Tuesday, November 09, 2004

It is no secret that I am not a John Ashcroft fan, so the news that the attorney general will be leaving the Bush Administration met with my approval.
Having interviewed numerous politicians over the years, the ones that always made me suspicious of their motives were the ones who could not answer a straight question. No matter what question they were asked, these politicians would find some way to bring it back to whatever their talking point was for the day...even if the question had nothing whatsoever to do with that talking point.
In my book, John Ashcroft was the worst offender. During the times I interviewed him when he was serving in the U. S. Senate, I found these sessions to be largely a waste of time. Sometimes, if it were an election season, he would drop by The Carthage Press or Lamar Democrat office for a brief sitdown interview. Other times, I would get a few questions with him at some political function or after a parade or some other event. My time would have been better spent just having one of his aides drop off a campaign flyer. I would have received the same information in just one dose instead of having it repeated over and over to whatever question I asked.
Vice President Dick Cheney was pretty much the same way, though during my only encounter with him, he was just a former Secretary of Defense considering a run for the presidency. I could also place former Missouri Attorney General Bill Webster in that category. In fact, I would say I could get twice as much information from John Ashcroft than I could from Bill Webster.
Another one I would add to the list would be Missouri Governor Bob Holden, who was state treasurer when I interviewed him.
Thankfully, not all politicians believe they have to studiously avoid answering serious questions, even if it leads them away from their talking points.
At the top of the list of cooperative interview subjects I would put Ashcroft's long-time fellow U. S. Senator Kit Bond. Senator Bond always made every effort to answer any question I asked him. Rep. Ike Skelton is right up there with him and I never had any problems with Seventh District Congressman Roy Blunt, or any of the local state representatives such as Mark Elliott, Steve Hunter, Jerry Burch or Bubs Hohulin. Even though there were times when these gentlemen were not particularly happy with articles and columns I had written, but they always took my calls and honestly answered my questions.
I would put the late Governor Mel Carnahan somewhere in between. He always answered my questions honestly in the two or three times I interviewed him, but he sure never volunteered any information.
As interesting as my dealings with these elected national and state officials were, probably my most challenging run-ins with elected officials came on the local level. For the most part, city and county officials were easy to deal with, even on those occasions when I had to write something which didn't sit well with them.
One such occasion occurred in 1987, if memory serves, when Lamar contractor Steven Standley sued the Barton County Commission for not considering him for any bridge projects. During the course of the investigation, I was shown documents which indicated that Standley had fixed the wrong bridge. Well, I put that information in my article, but I also noted that the Commission had paid him $300 of taxpayer money for fixing the wrong bridge. The lawsuit was later dismissed, but what I remember most about that story was that both sides appeared to be satisfied with the way in which the stories were written. That doesn't happen often.
That wasn't quite the way it worked out when I was covering the Lockwood R-1 Board of Education in 1994 during a time in which Superintendent Jo Ann Berlekamp had come under siege. Her reign was so unpopular that the Community Teachers Association in Lockwood surveyed its membership and found that all except one thought she should be removed...and that one abstained from the voting.
I attended a board meeting, which was held in the library since there were too many people to fit into the superintendent's office. The open portion of the meeting lasted until about 11 p.m., then the meeting went into closed session. What the board didn't know was that the walls were paper thin and teachers (and this reporter) were leaning against the walls picking up every word of the discussion. Much of it went into the next day's Press. We ended up leaving that meeting at 3:30 a.m.
I had one other instance in which I extensively quoted from what an elected official said in a closed meeting. It happened at a Jasper City Council meeting during the era in which Fred Youngblood was mayor.
During a closed session, the mayor was loudly berating people and I liberally quoted from what he was saying. At the next council meeting, the mayor approached me and said, "Randy, I could sue you for writing about what goes on during a closed meeting.
I didn't get a chance to respond. City Attorney Tom Klinginsmith was standing right by the mayor and said, "No, you can't, Fred. You need to keep your voice down during those meetings."
That was the last I heard about a lawsuit.

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