“Six degrees of separation,” a theory developed in the 1960s, holds that everyone in the world connects to everyone else by no more than six people. For example, even though we have never met, I once met someone who met someone who met someone . . . who met you (eventually). Thus, by this concept, we are “connected in the chain” by no more than six people between us.
I don’t know if this notion has any validity, but it intrigues me because, according to it, I am only one degree from Marilyn Monroe and Rudolf Valentino; from Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt; from Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh; from Buffalo Bill and Chief Crazy Horse. On the darker side, just one person stands between me and Charles Manson, Al Capone, and Adolf Hitler. When it comes to “no degree of separation,” meaning the people I’ve met whose stories once populated the headlines, the list is endless. Their ranks include presidents (and the men they vanquished to win the White House), great political leaders in their day, movie stars, astronauts and sports legends. I had one friend who co-starred in Gone with the Wind, and another who danced with Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. I was “attacked” by an Indian who witnessed General Custer’s massacre at Little Big Horn; I’ve “sparred” with Muhammad Ali; I’ve played practical jokes on both the first man on the Moon and Pope John Paul II.
A congressman meeting famous people is no big deal; in fact, it goes with the turf. The difference between me and the other congressmen with whom I served is that I met most of the ones in this book when I was a kid, and I did it under very unlikely circumstances. No, they weren’t the friends of my wealthy or connected parents: I grew up as the illegitimate (and oldest) child of a single mom on welfare and food stamps in the hardscrabble Mission District of San Francisco. By the time I was a young boy, Mom was a convicted felon with three other kids. I dropped out of high school in the tenth grade and never went back to finish. I spent my teens hanging out with car thieves and dopers and thugs; I sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door to the local whorehouses; I bartended in various Hollywood strip clubs; I carried a gun, and sometimes I used it. How I went from this backdrop to university graduate, lawyer, state court judge, legislator, congressman, author, husband and father—instead of ending up on a police blotter or morgue slab—is a great story, but it’s not one for this book. You’ll have to dig up a copy of my 2004 work, Rough Edges: My Unlikely Road from Welfare to Washington to learn about that wild ride (but don’t read it if you’re faint of heart or easily offended!).
So how did I stay out of prison? The short answer is that as a young kid, and despite all the swirling dysfunction around me, I developed an insatiable appetite for history, government and politics. I dreamed that I could climb out of the old neighborhood and one day serve in Washington as a congressman. It took me 30 years of hard work, but I did it. Of course, once I got there, I made an absolute nuisance of myself by demanding that we respect the rule of law rather than the polls and the focus groups. It’s funny: voters always say they want politicians who will do what is right instead of what is popular—until they get it, and then they get mad at the guy who didn’t do what was popular! That’s another great story, and you’ll find it in my second book, Catching Our Flag: Behind the Scenes of a Presidential Impeachment.
This book is the story of the how that nuisance gene first manifested in me, and how I used it to foster a lifelong interest that changed my life forever (it even let me end up being a small player in history). By the way, a few of the stories in this new book were in my previous works, albeit in abbreviated form. I’m including them for two reasons: first, I can tell the story more completely here; and second, they’re just great stories worth retelling.
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Readers of my earlier books know I am at heart a political buff, a lifelong collector of campaign memorabilia, and (mostly) a wannabe-historian. I started meeting famous people to ask for advice (mostly politicians, but they covered the gamut of fame-dom) when I was twelve years old, and I brought my camera and notebook to memorialize each encounter. My photo albums and diaries over the last forty plus years cover the greats, the near-greats, and the formerly greats now long forgotten. They remained buried in storage until early 2013, when I became the last person in America to join a social networking site to keep in touch with family members (Memo to as-yet unborn readers in future generations: “social networking” was a prehistoric invention created during the digital Paleozoic Era designed for people to meet and chat with one another without meeting or chatting with one another the way God intended). Once I joined, my daughters urged me to pull out some of my old photo albums of pictures I took of famous people from decades past and post a sampling of them. After I started, friends and family emailed and asked me to share the stories that went with the pictures. I started doing this for a while, and—voila! Another book idea was born.
In writing this book, I read old diary entries I hadn’t seen since writing them—some more than forty years later. As one might expect, at times I found that the vivid stories I’ve told over the decades had more color than some hastily scrawled, bland, ancient notebook jottings. The dilemma: how to harmonize the dull written source and my storyteller’s memory? The 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, helped resolve the question. The movie opened with aging US Senator Ransom Stoddard (who built his career on the reputation he earned as a young lawyer in the Old West as the man who killed outlaw Liberty Valance) returning to the small town of Shinbone for the funeral of the town drunk. When the reporter from the Shinbone Star demanded to know why America’s most distinguished statesman came back for the burial of some old sauce-bag, the movie faded back to the past for the true story. The film ended with the senator confessing to the reporter that the drunk, and not he, killed Liberty Valance, and that the senator built his entire career on a lie. After hearing the confession, the reporter tore up his notes. When the senator asked why the reporter refused to write the true story, the reporter replied: “Senator, this here’s the West. And in the West, when truth conflicts with legend, we print the legend.”
Finally, a word to anyone present with me at any of the stories I recount in this book: if your version conflicts with mine, I recommend to you President Harry Truman’s account of growing up on a Missouri farm. His father brought young Harry to the local Democratic Party annual picnic, where by tradition Colonel Crisp (Truman described him as a colonel “by agreement”) ended the affair each year by standing on a picnic table and delivering an oratorical presentation of his Civil War experience at the Battle of Lone Jack. At one such picnic, after the colonel finished his tale, a soldier who actually fought at Lone Jack rose and gave a point-by-point contradiction of the colonel’s account. At the conclusion of the heckler’s outburst, Colonel Crisp spat out a reply to this attack on his veracity: “Goddamn an eyewitness! They always spoil a good story.”
Like old Colonel Crisp, when I’m invited to share recollections of famous people I’ve met or known, it takes little coaxing to get me to climb atop the picnic table. And, unlike that Shinbone Star reporter, I’ve done my best to be faithful to the truth over legend.