf: Often I was required to use the car, and it was not always convenient to let my father know in advance. The telephone sometimes rang at hours that neither my father nor mother, who kept to a regular schedule, could become accustomed to.

I most regret making use of my father's confidential insurance records, which contained invaluable data that supported my thesis on the arson epidemic. To this day, I believe that we had an implicit understanding, but I can also see that I might have misread him and might have misjudged the reaction of his former clients. Those who have wished me ill have ferreted out this episode and made much of it, as if it revealed something fundamentally bad about my character. Those who know the facts will see that it was a terrible misunderstanding, although for my father, who was dismissed from his job for cause, the consequences were severe.

I did not make many new friends during this time in Buffalo. I had nothing in common with my former classmate -- the one who worked in the sports department. His first love was hockey, which bored me, while mine was baseball: an expanse of greensward excited my senses, for it promised not only a game, but a representation of life. At night, I often thought about Carol Ann Margolies, with whom I'd promised to stay in touch. I remember sending her a Hanukkah card, and thinking how grateful I was to have learned about her ancient faith. But life, I have found, is a series of partings, and regrets; and when one is young, one quickly meets new people who seem to replace the old ones.

Copyright © 2001 by Jeffrey Frank

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