Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Little Lessons, From Big Men

He is arguably, one of the 10 most powerful men on the planet, and at 9 PM, in the days before Christmas, I am standing awkwardly in the living room of Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi.

I don't call his press secretary, send a written inquiry or make an appointment, I simply stroll up to his door and rap on it.
Senator Trent Lott

In December of 1994 President Bill Clinton has announced possible military action in the war-torn nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and my boss at WLOX, demands that I get an interview with Senator Lott, who is back in his hometown of Pascagoula for the winter recess.  "Um, OK, so you want me to just go his house?"  I question with awe.  I've only been a reporter for a couple of years, and filling this request seems unlikely to say the least. "Yeah," Doug Walker bellows into the phone, "see if he'll talk to ya.  It's a long shot, but what the hell."

Lott is on a fast track in the senate, and will soon be elected senate majority leader.  As I knock on his door, I expect to be confronted on his front stoop by men in drab suits, and dark sunglasses speaking in whispered tones into their sleeves.  Instead  my partner and I Amy are greeted at the door by the senator's pleasant wife, in a bright, festive sweater.

"Can I help you? Patricia Lott answers casually and Invites us into the couple's spacious mansion on Beach Blvd.  The stately  home looks out across a two lane street and into the Mississippi Gulf.  

Lott's house is just a few doors down from his brother-in-law Dickie Scruggs, at the time the richest man in Mississippi.  Scruggs made gobs of money suing asbestos companies and later represented the state of Mississippi in a lawsuit against the tobacco companies.   The state received a jaw-dropping settlement of $250 billion.  Dickie, was featured in the film, The Insider staring Russell Crowe.   A film about tobacco company whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand.
Russell Crowe:  The Insider

Scruggs, despite his enormous wealth, would often allow me to pop, uninvited, into his nondescript offices on Delmas Avenue to interview him about the progress of the mammoth lawsuit, the upcoming movie, or the revitalization of Pascagoula's desolate and abandoned main street.  Scruggs would kindly help me by giving his opinion about the need for new restaurants,  or store fronts, which is remarkable given the fact that he was in the process of hammering out one of the most significant legal settlements in the history of jurisprudence.

Scruggs is later convicted of attempted bribery in 2007 and 2009.  Just in the last two days, he has been released from jail on 2 million dollars bond while he appeals the conviction.  I know many of his family and friends and each believes he is innocent.
Dickie Scruggs

As I stand quietly in Lott's front parlor in my worn Sears slacks and a hand-me-down tie given to me by my brother, I'm pondering the senator's lineage and powerful friends, and wondering how in the world, Mrs. Lott would allow this rag-tag team of fresh-faced journalists into her house to interrupt the few moments she has with her busy husband, just days before Christmas.

I had interviewed the senator many times in the past, but always at pre-arranged events, with red, white, and blue bunting in the background as the senator christens a ship, or announces the addition of new jobs at Ingalls Shipyard, but never had I been in his home, under the intimate glow of a majestic spruce, regaled in pleasant Christmas lights, and ornaments that  have dangled from their trees for decades.  

I imagined him sitting casually in his terry cloth rob, scratching awkwardly as he sips coffee out of a familiar mug and scans the daily papers.  Surreal.

I hear the door jingle open and the senator with his coat over his arm, walks pleasantly into the house.  He kisses his wife on the cheek and quickly and eagerly greets his two uninvited guest.  "I saw the car in the driveway," he chimes happily, "How are you?" Not at all concerned that two doe-eyed kids with a camera and a microphone are stationed in his home.

"Sorry to bother you Senator," I announce reluctantly, "Could we get a comment from you regarding the president's announcement an hour ago.

The Senator furrows his brow, "Guys, all the other networks are not gonna be happy with me,"  Lott is aware, once our station shoots the interview it will appear on Good Morning America the next day, and the other networks will also be clamoring for a response.

Amy and I stand silently, and the senator relents.  As we frame up for the shot, he notices the family Christmas tree directly over his shoulder, "guys," he says pleasantly, "given the nature of these comments maybe we shouldn't put that tree in the shot.  "Of course," I slap my palm against my forehead.  As we re-angle the most powerful man in the senate, the leg of the camera tri-pod snaps, rendering it unusable, and we are forced to shoot his comments "off the shoulder," "Hm, gonna be a bit shaky, don't you think?" Lott, has likely done thousands of television interviews, and knows when a shot is going to look bad, and he can see it in this one.  

 I feel the a damp layer of perspiration glazing my forehead, "I'm sorry senator, It's the best we can do,"  As I begin my naive questions, the small light that is stationed on top of the camera slowly dims away, "Uh-oh," the senator jumps in, "your light.  This shot's not going to be very good." My partner Amy, ring in confidently  "It'll be fine, we've done this plenty of times," to which the senator responds, "so have I," with slight exasperation.  

As Patricia gently shows us to the door, I shake my head at our sad performance, and I vow, internally, to never be embarrased like that again, and always pay attention to the little details.

The next morning as I watch Good Morning America, I see the senators interview.  It is shaky, and dark, and poorly framed, as it is shot by, well, by two beginning journalists, in one of the smallest television markets in America. The senator, who had better things to do than entertain a couple of amateurs, managed, without his knowledge, to teach us a lesson a lesson or two about journalism.

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