Mike Barnicle and Nicolle Wallace are our guests this week.
Show produced by Katherine Caperton
Original Air Date: October 15, 2011 on SiriusXM Satellite Radio “POTUS” Channel 124
Listen to the show by clicking on the bar above.
Show also available for download on Apple iTunes by clicking here.
Our 30th episode is a tale of two writers, separated by a generation, who came to their craft at similar crossroads in their careers. For Mike Barnicle and Nicolle Wallace, their last campaigns were moments they conclude they would no longer live life inside a political bunker and instead picked up a pen.
Click above to hear the show, read below for Polioptics perspective.
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First, Mike Barnicle.
As Mike Barnicle tells Adam Belmar and me in this episode of Polioptics, he was still figuring out what to do in life in the spring and summer of 1970 when along came an opportunity to work as a speechwriter for the U.S. Senate campaign of California Rep. John V. Tunney. Tunney, the son of former heavyweight boxing champ, “The Fighting Marine” Gene Tunney, was, like his pop, a good looking chap. He was a law school roommate of Teddy Kennedy and had Air Force credentials in his dossier along with a few terms in Congress. The perfect candidate. Tunney would go on to win the race, serving only one term before losing to a guy with one of my favorite Senate names ever: S. I. Hayakawa, then the president of San Francisco State University.
Why fixate on a 40 year old Senate race? The filmmaker Michael Ritchie, just off the success of directing Robert Redford and Gene Hackman in Downhill Racer, teamed up with Redford again using the real life story of Tunney’s improbable victory to make The Candidate, one of the most durable campaign films ever made (and one from which George Clooney’s current political tale, The Ides of March, borrows a certain aura).
At some point in the 1970 race, young speechwriter Barnicle, who two years prior had been a young advance man for Bobby Kennedy, befriended movie director Ritchie. When it came time to fictionalize the campaign with Redford as Bill McKay and Peter Boyle as his campaign manager Marvin Lucas, Ritchie cast Barnicle as a young staffer named Wilson, giving him enough on-screen dialogue to win Mike his SAG card and a relationship with Redford that continues to this day.
Barnicle’s acting career, however, started and ended with that film. The Worcester, Massachusetts native then returned to Boston in 1974 to begin writing his three-times-a-week column in the metro section for The Boston Globe that continued for 24 years until 1998.
Altogether, when you add stints for the Boston Herald and New York Daily News, among other publications, he’s written more than 4,000 columns and, in the process, told just about that many stories of the men and women, cops and robbers, and heroes and villains he’s met on his beat. That genre of storytelling, expressed in 600 word modern parables by the likes of Mike Royko, Jimmy Breslin and Molly Ivins, is a kind of street-savvy writing increasingly rare in journalism today, where the news hole, writing talent and reader appetite for human storytelling in brief bursts appear to be shrinking.
When I was growing up outside Boston, building my bond with newspapers by reading Barnicle, Leigh Montville, Will McDonough, Peter Gammons and Bob Ryan, the appetite for the columnist’s product was huge, supported by advertising from Ernie Boch’s car dealerships and the departed (read that word like Ben Affleck would say it) retailers like R.H. Stearns, Jordan Marsh, Filene’s and Lechmere’s. In an earlier post in the Story of Polioptics, I wrote about how divisive issues in 70’s Boston — and they’re coverage in the local press — began my fascination with and, ultimately, involvement in politics. Barnicle was always in the middle of those issues, and I was always reading Barnicle.
I lived in a village called Waban in the upper middle class suburb of Newton. We didn’t have any direct exposure to forced busing — with the benign exception of the METCO program — and we never came face-to-face with violent crime. But every morning, when the green Globe truck sped over the dusty streets outside our house, the Globe — its reporters, photographers and columnists — would bring us face to face with the harsher realities of Beantown and the grittier enclaves that surrounded it. From front to back, the Globe was a damned fine paper. Now, two of Barnicle’s classic pieces — one of them set, perfectly, in the 99 Restaurant in Charlestown — are included in a compendium of America’s greatest columns called Deadline Artists edited by John Avlon, Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis. You can read the columns here at Mike’s Website and buy the book on Amazon and elsewhere.
The conversation that Adam and I have with Barnicle on Polioptics begins, as it must, with baseball.
You can’t talk to Mike in October, when the Red Sox should still be on the field instead of at the center of an existential debate, without getting his take on Tito and Theo and the starting rotation that seemed, on off days, to rotate around bottles of beer, buckets of fried chicken and blasts of video games. The Globe’s online visual before-and-after of the Sox marquee talent in their pre-season, perfectly-lit (and probably airbrushed) glamour shots with unflattering, fleshy snapshots taken during their September swoon, is a stark study in polioptics.
It’s a far cry from a few years ago, when Barnicle served as a voice and a witness for the Greatest Baseball Story Ever Told: The Tenth Inning, the sequel by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick to their 1994 nine-part documentary, Baseball. In that miraculous movie, the Sox in 2004 finally erase the Curse of the Bambino and bring the World Series Trophy home to Boston for the first time since 1918. Like he does with us on Polioptics, Barnicle’s voice on film echoes the joy, and now the rage, of the long scorned Sox fan. Theo, win one for the Cubbies.
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And now, Nicolle Wallace.
Like Mike Barnicle, Nicole Wallace moved from working at the center of political storms to a career in writing about them, though at this point her genre is purely fiction. Her fiction, however, is informed by a kind of truth that only a handful of people who get so close to presidents and presidential candidates can tell.
Yes, when she was recruited to return to political combat to work on John McCain’s 2008 campaign, she was assigned to handle Senator McCain’s VP pick from Wasila, Alaska, Governor Sarah Palin. Immediately on tap were Palin’s debut moments on the national stage: her introduction as a candidate in Dayton, Ohio and her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
After that, no, things did not go well (Read: Game Change).
As Wallace courses through the country on her book tour for her second novel, It’s Classified, about a female vice president named Tara Myers who’s laid low by the secret burden of mental illness, there’s been a modest media dustup (fanned a bit by Nicolle to build buzz for the book) that her character is based on the ex half-term governor and what mighta happened had she made it to the Naval Observatory and been given the keys. Wallace does the deft denial, but the chatter goes on unabated.
But don’t buy the book to learn if Vice President Meyers mirrors what might have been a Vice President Palin. Buy the book for a very insider’s recreation of life lived inside the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building by the President and his (or her) staff that help them get through each day. Are the dialogue, imagery and scenarios genuine? Yes. I watched similar stuff unfold inside those same gates from 1993 to 1997. Wallace is a writer, and in the arc of her 300+ page narrative she takes us on a lifelike tour of the Oval Office and a trip on Marine One and every other mode of presidential transportation.
What’s the takeaway of our Polioptics talk with Nicolle Wallace? A few months trying to right a failing and flailing campaign do not imbue a writer with talent to turn out bestsellers, as Wallace did with her debut novel, Eighteen Acres. You often need an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue borne from living the life you’re chronicling (Read: just about anything by Aaron Sorkin). If you’re great at making mental notes and drinking in all you experience, you can make the imagery genuine and get the pitch just right. That’s what serving in the White House as the Director of Communications will do. We’ve had several of them on our show, including Don Baer (Clinton) and Kevin Sullivan (Bush). And Wallace makes three.
Growing up in California, Wallace parlayed a bachelor’s from Berkeley and a master’s from Medill to a stint in local news followed by service as Jeb Bush’s press secretary when he was Governor of Florida. Then, there happened to be a presidential election in 2000 where the outcome of the vote in Florida happened to be pivotal. Wallace, at the time chyroned as Nicolle Devinish (prior to marriage to husband Mark Wallace) was dispatched to Palm Beach, Ground Zero for the recount. If your political teeth aren’t already cut working for Governor Bush, a few weeks in the GOP bunker fighting for every hanging chad will leave your gums bleeding.
Her service to the other Governor Bush, the one from Texas, was rewarded with one of the important supporting roles in the White House communications shop in the early years of 43’s Administration. As head of media affairs, she impressed the senior advisors with her smooth handling of easily offended egos in the press corps. Again, when you’re front-and-center for moments like 9/11 and Mission Accomplished, you’re storing away archives of material that make for great reading when the names are changed to protect the innocent, and not-so-innocent.
For Wallace, the charmed trajectory continued as she was named communications director for the Bush-Cheney Re-Elect (White Houses typically halve their staffs between official and political duties around 3 years into a president’s first term to avoid obvious conflicts). When you do well in that gig (how did she do, John Kerry?), you’re the odds-on favorite to take the top communications post in the reconstituted White House staff when Term Two gets underway. The Wallace script followed the predictable storyline.
But it’s clear now that Wallace is no political lifer. She’s a writer. In It’s Classified, we see early on that Vice President Tara Myers is overwrought by and unprepared for the duties of her job. Is this what Palin would have been like as Number Two? Here are the final lines of Chapter Four, where the new VP is wrestling with the pristine image created for her by her handlers and the bleak reality she knows rests right below the surface:
Tara picked up one of the magazines on her coffee table. There she was, smiling back at herself from the front porch of the Naval Observatory, the official residence of the vice president. Marcus has his arm around her shoulder, and Kendall was standing right in front of them. The headline read: “America Feels At Home With The Meyers.” She shook her head back and forth and ran her finger over the picture.
“What have we done?” she whispered.
It got me thinking back 40 years. With a slight change in tense, it’s the classic confession of political self-doubt first expressed by Senator-elect Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate.
Somewhere in this three-minute clip you might catch a glimpse of Mike Barnicle getting another few seconds of screen time. But this scene endures for its depiction of Redford and Peter Boyle fighting the crush of the election night crowd at the Fairmont Hotel, desperate to get a piece of the candidate. The polioptic image they’ve just sold to the voters has been bought in sufficient supply to win the race, but is there substance behind the podium? The candidate needs to get a moment with this top advisor alone. Anywhere will do. They try a staircase, a kitchen and, finally, an empty room. The crowd is coming. The Senator-elect has one simple question.
“What do we do now?” asks Senator-elect McKay.
Now move forward 40 years, and change the tense.
“What have we done?” asks Vice President Meyers.
In The Candidate, we’re never told what comes next. In It’s Classified, you don’t want to know what comes next. It could have been all too real.