Monday, June 18, 2007

Flashback: A Gay Creative Type and How He Cowed the Speaker, the TV Station, the CPB, PBS and a Major Corporation: A Lesson in Today’s Movement Politics.


[More than 50 years in politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

The words the Speaker of the House whispered in my ear were: “He’s a a-a-gay!” And thinking I still needed elucidation, he ran down a list of uncomplimentary words for gay. Born in 1912 to Irish working class to whom in contradistinction to drunkenness, rage, hetero-licentiousness, homosexuality truly was the sin that dared not speak its name, he felt he had to walk around the table and speak in low tones—after which for emphasis he repeated all the derogatory descriptions he could, thinking I didn’t understand.

I said: well, so what?

“Don’t give me `so what’!”

He then described our threat at WGBH as a temperamental, foot-stomping, ultra-delicate, effete, effeminate, so-called genius, highly venerated at the station, who thought of the documentary, has taken a possessor’s delight in it, will never be fired, has connections that cause people to tremble at the station’s topmost echelon…and has threatened to blow the whistle to the media, declaring that his semi-sacred documentary on public policy as seen through the eyes of the Speaker is in danger of being prostituted by a tacky commercial interest—a cereal company—which for the paltry cost of a little over $100,000 plus and the rental of Ford’s theatre is going to turn his film into a carnival of crass commerciality. And furthermore that the station is direly influenced by the fear that he will in fact go public on a so-called tie-up between big politics and the grocery products industry…which would harm O’Neill, the station, its commercial contracts and Quaker.

I said: So he will imply you’re a tool of the big Oats Lobby? Ridiculous, isn’t it? That’s why you wanted us to sponsor it because we weren’t Big Oil but Big Oats.

He laughed and agreed.

I said: this is ridiculous. It’s done all the time! Corporations and foundations help finance productions and--.

“Not exactly, Tommy. What he is kicking about is the Ford’s theatre thing, nothing else. He wants the premiere to be held at the station in Boston. You see the position he puts you in and me in.’

No I don’t! He’s got nothing on you—does he? Or me! I never met the guy!

“Me? Of course not! I don’t even know the…” and here he described in unflattering and extraordinarily graphic terms the orientation of the creative person.

Well, then!

“No, `well then.’ These are liberally sensitive times and I remind you it’s Massachusetts, the most liberal state in the nation and I represent Cambridge, one of the most liberal districts in the country where I’ve made—let us say—extraordinary accommodations.”

I see.

“Let me conjure up for you the `Boston Globe’ saying that the Speaker has a deal with Quaker Oats to do…well, who knows? Such and such. All to do with a film Quaker is helping to finance. And then the `Globe’ outlines the Ford Theatre thing and spins it into a terrific scenario. Here’s the crown jewel of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, Quaker Oats, tying up with O’Neill for a premiere where the president is coming—all for O’Neill’s self-glorification and a powerful special interest payoff for a solidly Republican company.”

What you’re saying is that the gay thing matters—even though it won’t come out in the news stories.

“Yeah. Because gayness is the latest, um--.”

Fad of the Left.

“Right. I don’t need that; you don’t need that.”

No, I don’t need it.

“The only thing we can do, Tommy, is for you to go to Boston and see this [scatological description of a homosexual]. Try to convince him that we can have two premieres—one in Boston…which I’ll get somebody else to pay for…and one in Washington.”

You can’t do it?

“My people have tried and have come back to me with the unmistakable idea that we have pushed too much—to the point that, well, there might be an explosion. If I sit down with him, well--”

I agree. That gives him too much visibility. Now you say the president of the station, the head of the station, who agreed to this initially has utterly no power over this guy. Nobody, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, nobody has. Why not? Are they gay, too? Is he blackmailing them?”

“No, God no. Not at all. I know them. It’s cowardice. Once this fruitcake has brought it up, everybody heads for the hills. That’s--.”

That’s public television, isn’t it? So concerned about mollifying the niceties of the trade that it wilts…or it trembles like a plate-ful of Jello.


(At another time I would have used the phrase “political correctness” but it hadn’t been invented yet.)

I’ll go see him.

“Don’t make it worse, now. You lose your head and we’re all out of business.”

I won’t. But I’m amazed that you’re paralyzed by this—somebody who’s been in politics for two generations.

“You don’t know Boston, today’s Boston, like I do.”

Agreed. I’ll take your word for it.

So I took a company lawyer with me. I flew to Chicago, and together we flew to Boston.

The guy sat at his desk, his fingers pyramiding with thumbs twiddling.

“Listen to me,” he said. “I don’t give a [explective] if the concept that I put my entire heart and soul in, my being—pouring out my fondest hopes—goes down the drain! Do you hear me! I DON’T CARE! I feel…well…I feel used! USED!”

He bit his lip. Tears were coming.

Well, said the lawyer calmly, can we just consider the nature of this. First, we have done this several times—once with a David Wolper film on Abraham Lincoln, once with a Charles Guggenheim film on Andrew Young. We have had highly regarded receptions for top Washington people at Ford’s and there hasn’t been a scintilla of anything publicly involving crass commercialism because there wasn’t any.


He was weeping uncontrollably now.

I said: Do you realize what kind of precedent this is? You’re imputing commercialism here not because of foundation support or corporate contributions but because of a premiere that will have no more commercial overtone in it than the line that says “…and a grant from The Quaker Oats Foundation” in your documentary. You’re making a scene here which if carried through in precedent would easily jeopardize any corporation or foundation giving money to your not-for-profit status. Exxon, Mobil all of these would be driven away by this precedent.

“I tell you they are not having a premiere.”

You don’t object to Quaker Oats supporting your film or any future documentaries on WGBH. You object to the fact that with our own money we are willing to put on an event for the benefit of the Speaker. What if there is a simultaneous premiere here in Boston and in Washington?

“I tell you the premiere will be here at the studio in Boston. Period.”

What if you have the premiere in Boston and we have one in Washington later?

“I tell you the premiere will be here in the studio in Boston. Period. No other place.”

You realize you’re careening out of reality on this, don’t you? You’re telling a corporation it may not honor the Speaker of the House of Representatives.


Wait a minute, said the lawyer, you can’t transgress on the right of a corporation to do what it wishes consonant with--.


I said: Why do you have to shout like this? Do you think it improves your case when you scream?

“…and the media will make their own conclusions.”

Okay, I said. Okay. We’ll cancel the Ford’s Theatre thing, that’s all. You plan your premiere. That’s all we can do.

The lawyer nodded.

Then the creative type changed immediately.

“Well,” he said, smiling brightly, “I’m sorry to go on like this.”

Just show us how to get out of studio, all this maze, so we can catch our plane back to Chicago.

As he led us out he said, “I suppose you think I’m very emotional about this.”

Why would you think that?

“I hope this won’t change your attitude toward us at the station.”

“Of course not.”


Now, I said to the Speaker, we’ve got a job to do. We’ve canceled the event, told Ford’s but we have a very difficult job ahead.

He said, “what is that?”

We have to withdraw all how many invitations did you mail—3,600? We have to tell the recipients…those who accepted and those who haven’t and those who haven’t responded yet…that the film isn’t quite ready for showing yet and we are canceling the premiere. That means everybody from the president to the cabinet to the agency heads to the Congress…and we have to do it without the press getting the notion something is funny and blowing up the story…in the same way that our…our friend in Boston was threatening to do. In other words, one slip and the press will be calling WGBH and our friend in Boston will do his originally threatened tirade.

“I’ll see that enough people are recruited to go pick up all the tickets and don’t worry…there won’t be a slip.”

I’ll camp here and see that it’s done for Chicago’s sake, but you guys do the work.

“What can I say, Tom! You guys have been so cooperative and this had to happen. What can I do?”

I’ll think of something. Now get your administrative assistant to call your staff together tomorrow morning and recruit some workers to do this. I want to follow them step by step. They have to get their story straight and do it very nonchalantly. No big deal. The film has some bugs and can’t be shown yet. Somebody has to go to each office and pick up…physically pick up the invitations…else there’ll be people who aren’t in the know showing up and you know what that will entail. An unflattering newspaper story which is what we’re doing to avoid.


Most miraculously, this was done within several days. The RSVPs and the no responses. Life went on and nobody thought a thing. The TV show went on public television as it was supposed to.

“But,” said the Speaker, “I’ll never forget how good you and your company was to me. Never. Stick around for dinner.”

I did and came in many times thereafter. And the more I thought of it, the more I agreed with O’Neill. The times had, indeed changed—so drastically that I was unaware. One guy with a lisp…in a strategic spot… can sink a ship.

O’Neill never did forget until he died—and proved it a year or so down the road.

Is there a lesson here? Yes. One emotionally distraught creative type from a sensitive, politically-favored, liberal special interest, threatening to blow off steam to the liberal media turned around…all by himself…legitimate plans involving (a) the Speaker of the House, (b) a major corporation, (c) a major television station, the creative-type’s employer, (d) the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, (e) the Public Broadcasting System, (d) Ford’s Theatre, a partially owned subsidiary of the U.S. Park Service, part of the U. S. Department of the Interior involving (e) the President and Vice President of the United States, (f) the Congress, (g) the Supreme Court and (h) regulatory agencies.

To further illustrate the sacredness of this Sacred-Cow-Sacred-Interest, I guest lectured at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University…an executive management course peopled by senior executives attending evenings and weekends to get their MBAs…and used this as a case history about the dynamic strength of only one person in an interest group threatening to use the media (another interest group)…and how he won the day. I was censured by the professor after the lecture…because. Why? There was one grey-haired executive in the class who, after the discussion, went to the professor, said he was gay and interpreted the object lesson…and my imitation of the Creative One’s peculiarities of speech…as a hideous evidence of discrimination against his own sexual orientation…therefore he would bend every oar to see that I was banned from the campus. In the interest of tolerance.

“We can’t use you as a lecturer,” said the professor sadly to me. “For a good long while.”

Okay with me. I went on to teach for several years at Roosevelt University…let us say no Hillsdale…but which is glad to have me. But—

--is this a great country or what? Tied in knots by the most sacred of Sacred Cows.


  1. I had forgotten that the Lavender Hill Mob had that much clout in those days, of course the Peoples Republic of MA, and Havaard has always endorsed, "The East is Red!"

    Keep 'em coming Big Guy!