Me, Bill Richardson, and Crippling Doubt

A couple of years ago, I resolved to write at length about my four years living and working in Washington, DC. If I did it well, if I was diligent, it might even turn into a book: the story of a professional actor who leaves it all behind to study and practice politics in the nation’s capital, and how that city violently spit him out.

But I wasn’t writing every day for a living at the time I started the project. I was a retail drone, having just left DC, and I used my off time to write. Now that I tap-tap all day on keyboards to earn my bread, and then send the rest of the time wrangling cranky offspring, the book project has severely stalled.

There’s some good stuff there, though, and so for shits and giggles I thought I’d share a short excerpt from what I have so far. It’s February of 2007, the very dawn of the 2008 presdiential cycle. I’m a new intern at ABC News’ political unit (though a year older than my immediate supervisor at the time, Teddy Davis), and I have an assignment involving the then-governor of New Mexico…

* * *

So how was I doing? It as hard to say. I think I made it pretty clear to Teddy that journalism might not be my chosen path, if for no other reason than that I showed no drive to actually cover events or report on things. He would have to offer things up to me, such as a speech by a candidate in town or some convention for a given interest group. I would agree for the sake of being game, but I never sought out opportunities to pound the pavement.

Was this because of a distaste for journalism? I don’t think so. Rather, I think it was my own personal discomfort with other humans, based upon a strong foundation of self-loathing. I consistently felt out of my league, like a child wearing a grownup’s costume, playing pretend reporter. Behind the computer terminal, writing newswire posts, transcribing speeches, or editing HTML, I was safe. No one could see the fraud I was trying to pull off, the fraud that was me.

Perhaps my most uncomfortable moment as a faux-reporter for ABC was when I was sent to cover a speech by Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson, then governor of New Mexico, at a hotel in town. One thing to appreciate is that speeches by Dick Cheney or Hillary Clinton, both of which I also covered, were relatively safe events for me: I would go to the event, present my press credentials, hide in the back, take notes, come back to the unit and write my report. There was no expectation by anyone, either by my ABC colleagues or by the subjects themselves, that I would ever get even a half a moment to speak to the politicians I was covering. But with a lower-tier candidate like Richardson, there was a terrifying chance for access.

Teddy knew this, and prepped me with a question for the governor should I get the chance: “How does being the only remaining governor in the Democratic primaries affect the dynamics of the race for you?” Iowa governor Tom Vilsack had only recently (and suddenly) bowed out and endorsed Clinton before most people knew he was running. Richardson was the only chief executive in the mix.

Richardson was an entertaining speaker. Though his campaign passed out written copies of the speech he was giving, he strayed wildly from the text, cracking jokes and enjoying himself. The crowd, comprised of muckity-mucks of medium importance, were clearly with him, and laughing right along. His standard stump speech style was beneath him, I thought, too full of bullet-pointed generalities in an attempt to show gravitas. Indeed, in every debate, about 75 percent of his answers began with the phrase, “Here’s what I would do: One…” accompanied by the requisite finger-counting gesture.

After the speech, is was made known to the small cadre of journalists there (many of them interns and low-on-the-totem-poll young’uns not unlike myself) that the governor would take questions in a side room. It was the last thing I wanted to do. I would have rather wet myself and run crying than go into that room and ask a question of the governor of New Mexico. But I knew that it would be expected, that I would let both myself and Teddy down if I missed the chance.

Interestingly, Teddy would have been able to pick up the phone and speak to Richardson probably any time he wanted. He was an ABC News reporter, after all, and Richardson an under-covered candidate who would have treasured the attention and the free media time. So obviously this was more for me than anything else.

I and the other reporters seated ourselves around a small room into which we were ushered, and many of them unburdened themselves of laptops and cameras. I brought only my notepad, so I simply sat as unassumingly as I could, trying very hard to look like I belonged, and probably failing. The governor took a very long time to make it through the throngs of glad-handlers who populated his path to the side room, but he eventually made it through and sat at a chair in the back of the room, sweating under the heat of the human bodies, the lights from the stage he had just come from, and his own considerable girth.

I have no idea what questions other folks in the room asked him. I could only hear a kind of mechanical humming emanating from my own brain, directly into my auditory lobes, making it impossible for me to think of anything other than how I might muster the courage to raise my hand, get the governor’s attention, and then somehow —somehow — assemble the necessary words into a remedial sentence, preferably in an interrogatory form, that could be answered by the candidate.

I was called on.

“Hi, governor. Paul Fidalgo from ABC News. Right now…”

“Where’s the little guy?!?” Richardson bellowed.

My brain jumped the tracks. I had no idea what was happening. The sweat from my scalp was beginning to dot my forehead, and the sweat from my armpits began to run down my torso.

“The little guy?” This was doubly confusing because I always think of myself as the little guy.

“The one from ABC, you know, the funny guy.”

“David Chalian?” I presumed he meant someone high in the ranks.

“No, the funny little one.”

“Teddy Davis?”

“That’s him! Where’s he?”

“Well, it’s just me, governor,” I said, somehow managing to feel guilty for not being Teddy. “I’m an intern at…”

“Agh,” the governor blurted, deflated. “What’s the question?” He was already bored.

“Sir, with the fact…given that Tom Vilsack has dropped out, um, now you’re the only governor in the race.” Richardson nodded. I went on, “How do you think…you…do you think that will, uh, help you? In the race?”

What had I said? I had no idea what had just come out of my mouth. I was pretty sure it was in the form of a question, at least in the most minutely technical sense, but I was also not at all convinced I had made anyone believe that I belonged in that room.

It didn’t matter. At the close of my broken sentence, Richardson went on autopilot and emitted a prerecorded answer vaguely related to the subject of my question.

“I’m a governor,” he declared, as though that had yet to be pointed out, “and I have the experience of leading an entire state. I’ve also been a congressman, an ambassador, and a cabinet secretary…”

And on he went. I scribbled some notes of what I thought I was hearing. I thanked him for the answer, and as his attention moved to the next reporter, my feeling of relief at the ordeal’s end was muted by the little bit of death I felt in my heart.

Back at the unit, I wrote up a pitiful little piece about the governor’s response. Still saturated with self-hate and humiliation, I felt utterly unable to give my piece a title. One of our other producers tasked with editing the piece slapped “Bill Richardson Stars in “Last Guv Standing” on the top, much to his satisfaction, and added a joke about the Oscars broadcast which had aired the previous night, which I didn’t get. “ABC News’ Paul Fidalgo reports:” the piece began, and I came to hate the sight of that byline.

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