I sort of think of this as the canonical form of muckraking.
I am young and unknown to many of you. I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of this county, and if elected they will have conferred a favor upon me, for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate.
Zachary Hicks is a delegate to the state’s Progressive Party Convention and his feet hurt. The convention has been trying to nominate a candidate for governor, but no one has enough votes. While the party bosses gather in their factions to discuss strategy for the next ballot, Hicks turns to one of his fellow delegates in the convention hall and complains about his shoes. When the delegate asks him why he doesn’t take them off, Hicks replies that he can’t – they’re too tight. When the delegate suggests that he cut them off, Hicks thinks it’s a great idea, and to the surprise of his fellow delegate, he takes out a knife and does just that.
Meanwhile, one of the party factions has decided that the only way to prevent their rivals’ candidate from winning and still break the deadlock is to nominate a dark horse. They arrive at the name of the hitherto obscure Zachary Hicks, about whom even they know very little. Hicks is asleep when his nomination is announced.
I wrote that intro from memory, having seen The Dark Horse – which unfortunately does not seem to be available online or on DVD (but you can see the original trailer) – about a month ago on television, so I might not have the details exactly right. But the premise is clear: Zachary Hicks – described at one point as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge” – is running for Governor and it’s going to take a clever campaign to get him elected.
Kay Russell (played by Bette Davis) knows just the man for the job: Hal S. Blake (played by Warren William), who’s proven himself in the past to be an able campaign manager. There’s only one problem: Blake is currently in jail for failing to pay alimony. Russell convinces the party leaders to take a chance on Blake, and when they arrive at the prison, Blake is giving a speech to the other inmates. The campaign has already started.
If this were a different kind of film, Blake’s cleverness and political skill might have been portrayed as vaguely sinister, but it’s a comedy (with a bit of romance between Russell and Blake) – and a screwball one at that. Blake might be able to convince opposing constituencies like the wets and the drys (this is a film from 1932*, after all) that Hicks supports both sides, but it is his opponents in the Conservative party who stoop to truly dirty politics when they come up with a plan to frame Hicks as having an affair on the eve of the election. It’s hard to watch this movie today without thinking of certain modern strategists**, but Blake – who has his faults, particularly when it comes to relationships – remains generally likable throughout.
When it quickly becomes clear that Hicks isn’t very bright, Blake is undaunted: that just means they’ll present him as a common man of the people (“Hicks from the sticks”). Since Hicks doesn’t know the issues very well – at one point he says he’s against capital punishment, which would great if the state had not already abolished it – Blake instructs him to answer all reporters’ questions by saying “Yes,” then pausing, then saying, “and again, no.”
A bigger challenge is preparing Hicks for a debate. Blake has him memorize the lines quoted at the top of this post. They’re actually Lincoln’s. Hicks has only two problems with this: first, he has a well-off (but politically irrelevant) aunt elsewhere in the state who could be considered a “wealthy relation” – Blake instructs him to ignore that; and second, he struggles to remember to change the word “county”*** to “state.”
There may be a longstanding tradition of politicians incorporating other politicians’ speeches into their own, but this is a fairly clear case of plagiarism. And when the time comes for the debate, it turns out that Hicks’ Conservative opponent, Underwood****, who is first to give an opening statement, arrived with the exact same idea. Recognizing the speech his candidate was supposed to deliver, Blake jumps on to the stage and exposes Underwood as a plagiarist. Underwood is laughed out of the building and Hicks is saved from having to speak at all.
*It’s so old that it’s pre-code, and compared to movies made just a few years later, there’s a surprising amount of suggestiveness.
**It’s true, as TCM’s overview article says, that the decision to “sell” Hicks as a common man is “a round of spin-doctoring that remains depressingly resonant today” but it’s still funny. Just don’t think about the implications for governance.*****
***I believe in the film they actually say “country,” perhaps under the impression that Lincoln said this in a speech while running for President. But a footnote to the text I looked up says that it is actually from a printed message from a campaign for local office from very early in Lincoln’s career – and that he lost.
****I don’t think the movie ever gives his first name.
*****I suppose it’s only appropriate that Guy Kibbee, who plays Hicks, would later play the beleagured Governor of a machine-controlled state in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Those who have seen Boiler Room, which I just watched last night, can see the irony in this:
But systemic corruption—and that is the right word—has been unveiled at lenders across the board. Two of the most revealing stories on the culture that overtook the lending industry were published early—February 4 and March 28, 2005—by the Los Angeles Times. Reporters Mike Hudson and E. Scott Reckard found court records and former employees who described the boiler-room culture that pervaded Ameriquest—hard-sell, scripted sales pitches, complete with the “art department” in Tampa. Ex-employees confirmed, as did Lisa Taylor, the loan agent quoted at the top of this story, that copies of Boiler Room, the movie about ethically challenged stockbrokers, was indeed passed around as an Ameriquest training tape.
[Ex-employees] described 10- and 12-hour days punctuated by ‘power hours’—nonstop cold-calling sessions to lists of prospects burdened with credit card bills; the goal was to persuade these people to roll their debts into new mortgages on their homes.
Power hours. And if the power-hour culture pervaded the market leaders, what of smaller lenders and mortgage brokers? Here is Glen Pizzolorusso, a young sales manager at WMC Mortgage, an upstate New York brokerage, who earned—get this—$75,000 to $100,000 a month:
What is that movie? Boiler Room? That’s what it’s like. I mean, it’s the [coolest] thing ever. Cubicle, cubicle, cubicle for 150,000 square feet. The ceilings were probably 25 or 30 feet high. The elevator had a big graffiti painting. Big open space. And it was awesome. We lived mortgage. That’s all we did. This deal, that deal. How we gonna get it funded? What’s the problem with this one? That’s all everyone’s talking about . . .
We looked at loans. These people didn’t have a pot to piss in. They can barely make car payments and we’re giving them a 300, 400 thousand dollar house.
To business reporters of a certain age, boiler rooms are associated with the notorious stock swindlers of the late nineties—A. R. Baron, Stratton Oakmont—criminal enterprises all. But all the elements of the bucket shops of the past—the cold calling, the hard sell, the bamboozling of over-their-head civilians, not to mention the outright lying, forgery, and fraud in its purest form—were carried out on a massive scale and as a matter of corporate policy by name-brand lenders: IndyMac, Countrywide, Citi, Ameriquest.
Volz said Ney would never openly admit that anything he did was wrong or improper. He had his version of the truth and would stick to it no matter what; he expected staffers to do the same.
Even on little things, Ney would have his “own reality,” Volz said. In talking with a reporter, for instance, Ney might claim that dozens of constituents had called about a certain issue, when only one had done so.
“But then that was the reality we had to work with when it came to that issue and that reporter,” Volz said. “Whatever (Ney) said became his truth, and he would stick to that no matter what, that was the way it happened.”
I wonder if any of the reporters caught on, or if they reported Ney’s assertions – unfortunately, Volz doesn’t name any particular issues that can be checked – as fact. If it’s the latter, that doesn’t reflect very well on the media.
Speaking of prison as transformative experience, I was catching up on some rss reading recently and noticed this at the end of an article about former Representative Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who was just released from custody after serving time in prison and a halfway house for his role in the Jack Abramoff scandal:
During his months in prison, Ney said he tutored fellow inmates, answered letters and read more books than he had in 12 years. He also entered a 12-step program to deal with his alcoholism.
Asked whether the experience had changed him, Ney responded, “This type of [t]hing changes you. I didn’t come out bitter or losing my bearings. I’m not saying that everything is absolutely fine — substance abuse is not a good thing. That’s a good change.”
“I came to Washington this total idealist,” Volz told The Dispatch last week in his first public comments since he began working with federal prosecutors in 2005. “But it’s kind of like I took on this mind-set that there was a machine at work and I was just a cog in the machine. And, therefore, I need to get mine.”
It was a world of trying to justify accepting gifts that he knew were wrong, in exchange for legislative favors that he knew never should have been granted.
“It is a lot easier to rationalize something away when you are in the front row watching Michael Jordan play basketball,” Volz said. “That’s sad to say, but if I can kind of spend the next many years at least being honest about what’s happened … hopefully, whatever does come about, for my life, I can live with that.”
After a while, Volz says, he began to have second thoughts about his involvement in this world, but his first step away was not a very decisive one: in 2002 he took a job as a lobbyist with Abramoff’s firm.
“I lived in this insular world where everything was simple, because it was based around Bob’s best interests,” Volz said. “So it was kind of like I thought, ‘If I could get away from some of that, even if it’s going to Abramoff, somehow I could get into a better place.’
“But my priority was not, ‘I want to be the most ethical staffer/lobbyist in Washington.’ If that had been my priority, I never would have gone to work for Team Abramoff.”
Volz didn’t get much of a raise beyond his congressional salary of about $145,000 a year when he went to work for Abramoff. But the expectation of big money was just down the road, especially if he cashed in on his connections to Ney and others on Capitol Hill.
Ultimately, the new job was not a big enough change: Volz found himself again working closely with Ney on Abramoff projects. And it’s not clear from the interview just how much change Volz really wanted at the time. Presumably he couldn’t get too far from his old life if he was still hoping to make use of his “connections to Ney and others on Capitol Hill.”
But Volz continued to take small steps:
In early 2004, The Washington Post ran a story about Abramoff and the millions of dollars in fees he was taking from clients such as Indian tribe casino owners.
The story prompted Volz to not only take a fresh look at his own improper activities, but also to see the broad swath that Abramoff was cutting.
Abramoff left the firm of Greenberg Traurig and went to a different lobbying firm, followed by many of the members of “Team Abramoff.” But Volz decided it was time to get out.
“I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to get on the straight and narrow,’ ” he said. “I was scared, hoping all the black clouds would just pass over. But I wasn’t going to dig a deeper hole.”
Eventually, when the investigation reached him in 2005, he decided to cooperate:
“The clutter was lifting,” he said. “My contacts on the Hill didn’t matter. I was going to tell the truth.”
Volz’s 67-year-old father, a retired salesman and college professor from the Cincinnati area who is fighting Parkinson’s disease, told Volz it was time to come clean.
“My dad just kept telling me that at the end of the day, the guys with the badges are the good guys,” Volz said. “My friends and family all told me I had to just tell the truth. The fact is that cooperating was in my and my family’s best interests.
“I am not hiding from that. But I also knew that I looked long and hard at myself. I was committed to doing what I knew I could live with when I was 50 and 60 and 70 years old.”
Volz plead guilty and was sentenced to two year’s probation; his cooperation helped him avoid prison. He’s now working for an organization that helps homeless veterans with housing and employment.
Having learned that the first dealer “would pay more for better content,” Israel was soon advancing to her own full-tilt production of letters from other luminaries. She bought a gaggle of vintage manual typewriters, had famous letterheads printed up on antique paper and used an old television as a light box on which she could trace signatures. Even so, while writing as Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber and, most convincingly, Louise Brooks, Israel remained more an enhancer than an outright fabricator. She would use some of her subjects’ best real lines (Brooks on the studio head Harry Cohn: “My cat has spit up hairballs more attractive than him”) and take care with the chronology of their lives. The seams rarely showed. Indeed, the editor of “The Letters of Noël Coward,” published only last year, included two Israel pastiches — “a big hoot and a terrific compliment,” thought the erstwhile forger. (I reviewed the book and never batted an eye.)
Still, a bit of implausibility where Coward was concerned — having him write more candidly about his homosexuality than he would have allowed himself to — raised suspicions in one of the playwright’s friends who was also a collector. Israel fell into her first pot of hot water. Some outlets would no longer touch what she was selling; a grand jury began investigating; one New York dealer said he’d refuse to testify if she paid him $5,000. The danger blew over, but Israel, now living in a “constant state of anxiety,” decided to move on to a surer-fire if less creative m.o. — having a middleman, a wacky ex-con pal, fence only actual letters she stole from archives. To throw off the archivists, she would leave behind well-crafted replicas that she had prepared after careful study and note-taking. Sometimes she would spirit the originals past reading-room attendants in her shoe. Even so, the F.B.I. eventually caught on to the new scheme, and she couldn’t get rid of those manual typewriters fast enough, dumping them “one by one, in trash cans along a mile stretch of Amsterdam Avenue.” Thanks to a hard-working lawyer from the Federal Defenders Program as well as a kind-hearted judge, she got away with five years’ probation and six months’ house arrest.
Is there such a thing as an honest forger? Maybe so. A few days ago I saw a job listing on craigslist for what I suppose would be called a “ghost-signer”: someone skilled enough to trace an author’s signature hundreds of times per day inside copies of the author’s just-published book.