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  • I lived in Washington, D.C., from 1980-1985, and served a portion of my sentence working as a news writer for a television station. Our nation’s capital takes itself very, very seriously. A popular TV commercial for a local financial institution ended with the narrator intoning, “The most important bank…in the most important city…in the world.” But there were times when even Washingtonians couldn’t go on with the charade that every little thing they did was earthshaking, and this evening was one of them.

    It was a quintessential slow news night. I was watching the 11:00 broadcast and was bored to death, even though I’d written the damned thing. To divert my mind from the on-screen effluvium, I broke one of my cardinal rules and answered an outside phone line. I recognized the voice at once. It was then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig. He was far from pleased and farther still from sober.

    If General Haig is remembered today at all, it’s for his declaration after Ronald Reagan was shot and wounded that “I’m in charge here.” That no doubt came as a huge surprise to the three people ahead of him in the presidential succession. But I digress.

    “Since when has your station become a fund-raising arm of the Democratic Party?” he demanded to know. We had run a story that evening about a meeting of Democratic governors. I assured him that we had run similar stories about Republicans, but he was not to be assuaged.

    “Who writes this crap?” he asked.

    “That would be me, sir.”

    He asked my name and, for a reason known only to him, gave me his phone number. Then he informed me that he was making a citizen’s arrest and that I was not to move from the station. I didn’t know whether to be alarmed or amused but at least I wasn’t bored anymore.

    A half hour later it was only the cleaning crew and I on the premises. No Secretary of State. I decided to go to a bar in Georgetown, but felt it my duty to call Haig and tell him where I was. He told me not to move. An hour passed and I was a tired, but still a free, man. Once again I went into a phone booth and dialed my adversary’s number.

    “Uh, General Haig, sorry to bother you again. This is Burt Kempner. I don’t know about you, but I’m really bushed. Would it be OK if I drove home and placed myself under house arrest?”

    “Yes, that would work.” Four very slurred syllables.

    It’s a silly story with absolutely no moral point to make. While it fills me with a certain nostalgic glow, it also chills me to the bone to think that today a few words whispered by a secretary of state into the right ears could result in something much more dire than cooling one’s heels in a Georgetown bar.

    Welcome to AmeriCo, the most important corporate the most profitable market the world.
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