Thursday, October 21, 2004

An abstract legacy

It's difficult to write a legacy about someone you've never had a conversation with.
Two Sundays ago the Florence Morning News ran a piece I wrote for them about retiring Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.) -- front page with photos. The Richmond-Times Dispatch picked it up too. I was just glad to see it out there and off my computer.
The story began as a side project for me to work on when I had down time. I read up on Hollings and tried to pick out his biggest accomplishments, but we're talking about 56-year political career.
I started calling Hollings' press secretary weeks in advance of my deadline, but Hollings wouldn't talk to reporters. The press secretary told me to keep calling back, and before long, Ilene and I were on a first-name basis.
Since Hollings wouldn't agree to meet with me, I decided to go to him. After staring at biography photos for weeks, Hollings had become more a mythical creature than a senator, and it was time to move from research to stake outs. I sat through an environmental conference, hurried to the door as he exited and was the first reporter to grab him. I introduced myself, told him what I was writing and rushed to the most obvious question.
"Senator, is there anything you're most proud of in your career? What do you consider your biggest achievement?"
He gave me a look that said, "Who the hell are you?"and then jokingly answered, "Getting re-elected." He waved me off soon after and walked off, while half a dozen other reporters followed him with less colossal questions.
Ilene told me Hollings wasn't going to talk until after Congress recessed. In the meantime, my mentor, Gil, had helped me define my angle. We decided to have a cooperative second stake out, each covering one exit from the Senate floor. Gil called me and said to rush over to his side. I made it there just in time to see the back of Hollings' glistening white hair as he walked back into the chamber -- and Gil holding a tape recorder with his quotes.
With little material from Hollings, I talked to plenty of academics and people who had worked with him. Three days before my piece ran, Ilene called and said Hollings might be ready to talk the next week. The piece was already on our wire, so it was too late.
My story ran on a Sunday, and The Washington Post ran a personality piece, heavy with Hollings quotes, midweek. I called for the interview that week anyway, possibly for a second story, but Hollings was packing. And the next week he had to go to Charleston. And now I'm still planning for that interview -- maybe after the election, but I'm not holding my breath.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Allyson,

Brock Meeks of MSNBC here. Strange behavior from Hollings; I've been covering Washington for about 15 years now and most of the time you can't get these guys to shut up and Hollings is among the worst!

Here are some tips/hints/acts of desperation you may want to try if you're going to be stalking...er, staking out the senior Senator:

1--make him a hostage. No, not that kind of hostage, but get at him where he can't "escape" you. The best place is to stake out the underground tram that runs between the Senate buildings and the Capitol. Here Senators and the huddled masses ride together (no first class seating). It's about a three minute ride but you can get a few questions in there and then dog him as he exits.

2--Get him to talk about a pet bill he's sponsoring and then switch up to your real questions. Hollings loves to talk about port security these days, it's a big project of his (and truth be told, it's an important homeland security issue).

3--Email his chief spokesperson a list of questions and ask for a written response (this is in the "act of desperation" category). Now, odds are 10-to-1 that the spokesperson is the one that actually answers the e-mail but it's a safe bet that nothing is going out under the Senator's name without his prior approval.

4--Get him mad. Ask him if he's ever forgiven himself for getting completely rolled during the great debates leading up to the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996... oh, sorry, that's just a personal issue for me, never mind.

brock.meeks(at)msnbc.com

1:32 AM  

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