Bob Woodward’s wimpy complaints about the hectoring he received from a White House aide made he laugh. I’ve had nastier e-mails from my sisters!
Most veteran reporters have stories to tell about harsh treatment at the hands of a politician or press aide who’s unhappy about the reporter’s story. Like most, I’ve got lots of those stories, but one stands out because it happened so early in my career.
And because it was so utterly bizarre! The gist of it is this: I got called the n-word by a black man — an older, experienced and substantially-built pol who knew I would be knocked back on my heels by it.
This is what happened:
I was a young reporter, about 23 years old, at the now-defunct afternoon newspaper, The Atlanta Journal. When I was handed the assignment to cover City Hall, I was thrilled. Not only was it a prestigious assignment in any city, but it also gave me a chance to cover the administration of the legendary Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor. Wow, for a kid from LA — Lower Alabama — it represented a huge opportunity.
I found myself covering the machinations surrounding Jackson’s would-be eventual successors, who included two up-and-coming black politicians. One was assumed to be the candidate of Atlanta’s black elite. A Morehouse man, he was light-skinned, well-educated and sophisticated. He was also the darling of Atlanta’s overwhelmingly white arts crowd because he was the sort of black man who could wax eloquent over Jackson Pollock. (I’m withholding names to protect the guilty.)
His competition was the opposite in almost every way: Dark-skinned, ineloquent and, though college-educated, not at all sophisticated. He had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks and resented the fact that black Atlanta still had a noticeable color line. He was on the wrong side of it.
In my defense, let me just say that I wasn’t particularly sophisticated myself, at least not about the odd ways in which black folks assessed status. I didn’t know the dark-skinned pol had a huge chip on his shoulder about being treated as a lesser among black folk. If I had, I might have known better than to write a story that contrasted his bearing, his speech and his physical appearance with that of his competitor.
He was furious. He cornered me in my office at City Hall, stuck his finger in my face and roared: “You’re just a high-yellow nigger who thinks high-yellow niggers ought to run City Hall! “ I was so stunned I went home and called my mother.
The intimidation hardly lasted, however. The next day I was back on the beat, aggravating the guy — and his competitor — with my news stories.
Wow, those were the days!