I was watching the debacle on CSPAN – the senate hearings, with that panel of portly gray-haired men – not a vagina to be found – all advising our leaders on the issue of whether birth control should be covered through insurance. Lester Worsham was reveling in it, running a simultaneous live commentary on his show, but the sound of his voice made me sick. I could only take so much vitriol.
The call was from a woman I knew at NOW who had a friend in the Commerce Department, who worked with a woman who’d worked with Worsham back in the day.
It took a lot of phone time to work my way through that chain, building enough trust just to get the first friend to give me the number of the second. That was how I did business, staying calm, doing my best to sound trustworthy and empathetic.
The woman, the source, finally agreed to meet me, at a Shoney’s restaurant in Brentwood. I got there just before 6 p.m., the place half-deserted, not a good sign at the supper hour. I recognized her from her own description, auburn hair, done up (though she’d left out the startling shade), and blue print blouse. She had a hard edge to her face, looked like a smoker; like a smoker who wanted a cigarette really badly. I ordered coffee just to keep her company with hers, very aware that she was jittery from more than the caffeine and nicotine.
I thought we might have to do a lot of dancing around, but she didn’t want to linger. Apparently, once she’d made up her mind to pass her tale along, she was taking a hit and run approach. I set my recorder on the table, and with a raspy confidential whisper, she told me what she knew.
Back in early ’91, she said, yeah, it had to be, because the reason she came back to the office was she’d left the divorce papers on her desk, and they had to be signed and returned by the next day. That would make it February, 1991.
I backed her up and steered her toward the point, whatever it was. Okay, so she’d come back there, to this little AM station she was working at, secretary, receptionist, general slave girl, as she put it. She always left right at 5, didn’t want to hang around. This new guy – Worsham – came in right about that time, to get ready for his evening call-in show. It was a dead time slot, and that didn’t last for long. He worked his way up to the 1-4 p.m. slot in no time, Buddy’s slot, and then, of course, he blew Des Moines for Chicago, who wouldn’t, really?
But back then, he was a nobody, came from nowhere, didn’t even have a resume on file, and she should know. He was working the dead shift, and there was something about him that gave her a real bad feeling. Not the usual stuff, you know? The ass-grabbing, call you sweet cheeks, all that baloney. He was like that, too, but there was something else about him, almost like he had superpowers, you know? Like he knew how to make trouble in ways no one ever thought of before.
“You probably think I’m nuts”, my informant shook her head. “But Buddy Tartello? The afternoon guy Worsham replaced like that?” She snapped her tobacco stained fingers in my face. “He was a great guy, everybody loved him, talk about a fella who could have gone places. You’d never have thought he was the kind to do what they said he did.”
Again, I prompted, not sure I really wanted to hear.
“Suicide”, she hissed, as if reminding me of something I was supposed to have known. “Blew his brains out. They said it was because he was taking kickbacks, but that wasn’t what was happening. I know that for a fact.”
The facts, finally? She’d gone back for her divorce papers, slipping into the building “on the QT”. For one thing, she wasn’t supposed to have a key to the outside door. For another, Worsham was alone that time of day; it was a small station and he did his own technical work, which the owner loved, because it saved him money, even though they reported a sound engineer on the FCC logs, officially speaking.
Anyway, she slipped into the office, didn’t even turn the lights on, and was inside when she heard voices in the hallway. She peeked out through the door, open just a crack, and saw Worsham paying off some guy in a slick suit.
“Wait”, I held up a hand. “You mean he was taking money, right? Payola?”
She shook her head emphatically, then looked around as if her movements might have attracted attention. The place was still uncomfortably deserted.
“No, the guy in the suit, I’d seen him around, he was some political guy, kind of weird when you think about it, since the ’92 elections were still so far off, but he was definitely in that business, and Worsham handed him a wad of cash so big he couldn’t carry it in his pants pocket. He tried, and it made him look, well, you know. That’s how I got such a good look. It wasn’t even in an envelope, like Worsham was just being…what’s the word? Brazen, yeah, that’s it, a kind of screw you, we’re not making this all pretty and neat. The guy took the roll of bills, had to smooth them all out and put the wad in his jacket pocket. Didn’t even have a briefcase on him. Isn’t that the way those high flyers do it?”
I sat for a second, wildly trying to put this all together. “Okay, so, you’re telling me that Lester Worsham, in February of 1991, is paying off a political operative with big wads of cash? This nobody guy working for beans in some boondocks radio station? Maybe it was someone else’s money? Maybe he was just the go-between?”
“Have you ever met Lester Worsham?”, she stared at me. “That man doesn’t carry water for anyone, and never did.” She reached for her purse. “Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say. And if you so much as hint that it was me that told, I’ll deny the whole thing.”
And with that, as if her tolerance for tension had been reached, she scooted out of the booth so fast the cups rattled in their saucers. I was left there with my mouth gaping open.
Back home, I worked though everything I’d heard, weighed the pros and cons of posting the story. It was no doubt sloppy journalism, but I went with it, being oh, so careful with my wording. The blogosphere. The last frontier of free-for-all gray-ethics reporting.
I wrote it up overnight, hitting the “post” button some time after midnight, bleary and haunted, feeling like I’d set something irrevocable in motion. This wasn’t innuendo or some philosophical commentary, this was an assertion of fact, evidence of a real crime. I felt like I’d activated some launch sequence code. Whether my missile would score a direct hit and take out the enemy or whether it would simply ignite a chain reaction of mutually assured destruction that took all of us down, I had no idea.
The next day my in box was flooded with email, so much that the NOW website crashed sometime after noon. The volume alone was enough to shock me; I had no illusions that my little blogs reached more than a small niche readership. But here were hundreds of responses. The real shock, though, was in the violent, scathing, obscenity-laden tone of about 95% of the messages, and that was just in the subject line. I didn’t dare actually read so much disturbing garbage. The office let me know the phone calls were just as bad.
I deleted every last message, a task that took a lot of time and dragged my spirits into the depths.
What had I done? What had I gotten myself involved in?
I knew I’d gone too far, crossed some line. I’d tried to do something noble and now I was drowning in ugliness.
I was done. I’d ended up somewhere I knew I had to get out of, out of this business, out of this a stupid hopeless crusade against an evil that was obviously so much bigger than I.
I paced the living room for a few minutes, seriously considering leaving Washington, now, today, forever; determined, at the least, to quit my job, put as much psychic and geographic distance as money could buy between me and everything I’d worked for.
The rational side of me – what was left of it– suggested that before I burned all my bridges, maybe I needed to take a breather.
I tossed my laptop on the sofa, threw on my sneakers, and left the apartment for a walk, fleeing toward fresh air like a bat out of hell.