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COMMENTARY : Story Is So Big It’s Right Out of Dumpster

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What don’t we have on Tonya Harding?

How about perspective, for one thing.

Here in this city of satellite dishes, roving mobs of cameras, press stakeouts in a dozen places; here, where lawyers now have PR flacks and where improbable small-town characters are wondering who will play their part in the movies; here, where tabloid gossip is hardly distinguishable from what appears in the columns of America’s so-called serious newspapers; here, where the contents of a garbage dumpster are transformed straight-faced into news . . . well, here, no optics yet fashioned by humans could possibly bend the blinding light of the Tonya Harding caper into anything resembling perspective.

So I took a breather from the story and called to chat with a far-off friend, an Alaska wilderness guide and dog musher, a man with a steel grip on the basics.

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“Tell me,” he said, instantly. “How is this story really going down?”

Then I spoke to a sober-sided author I admire in New England. He came to the phone puffing from shoving snow off his driveway.

“I want everything! I’ve been out of it too long. I need a fix,” he began.

You are kidding me. You want more ?

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Part of the mythology of journalism holds that by getting into the locker room, reporters see things that other people do not. My place is not to spoil it for everyone and say this is seldom the case.

So then, what do the notebooks reveal?

Mothers, don’t let your children grow up to be newsmakers.

Remember that age-old fear of modern American life: Snagged out of the blue by the lawyers--sued by a neighbor, charged with a petty crime, somehow hauled off to court, bludgeoned with writs and depositions, and made to endure months or years of slow-moving judicial anguish? Forget it. The courtroom here is the only island of reason and calm in very stormy, polluted waters. And God help you when you step outside room 208 of the Multnomah County Courthouse and end up facing the 18-inch guns of the live-at-five crowd.

Crack! Oh, Excuse me. Whack! No excuse me. Uumph. Ow. Damn! Look out. Excuse me. Here he comes! Wham! Oops. Golly. Amateur athletics. The Olympics. American Justice.

This conversation I can vouch for:

Reporter No. 1: “It’s everything that’s wrong with America, greed, paranoia, violence, lust for gossip, egomania.”

Reporter No. 2: “I know. That’s why I’m here.”

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Another of the myths of journalism is that it’s supposed to make sense of things. Will I be spoiling it for anyone to suggest that so far we’re perhaps a little weak in this regard?

Or am I dense? Is there real significance to the report that a TV station learned from anonymous sources that investigators were checking a call made on Tonya Harding’s telephone credit card from Detroit to the Oregon residence of her not-for-real bodyguard Shawn Eckardt sometime during the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships? In case you missed it, that was big news for a few hours earlier in the week. I guess it was supposed to implicate Harding in something nefarious--most everything seems to lean that way.

Or how about this from the FBI files of the interrogation of Tonya Harding:

“At 3:03 p.m., it was suggested that a break be taken, and HARDING stated she was hungry. Agent Russell asked HARDING what she would like to eat, and she stated she wanted a turkey sandwich on sourdough with tomatoes, onions, cheddar or American cheese, and extra mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee with extra cream.”

Nutritional secrets of champions.

What diabolical impulses could such a diet trigger?

By the way, have you ever actually read an FBI report?

No wonder this investigation is taking so long.

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The following is verbatim from Page 37 of the interrogation, punctuated just the way the FBI does it:

“HARDING said at the time that she did recall stopping at the Minit Mart, where GILLOOLY bought cigarettes. She said that after buying the cigarettes, GILLOOLY drove his pickup, with HARDING in it, south on Southeast 112th past ECKARDT’s house. HARDING stated that she did not know why GILLOOLY drove past ECKARDT’s house and said she did not remember GILLOOLY pulling over and stopping after driving south of ECKARDT’s house. HARDING stated they turned around, but she stated she does not recall where they went then.”

Clues, clues. So many clues.

And don’t you admire George Steinbrenner, that old fox? Such a huge athletic controversy simply had to have his shadow cross the action at some point, now didn’t it?

He’s guilty of nothing, of course. But he’s there, sure enough.

Harding told investigators that she received two $10,000 supporting grants from Steinbrenner, one in mid-December and another on Jan. 3. She used $3,100, possibly more for skates and costumes. ( That costume?) Ex-husband, manager, boyfriend, accuser Jeff Gillooly said he made one request to Steinbrenner for financial help. Gillooly asked, as he recalled, for $14,968. Steinbrenner rounded it down.

That money apparently financed all or part of the scatter-brained plot to disable Kerrigan. Gillooly’s attorney says the whole caper came down to about $5,000 or less.

The calls have already been placed, of that I am sure. Please put us through so we can ask Mr. Steinbrenner: Did you, sir, have the least hint that your generous support of this otherwise flat-broke young, troubled and promising figure skater would finance an attempt to change the outcome of Olympics and thereby poison amateur sports for years to come?

Click.

Everyone in Portland has a favorite among the misbegotten supporting cast of characters here.

For many, it’s Shawn Eckardt. In the breathless opening of the drama, he was described as Harding’s “350-pound” bodyguard. Then reporters got a grip. Eckardt suddenly shrunk to a 300-pound bodyguard.

Eckardt is important for several reasons. Foremost, he’s the goofiest and the least photogenic of anyone involved--with sleepy eyes, a blank face and a neck like an oil drum.

Eckardt, you may recall, is thought to be the middleman in the hi-jinks. He was the link between Gillooly and the accused thugs-for-hire Shane Stant and Derrick Smith.

Seems that Eckardt’s daydreams were more than a match for his tonnage. He had passed himself off among acquaintances as some sort of a young James Bond who had tangled with the terrorists of the world. But, OK, he would make time for his old pal Gillooly and help “take down a skater.”

According to attorney Hoevet, Eckardt more or less discounted any James Bond-style fee and “bet on the come” by taking on the assignment.

Wreak a little violence into the world of figure skating, and guess what? Skaters everywhere will be in a desperate search for bodyguards. Enter Shawn Eckardt, 26-year-old entrepreneur and proprietor World Bodyguard Services Inc. He would protect figure skating from himself. Economists call this creating a market for your services.

Who besides his lawyer calls Eckardt stupid?

Another favorite character is Norman Frink. He is the glowering prosecutor with the razor-cut hair and the limited vocabulary.

Several times a day he parades in front of the cameras--and in fairness, he could hardly avoid the cameras because they are stationed at every door of the courthouse. He is the man that knows it all and tells nothing, unless of course he is clandestinely behind the leaks that have left Portland knee-deep in the sour broth of rumor.

But who is to say? Not Norman. He is tormentor: He has all the turkey sandwiches but won’t feed the hungry mob scratching at this door.

At one court appearance, a crass wag bellowed out a question to Frink. “So who do you pick to play you?” As in, Skating on Thin Ice, The Movie.

Frink: Thin smile.

But sorry. Everybody in Hollywood prefers a speaking part these days, don’t they. Could even Clint Eastwood pull off a role as a man in a dark suit who says 250 times: “The investigation is continuing. . . . The investigation is continuing. . . . “

Are we making light of events? Yes, and about time, don’t you agree?

But not for long. As Frink explains: “The investigation is continuing.” The satellite dishes stay aimed at the heavens.

One more thing. Did I mention that garbage was in the news this week?

No, not that kind of garbage, but the real stuff as comes out of the dumpster. It seems the owners of the Dockside Saloon and Restaurant in North Portland have reported to the FBI that Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly’s household trash ended up in the restaurant’s dumpster. Among the reported contents: The stub of a check for $10,000 from the U.S. Figure Skating Assn., an envelope addressed to Gillooly from the Associated Press, a Detroit taxi receipt and handwritten notes “related to” the Nancy Kerrigan’s practice rink in South Dennis, Mass.

Is this a significant development? Does herein lie evidence? How did trash from the Gillooly-Harding residence in suburban Beavercreek end up behind a North Portland saloon? Just who picked through the restaurant dumpster to find this garbage? Why were they looking?

We don’t know. But everyone is after the story. Gotta go.


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