The crucial clue that got me off the dime took place on a gray, flat March day in Saint Paul, back when Rolf Obermeyer was still bravely introducing himself as “a former Gotchell-campaign official.” He and his ever-shrinking crew were still wrestling with—or paying off, or burying—the odds and ends, the IOUs and ASAPs, of their losing campaign. As you remember, Senator Alan Gotchell—and Governor Worthington Frakes, his opponent—had seen victory snatched from their dropped jaws by Independent candidate Mitchell Taylor, both campaigns derailed by scandals just weeks before the general election. The interview with Obermeyer was my first foothold up the cliff to my bestselling exposé. And the rest, as we historians love to say when we actually publish a book that someone buys not at fifty percent off, was history.
What we don’t love to say is that the book was all wrong. What happened, how it happened, who, why—all wrong.
That’s my story.
I found Rolf’s fluid, roving bulk slouched behind his ancient desk as he worked the phone, his white business shirt a choppy sea of wrinkles, sleeves rolled past the elbows, one doughy arm flung up behind his bald head in order to flaunt the yellowish, perfectly oval wet spot at his armpit. His stink of sweat and Marlboros wrapped me in its gauze and ushered me in along with his wagging hand. With resignation, I looked at the shut window—Rolf hated a draught—through which I could see the hopeful, white dome of the Minnesota state capitol building.
I sat down in front of his desk, a lovely oak piece that had nothing to do with the rest of the functional office. Way back when his candidate was ahead eight points in the race for the presidency, he had planned to take it to the White House: “My grandma’s, Sam—full of curlicue carving and old as the hills. Brought it up the Mississippi with her, all the way from Czechoslovakia. And now—just think—it’s going to the White House. The old gal would just cry!” Back then he had been head of logistics for the Gotchell campaign; now he was head of its sand-and-shovel brigade.
“Yeah, well, that’s sorta the problem, Sol,” he was saying. “We’ve sorta got our available funds, ah, pretty much slotted for right this minute. Which is why I was thinking that, ah, going forward, a little ongoing patience would really constitute the most, ah, proactive stance on this count. And the senator—who still has plenty of say in the Senate, remember—he won’t forget someone who, ah, had the courage and see-it-throughness to move together with us to a sort of, of long-term ongoing closure on this thing, if you see where I’m drifting here…
“No, Sol, no! Where do people get that stuff? Strum and Dirge, pure Strum and Dirge… Oh, eighteen months, twenty-four on a good day, Sol—just till we get some traction under our belts, from a financial point of view… Yeah, absolutely…Oh, you betcha… and believe you me, Sol, I feel that deep—way down here in my Czech soul—really I do.”
Spoken like a true ex-director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Obermeyer drummed patient fingers on his blubber, shivers rippling through half his torso. Finally: “Really? Hey, Sol, hey. And I mean that from the bottom, huh? That’d be great. No kidding: the kind of thing that makes my job a real aspiration to human nature… Right. Right. Hey, you listen to your Uncle Rolf here, Sol, we’re gonna keep you posted straight through till payback. We’re all of us here a really far cry from the sort of attitude that says…
“Absolutely, Sol, absolutely. The senator’s a player, Sol, always will be. He’s gonna be writing a book, he’s got an article coming out next week in Newsweek, he’s, ah, he’s gonna be making grand-a-plate speeches—gots one coming up just next month, in point of fact. So don’t you worry. Anybody who gets behind us going forward, hell, we’re gonna get right behind them back, and I say that without the kind of qualification you’re always hearing nowadays from everybody and his brother… Okay, Sol… Hey, and I appreciate it, that’d be great… Okay, okay… Hey, I’m gonna be on your phone so often you’re going to think of me as your mother-in-law!… Right. Right. Bye.”
Rolf hung up, huffed, and unstapled the smile from his open, bread-loaf face. “So if two of your millions go AWOL for a while, Sol, just relax and enjoy the other ninety, okay? Greedy son-of-a-bitch.” Beneath the blubber, Obermeyer had steel, too.
He looked at me, making his lardy neck squish a new way over his too-tight collar. “Know what the problem with money is, Sam?”
“Let’s see… You can never find a shirt that goes with it?”
“No: it won’t give you an orgasm.”
“Ah. Well, I meant besides that.”
“I mean, hell, you’d think that when a guy made twenty or thirty mill, he’d just die with pleasure at all the stuff he could buy. Head for Miami and burn ten grand a day. But does he? Does he my Czech grandma! Guy gets his first twenty and the only thing he can think about is his next twenty.”
“Ah, the greed of man,” I lamented. I took my leap into the dark. “So: were you there when Terry Letizzle brought in the Frakes video?” I was referring to the outtakes of Governor Frakes cursing senior citizens, a major political base. Gotchell’s people—a.k.a. Rolf’s people—had slipped it to CBS News, and sunk Frakes.
Obermeyer took this question on the chin, and his eyes glazed over. After a long moment, he decided that a new cigarette was the better part of valor. He tapped one out of the pack, visibly apologizing to a picture duct-taped to the wall beside the window. It showed a crayoned house, flower garden, three dogs, three kids, and a sky filled with admonition: “Daddy, don’t smoke!” The ashtray was full. He lit up.
After two puffs: “Ah, that, that is a very information-rich subject, ah, Sam, that, ah, I’m not really all that permitted to go out and comment on at this point in time. Why don’t you, ah, take it up with Michael or Jan or Milt? Or heck, go to the senator himself? He was there. I mean, given the outcome of the election and the, ah, sudden flip-flop reversal of fortune that we’ve all suffered, I just can’t go around, ah, taking liberties—at least not on any kind of, of, you know, just-like-that basis.” Words were buckshot to Obermeyer; he sprayed them into the air till they hit his idea.
“So it was Terry who brought it in?” Terry Letizzle had been the candidate’s bodyman during the campaign.
Obermeyer waved the fleshy palps of his fingers, defending himself as if I were an onrushing bull. “Now I didn’t say that, Sam. That’s, ah, that would constitute a total twisting out of my words. I mean, c’mon: that’s pretty high-octane stuff—what you’re asking there is. I’d just be going straight out of my league, y’know, going out and making comments on it.” He puffed his cigarette more and, I thought, guiltily.
“C’mon, Rolf—the election’s long over,” I said. “Off the record. My publisher said that anything I could dig up about the two scandals would sell my book.”
Obermeyer shook his head in broad, gusting swings, the fat sloshing back and forth over his collar. “Zip, Sam. That’s zipped lips from the word go.”
I performed an amiable shrug and took Obermeyer into organization for the party convention. There was a lot of talk about bad blood between Gotchell’s people and the party—seating of delegates, platform planks, keynote speakers. Could he give me any background for that chapter of my book?
This for twenty minutes.
Then, with a glum scowl, I said: “But just on this video thing: it was Terry Letizzle who brought it in, wasn’t it? Off the record? Please? I had to track down the three-quarters of the Baton Rouge Palace night staff till I got a lead on him.”
One of Obermeyer’s charms was his childish sense of wonder. His eyes bugged out, and he launched himself forward across the desk, blubber catching up with him later. “You tracked down three-quarters of the night staff of the Baton Rouge Palace Hotel?” he gasped.
“Damn right. It finally hit me late last month: whoever brought it to you guys surely looked at it first. But let’s say that he received it just before bringing it to you. Like from someone inside the Frakes campaign. Like after meeting this person at the Frakes–Gotchell debate—say, backstage or something. Always a possibility. And further suppose that he’s one of your campaign staff—not unlikely. Now, since the Gotchell campaign was bunked at the Palace, and the Palace’s only mobile TV-VCR stand was already in Milt’s room recording the last debate, where else could the guy get hold of a VCR? I checked around and found one: in the conference room down in the hotel sub-level. The big TV down there has a built-in VCR. So I tracked down the staff working there on the night of the debate.”
“Jesus—three-quarters,” Rolf murmured in admiration. “That must fifty people minimum.”
“Sixty-two, ’cause management wouldn’t name names for me. I had to stand out in the employee parking lot at the end of each shift and nab people coming out. Anyway, I finally got hold of this nice old cleaning lady from Cape Verde. She was the one: she let him in and stayed at the door while he checked out what was on the vid. She said he was tall and skinny, under thirty, and had bright red hair.”
Rolf rolled his eyes dismally. “Yeah, that’s Terry, all right.”
“And here we are. See, Rolf? I have a description and a name. I just need someone’s nod on it.”
A careful drag on the weed. A squeamish scowl.
“A-a-ah, all right, Sam. I’ll give you, ah, yeah, I’ll give you that little morsel. Now it’s off the record, it’s total mum, it’s something you picked up as per the wall of the men’s john, got it? Milt was pretty damn heads-will-rolly about talking vids and stuff. But I mean, if it’s just confirming, okay.”
“There in the hotel after the last debate, right?”
“Ah, after, yes, just after the third debate that would be. Now, really, Sam, I’ve really gone the distance for you here—young guy on your way up—let you have pretty much carte-blanche run around here for your book, but there are just some things in this old world that have to go top level for anyone to go delving around in. Every campaign generates a little caca, you know. We’re not perfect here or anywhere else for that matter.”
I nodded with sage reassurance, though I was nearly jumping out of my seat with joy. Finally: a name, a solid lead!
“Great, Rolf, I sure appreciate the help. Maybe when I have more of it, you can give me a thumbs-up on…”
I stopped because Obermeyer wasn’t listening. He had twisted his head low and to the side, a kid looking at his ice cream that had fallen off the cone. I could see the fringe of sweat on his too-tight collar. A sigh.
“Oh, hell, you’ve got it. Now you’re gonna go around thinking we’re the White House Plumbers running smash-and-grab on the opposition, aren’t you?”
Actually, I would have suspected that more of the Frakes campaign and its posh director, Phyllis Kirk, than of Rolf’s gang; but I said nothing.
Silence crowded into the little office along with the cigarette smoke. “We’re still off-record,” Rolf groused.
“We sure are.”
“Okay. Look, it… fuck.” Obermeyer regarded his cigarette and sighed. “Look, it just fell into our hands, Sam,” he blurted unhappily. “Okay? Straight stuff now. Nobody paid for it, nobody stole it. All right, after Jover’s antics in Frakes HQ you might not believe that, but I swear on my Czech grandma’s grave it’s true.” More tobacco. “After the third debate, we’re all sitting around trying to make happy to the senator, and Terry—god knows where he came from—is suddenly over by the VCR coughing and waving and trying to get attention, and finally we look up and there’s Frakes on the screen cussing out his constituency and flushing his presidency down the toilet. It was our last chance, last hurrah, seventh-inning charge up the hill, all that. We had to go with it.”
Not taking my eyes off him, I jotted a few notes on my notepad in my lap. “He didn’t mention where it came from?”
“Nope. Nothing. Got all mysterious and said he’d bargained for it, but not even his mother would’ve believed him and neither did we.” A huff. “Not that anybody pressed him all that hard,” he added sarcastically.
“We. As in…”
He scowled at the table. “Jan, Milt, the usual band of mariachis. I never touch the hardball stuff, Sam—you know that. I’m nuts and bolts. Give me the parts, I’ll build your Cadillac. Besides, we were pretty worried that Frakes’ people were going to release something on the senator—especially now that he’d beaten the hell out of Frakes in that last debate. We wanted to strike the first blow.”
“You were worried about Frakes’ people releasing what, exactly?” I asked.
As I said, deep down Obermeyer had steel. Now it came out. His finger leapt and stabbed. “Don’t play the fucking Virgin Mary with me, Mr. Walker. You know what just as well as I do. Frakes’ people had footage of the senator pulling some sweetie-pie into his dressing room after a speech. Every reporter covering the campaign knew it. You did, too.”
“Yeah,” I admitted.
Obermeyer stoked himself with more tobacco. “In that way, I’m glad Mitch Taylor won. At least he did it fair and square.” A righteous drag. “Fool, though. See that fresh-water bill he sent to Congress last week? Could’ve been a draft for one of his stand-up routines.”
“You’re saying, then, the dressing-room tape might have been true. I mean, despite denials and religion and all the rest of it, Gotchell was still grabbing asses?”
“Of course he was!” Another drag. “Tell ya one, Sam. Got a cousin out in Minnetonka. His kid’s studying advertising, leaned on me to get her on the campaign. Smart girl, speaks Spanish ’cause her mom’s—what is it?—Nicaraguan or something south-of-the-bordery. Just the kid you want to send down to Chicago, ball the Latino vote, right? But I couldn’t put her on, I just couldn’t take the chance. She’s twenty-two—gots an ass you’d light up Broadway for. If that bastard’d caught her alone, he’d’ve bent her over the nearest armchair, no questions asked.”
“I see what you mean.”
“Motherfucker. Know what his pick-up line was?” He imitated Gotchell’s nasal tenor: “‘Oh, I’m just a poor, tired presidential candidate and my wife’s so far from home. Every day it’s people, people, people. I need intimacy. I need release from all this tension. Please, just a few minutes, honey. I know it’s above and beyond the call of duty, but this is a presidential campaign. People make sacrifices in a campaign.’ That was the bullshit he gave his girls—and don’t ask who told me very much in the first-hand vernacular, sitting right where you are. Just after we’d won Texas and I’m seriously starting to think about public or private for my kids. Fuck. And then I get a lesson in the good senator’s ‘religion.’ Too nice a kid to ask for damages, thank God. Stuffed twenty grandful of slush in her hand and cashed a favor to get her a job on The Hill. And don’t think it was hush money, Sam; it was an apology.” Another puff. “Fucker. Try breaking your back on a campaign knowing that your opponent has a vid that can torpedo you any time he wants.”
This, too, I would attribute to a “senior Gotchell campaign official” in my future book The Saddest Election, but the story summed up the dark side of the Gotchell campaign that I did my best to bring out: everyone knew that Gotchell’s hands were as hot as ever and that Frakes’ people had a video to prove it.
We listened to the smoke for a while, Obermeyer with his big head propped on the heel of one hand, elbow on the desk.
I said, “Still, funny thing is that even in the wake of the Frakes outtakes, his people—”
“Never released their tape of Gotchell and the babe. Yeah. Yeah. Go figure.” Obermeyer shook his head. “Sudden remorse? Forget it—that was Phyllis Kirk in charge of the Frakes campaign; remorse is for the little people. That leaves a gesture of fair play. But that’s out too, see: ’cause then they would’ve dropped the charges against Jover instead of banging the drum with them till they sank us. Nope. I’ve thought about it up, down, over and out, Sam. No answer. Maybe they figured it was no use, anyway. Hell, what was Mitch Taylor’s jump first week post-OutFrakes—twenty points?”
Obermeyer puffed more. “Nope—I draw a complete blank on it. But I’ll tell you something: if I ever come across Phyllis Kirk in a dark Motel Six, I swear to Christ I’ll hang her up by her thong-straps till she spills it—just to have it all straight in my head.” He stubbed out his cigarette with one, vindictive thump. “If you want to do us all a favor in your book, Sam, get to the bottom line of that one.”