It took the death of an American political scion late Tuesday night not only to reveal something about a veteran Twin Cities sportswriter that many of his closest friends never knew, but to blow dust off the cover and shake loose a few cobwebs for the writer himself.
I know. I’m that guy.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, 77, died late Tuesday night, and almost instantly upon seeing the news on my computer screen this morning, my mind flashed back 30 years, in vivid detail, to a time in my life at the front end of this newspaper-turned-Internet career. It was a matter of a couple of months and about $1,200– big money back then to a recent college graduate scraping along on a part-time gig in the Milwaukee Journal sports department.
Someone actually commissioned — and paid — me to write a biography of Kennedy, the Massachusetts senator who looked very much like the likely 1980 Democratic candidate for President. At the time anyway.
I fit all the author qualifications
Timing was everything on this one. A business reporter at the Journal, Anne Curley, had friends at a Milwaukee-based children’s publisher, Raintree Publishers. The editors there were looking for a local author who a) could hit a deadline to turn around a project quickly, b) knew how to research and report (more of the former than the latter for this one), c) had time on his hands, and d) needed a little money. She mentioned it to me and I naturally thought, “Check. Check. Check. And check!”
Sixty days later, after longish hours at the Milwaukee downtown library and one drive to Chicago for some supplemental material, it was time to write. Remember, this was way pre-Google, which nowadays puts at the fingertips of the bathrobe-and-fuzzy-slippers set more investigative technology than Woodward and Bernstein had available to them. I needed books, magazine articles and newspaper clippings for what might be known these days as a “mash-up,” except that there was nothing multimedia about it. “Don’t worry about original reporting,” my editor told me.
This was, after all, a book pitched at readers ages 12 and up. The joke I made at the time — given my day (half) job writing sports in southeastern Wisconsin — was that I’d merely have to raise the level of my writing from fourth grade to about sixth. The book was intended for grade-school libraries as a resource for the kids in 1980, as the presidential election played out and Kennedy emerged as the Dems’ top choice to be the subject of class reports and projects.
The trickiest part, I knew going in, was navigating the Chappaquiddick incident, doing what I felt even then was journalistic justice to the scandal without undermining the spirit of the book. I felt satisfied after laying out a basic summary of the facts and raising the usual questions, and relieved when Raintree didn’t spin or scrub it out entirely.
The manuscript, if I recall correctly, was 10,000 words, though it might have been fewer for a book that would run 44 pages. The payments were $600 up front and $600 upon publication, though they might have been less; I know they weren’t more). But that was about seven weeks’ wages from what I was making chasing high-school football coaches, taking bowling scores over the phones and occasionally getting the plum assignment of a Brewers sidebar from County Stadium. (That, by the way, is how I wound up having Reggie Jackson in my face late one night, screaming at me while spitting chili sauce onto my shirt. Better save that tale for another post.)
The Mudd moment
Then something happened. Or rather, someone: Roger Mudd. On Nov. 4, 1979, in a CBS special that ran between the time I submitted my work and when it was printed, Mudd did an interview in which he asked Kennedy this question: “Senator, why do you want to be President?” Kennedy, long one of our smoothest and most loquacious orators, kind of hemmed and hawed and rambled in his attempt to answer. In the absence of better-stated motivation, the reaction of a lot of Americans was that Kennedy either was unprepared for the job or felt it was a birthright. His poll numbers headed south, and Jimmy Carter went on to beat Kennedy in the Democratic primaries overall by about 12 percentage points.
My book, “Ted Kennedy: The Politician and the Man,” came out as scheduled in late winter. It found its way onto shelves in school libraries across America, though I’m not sure how many. My hunch always has been that, when I bought a second box (the first one was free) to give out to family and friends as semi-jokey Christmas gifts in 1980, I qualified as the single-biggest purchaser of mass quantities.
My budding career as a political writer pretty much ended with the second and final check. The Reagan years at that age didn’t much engage me as much as the Gorman Thomas-Sidney Moncrief-James Lofton era of Milwaukee sports, eventually landing me in the Twin Cities in time for the ’87 Twins.
I never did get a sit-down with Kennedy, either, because I never sought one. Besides being timid, I knew there probably wouldn’t have been time anyway, given my 60-day deadline, to be fully vetted by the Secret Service before such an interview. I was spooked enough when, after crowing to my roommate, Joe, that I’d be making it into the Library of Congress, he responded that I’d probably be making it into some closely monitored FBI file, too.
Today, the Kennedy book is a line buried near the bottom of my resume, left there mostly as a hoot, to lighten the mood or fill an awkward pause in, well, whenever that next job interview comes along. But just this Sunday, I found six of them on a shelf in the basement, grabbing them in one hand and thrusting them into a cardboard box with the latest clutter headed toward a storage locker. They were all unread, their spines uncracked, the nicely illustrated, hardbound edition I was so proud of nearly three decades ago. I didn’t give them a second thought, didn’t even glance at the cover as I boxed them up.
But with the news of Kennedy’s death, I decided to do a Google search. Up popped several book resellers with — wow! there it is! — copies of the book in various states of wear. The used prices ranged from $78.37 all the way to $117.55 — about 10 times what the cover price was. I thought fondly of the copies, my final six, I had packed off to storage only three days earlier … and am thinking now about heading to the locker, pulling them out and putting them for sale on the Internet.
C’mon, journalists gotta eat. Same as then.