The Bell Curve: The chill of the press

It's been rather disquieting during the past two weeks to see my name in large black type on the front page of the Los Angeles Times almost daily. Rather as if they finally caught up with me and now the world is learning the grim details of my life in the cryptic language of headlines.

My name is short and fits well into tight spaces. It also has created a lifetime of high visibility in front rows, most notably in lecture classes at the University of Missouri, where I sat for two years beside a girl named Virginia Bell. She wore stockings on test days because the answers — supplied by her sorority — were conveniently tucked underneath them. My grades suffered on test days because my attention was divided.

But I digress. The astonishing performance of that pirate crew in the city of Bell carried me back to a similar situation many years ago. I was home from the war and working at a job I mostly hated. I was writing feverishly on the side but I couldn't cash rejection slips to support the wife and son I had acquired, so the perils of freelancing seemed hopelessly beyond my reach. We lived in the Chicago suburb of LaGrange, the same size but with a quite different constituency than Bell.

But LaGrange offered similar temptations for exploitation, which I often heard about during cocktail party conversations with a teacher of social studies at a nearby junior college. So it wasn't surprising to me when a group of local citizens persuaded him to run for mayor and clean out a group of good ole boys who had been running — and exploiting — the town for many years. He won handily, and I saw a lot less of him after he became mayor, but the reports I heard were all positive.

So I was surprised when, a year into his reign, he called me for lunch and unloaded on me. He said that in order to run his city, he had gone through progressive stages of shock, disillusionment, anger, and resolution to, finally, acceptance of a certain degree of expedience that could be seen as "corruption." And an inflexible attitude toward these lesser degrees could and probably would result in getting nothing done for the citizens of the community.

"In short," he said, "I've learned to compromise with the tough school of professional politics."

As he talked, I could see the magazine article emerging. Surely the Saturday Evening Post — the Holy Grail for magazine writers — would be interested. But I needed examples, anecdotes, characters. My enthusiasm lit up the mayor, and we met many times to flesh out the story. The Post had rejected an outline of the piece but said they would read a finished copy. That was enough to keep our enthusiasm fired up. In the process of providing material for me to write a provocative article, the mayor laid down some useful insights about local government.

First, he said, the success of a political aspirant is in direct proportion to the efficiency of his organization and the number of active workers he has. Second, any reform movement is suspect on the face of it and must be put into office by the independent vote alone — and the reform candidates tend to overestimate the intelligence of this independent group. And third, a large segment of the voting public secretly admires the public official who can beat the system and get away with it.

To the question of why people get into local government, which — in most cases, but surely not Bell — is poorly paid and demanding of personal time, the mayor suggested five things that motivate a citizen to seek public office. First comes legitimate remuneration, followed by civic responsibility, personal aggrandizement, stepping stone to better political things, and, finally, graft.

Graft, he said, must be separated into two distinct classifications, "legal" and "illegal." "Legal graft" is a customary but unethical form of pocket padding, which is more or less expected of public officials as part and parcel of the office and is offered as a matter of routine business expense. The town official who serves as an agent for the insurance required for its public structures and services is an example. "Buying off" inspectors whose job it is to see that proper materials and competent workmanship go into public construction is a flagrant example of "illegal graft" that is a constant drain on public funds.

There is much more, but these two examples catch the flavor of the mayor's story, which I sent off to The Post. Because I was unknown to them, the piece went into an over-the-transom pile of unsolicited manuscripts where the odds in favor of publication were virtually zero. But we beat the odds. The piece worked its way up to The Post editor, Ben Hibbs, whose letter of acceptance and offer of $1,500 marked the beginning of a new career that has served me and my family for almost 60 years.

There was, however, one hitch. The Post was willing to accept the "anonymous" label for both the writer and the town, but insisted on meeting the mayor before publishing the story I had ghosted for him. They were prepared to send an editor to Chicago for that purpose and would pay the mayor the same amount I received.

But the mayor suddenly and unaccountably developed a severe case of cold feet.

No argument — including one from his attorney — could change his mind, and my new high turned into a new low.

But there was a payoff after all. A few weeks after we gave up on the mayor, I was sitting in Ben Hibbs' office going through some new outlines I was pushing.

He approved one, and it was written, bought and published.

Hereinafter, they knew me.

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