14 December 2010

From the Archives: Feet of Clay

Statuary Hall

While cleaning out the apartment of a former CBS News colleague this week, I came across something unexpected: a script I’d written. Presumably, I was so proud of it that I’d given her a copy; certainly, I’m proud enough that I’d mentioned it in this space, nearly three years ago.

The occasion was an essay I wrote on the tenth anniversary of the start of the Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment of Bill Clinton. “When the Senate voted not to convict, on Lincoln’s Birthday, we were in Washington,” I wrote. “I struggled over a ‘closing thoughts’ for Dan Rather to read at the end of the Evening News, and I actually got out of bed and went downstairs to the hotel bar, to revise my text from scratch on the night before the vote. It was one of the best pieces of my career, and one of these days I’ll fish it out of a filing cabinet and post it here.”

That day is now.

The text that follows is as I wrote it, though it’s probable that Dan made a few changes. (He usually did.) Through an extraordinary bit of luck, we received permission to shoot the closing thoughts in the Capitol, in Statuary Hall. What we didn’t know — but soon found out — was that NBC News had been angling for the same kind of permit for years. Again and again, Tom Brokaw had been turned down, and when he saw Dan that night, he wasn’t happy. (The lesson here may be that, no matter how partisan Washington may be today — television news in the late 1990s was even more so.)

Dan in the CBS Newsroom, New York,
during the time we worked together


Tonight, for an editor’s note at the end of a long trail, we’ve come to the United States Capitol — the people’s house — a monument to an ideal.

You owe it to yourself and your family to get here for a visit sometime soon.

The architecture alone is awe-inspiring. And the building is decorated with murals and statues — portraits of heroes.

Believe it or not, many of them once served in the government. And as if to rub it in, today is Lincoln’s Birthday.

History is hard on heroes these days. Even dead guys disappoint us. For example, lately we’ve been hearing about an alleged “inappropriate intimate relationship” of Thomas Jefferson.*

Even these heroes — in Statuary Hall — may have feet of clay.

Maybe it’s not unreasonable to look for heroes in our government today. In our reporting over the past year, we’ve hoped — and tried very hard — to find a hero or two in this saga of investigations, accusations, and impeachment.

We haven’t done very well.

This story had its origin in some of the baser impulses of human nature — and it didn’t often rise much higher than that.

And no matter how much you wanted to admire any of the players in this drama, there was always somebody to tell you that the vote of conscience … was political expedience. That the public appeal … was grandstanding. That the noble gesture … was self-interest. That the principled stand … was hypocrisy.

It seems that, after a year of scandal, outrage and apathy, we are left not far from where we started.

Ours is still a government — and a nation — as sturdy as this beautiful building … and as frail as the people inside it.

Government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth. [Pause]

Not today, anyway.

Happy Lincoln’s Birthday.

* HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: “Inappropriate intimate relationship” was the phrase used by Clinton in his grand-jury testimony to describe his liaison with Lewinsky.


Michael Leddy said...

That's really well said.

It's interesting to see the paragraphs here -- so different from your posts. How easy/difficult is it for you to think/write in those short paragraphs?

William V. Madison said...

Honestly, I've been so long out of television that I'm not sure it would be easy at all!

Part of the paragraph structure was in reality something much more like music notation: if I put in a paragraph break, I knew I'd get a certain pause; ellipses, another; dashes, yet another, with a distinctive emphasis to follow. This system developed without any planning or discussion at all. Although precise, it was almost instinctive, the result of a long, close collaboration (more than 11 years, at this point).

I was entirely immersed in the idiom of broadcasting and, more specifically, Ratherspeak: Dan's voice resided at least as much in my mind as in my ears. While I recognized that I could never write exactly like him (he favors an almost Hemingwavian terseness in vocabulary and syntax), my aim was to write prose that was comfortable to him and clear to any reasonably attentive listener.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for this explanation. I can hear in my mind's ear the different pauses.

The 'Green' Domestic Doyenne said...

Hi or bonjour!
I was surfing for creperies and found your blog on le Creperie Josselin as there really isn't anything more than travel book summaries on it. I saw bits and pieces of your other writings and landed on this one. I have a speckled history of theatre, music, production and media so I appreciate your musings. Although yours is just a "little bit" more speckled. Anywho just wanted to say I enjoy your introspection on things. And, how fortunate you are to have lived abroad. Have a simple fraise confiture, nutella desert crepe for me! :)