Jonathan Stone, the reporter in The Solomon Scandals, grilled me for this Q. & A.—uncut.
STONE: Why’s Scandals copyrighted in your name? Those are my newspaper memoirs.
ROTHMAN: Er, faux memoirs. Without me, you wouldn’t even have been born…or have worked for the Washington Telegram…or have struggled to avert an IRS-CIA building collapse…or lived through those quirky sex scandals…or the corruption and blackmail from the Oval Office…or the gossip columnist’s suicide…or the death of the sharklike editor in a car bombing…or your Hollywood directing career or—
ROTHMAN: But you’ve been dead for decades. Scandals is set mainly in the 1970s, but looks far beyond—via reflections from your great-grand niece at the Institute for Previrtual Studies. Besides, Afghans are dignified. I didn’t put this detail in the book, but Thackeray II speaks in a wonderful baritone with a mid-Atlantic accent. I wish he could do my radio interviews for me.
STONE: For latecomers, who’s this guy Solomon? And what was he doing on my book cover—in the first version of the book—with a building in his hand?
ROTHMAN: Because he’s the king of the landlords leasing office buildings to the General Services Administration, the government’s business agency. You might say he’s part of a crowd. A friend tears down row houses to make way for parking lots. The near-by homes go to pot, and then the Solomon crowd buys up the land for more high rises. You’re investigating Solomon. Is he based on someone in real life? Latecomers can read on.
STONE: So people will know, just how real is the Washington Telegram?
ROTHMAN: Very authentic in many of the details even though the Telegram is not the Washington Post or any other real-life newspaper. I worked on a daily newspaper for four years, and, beyond that, I benefited from the advice of James Polk, a Pulitizer winner for his Watergate coverage for the old Washington Star. Don’t blame Jim for any flaws in the book—he wasn’t constantly looking over my shoulder as I wrote. But, yes, he was a big help. I myself did my share of investigative journalism at the General Services Administration. I looked through 400 leases, including a rather minor one that GSA had with the Washington Star—for some warehouse space, I believe. Sen. Kennedy’s people were a big help on Freedom of Information matters.
Just keep in mind the S word, satire. Despite all the genuine details, the Telegram in many ways bears about the same relationship to actual newspapers as the Union Broadcasting System in Network did to CBS, ABC or NBC. That said, the Telegram is closer to reality than either UBS in Network or the Daily Beast in Scoop. My novel broaches a number of genuine issues, such as the influence of business and government on the contents of newspapers and TV networks.
STONE: So you’re antimedia?
ROTHMAN: Only when they deserve it. I hate to see investigative reporting cut back by the current ad drought. Talk about ways to make newspapers wimpier! I wonder if many newspapers today would give you the time to check out Seymour Solomon. Yes, you have your tangles with George McWilliams, the sharklike editor; and he is of mixed mind—about your investigating his pal . But at least the Telegram has the money and spends it.
Money. That’s the real issue here. I’m not sure what the solution is. Just how much downsizing can newspapers do? And you can’t instantly say good-bye to paper editions in most cases—not when Net-related parts of newspaper contribute so little revenue. Perhaps technology will help save newspapers, both in terms of individualized paper editions, and in terms of terms of better gizmos for reading them. See this YouTube video showing a new device from Plastic Logic. The Kindle and similar gadgets are just a hint of better machines to come.
STONE: But isn’t investigative reporting happening on the Internet. Look at Josh Marshall’s site.
ROTHMAN: Do you really think bloggers and the rest will have the same resources as the old media? Yes, small guys broke stories like My Lai. But I’m talking about sustained efforts. I don’t think that foundations like the Sandlers’ can bear the entire burden, and just as with regular newspapers, funders will have to isolate their private interests from the activities of the editors and reporters they’re financing. Nothing against good nonprofit efforts. The Fund for Investigative Journalism gave me grants to poke around GSA. But it wasn’t enough for permanent, day-to-day vigilance. At the local level let’s hope that media like VoiceofSanDiego can take off.
STONE: So did anything come of your investigations?
ROTHMAN: Actually yes, as my story about the late Sen. Abraham Ribicoff shows. Here’s a member of a GSA-related committee who held an investment of tens of thousands of dollars in a CIA-occupied building leased through GSA. And he hid behind a trustee and denied having any government-related investments. Then he continued his business relationship with the landlord involved on other properties. Jim Polk followed up on the NBC Nightly News and in the New Republic. That’s the GSA building itself in the photo.
STONE: How’d you start digging through those 400 leases and discover that Abraham Ribicoff was a hidden investor?
ROTHMAN: An acquaintance of a family friend thought that Ribicoff and the business people involved were too chummy, and I acted on the tip. No one up to then had actually documented Ribicoff’s role as an investor in a government leased building—he steadfastly denied it. I got Ribicoff’s lawyer, the one behind the “blind trust,” to confess; too bad the Senate ethics committee kept dozing on.
More positively, a congressional investigation resulted into the case of Missing Cafeteria—where a $500,000+ cafeteria went AWOL from the office building housing the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency. The lease called for one. But the cafeteria never materialized. The controlling owner was a well connected Maryland Republican who moved in Spiro Agnew‘s circles. I broke the story in Federal Times, and Bettina Gregory picked it up for a great little segment on the ABC Evening News.
Of course, as is often the case, no one got punished, just as no one does for the building collapse in Scandals. At least the investigators gave GSA (photo) a good scolding for being so lax about including the names of all partners in leases involving partnerships. It promised to do better. Would that I have time to follow up—and see if the bureaucracy has kept its word!
STONE: Didn’t you also write for the Washington Post about a guy named Solomon?
ROTHMAN: Joel Solomon, you mean—in a one-shot freelance piece: it wasn’t as if I were a Post regular. From the very start when I began the novel in the 1970s, I’d named my guy Solomon, and I wasn’t about to change it just because Jimmy Carter had the nerve to name a GSA administrator with the same last name. The Post in this instance was most emphatically not the Telegram in the Scandals novel. Susanna McBee on the National Desk was terrific and let me tell the whole story—namely that Carter had nominated a GSA landlord. In fairness to Carter and this Solomon, who is now dead, the ownership question could have cut both ways. Maybe Solomon’s GSA connections gave him more insight to fight corruption. But we still needed to get the matter on record. By the way, I doubt many people would have confused Joel with Sy. This Solomon came from Tennessee
STONE: So what do you think of GSA these days?
ROTHMAN: I love GSA. Again and again over the years, the scandals keep popping up—to help your memoirs transcend time. Check out my thoughts on the agency. Where else in government can you have people coming out against stricter safety standards for high rises, in the event of another 9/11? But as I say elsewhere, I’m rooting for the agency to enjoy a clean period under Obama. Fingers crossed!
STONE: Why do you make such a big deal of me being Jewish?
ROTHMAN: Great for the plot. Sy Solomon is a landsman, in a general way—an Eastern European Jew just like your maternal ancestors. If he were Buddhist, it might be a little less challenging for you to investigate him. Your father, descended from old German-Jewish stock, is asking the classical question, ‘Is it good for the Jews?" Understandably. Your parents came of age at a time when, for professional advancement, it was useful to change "Faberstein" to "Stone." The main period in Scandals is the 1970s, but in many ways Herb and Lydia are still living in the ’40s and ’50s. Newspaper life is the main show in the book. But along the way, Scandals turns out to be a Northern Virginia Jewish novel as well. Oh, a little more about your last name. I actually gave it to you in honor of I. F. Stone, but as you can see, there’s a little more to the story than that.
STONE: And of course there’s the bank angle.
ROTHMAN: Exactly. Herb Stone just happens to work for a PR and lobbying firm repping a bank that’s loaned millions to Solomon and friends. Elton King, Herb’s boss, isn’t shy about dropping not-so-subtle hints. King’s a goy with enough nerve to invoke the bad-for-the-Jews argument. And meanwhile the bank angle leads to the heart attack angle. You worry your father will have another one.
STONE: You researched the cardiac details a little too well.
ROTHMAN: Yep, I didn’t expect to be fact-checking the medical scenes while in an ICU after a quad bypass. Three cheers for Dr. Rhee and his team at Inova Alexandria Hospital. They made this Web site possible through the simple act of keeping me alive.
STONE: What about the building collapse? You really had two professors advising you?
STONE: I can’t decide: are we speaking or e-mailing. I mean, do you really talk in hyperlinks?
ROTHMAN: Who cares, Stone? That’ll just have to remain one of the mysteries of the Web.
ROTHMAN: So your latest insults have aged me that quickly?
STONE: And I’m far more into the outdoors than you are. Why isn’t my photo up there? That way, the mountain background would be honest. Look, maybe I should be doing your publicity for you. Forget about Thackeray.
ROTHMAN: But never about you, eh? It takes a certain amount of ego to do investigative reporting. If nothing else, you’ve aced that part.
(Note: This page was started in November 2008. I made some tweaks on November 16, 2010.)