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Missing our Meds
WITH lordly disdain for legitimate citizen inquiry, Stafford County Supervisor Cord Sterling recently tried to stick a Freedom of Information Act filer with a $1,240 bill based on the salary of Sterling's well-paid day job. I gather it is one in which he calls the officers of Fortune 500 companies "Sam" and "Bob."
The haughty supervisor--I picture him with a "von" in his name, squinting through a monocle--explained that he would have to hire a lawyer or take a vacation day to comb his personal email account for the requested information. The solicitous Sterling also noted that county staff had "better things to do" than track down official messages sought under the auspices of the Virginia code.
I should not have been surprised by such casual arrogance, hardly offset by Sterling's plan to turn over the FOIA fee to county schools. In my native West Virginia, after all, one-party rule produced frequent excesses. Just as no Democrats serve on the seven-member Stafford Board of Supervisors, no Republicans mottled most of the Mountain State's public bodies of my greener days. This absence of bipartisan vigilance helps explain why elective office in West Virginia was often a stopover en route to the Big House.
Partisan monopoly was just one of the subjects I inadvertently studied as a reporter in Lincoln County, where at a county weekly I learned more about government in two years than elsewhere in 10. The handful of county Republicans, good-natured about their impotence, jokingly claimed affiliation with the unspecified "Other Party."
Every elected county position was held by a Democrat--ironic in a county named for Honest Abe--but official arrogance, much less corruption, rarely surfaced. This was partly because the Democrats had factionalized--one set supported Jay Rockefeller, the other some now-forgotten rival--creating a de-facto two-party system with mutually wary watchdogs.
The politicos of Hamlin, the county seat, were exceedingly nice, a quality that influences reporters who would angrily spurn an outright bribe. George Johnson, the chairman of the county commission, gave me my first taste of authentic moonshine in a Washington hotel room. The occasion for this deflowering was a trip by several county nabobs to see the state's two senators and a congressman. It was a memorable three days, despite the moonshine.
The local pols wanted to complain to the D.C. delegation in the flesh about foreign-born radicals--rabble-rousers from places like Ohio--who were using federal funds under Jimmy Carter to sue them left and right in quest of the lefties' idea of social justice. Admittedly, "Democrat" roughly translates in West Virginian to "Republican." But it was with little hyperbole that the conservative county pols called the agents of APPALReD--the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund--"Red apples." I was along to report on the Capitol Hill meetings.
We left Charleston by plane and flew into the biggest snowstorm since the Kennedy Inaugural. Redirected to the Baltimore airport, we took a van into Washington. Outside its window, like a scene from some swirling white apocalypse, the Beltway was littered with cars that had simply been abandoned by their occupants.
Conversation facilitated by mountain dew took up the following evening. At any rate, I saw a different side of the officials I sometimes interrogated in my news-hound role. To a man, they were World War II vets. The drinking and the cards and the stories were all very pleasant, and I felt grateful to be included in their circle.
George Johnson died of a massive heart attack just before I left Lincoln County. He was succeeded as county Democratic chairman by Rockefeller's No. 1 fixer in the county, the deliciously named Wylie Stowers, who on the Washington trip peeled a couple of twenties off a roll and passed them my way when the blizzard added an unscheduled extra day to our pilgrimage. At the time I owned a canary-yellow Ford Pinto, two suits, and no credit card. I appreciated the meal money, which over Stowers' protests I repaid.
Newsies like to stick unflattering labels on certain politicians--"hack," "machine pol," "hanger-on." But in Lincoln County I sat in the office of a man who might have been described in these terms and watched him take off his glasses and weep as he told of a soldier who died in his arms in a foxhole.
Like George Johnson and Wylie Stowers, he is dead now. Fried food, cigarettes, and male hearts aren't normally a combination that produces octogenarians. These fellows were party men all the way, but I doubt any of them would have charged even a Red apple twelve-hundred bucks for publicly entitled information.
FALL FROM GRACE
The last two popes have been Polish and German. But the Sons
In my part of West Virginia, Italian girls were almost as exotic as Suzie Wong. Then came college. Had I worn a bow tie at Marshall University, a couple of slim, olive-skinned, dark-haired beauties would have made it spin. Like Leonard Bernstein's "Maria," the name "Grace Cherico" was music playing.
Now, downbreeding with Anglo-Saxons, the herdlike preference of younger women for the hair color known as Britney blond, and fast food have all but eliminated such lovely visions from the American viewshed. Worse, however, are the species' newer personifications: Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Snooki, three of the most wretched slatterns on the planet, are all of Italian extraction.
Armed with Jurassic Park technology, it is not stegosauruses I would be resurrecting.
Paul Akers is editor of the opinion pages