Sunday, October 27, 2019

Planet Pacifica: Managing Chaos

Progressive Media’s Fragile Democracy: Pacifica radio, the original listener-supported network, is hovering on the edge of insolvency, while legendary station WBAI is under siege. It has happened before. But this time it could mean the end of the network. And what does it say about progressive media and democracy? 

Former CEO Greg Guma goes behind the headlines. In this episode, the latest WBAI shutdown, Dan Coughlin’s journey, and the struggle that remade Pacifica governance. Plus, clips from the 2006 election series, Informed Dissent, and from a rare 1970 “War and Peace” recording, with dozens of famous voices — part of the longest live reading in radio history.

“This is one of those cases where justice delayed is justice denied,” warned the judge. It wasn’t a case about the President or some other crucial national matter. It was about a local radio station, and District Judge Paul Engelmeyer was urging the two sides to make a deal, and offering some advice before sending the case back to state court. He had just ruled that he didn’t have jurisdiction to hear it.

Arthur Schwartz in in front, WBAI mikes in the back.
On one side was Arthur Schwartz, a host on the New York FM station WBAI, in this case acting as the station’s lawyer. Reaching a settlement wouldn’t be easy, he warned. “The animosity between the two sides is really thick. When I even say the word ‘settle,’ I get moans and groans.”

On the other side was the Pacifica Foundation, which owns WBAI’s broadcast license, and its new interim CEO John Vernile. On Oct. 7 Vernile shut down the station’s studios in Brooklyn and replaced local shows with a feed from Pacifica and other statios. Producers, board members, and supporters went to state court and claimed the layoffs were illegal. They won a restraining order, and half the local board passed a series of motions reversing the network’s actions.

But Pacifica also went to court, federal court, and there another judge blocked the WBAI group from reclaiming station operations or access to airtime.

On the surface, the dispute is about who has the power to make decisions about WBAI under Pacifica’s bylaws. But the disagreements run much deeper. Pacifica’s current national leadership claims the layoffs were necessary due to the station’s poor financial condition. WBAI staff and supporters say the move was an attempted coup meant to silence radical voices.

“I had never seen a major market station in worse shape,” Vernile claimed in a court document. As a result, he said, the network was using its own cash reserves and those of its other stations to cover WBAI’s costs.

The other side conceded that the station has been losing money. For years. Still, the shutdown interrupted a fund drive, which might have helped. And they insisted that the financial arguments are just a cover story. The real goal, they charged, is to silence politically radical hosts.

One piece of evidence involves a station promo in August in which the phrase “Stop Trump” was used during a spot on national immigration policy. In a written warning to Station Manager Berthold Reimers on Sept. 27, Vernile called the promotion an FCC “compliance violation.” 

He wrote: “Advocating for and lobbying for political candidates on WBAI’s air endangers WBAI/Pacifica’s IRS and New York state charity status and FCC license and will not be tolerated.” The layoffs came not long after that. 

The local faction contends that Pacifica’s bylaws don’t give the foundation’s executive director the power to “seize a radio station.” Network officials say the layoffs weren’t a seizure since Pacifica owns WBAI’s equipment, space and FCC license.

On Oct. 15 WBAI producers held a rally outside of New York’s City Hall and called the shutdown a “rogue effort to destroy WBAI.” Dozens of supporters voiced support for the 60-year-old station. One called it the lifeblood of radical activism in New York. That’s quite a claim.

Both New York City Council Majority Leader Laurie A. Cumbo and Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams, prominent progressives in the city, attended the protest and backed the local resistance. “There is a movement to destroy independent communications across this entire country, and this has become ground zero,”Adams said.  “We’re about to fight to keep this station alive.” It suggested that defending WBAI was becoming part of the Trump resistance.

“We are not going to allow WBAI to fall,” added Cumbo. He also called the shutdown an act of gentrification. And he said: “This voice, this access to information, is so critical for each and every one of us, and if we want to talk about a progressive New York City, we cannot be progressive if ideas that are progressive have no place to live, to flourish, or to be disseminated.”

A Network Divided

By the time I was hired Pacifica Radio had been through more than a decade of internal struggle. Worried about a possible corporate take over in the 1990s, the members of the staff, board and volunteers at the five owned stations had fought back, in court, in the studios and on the streets, and eventually created a new, more democratic governance structure. 

But that didn’t prevent factions from forming at various stations, or avoid contested board elections and bitter charges that the process was unfair, or even rigged. 

When I became CEO in 2006, the organization was battle-weary, but recovering and financially stable. Its next two years would be more peaceful than most. We launched new shows and settled some old lawsuits. But the animosity and tribalism did not go away.

After two years, rather than become the center of yet another internal power struggle, I stepped aside to make way for another chief executive, someone who had been fired years before. But she did not appreciate the new structure and soon left. One of her successors resorted to barricading herself in the national office rather than accept a replacement.

In the last decade Pacifica stations have lost funding and listeners in an increasingly diverse, digitally-driven world. At the start of the Iraq war, being a radio voice of opposition helped its stations to expand audiences and revenues. But President Trump has so many enemies that it’s harder to stand out these days. Still, you might expect that the danger of fascism would bring people together.  Think again. 

In September  2018, a new CEO was hired after a lengthy search. But within nine months Maxie Jackson was forced out. Then Board Chairman Grace Aaron became CEO, a job some said she hoped to keep. However, a new chief had actually been lined up, in secret. Finally, the board was forced to issue an announcement. The new man, John Carlo Vernile, promised to focus on “activity that engages audiences, expands opportunities for financial support and stabilizes national operations.” 

But who was Pacifica’s new leader? A former Sony Music and EMI executive, basically a salesman and promoter who had been a premiums vendor for a Pacifica station. Unfortunately, he brought no experience in managing a democratic rather than a corporate enterprise. It showed.

A crisis quickly developed at WBAI, once a great station but long in debt and listener free-fall. According long-time WBAI supporter Steve Brown, one faction of its local board, together with several national board members, wanted to lease the station to a corporate division of Time Warner. The goal, ostensibly, was to “stabilize” the operation. But Brown claimed the move, would actually destroy it. 

Whatever the truth, a month later the Pacific Board of Directors abruptly laid off most of WBAI’s staff and replaced its local programming with shows from Pacifica’s four other stations. Network spokespeople claimed that the decision to shut down WBAI’s operations in Brooklyn, New York had been in the works for months, calling it an essential step to save the larger foundation from ruin.

In an October interview with the New York Times, Vernile added that the station had fallen short of its fund-raising goals in recent years, and was unable to make payroll and other expenses. This had frequently forced the Foundation to bail it out. “Listeners in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C., have been supporting the efforts in New York,” Vernile argued. “It has gotten to a point where we can no longer do that.”

On the other hand, WBAI supporters, board members and staff called the move a coup meant to silence radical voices. “WBAI and Pacifica had been under strain for years,” added the Times. “Pacifica has not released any financial statements since 2017, when its auditor cited doubts that the organization could continue as a going concern.”

How could it happen? The original listener-supported network, with stations in five major cities and more than 100 affiliates, once reaching millions with important alternative voices, including Amy Goodman, hovering on the edge of insolvency. What does it say about the prospects for both progressive media and democracy?

Dan Coughlin’s Journey

The chance to be Pacifica Radio’s Executive Director came my way by accident. Years before I had met an activist librarian on a plane by striking up a conversation about Z, a left-wing magazine she was reading. I was editing Toward Freedom, another small but respected publication that covered international affairs from a “progressive perspective.” The librarian and I hit it off, and she provided a stream of news, ideas and leads for articles over the next decade. She was also a loyal yet disgruntled listener to a Pacifica station. So, when the top job became available, she let me know.

Dan Coughlin, the previous ED, had resigned months earlier after three years on the job. Growing up in England, he had covered crime for Interpress Service in New York before moving over to Pacifica in 1996 by way of Democracy Now!,an election series that became a network hit and made Amy Goodman a household name in progressive circles. After producing DN!for two years, he took over Pacifica Network News – just in time to become embroiled in a fight for the organization’s future.

Even before Pacifica evolved into a national network with five owned stations and dozens of affiliates, there were internal battles. But until the 1990s each station totally controlled its own programming and that kept most of the fighting local. Then rumors began to circulate that “central” management and the national board wanted to seize control of content to increase listenership, and shift the funding model from reliance on listener donations toward foundations. 

By 1999, when the board amended the bylaws to make itself self-appointing, ostensibly to comply with a Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) requirement, Pacifica’s community-based culture was actively resisting what was often called an attempt to “hijack” and “mainstream” the organization. For Coughlin, the question became: Should PNN, a daily newscast aired on more than 60 Pacifica affiliate stations, cover the deepening crisis?

Early that year, after KPFA Station Manager Nicole Sawaya and popular correspondent Larry Bensky were abruptly fired, staff began to defy a long-standing policy of not airing internal grievances. Going on the air, some charged that Pacifica was a top-heavy bureaucracy hungry for mainstream legitimacy, preoccupied with ratings, and unaccountable to the community. There was even evidence that the board might consider selling stations, a fear that often spread during times of stress.

Listeners could read about major developments — arrests inside KPFA, a staff lockout, street protests — in the Los Angeles TimesWashington Postand other corporate outlets. But Pacifica’s news operations were under orders to keep the struggle off the air. For a while Coughlin went along.

In late October, however, when 16 affiliate stations declared “A Day without Pacifica” and boycotted its programs, he decided to break PNN’s silence, airing a report on the protest and what was called, in a monument of understatement, a labor-management dispute. Here’s what it said:

“This summer, more than 100 persons were arrested, and thousands took to the streets at the oldest listener-sponsored station in the country to protest Pacifica staffing decisions. The 16 Pacifica stations from 11 states called for the network to adopt new open, accountable governance and to continue to support community-based journalism, which they said had made Pacifica great.”

The report lasted only 37 seconds. Yet, when Coughlin returned to work after a long weekend, a terse e-mail from ED Lynne Chadwick was waiting. “You’re no longer news director,” she announced. A day later, he was reassigned without notice to a murky “Task Force on Programming and Governance.” He remained on staff for another year, but his removal from PNN confirmed the suspicions of dissidents that censorship had replaced free speech and editorial independence at Pacifica. 

Two years later, in 2002, after a titanic struggle and multiple lawsuits produced a new board and a decidedly decentralist structure, Dan Coughlin returned – this time as Pacifica’s first “post-revolution” chief executive. Unfortunately, he inherited a mess – millions in debt, missing records, an aging audience, and a legacy of distrust. Yet he somehow managed, with the help of loyal listeners and a strong financial team, to bring the organization back to relative stability. 

What remained unclear was why and how, despite a major accomplishment, he went from Golden Boy in 2002 to object of scorn three years later. The accusations included shady payouts, lax oversight, and “contempt” for the new bylaws and democratic structure. In fact, a protest was staged outside the main office in Berkeley during his last day on the job. Just how did all that happen? This was the job I was about to start?

The deeper I looked the more convoluted and intractable the problems appeared: Charges and counter-charges of secrecy, waste, racism, sexism, harassment and violence, turf battles over local fiefdoms, manipulation, and alleged fraud. It seemed like a fratricidal war with no end in sight. 

A friend who worked in community radio, hearing that I was up for the top job, mildly defined the main issue as an “actual and perceived lack of transparency.” But he also mentioned poor fundraising and development, ineffective mediation of personnel problems, and legendary racial battles over the control and “color” of programming.

It reminded me of how easily reality can be blurred by misinformation. Jeff Ruch, the director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, had recently issued a relevant assessment of a much larger and even more dysfunctional organization: The federal government. He concluded that it was “suffering from a severe disinformation syndrome." 

Could this also be what was afflicting Pacifica? Theories presented as facts, information massaged to promote a specific spin, cherry-picked evidence. Whether intentional or not, Pacifica’s convoluted politics and history seemed to have created, as Bob Woodward put it his book that summer about the Watergate secret source Deep Throat, “an entire world of doubt."

Yes, years before the rise of Donald Trump, millions of people were already living in fantasy worlds. According to a 2009 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 45 percent of Americans believed that health care reform would create “death panels” that withhold medical care for the elderly, 55 percent thought it would provide health insurance to illegal immigrants, and half said it would pay for women to have abortions – none of them true. 

Some already thought that climate change was a hoax, that Obama was a Muslim, and that the government should impose literacy tests for voting. Still others saw ecological (or economic) catastrophe looming the day after tomorrow, thought martial law was imminent, or wanted states to seize public resources as “trustees” of the commons.

As sociology professor Peter Phillips explained, too many people, especially consumers of TV news, were “embedded in a state of excited delirium of knowinglessness.” Not to mention alienation, misinformation and confusion. Pacifica was certainly not immune.

Next: How Pacifica began, the growth of a listener-supported radio network, WBAI’s legendary “free form” past, Dustin Hoffman reads War and Peace, sounds of the 1979 March for Gay Rights, Mushroom Cloud comedy, and early shots in progressive radio’s Civil War.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Orwellian Days: Doublethink and Newspeak

I’ve been arguing with friends lately about the nature of propaganda, especially when the messages tend to suit our own biases. One example is RT, Russia’s English language TV network. Some people think it’s great, more fair and balanced than CNN or the Times. But is it really a reliable alternative to US mainstream media? Is its selective coverage, which sometimes does include stories being downplayed or ignored in US corporate outlets, more fair and accurate? Or is it just more comforting and convenient? 
           More and more people are becoming alienated, cynical, distrustful of all institutions — including the press, and ready to reject any news that makes them uncomfortable. Instead, they retreat into prejudices, preconceived notions, and tribal beliefs. And too much of mass and social media reinforces many less-than-helpful narratives and tendencies. 
Listen to "#9 Orwellian Days" on Spreaker.
         You know the old adage about not noticing when conditions are getting dangerous, the one about the frog and the frying pan? Well, the heat is rising fast and we’re frying our own minds. But most people, hunkered down with comforting illusions, think it’s just a phase. And surly not a high priority. 
         Sure, a phase that’s been underway for decades — the long, slow slide into what used to be called friendly fascism. But it’s getting less friendly and more deadly every day. Illiberalism — that’s one of the current euphemisms. But it’s actually a global cultural counter revolution, an authoritarian surge, along with the emergence of a league of extraordinary despots. 
        It’s been coming for a while. And like a castaway in some sci fi novel, I was once transported to such an Orwellian future and lived to tell the tale....

On the big screens above us beautiful young people demonstrated their prowess. We were sitting in the communications center, waiting for print outs to tell us what they'd done before organizing the material for mass consumption.
      Outside, people were freezing in the snow as they waited for buses. Their only choice was to attend another event or attempt to get home.
      The area was known as the Competition Zone, a corporate state created for the sole purpose of showcasing these gorgeous competitors. Freedom was a foreign idea here; no one was more free than the laminated identification card hanging around your neck allowed.
       Visitors were more restricted than anyone. They saw only what they paid for, and had to wait in long lines for food, transport, or tickets to more events. They were often uncomfortable, yet they felt privileged to be admitted to the Zone.
      Citizens were categorized by their function within the Organizing Committee's bureaucracy. Those who merely served -- in jobs like cooking, driving and cleaning -- wore green and brown tags. They could travel between their homes and work, but were rarely permitted into events. Their contact with visitors was also limited. To visit them from outside the Zone, their friends and family had to be screened. 
     Most citizens knew little about how the Zone was actually run, about the "inner community" of diplomats, competitors and corporate officials they served. Yet each night they watched the exploits of this same elite on television.
     The Zone, a closed and classified place where most bad news went unreported and a tiny elite called the shots through mass media and computers, was no futuristic fantasy. It was Lake Placid in early 1980 -- a full four years before 1984.
     In a once sleepy little community covered with artificial snow, the Olympics had brought a temporary society into being. Two thousand athletes and their entourage were its royalty, role models for the throngs of spectators, townspeople and journalists. This convergence resulted in an ad hoc police state, managed by public and private forces and a political elite that combined local business honchos with an international governing committee. They dominated a population all too willing to submit to arbitrary authority. 
    Even back then, Lake Placid's Olympic "village" felt like a preview of things to come. Not quite George Orwell's dark vision, but uncomfortably close.
    In Orwell's imagination, society was ruled in the future by Big Brother. It wasn't a computer, but rather the collective expression of the Party. But not like the Republicans; this Party was an autonomous bureaucracy and advanced surveillance state interested only in perpetuating itself as a hierarchy. In this dystopia, "the people" had become insignificant, without the power of "grasping that the world could be other than it is." 
     Concepts like freedom were perverted by a ruthless Newspeak perpetuated by the Party through the media. A Goodthinker was someone who followed orders without thinking. Crimestop was the instinctual avoidance of any dangerous thought, and Doublethink was the constant distortion of reality to maintain the Party's image of infallibility.
     Writing in 1948, Orwell was projecting what could happen in just a few decdes. By most measures, even 70 years later we're not quite there yet. But we do face the real danger that freedom and equality will be seriously distorted by a new form of Newspeak, a Trumpian version promoted by the administration and its allies through their media. We already have Trumpian Goodthinkers -- the sychophantic surrogates who follow his lead without thinking, along with Crimestop -- the instinctual avoidance of "disloyal" thought, and Doublethink -- the constant distortion of reality to maintain Trump's insatiable ego and image of infallibility. Orwellian ideas are simply resurfacing in a post-modern/reality TV form.
     Our fast food culture is also taking a long-term toll. More and more people are becoming alienated, cynical, resentful or resigned, while too much of mass and social media reinforces less-than-helpful narratives and tendencies. The frog's in the frying pan and the heat is rising.
     Much of what penetrates and goes viral further fragments culture and thought, promoting a cynicism that reinforces both rage and inaction. Rather than true diversity, we have the mass illusion that a choice between polarized opinions, shaped and curated by editors and networks, is the essence of free speech and democracy. In reality, original ideas are so constrained and self-censored that what's left is usually as diverse as brands toothpaste.
      When the Bill of Rights was ratified, the notion that freedom of speech and the press should be protected meant that the personal right of self-expression should not be repressed by the government. James Madison, author of the First Amendment, warned that the greatest danger to liberty was that a majority would use its power to repress everyone else. Yet the evolution of mass media and the corporate domination of economic life have made these "choicest privileges" almost obsolete. You don’t even need a majority.
     As community life unravels and more institutions fall into disrepute, media have become among the few remaining that can potentially facilitate some social cohesion. Yet instead they fuel conflict and crisis. It's not quite Crimestop, but does often appeal to some of the basest instincts and produce even more alienation and division. 
     In general terms, what most mass media bring the public is a series of images and anecdotes that cumulatively define a way of life. Both news and entertainment contribute to the illusion that competing, consuming and accumulating are at the core of our aspirations. Each day we are repeatedly shown and told that culture and politics are corrupt, that war is imminent or escalating somewhere, that violence is random and pervasive, and yet also that the latest "experts" have the answers. Countless programs meanwhile celebrate youth, violence, frustrated sexuality, and the lives of celebrities.
      Between the official program content are a series of intensely packaged sales pitches. These commercial messages wash over us, as if we are wandering in an endless virtual mall, searching in vain for fulfillment as society crumbles. 
      In 1980, Ralph Nader called the race for president at that time -- between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan -- a choice between mediocrity and menace. It was funny then, but now we can see what real menace looks like. Is Trump-ism what Orwell warned us about? Not quite, though there are similarities. Like Trump, you can't talk to Big Brother. And he rarely gives you the truth, only doublespeak. But Trump is no Big Brother. More like a Drunk Uncle with nukes. 
     So, is it too late for a rescue? Will menace win this time? Or can we still save the environment, reclaim self-government, restore communities and protect human rights? What does the future hold?
     It could be summer in Los Angeles in 2024, the end of Donald Trump's second term. The freeways are slow-moving parking lots for the Olympics. Millions of people hike around in the heat, or use bikes and cycles to get to work. It's difficult with all the checkpoints, not to mention the extra-high security at the airports. Thousands of police, not to mention the military, are on the lookout for terrorists, smugglers, protesters, cultists, gangs, thieves, and anyone who doesn't have money to burn or a ticket to the Games.
      Cash isn't much good, and gas has become so expensive that suburban highways are almost empty. 
      Security is tight and hard to avoid, on or offline. There are cameras everywhere, and every purchase and move most people make is tracked by the state. Still, there are four bombings in the first week of the Games. There is also another kind of human tragedy. Four runners collapse during preliminary rounds as a result of a toxic mix -- heat and pollution. 
     Despite his low approval on the West Coast, President Trump eventually visits L.A. to witness the spectacle. And drops dead suddenly after eating too many hot dogs. This sparks a riot, which is followed closely by a bomb blast at the media command center. Then the Earth begins to shake....
     That's one scenario. But it could also be a peaceful summer in your hometown. People aren't as preoccupied with conflict and spectacle as they used to be. The change began with the young, and in the schools. Just in time people began to understand that what they saw on their screens was just one version of reality, not the real thing. 
     Malls are closing, but smaller and independent businesses are making a comeback, some located in restored neighborhoods or emerging out of buyer's coops. Major corporations still sell mostly online, but their market dominance is starting to falter. Renewable energy has largely replaced coal and gas, and electric vehicles are everywhere.
    People are changing, in subtle and important ways. They are becoming more...discriminating, depending more on one another than either their media or the government.
    Hey, it could happen.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Those Watergate Blues: Presidential Party Crashing

By Greg Guma

Impeachment. It’s the word of the year, maybe the decade. But for some of us it’s not the first time. Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton was impeached — but not removed from office — for oval office intern sex. For Democrats, it was relatively easy to condemn the sex and lying under oath, yet reject the idea that it warranted conviction. Afterward, the biggest impact was the subtle damage it did to Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. 

Twenty five years before that, Richard Nixon resigned and waved goodbye. But he wasn’t impeached. He was merely threatened. Nixon had been caught running a private gang of political thugs. He had weaponized agencies and obstructed Congress until the evidence became overwhelming. Trump has already made that look trivial.

But I’m thinking past impeachment. Believe of not, Trump won’t be president forever. And although his departure will certainly be great TV, after that there will be smarmy claims that the system had worked after all, and that now things will return to normal. Doubtful, very doubtful. After Nixon was gone, and especially after his hand-picked successor Gerald Ford pardoned him, a deep disillusionment set in. Unfortunately, we’re headed there again. 

In 1974, while attending graduate school at the University of Vermont, after watching the Watergate hearings for months, only to have Nixon and Ford sidestep accountability and undermine justice, I was in a funk. Then I heard that Ford would be visiting Vermont. Here’s what happened, sort of.... on the night I went presidential party crashing.

Listen to "#8 Watergate Blues" on Spreaker.

October 7, 1974. Burlington, Vermont

The Republicans ate roast beef. That was one of the facts I wanted to verify. Along with another vital piece of information: President Gerald Ford wore mismatched socks. According to rumors, each morning he picked them out himself.

George and Gerry
When I finally did find out Ford was sitting just above me, tucked behind the dais in Patrick Gymnasium. He had flown to northern New England to honor retiring U.S. Senator George Aiken, past dean of the Congress. Ford ate his beef and vegetables in silent tribute.

I was crumpled with my camera beneath his table, only inches from his blue and green socks. Awed. Or was I dreaming? Anyway, about midway through the meal I pulled on Ford’s leg. He passed me a potato and continued to chat with Aiken and the other Republicans. I tugged again and he leaned down, ostensibly to retie his shoelace.

“Is Chile really your Watergate?” I asked.

“You’re lucky I’m a friend of the free press,” he replied. “Hey, you want some sour cream?”

A few hours earlier, I had watched Secret Service men search reporters at the Vermont National Guard base at the airport. The concrete walkway near the planes had become a frisking ground by 6 p.m., an hour before the arrival of Air Force One. As a local photographer reassembled his lenses, the blond agent who had done the frisk leaned over him, checking each film canister. The SS man looked like an Ivy leaguer who had just joined the mob.

Flashing a press card I edged past them. The card was four years out of date. Then a rock-hard voice froze me in place: “PLEASE. MOVE. BEHIND. THAT. FENCE.”

The face connected to the icy warning looked like tooled leather left out in a snowstorm. I smiled, shrugged, and began to focus my Pentax on the whole team of government studs.

Leather Face noticed and immediately turned friendly. As much as he wanted to help out, he said, he simply could not let me through without the special white pass that I might obtain at the gym. At the gym, however, I discovered that only ten Vermont and ten national press people would be allowed to actually see the president. And all of them had been cleared by the SS a week earlier. Of course, a $50 contribution for dinner and speeches provided automatic clearance. It was the good old days.

After dinner, Aiken rambled on for about 2,000 stuffed contributors. The meal had been prepared by university food service. Yum. Aiken opined that this was the largest group of Americans who had ever eaten apple pie together. A veritable patriot’s Woodstock.

Personally, I was hungry and unmoved, still brooding over my rejection from the press pool. Yet I had managed to slip into the gym shielded within a bunch of tipsy Burlington politicians singing “Hail to the Chief” as we passed the check point. Before dinner I had ducked underneath the dais and crawled to the front of the hall.

When a pair of legs invaded my hideout I peeked up to see. Wings of karma, I thought, the President! The man otherwise known to the demonstrators outside as Nixon’s revenge. A light tug at his cuff let him know I was there. He leaned down and asked, “Is that you, Kennerly?” I held up my camera but admitted that I was not actually his personal photographer. But no threat intended, I explained. My paper, Metesky’s Monthly, was looking for a softer, personal angle.
Betty Ford at Bennington College

Ford was sympathetic. During the appetizer we talked about his wife, who had an old relationship with Vermont. Years ago she had spent a summer with a dance troupe at Bennington College. Betty had arabesqued across the lawn with Martha Graham, picking up some wild ideas along the way. Ford was happy to share. But he declined to comment on the specific nature of the wild ideas one picks up at arts schools.

While he ate more pie I reviewed my encounter with the SS men. Pretty tight on the reins for a man of the people, I complained to the president. “Whatever happened to openness and candor?”

Ford beckoned me with an index finger just below the line of the table cloth. I edged forward and he silently smeared the remains of his pie into my face with a smile. “Pass interception,” he said.

Apparently, this meant “openness and candor,” one of Nixon’s empty pledges, had officially become “fun and games.” That said, the pie was fine.

It had already been quite a night, beginning with protesters on a dying lawn in front of the Ramada Inn. A 20-foot neon sign above us announced, WELCOME PRESIDENT DORF. An act of gentle vandalism.

Cop cars zipped back and forth on the nearby commercial strip. A circle of chilled demonstrators stamped around the grass, carrying signs, chanting to bemused motel visitors and assorted gawkers at the Red Barn. The center of this dissent was about two dozen cloaked actors led by Julian Beck, founder of the Living Theater. They had come to speak out about Chile and Vietnam and Amnesty (for draft resisters, not Nixon) and Rockefeller (the appointed Vice President) and the ghost of San Clemente.

Beck was a gangly apparition, long grey hair streaming to his shoulders. Cast members wore black and death head makeup. In a monotone chant they announced, “Ford, Ford, it’s too late, Chile was your Watergate.”

But something was missing. Call it authentic enthusiasm. Tear gas or helmet-wearing oppressors might have provided the needed jolt of adrenalin. As it was, the Living Theater created a dramatic form, but not much drama. Snake-lining beneath red dragon fabric they formed a totem pole frieze, then shouted some truisms about fascism, capitalism and other isms that ought to be abolished. Not many others present took up the chants. 

As they continued another old slogan popped into my mind. If only they had added, “Two, four, six, eight, organize and smash the state.” But that was an outdated sentiment in what looked like an era of enforced tranquility. 

The Living Theater indicted power and authoritarianism, taunting the oppressors to reveal themselves, a message they often delivered with powerful gestures. I had last seen the group in 1968 when their radical production, “Paradise Now,” toured the country. In Vermont they had stopped at Bennington College and told the college women:

                        We’re not allowed to take our clothes off.
                      We’re not allowed to smoke marijuana.
                      We’re not allowed to travel without passports.

Then they urged their audiences to violate these norms. Or at least to disrobe. Eventually it often became a demand from a growing crowd of naked people. In 1974 it was still not permitted to undress or smoke grass in public. Yet the chants no longer felt as liberating. 

The performance ended after dusk, but the picketing continued until a black limo carrying the Commander-in-Chief whizzed into the parking lot. The crowd, much larger now, surged forward to a path blocked by more cars and cops. Siphoned back to the front entrance, they regrouped and restarted their chants. But the point of the demo was becoming obscure. Why protest Ford? What did he represent, except possibly physical fitness in middle age and a warped sense of team spirit? 

As if to echo my thoughts, one of the marchers asked, “How can you hate a banana?” That sounded about right. Gerald Ford was indeed a strange political fruit, one with a tough, slippery skin that probably concealed a soft inside.

“I don’t think I’d want as much recognition as you’ve got,” joked Aiken to laughter and applause. Roasting Ford after desert the old senator sounded like a wizened Georgie Jessel, complete with one-liners and weathered Vermont anecdotes. For example, Aiken praised Ford for doing more to restore cooperation between Congress and the executive branch than any other man “in the same amount of time.” The amount — about two months.

As Aiken surrendered the podium Ford leapt to his feet. This would probably be my last chance for an exclusive interview, so I yelled, “President, sir, what I really want to know, what America is asking itself, does all this clapping hurt your hands after a while?”

Realizing that he didn’t plan to answer I grabbed Ford’s leg, which sent one shoe skittering across the gym floor. An SS man quickly jumped up from the front table and splayed himself over the threatening footwear.

“Good save,” said Ford. Then an aside, “You get used to this sort of thing after a while.”

During his speech I learned quite a lot. Here are two of the many insights: 1) When elected officials talk the warm up should be at least as long as the speech itself, and 2) To be effective a politician should establish a firm connection with the place being visited.

Ford’s connection to Vermont dated back to October 2, 1965. On that evening, after another dinner and speech, he met a Republican grandmother who had missed the event and asked about his talk.

“Oh, that was nothing,” Ford demurred.

The grandmother replied, “That’s what I heard.”

Was it true? Who cared. The self-deprecating joke launched him into ten minutes of Thank You shout outs and misty recollections. He had come to help us celebrate Aiken Day. “He cuts through the chaff,” Ford said, explaining in a phrase the connection between politics and advertising. Politicians are like cleaning liquids. “Is chaff getting you down? Spoiling your weekends? Causing unsightly demonstrations? Try Aiken.”

But Vermonters couldn’t buy anymore Aiken. He had taken himself out of circulation. Yet Ford was on the tribute train, and unfortunately some of his remarks supported the rumor that, after 30 years in Congress, Aiken was losing his mind. Oops.

Ford certainly had a way with words, praising the “breadth and depth and greatness” of Aiken. He also explained that the Vermont senator was the only man he knew who could “go into a store with one dollar for four pounds of sugar and come back with change.”

Aiken protested, “I am not a crook.”

After a while taking notes felt more like doodling than journalism.

Outside the gym about 500 people were hearing about other issues from a few Vietnam vets. They explained that about 200,000 people who were underground in the U.S. would not go along with the limited amnesty proposal offered by Ford. And they charged that Ford’s pardon of Nixon was a crime that violated the former president’s civil rights, not to mention just about everyone else’s sense of fair play. Third Party candidates also delivered remarks as the chilled audience bought soup at 10 cents bowl. 

Despite the weather the protest leaders were optimistic. They were building a broad people’s movement, they explained. Ford seemed to agree. But for the president this alternative political energy was a threat to the nation.
Still crouched beneath the dais my view was not typical. The demonstrators outside seemed preoccupied with strong leaders and thought these guys actually made things happen. If I had been helping with their protest platform, I would have suggested another plank: Boycott Them All. Nixon, Ford, Rockefeller, just stop talking about them. End authoritarianism — by overcoming the obsession with so-called strong men. They don’t make change. We all do.

By the time Ford got around to issues I was close to unconsciousness. Fortunately, there were only two issues on his list. He talked passionately about “public enemy number two.” This dangerous bandit was actually a movement, the increasing number of independent voters. He had grave fears about the health of the nation, and pleaded for protection of the two — not three, not one — party system. In other words, two’s company, three’s a revolution.

“The politics of America is bound up in the two party system,” Ford explained. Exactly, bound and gagged. The congregation listened solemnly to this sermon from the ultimate party man. 

His themes: stability, opportunity, and freedom. The second and third items were never mentioned again. But stability was an emotional circuit that produced enthusiastic applause every time the word was spoken. It was spoken more than 15 times.

“What exactly is it that you want for us Americans?” I whispered.

“Choice without chaos,” he said.

“What the hell does that mean?”

Ford explained, “We fell into the pattern of the two party system.” And a lucky thing we did, he added, since in countries with more than two parties there is chaos, instability and lack of direction. The choice is clear, he added with civics class simplicity. Loss of freedom with one party or chaos with many. And the problem with “many” was “splinter groups” that “lack imagination.”

I couldn’t write down any more of this. My cheeks were covered with tears. Now I understood the identity of “public enemy number two.” Ford was declaring war on the spirit of independence in the name of stability and order.

Better yet, this was Ford’s kickoff address for the 1974 mid-term elections. His target was clear and, due to technical difficulties in economic and government life, it would not be the Democratic Party. No, “public enemy number two” was Vermont’s third party, Liberty Union, which was running its strongest slate of candidates yet. They weren’t contenders for election. But the party’s viewpoint was starting to turn some heads. Alternative parties were emerging elsewhere around the country, some of them already influencing policies. Ford made it clear that, in his view, these new voices were poisonous thorns in the side of freedom.

Thus, he called on stalwarts from both sides of the aisle to crush the threat of too much diversity. After all, how could a legislature function if it had more than two aisles, or more than two answers to any problem? His rallying cry: “strengthen the twin pillars of democracy.”

“What’s wrong with three pillars?” I shouted.

He kicked me away and, without missing a beat, spoke a bit more about the two “great parties,” which “are not an end but a magnificent means.” 

Then on to “public enemy number one.” If you haven’t guessed yet, it was inflation. Ford promised that it would not be tolerated. I felt safer already. He also spoke of a two-pronged attack. He would call on 1) congress and 2) the people. For what? “To accomplish success, to win the battle and to maintain a growing economy.” Politics would become a team sport, one with mandatory participation and invisible referees. Helmets would be provided for all citizens.

The next day Ford’s two prongs became a ten-point program to “whip inflation now.” From the podium he asked Vermonters to “pull together on the political fabric.” And what would that require? Sacrifice.

Not again. I could feel a howl of pain across the nation. Haven’t we suffered enough? How about some amnesty for the rest of us? Or maybe another point in the inflation plan. This one could be modeled on the Soviet method of dealing with so-called psychotic patients. Put them to sleep for a few weeks.

These days we are all troubled patients. Maybe a sleep cure would actually have some positive inflation impacts. For instance, we’d save on gas. Many people would prefer that to another dose of sacrifice and responsibility.

But Ford wasn’t listening to me anymore. Instead, he was winding up his remarks with some nostalgia about the Continental Congress. After one session, Benjamin Franklin reportedly told a spectator, “We have given you a Republic, if you can keep it.” All it took, Ford added, was sacrifice and vision.

Clutching my stomach I bit at my Pentax lens. The audience rose to cheer as I rolled out onto the floor. The nearest SS man was hovering over me a second later. Grabbing my legs he began to pull me out of view. But the cheers and standing ovation had brought tears to Ford’s eyes. Turning philosophical, he winked at me, then said, “We have given you another Republican. But will you keep him?”

“Here are my press credentials,” I protested, “my references, good intentions. And I’m registered to vote!” They dragged me out anyway. “I came for the apple pie,” I shouted hoarsely before blacking out, “but the main course has made me sick.” 

... Did it happen? Mostly. And the reason the story comes to mind is that the same kind of thing could very easily happen again.