The proverbial brass ring had come around.
The brass ring was an interview with Al Hunt, then the Washington Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal, one of the sun kings of political journalism. I knew his signature mop of white hair from television, but had never met him.
I was the editor of a backwater weekly legal newspaper. Al had no reason to be interested in me and, as I learned from him later, he was only meeting with me as a courtesy to the Journal’s managing editor. There was a hiring freeze at the Journal. His goal going into our meeting was to get me out the door as quickly as possible.
As a reader and young journalist, I had come to love the Journal’s Washington coverage, which showcased long stories that closely examined the institutions and people who wielded influence in the capital. I read it every day and often distributed its stories to my reporters as examples to emulate. The paper regularly ran front page articles showing, with lots of well-reported, behind-the-scenes detail, how the people with the most power often wielded it from behind the public curtain, in lawyers’ private offices and in the corridors where Gucci-clad lobbyists patrolled. These are the kinds of stories I tried to write and get my young staff to deliver. I knew that if I could capture his interest, I could deliver exactly the kind of stories Al Hunt wanted.
But telling him this was not going to pique his interest. I had to show him. That was my strategy going into the meeting. I walked into the bureau chief’s office with a story memo that I had spent days composing. The stories were pretty damn cool, filled with actual reporting leads. I remember one of them was about Tommy Boggs, then (and now) one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington and scion of a great political family from Louisiana.
The meeting couldn’t have lasted more than fifteen minutes. Al told me there was a hiring freeze and even if he could expand his bureau, he had little interest in hiring a legal reporter. As he talked, I gazed behind his desk at the pictures of Al and his wife, television correspondent Judy Woodruff, standing next to presidents. There was also a note from Ronald Reagan tacked on his bulletin board. I still remember what it said. ("You were both great.") I gave Al my story list as he ushered me out of the office. "It has a bunch of stories I think you’ll like," I managed to say.
That memo was my lean in moment. My strength as a journalist, I knew, was my ability to frame, report and tell the story of insider power. That is still, 25 years later, my forte. The memo was specific enough to be tantalizing. Al actually read it right after I left, because he had gotten rid of me with time left to kill. Since has he has told this story many times, I know he was blown away by the story ideas.
So when he called and offered me a job, I used that memo as a roadmap and wrote most of those stories for the Journal. Six months into the new job, Al wrote me a note: "I wish I could clone you."
The written word has always been my greatest ally and I used it to make the leap from the backwaters of journalism to the big leagues. To this day, I push reporters at the Times to make sure to deeply report their stories and illustrate them with memorable details. "Show, don’t tell," is my newsroom mantra.