Interviewee: Carl Hiaasen
Interviewer: Julian Pleasants
Date: May 21, 2001
P: This is May 21, 2001, and I am in Islamorada with Carl Hiaasen. Carl, talk about
your time at the University of Florida and your journalism studies.
H: Well, I'd transferred there in the fall of 1973 from Emory University, where I was
an English literature major. I'd wanted badly to get into the journalism program. I
knew I wanted to go into newspapers at the time, and Emory didn't have a
journalism program. Florida had one with a good reputation, and so I transferred
there. I started doing some columns for the Alligator, political, kind of satirical
columns, which I'd also done at Emory for the newspaper at Emory called the
Emory Wheel. I don't know if the columns at that time would've qualified as
journalism, but they appeared on the Op Ed page a couple times a week in the
Independent Alligator. That was coinciding with my immersion in the journalism
curriculum for the first time. It was, I think, the best move I've ever made, in
terms of being right-off-the-bat inspired. I think I started out having some bizarre
notion that I wanted to write for television, and I was taking some broadcasting
classes the first semester. I also had a writing class with Jean Chance, one of the
early 201 or one of [University of Florida's] early writing classes. At the end of it, I
remember she took me aside and said, you really don't want to go into
broadcasting; you'll be frustrated, you'll not really get to write what you want to
write, and you're really better suited for newspaper work. Of course, she was
right. I mean, I was interested in broadcasting just because I saw it as the media
of the future, that you would reach a lot more people, but the writing, of course,
was extremely frustrating for the amount of time and, you know, the compressed
nature of it. So I took her advice, and it was the best thing I ever did, I think.
P: What impact did Buddy Davis have on your career?
H: He was tremendous. I do not know anybody in the business who [had] Buddy
Davis [and] wasn't profoundly affected by working with him. Opinion writing was
the course-I think that's what it was called at the time. It was a jarring experience
for those of us who were used to regular college classes where you just sort of
sat in and you pretty much knew what your grade was going to be. With Buddy,
what he taught you was, if you're going to have the audacity to write an opinion
piece, editorial column, whatever it happened to be, you better get off the fence,
you better write what you say, you better have a target and say what you need to
have, what needs to be done to fix the problem you're writing about, and hit
home, have your research and your facts right. I mean, he was a stickler. Of
course, all of us remember the brutal experience. You would submit your piece of
writing to Buddy, and he graded it. You would get back a cassette. It was Buddy
giving you an oral grade. You had to go into a little cubicle, and at that time, the
journalism school was under the stadium in dingy little offices and classrooms.
You had to sit there and listen, put the headsets on-a big old-fashioned tape
recorder-and listen to this cassette where Buddy would just sort of [give] a
running monologue, a running critique, of your editorial piece that you'd written.
At the very end of it, he would lay your grade on, you'd hear the grade, and it
would be, you know, your teeth would be chattering, you'd be trembling in your
chair, and you'd be thrilled as punch if it was anything above a C, you just did
cartwheels on your way out the door. But he drilled it into you. Some kids hated
it, and they didn't make it through there, but that was his whole point, was that if
you're serious about being in the business, you got to be serious about
expressing yourself in a way that people can understand it and backing it up with
facts. I think all of us left with an appreciation for how to be tough. I mean, there's
nothing to this day more aggravating than to pick up, all over the country, when I
travel, an editorial page and read a newspaper's editorial on a subject and not
have the faintest idea where they stand at the end of the editorial, and you can
tell it was a committee decision and you can tell it was a committee writing job.
You aren't doing anybody any service by that, and that was Buddy's point, is that
this is an important privilege that you have, this opportunity to address the
readers of your publication. You should use it to say what you think and deal with
important issues, and if you can't make up your mind about something, you
[have] no business writing about it. To this day, a lot of editorial writers have
trouble with that idea, that they don't want the phone to ring in the morning, they
don't want the letters to come in. I think Buddy would tell them what he told all of
us: you're getting into the wrong business. Go do something else.
P: You've never had that problem.
H: Well, you know, it isn't easy. I mean, I've always been opinionated, and there's a
lot about what's going on in Florida that always angered me. I never had any
trouble finding the energy or the enthusiasm or the emotion to write, but there's
a very specific discipline that goes with that and some people don't have it. You
can have all the right passion in the world and all the right feelings in the world,
but if you can't express yourself or you can't win people over or at least get your
idea across in a way that they understand, then it all goes to waste. But that's
true for almost all kinds of writing. I mean, a novelist who can't keep readers
turning the page, he may be as gifted as it comes in the use of the English
language and descriptive abilities and his imagination, but if you can't tell a story,
you're out of business. It is the same with writing a newspaper story. If you're
writing about the big garbage-fee dispute in Rockledge, Florida, which I had to
cover, one of my first stories out of college, and if you don't understand how the
garbage rates are levied and you can't write a story that makes it important to
everybody who lives in Rockledge, you can't write a lead that makes them all
want to read about it, then you haven't done your job, you've failed at your job.
Gene Miller, the great reporter for the Herald who won two Pulitzer Prizes and
who I had the privilege of working with on a number of projects and sitting beside
in the newsroom, always liked to say, there are no bad stories, there are just bad
reporters who can't write the stories. That's hyperbole, but his point was, if you
do the work, you can turn almost anything into a readable piece, something that
reaches out to the readers who ought to be concerned about it. It's easy to write
dough. It's hard to write things that people .... You're competing nowadays,
even more so than when I came out of school. Now, you're competing with the
Internet and you're competing with a jillion cable TV channels, you're competing
with all kinds of printed media, magazines that you didn't have to worry about.
Newspapers should be more interesting now than they were. They should be
better written and more creatively put together now than they were twenty-five or
thirty years ago, and they aren't. For the most part, they aren't. They're dumbed
down. That was their solution to the competition, was to make it dumber, and
they're missing quite a bit, in my opinion.
P: Talk a little bit about your experience on the Alligator. I wanted to read one
quotation from you: "Writing columns for the Alligator was a piece of cake. We
had Nixon in the White House. Each day provided a wonderful new atrocity. It
was a splendid opportunity for a columnist to learn the value of contempt,
ridicule, and satire. It gave me a pile of newspaper clippings that continue to
scare the hell out of editors years later."
H: It did. I was in an unusual position, because I'd never worked really as a reporter.
I was just in college, and I was writing these opinion columns that they were
printing. Of course, my idea was that I could go right out of college and be a
columnist, which is absurd and would have been the worst thing in the world for
me, but because the columns were well-received in Gainesville and the
university, I thought about it. I still think some of them are pretty funny, but,
again, the material was priceless. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. You had
[Henry] Kissinger [Nixon's national security advisor and diplomat]. You had the
charade of the [Vietnam War] peace negotiations going on and bombing
Cambodia. Then you had, of course, Watergate, which is what got a lot of us into
the business to begin with, that era. I mean, it coincided. One of my first
assignments the very year I got out of the University of Florida and went to work
P: That was 1974?
H: Right. Three months later, or four or five months later, Richard Nixon is resigning
after Watergate, after the third-rate burglary that nobody was supposed to pay
attention to. It was an extraordinary time to be at that age in America, with the
war grinding down and there were still kids being killed, and coming out of the
era of assassinations of Bobby Kennedy [JFK's brother and U.S. Attorney
General; Democratic candidate for president in 1968 at the time of his death],
Martin Luther King [civil rights leader], and John F. Kennedy [U.S. president
1960-1963]. You had all that happening. Kent State [where there was a shooting
of student protesters by Ohio National Guard members] was still fresh in
everybody's mind. It was a very dynamic time, and it was a good time to be
writing edgy, irreverent, satirical, and sometimes sophomoric stuff. There was an
audience for it, there was an appetite for it, and certainly the way a lot of the
country plugged into a lot of the cynicism that was inevitable in that time. I mean,
we had a crook in the White House. It doesn't get any worse than that. We had a
guy who was ordering and approving and paying for burglaries and breaking into
people's psychiatrist's offices [a reference to Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon
analyst who leaked the famed Pentagon Papers regarding the Vietnam War].
You know, it makes you laugh years later when you hear these droolers get up
and talk about what an evil person Bill Clinton was and comparing that whole
thing to Watergate. It is absurd. These people must have been under a rock
during Watergate. We're talking about high crimes in Watergate, the destruction
of incriminating evidence, the eighteen-minute gap on the tape [reference to
erased Oval Office tapes from Nixon's presidency]. Every day, there was
something new. It wasn't like I had to search very far for the material. But I think,
and I got the same reaction in Gainesville that I think I would later get in Miami
when I started the column here, in that it was funny that people just weren't used
to it. To me, it seemed a natural voice to write in. It was the way I looked at the
world, the way I saw what was happening. It seemed to me perfectly reasonable.
Satire, and sometimes a kind of lacerating form of satire, was the perfectly
natural way to go at corruption and evil and the misdeeds of politics and all that.
But there were people it made very uncomfortable, very nervous. I like to think it
was all the things that Buddy Davis taught us and others at [journalism] school,
that you have this great privilege and you have this responsibility, the least you
can do is say what you think and take the flak for it, take the heat for it. There are
always going to be people who just disagree with you, but there's no sin in
disagreement and there's no sin in getting people talking about something
controversial. Even when I started the column at the Herald, there was a high
degree of nervousness about it. We had a great columnist named Charlie
Whitehead, who, for many years, wrote five a week, which is Herculean; I don't
know how he did it. But Charlie had a different personality. He was much gentler,
folksier. He could rip off a good, tough column, but Charlie was just a real nice
guy. When Charlie and I started alternating columns, my voice was a rather stark
contrast. I wasn't always a nice guy, especially if you were caught with your hand
in the piggybank and you were a politician, you know, your day was ruined if you
read one of my columns about you, and they weren't used to that. It made them
nervous for the first couple years, I think. Now, of course, it isn't that way any
longer. But I remember in Gainesville, the first few columns, Randy Bellows was
my editor-he's now an attorney somewhere-and he stood up for me, but there
was a degree of, well, isn't this a little tough, isn't this a little nasty? To me, it was
always simple. If they didn't like it and they didn't want to run it, I wasn't going to
force it. I wasn't going to make a scene or throw myself down and weep and cry,
but I thought for an independent college newspaper.... Because we certainly
had the conservative voices in that paper as well. They certainly needed one on
the other side. There [were] plenty of conservative defenders of Nixon, even
defenders of the war at that point. Even though it was in the winding-down of the
[Vietnam War], there was still that around. It wasn't, by any stretch, a purely
liberal publication. I mean, the editorial positions tend to be liberal, but in terms of
the Op Ed page, you could find whatever you wanted to, and that's all you can
ask of a newspaper, is to throw as many different voices in as you can.
P: Did you ever have any pressure from the administration?
H: No. I mean, I would hear things, that they didn't like certain things, but I never got
any pressure. I would've welcomed it, of course. That would've been great,
because it wouldn't have bothered me. You always like to think that you're hitting
some sort of target. You hate to think you're firing into a vacuum. Honestly, and
this is going to sound really odd, I really tried to work hard at making the columns
funny, so that even if people didn't necessarily agree with me, the humor was
there. That's because it's a very hard thing to be funny about serious subjects,
it's one of the toughest things you can do, but I enjoyed making people laugh.
That's certainly the same motivation for the novels, is that I enjoyed seeing
[people] entertained by something I wrote. That was the biggest high I'd ever
experienced, walking around that campus and having people I never knew,
professors, people I didn't know, stop me and saying they liked the column I
wrote. It just knocked me on my butt every time somebody said they'd even read
it. Because you don't know, you think you're writing in a vacuum. It was such a
bigger campus than Emory, [and] the experience was so different. I don't know
what the student body was when I was at Florida. It was 25,000, 26,000, I'm
guessing. I don't recall. But Emory was a very small school at the time by
comparison, and it was also a lot of graduate, med school, theology, things
where you didn't have a lot of interaction. So I never knew who was reading it or
not when I was at Emory, but when I got to Florida and started getting this
reaction, wow, this isn't bad. The letters started coming in, and I don't know why I
was surprised, but I was. But I remember it was such a big high, to be told that
something made them laugh. Still, to this day, those are the best letters I get
about both the columns [and the books]. Then my favorite columns are the ones
that are funny as well as poignant. It was always something. I think it goes back
to when I was in grade school and I was the wise-ass in class. If I could get a
laugh out of the class, even if I knew I was going to get in trouble for it, I would
still take the shot. I think it's probably something that simple.
P: Looks like you developed your writing style very early.
H: Yeah, I guess. Again, I tell people it isn't so much a style as it's my voice, the
honest voice that I go through life with. It's the same, very similar, to the
narrative voice of the heroes and heroines of the novels I write. It's the way I
look at the world. It's very hard for me to divorce myself, even in fiction, from my
point of view about certain things. It's so strong. At a very, very young age, I held
very strong points of view, right or wrong. It seemed to me it's such a natural
way for me to do it. It isn't a stretch. It isn't something I had to work at. The most
difficult time after I got out of school, and I was at Cocoa for a couple years, and I
came to the Herald and I worked magazines and general assignment, and then I
got on the investigations team, where, of course, you're heavily-edited and
heavily-lawyered. Every shred of subjectivity is beaten out of that work, and it has
to be, because you're dealing with many cases [with] high libel potential. You're
dealing with serious allegations against people. So then you're a grown-up, and
then you're being completely, you know, I don't want to use the word sterile,
because you can still write a good, strong investigative piece. You're disciplined
and trained to take yourself out of every sentence in that story. Your point of view
should be the last thing that hits the readers, but you should still be able to make
a strong point. So I went from that experience for a couple of years, where it was
almost a clinical detachment. You could be in even the worst scandal and your
adrenaline was going, because you knew you were onto something if it was a
particular level of corruption or you had a good story or something, but when you
sat down to write, you wrote with the view that they aren't going to know anything
about how I feel. Then you go from that to saying, how would you like to try a
column? It's like having handcuffs cut off. All of sudden, I have to flash back to
my time at Gainesville and try to remember how to say what I think, to write. It's a
completely different muscle that you're using when you're writing opinion, as
opposed to writing investigations, or magazine pieces even. So that was the
biggest adjustment, was that I'd been away from it for so long. It had been, well, I
got out of school in 1974 and I started the column in 1985, so it was like eleven
years I hadn't done that kind of writing. I was just starting to write, at that point, I
was about halfway into Tourist Season, which is the first novel I tackled on my
own, that I was going to have my name on all by myself. The hero of that novel
was this deranged newspaper columnist. Everyone thought that I had modeled it
on myself, but the truth was I had started the book while I was still on the
investigations [team]; I hadn't even started the column yet. I always tell people, if
anything, I modeled myself after Skip Wiley [character from Hiaasen's Tourist
Season], not the other way around. But that was a hard thing, because it was just
all of a sudden, okay, it's a completely different job, and that job is, we want you
to do this column, we want you to say exactly what you think about things, and if
you raise a little hell, fine. I mean, that was what the pitch was. Then when it
started happening, everybody got a little, ooh, not that much hell. But that didn't
last. I mean, they got used to it. Then it was easy enough to get back and say
what I thought. Any time you sit down and say, I think I'm going to write
something funny, it's the hardest thing in the world. I think if you spoke with
Dave Barry [syndicated humor columnist], who's a good friend of mine and one
of the funniest guys on the planet, and funny in person as well, he's also the
hardest-working guy I've ever known, and he agonizes and bleeds over every
line. Almost anybody can write narrative, straight narrative, or, in the case of
newspapers, can cover an event competently and make it fairly interesting, but if
you say, I'm going to set out to be funny, and not just funny but currently funny,
topically funny, sharp, it's hard to do. It's very easy to fall flat on your face, and
it's a very hollow feeling when you do, when you know that your line, you know,
you worked on a line, you think it makes it, and then you look at the column in the
paper and you cringe and say, God, I didn't pull it off, it didn't work. It's the most
challenging, I think, kind of opinion writing to do. That's why it keeps it fresh.
P: There's a very fine line between satire and cynicism. How do you draw that line?
H: I always tell people, they say, well, you're so cynical, and you're such a cynic. I
say, well, a true cynic is a person who doesn't think there's any hope, and if I
were a true cynic, I wouldn't be wasting my breath, or all those dead trees that
we publish the Miami Herald with, to bother putting a column in the paper. As
long as there's a tiny little spark of outrage out there somewhere in the public
waiting to be kindled into something bigger, then you got to keep writing. A cynic
is someone, I think, who gives up, says to hell with it. There isn't a day that goes
by, especially living down here in the Keys and watching it change as radically as
it has, where I don't think to myself, this is a lost cause, it's time to bail out, or it's
time to bail out of Florida; we aren't getting better, we're getting worse. All it
takes is watching the legislature in session, and you get that stomach-churning
feeling that it's all a lost cause. But then you also see things happening. In the
letters I get from folks all over the state who are standing up finally and saying,
we've had it with this stuff and we aren't going to let them get away with it here;
we saw what they did in Miami, we saw what they did in Key West, wherever it is.
They may lose most of the battles, but they will win every now and then. And
then what do you do? Do you walk away from those folks and say, to hell with it,
quit trying? No, you can't do that. So, I don't see myself as a cynic. Certainly,
satire has a cynical note to it. When you hear a politician give the most
cockamamie story to explain something atrocious that they've done, he would
look at the columnist and say, you're just being cynical, and I say, no, I'm being
skeptical. After this many years, I would hope that I have some kind of instinct for
when somebody is lying. That's one thing, people say journalists are so cynical.
They're not cynical necessarily; they're skeptical, because they've spent most of
their careers being lied to. That's a fact. That's what we do, day in and day out.
We go to the mayor and we say, why did your friend get this contract, and he
says, it's just a coincidence. That's a lie. Now the newspapers and the reporters
can't call it a lie, but I can certainly, in a column, cast grave doubt on the veracity
of that statement. If you get your facts right and you dig in a little bit, a lot of times
it is just a question of connecting the dots, I call it for the reader. I don't have to
get angry, get up on a soapbox. I see everyone saying, how did this happen? I
say, I'll show you how it happened; follow the ball. And then it turns out to be
right. Not that I'm any great sage, I'm not, but after enough years, you see the
pattern and you see how these things work, and you know how government
works, even at the tiniest level, smallest-town level. You're nuts if you aren't
skeptical, but I don't see it as saying, well, the whole country is corrupt. I think
there's a huge, especially in the state of Florida, I call it this great engine of
greed that has always been a dominating force in Florida. But the interesting
thing that happens with that is, the momentum builds to develop and exploit
every square-foot of this place, because it's a gorgeous and a very unique state.
But, also, the more people who come swarming in, you get a lot of people who
came here looking for a particular green, and they get here and they look around
and they say, this isn't what we had in mind, or I have my little piece of paradise
and now they're going to pave it, and this isn't why I came all the way from New
Jersey or Chicago or Sacramento or Bogota or Port-au-Prince or wherever it
happens to be, and you get some of those people just standing up and fighting.
You say to yourself, they've seen a glimmer of this place and they care about it
enough that they're going to stay here and fight. Well, I can't walk away from it.
That's what a cynic would do, just walk away.
P: A lot of critics say that journalists have abdicated their responsibility. William
Greider [journalist] said that reporters were often good on the facts, but weak on
H: Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. But I don't think it is anything new. I think
reporters today are more astute than they were fifty or sixty years ago. They're
more intrepid than they were. They're more dogged. They're better educated.
There was much more, in the old days, a fraternity that evolved, which was pretty
much laid bare by the Boys On The Bus, Timothy Crouse writing about the
McGovern-Nixon campaigns. Very weak on the truth. Very good on the facts, but
very weak on the truth. There's this fraternity that develops. It's natural. It's like
you're on a basketball team traveling together, and you're all cozy. The best
reporting about the White House generally ends up being done by people who
don't have the White House as a beat. The White House reporters in the
Washington Post didn't break the Watergate story. If memory serves, they were
somewhat resentful of these two city-side reporters [Bob Woodward and Carl
Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story]. Not their fault, it's just a natural
human nature. [Those] who get elected to office for the most part are likeable,
men and women both. They're politicians; their job is to be liked, and so it's hard
not to like them. That's why I keep such a distance. I know very, very few of
them, even here in Islamorada. I mean, Islamorada is a small town, so I knew
them before they were the village councilmen or something. But I don't hang out
with them, I don't fraternize with them, because I never know when I'm going to
have to write that tough column about them. Jeb Bush is probably a nice guy; I
don't know, and I don't really want to know. I have to judge him as I judge
anybody else. I'm proud of the fact that Lawton Chiles could be just as angry with
me one day as he was happy the next by a certain column and that I managed to
piss off everybody at one time or another. It just means I'm doing my job. The
danger now, that we didn't have, I don't think, a long time ago, and I don't think
this has anything to do with the war or anything else, I mean, Greider comes from
the generation that, you know, Cy Hirsch and all these heavy-hitters who came
out of a generation where you had a whole government stitched together on lies,
and on a daily basis. They would lie to you about how many boys died in Vietnam
that day. What more despicable lie is there than that, that Johnson or Nixon or
whoever was making? So, naturally, you've got that attitude. Now it's a much
more comfortable life. Although newspapers are shrinking and people are being
laid-off and quality is certainly not what it used to be, the fact is we aren't
really...the biggest thing we're wrestling: what's the Dow Jones doing today?
Oops, there's something nasty going on in the Middle East. Say what you will,
but Bill Clinton left office and left this country, I mean, there's nobody dying in
Haiti, there's nobody dying in Somalia, no Americans right now, the level of public
concern, we're much more a self-absorbed society than we were in the 1960s
and even in the 1950s, I think. Now it's much more celebrity-driven. Now, you
pick up the paper and you can find much more news about Madonna [pop singer]
than you'll ever find about the Nobel Prize winner for science or for genetics or
whatever, for the cancer treatments. That's the public appetite. I'm not sure that
the blame goes entirely to journalists for that, but I do think there are plenty of
important things that aren't covered well. This is going to sound like a typical
reporter. I don't lay it on the reporters so much as I do on the editors and the
management of newspapers, because good investigative reporting costs money,
and many, many times you get to the bottom and you have a dry hole. You've
spent thousands of dollars, and you've got nothing to put in the paper, and there
aren't any newspapers today that are willing to eat that kind of expense. Their
solution has been in many cases to disband the investigative team or poach from
it to the extent that they don't have the same number of full-time reporters. I think
these decisions are trickling down, and then you take the steam and the heart of
the reporters themselves if you don't let them go out and do their jobs.
P: Has the Miami Herald done that?
H: To some extent, although the great thing about being in Miami is that the news
won't let you do that; the news won't let you abdicate that responsibility, because
one scandal is on the heels of another scandal all the time. You can't ignore it,
you have to dispatch resources morally, you have to do it. There are places
that don't have the bizarre and constant news flow that we have, where it is very
easy to just forget about your investigative team and you have them pulled off to
cover this and cover that daily stuff. Here, we could have an investigative team
ten times as large as we do now, and they would all be busy. My view is that we
have way too few people doing this kind of work. But they will never be able to
shut it down, because the nature of news and the preponderance of corruption
down here just won't let them. We'd get embarrassed if we didn't have somebody
looking at police shootings that've been going on in Miami upon our black men.
We get embarrassed and humiliated when and if the indictments come out if we
have nothing to put in the paper except the press release. So this isn't a town
where you get away with doing that, but sadly, in many places in Florida as well
as all around the country, they curtail a lot of that effort. We went through the
happy face of newspapering for awhile, what we used to call Jell-O Journalism,
soft journalism, because it is easy. Nobody writes you any letters-here's the
mayor cutting a ribbon, here are the kids on the first day of school. Instead of
putting hard news in the paper, you take it softer. But we went through our phase
of that, we certainly did, at the Herald. Readers didn't like it, despite what they
said in the focus groups. They didn't want to read more church news, I'm sorry to
say. The circulation didn't sky-rocket when we vastly increased our coverage of
the religious community. What people say they want to read and what they read
are two different things. We went through a period where we went from having a
Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter, Edna Buchanan, and extensive and
exhaustive crime coverage. To be fair, we had an enormously high murder rate
back in those days. We went through a period where it was perceived that we
had too much crime. The Chamber of Commerce was, we're scaring people off,
we're overblowing the crime, we're exaggerating it. As any company can do, they
found some focus groups of alleged readers who told them that. Gee, you got too
much crime, too much negative news. I can put together a focus group that
would tell you just the opposite, but the Herald spent untold sums of money doing
it, so we went to this phase where crime wasn't covered as thoroughly. And
guess what? The next group of focus groups said, what happened to all your
police coverage? Then we scrambled back the other direction. Here's what I
always equate it to, something very simple. If you and I are sitting right here now
and we can see the highway, and three ambulances and five police cars went
screaming down the road, we'd walk out to the road to see what happened. This
is my neighborhood, I have kids here, I want to know what's going on. As a
newspaper, your job is to tell readers when they pick it up the next day looking
for what happened down the street, or what happened two blocks away at that
pink house, it better damn well be in the newspaper because that affected their
lives, their concern for their kids, their own safety. By ignoring it, we aren't doing
anybody a favor, we aren't defending anybody. What we're doing is we're
depriving them of information that they're going to turn on Channel 7 and see. It's
stupid, and they finally figured that out, but we went through that phase-all
newspapers did, I think-of, oh gee, we're just bringing people down in the
morning with all this. Well, guess what? Crime is now down. Homicides are way
down in Miami. The attention brought results. Why are we writing about the
tourists getting mugged and killed as they leave Miami International Airport-this
isn't good for tourism. Well, it's even worse for the tourists getting mugged and
killed, okay? And guess what, now those crimes are down. So, all the whining
and moaning, you hear it .... Those decisions aren't made by reporters. Those
decisions are made by editors and above. I don't know of any reporters who
wouldn't salivate at the chance to go after the big story, the big picture, what's
really happening, instead of being yanked off to go cover a craft show on
Saturday for a feature. Most reporters just hate that stuff; good reporters do.
They would much rather be out digging through records and following up leads
that come in. I mean, there are a lot of readers who are concerned. Those are
the ones we're out there digging for, not for our own glory, because nobody
remembers the bylines; nobody remembers who writes these stories. It's folly to
think that. It all goes into the birdcage, for God sakes.
P: That's an interesting point. What makes a good reporter?
H: To some extent what makes a good cop, too. A good instinct for when something
doesn't look right, doesn't fit right, doesn't sound right. A story just doesn't hold
up. Secondly, an unfailing instinct for when you're being misled or lied to. Third,
and probably most importantly, a real strong sense in what's right and what's
wrong, that when somebody does something wrong, whose in a position of public
trust, it should go in the newspaper. It's that simple. Let the readers decide
whether it's worth throwing him out of office or not. You know, the American
people overwhelmingly decided that Bill Clinton, it wasn't worth heaving him out
of office for Monica Lewinsky. On the other hand, back in 1974, there was every
reason to believe Richard Nixon wouldn't survive a vote at the impeachment trial.
He knew it, he did the math, and he left. Our job is to throw it out there and let the
voters, people, decide what to do with it. I think the good reporters just never get
enough information. The fun of it is just digging, digging, digging, but it's also a
sense of knowing when something is being withheld that belongs in the public
forum. If your government, whether it's the U.S. government or the state of
Florida or the village of Islamorada, is withholding information, you know, it is our
government-this isn't a separate entity. Things we have a right to know or you
think you have a right to know, then nothing gets a good journalist going with
more energy than the idea that somebody is covering something up, and I think
you got to have that sense. You aren't out there for yourself. The big high, the
kick I always got, was knowing I'd gotten hold of something, knowing they hated
the idea that I got a hold of it and they were going to get to read all about it on the
front page on Sunday. That was it. The by-line didn't matter. It was just the idea
that you can't keep the truth from people, and as much as you want to try, we're
going to put it in the paper, and they can deal with it. That was the kick.
P: But the problem is partly what you mentioned earlier-aren't a lot of these
reporters co-opted, and has the Third Estate [the media] really protected
democracy? I would imagine Thomas Jefferson would be very disappointed in
H: Oh yeah, but I think the press has always disappointed people. I don't think that's
anything new. I think they're much less co-opted today than they were in
Jefferson's era, to be honest with you, the American press. I also think that the
disease isn't being co-opted so much as it's being dispirited, to the point of
laziness sometimes. I think when you have to go in to your editor and beg and
plead for an $89 plane ticket to Tallahassee to look up some records, that takes
the wind out of a reporter's sails. It certainly takes a lot of the energy and the
enthusiasm out of the quest. It discourages young people from wanting to
become journalists. You know, how can you do your job? You know, you go
where the facts lead you, and if you have to go crawling and begging and
groveling, which is what pretty much it is at most newspapers now, to go to some
very simple and not extravagant thing just to get what you need, that'll take it out
of you. What happens then is that you then assume, you then start self-editing-I
don't want to go after that, they'll never let me go chase that story-and the result
is that good stories don't get written. I don't think it's being co-opted so much as
it's being the enemy of the free press and of the vigorous press. The vigorous
free press in this country today, the big enemy, is Wall Street, or the big enemy is
the corporations that own these newspapers, who are now putting out
newspapers for shareholders [and] not for readers, who are much more
concerned with pleasing the stockholders than they are with meeting the real
day-to-day needs of readers-what do the readers need to know, what do they
want to have? So, these papers are being shrunk by attrition. They're getting
thinner, the news-hole is. All this is being done without telling the readers, and
they're just not supposed to notice that there's nobody covering the city council
meeting for a few weeks because they're going to hold that job; somebody quit,
and they aren't going to replace them to save money. This happens every day.
The reporters quit and they aren't replaced for six months, because they save a
lot of money in not replacing them. Meanwhile, something isn't covered and
somebody gets away with something and somebody's community is worse off for
the fact that we're too cheap to keep a full payroll. It's absolutely the truth of the
Miami Herald, and it's true probably to every paper in the country, if they're going
to be honest about it. So that's a much greater danger to people's need to know
than whether the reporters are too cozy. The source of the problem is real
simple: there aren't enough reporters, and there aren't enough good reporters.
The pool is shrinking, not growing, because newspapers are shrinking. That's a
far more disturbing thing to me. You know, you have a corporate culture now
existent in many newsrooms that was never there when I started. I mean, you
never heard about the business side. You never heard from the advertisers. It
never got down to you if you pissed off an advertiser, and if it did, that was no big
deal. That was your job. Now it's much different. There's more cross-pollination.
Everybody in the newsroom is painfully aware of what the circulation numbers
show [and] what the penetration percentages are, because they get posted.
There's much more concern about, are we making [enough profits]? I was very
proud for my first I-do-not-know-how-many years at the Herald, I never knew
what the profit margin of Miami Herald for Knight-Ridder was. I knew we made a
lot of money, but I didn't know. Now it's emblazoned in the brain of everybody on
every floor of the paper, that if the Herald doesn't make its 22, 23 percent,
whatever Tony Ridder [head of Knight-Ridder newspapers] has decreed for this
year, we face cutbacks, layoffs. That's what we're going through now, because
everybody knows the price of newsprint, for God sakes. I mean, that should be of
no concern whatsoever for the way I cover the city of Hialeah or Coral Gables or
St. Petersburg or wherever. You can't pollute the reporter's mind with these kinds
of concerns. You want him to go out and kick over the rocks and give the people,
that community, the most thorough possible coverage that's available. Yet, you're
telling him you can do that, but don't spend this, don't take this source to lunch,
you can't go to Tallahassee. It's insane. That's a terrifically scary thing, but it's
nothing new. Papers have always been cheap.
P: But 22 percent, that's a pretty good return. Looks like they should have a little
extra money to ...
H: He wants 25 percent this year. It's absurd. I always tell people, I mean, I know
heroin dealers who would be thrilled with that kind of profit-margin. It's
completely obscene. It's unrealistic. It'll have a devastating effect on the quality of
the journalism that's being produced, because it means getting rid of older
experienced people to whom they can afford to offer buy-out packages. It's very
sad, and it's short-sighted. And it isn't by any means unique to Knight-Ridder.
The L.A. Times is going through it. Gannett has been famous for it for years.
Gannett was the pioneer of journalism on the cheap. You know, I worked for Al
Neuharth right out of college.
P: Talk a little bit about your experiences with Cocoa and Al Neuharth.
H: I remember I graduated in March of 1974, and I think my first day was March 21,
if I'm not mistaken, 1974, COCOA TODAY, which was the precursor of USA
TODAY. It was the tenth anniversary, if I'm not mistaken, of the founding of that
newspaper, or some anniversary of it, and I just happened to arrive that day. Al
Neuharth had assembled everybody in the press room for a big pep-talk and
congratulatory speech. I'm sitting there, and no sooner has he gotten started
than he launches into an attack on one of the reporters, on, specifically, a series
that had been done, called "Confessions of a Used Car Salesman," which I had
seen. The most recent installment had been sent to me. It was fascinating stuff,
these guys telling how they dolled up these wrecks and were able to get people
to buy them. They put sugar in the tank and did all this horrible stuff to make it
sound good for a minute, and then they would sell them. It was great stuff, and it
was also filled with comments of horror and contempt by honest car dealers who
said, we would never do that. It was a very balanced series, but it was good
reading for anyone who ever tried to buy a car. Well, the Used Car Association of
Brevard County, or whatever the hell they called themselves, had raised some
hell and in their outrage had pulled some ads. Al was on a roll about how one-
sided he thought the series was, a little too strong, a little too tough on
everybody. Well, he never had the balls to come out and say it was because they
pulled some ads. The reporter's name was Bob Schwartzman, and he got up and
he got right back at Al and he said, this was balanced, everybody looked at this,
the lawyers did, and it was a fair series. He didn't sit there and take it. But I
thought, this is my first day in the real world of journalism, and I've got the
publisher of this newspaper chewing out a reporter for doing his job. You know,
welcome to the real world. So much for theory; so much for idealism. That was
the beginning. It was a good little paper, a lot of talented people worked at that
paper, but it was Gannett. So you knew going in they weren't going to be
spending a lot of money on much anything, least of all staff. I think my salary was
$150 a week. My first raise, I got a big raise; $7.50 a week was a big raise back
then [and] I got that. But Al Neuharth, you know, you talk about separating the
ethical barriers between the newsroom and the business side. Neuharth lived on
the beach in a big fancy house, and at the time he had just married a state
senator named Lori Wilson. They lived in this thing on Cocoa Beach, and there
was some setback in zoning issues that the neighbors had raised about what Al
was doing with the property. We dutifully, you know, young reporters-I didn't,
because I was like the rookie, but some of the experienced [ones] in the
newsroom-were writing about it. I was working on a Friday, I think, or maybe
Saturday morning, and a story was due to run that somebody had dug up. I
mean, there was a possibility Al was going to be cited for building below the
setback-line on the beach, which was a big environmental thing up there at the
time. I will never forget, he called in from wherever he was traveling, and he had
the story read to him word-for-word over the phone, and he said, what's the
headline going to be? And he rewrote the headline himself. A complete violation.
That's like having Nixon write the headline on the Watergate stories that you
want to read. But he was the boss. There was a great deal of dissension and
demoralization at the newspaper because of this. He was meddling in the story;
he should've sat back and taken his lumps. Certainly quote him saying, we didn't
do anything wrong and the house is fine. But he'd call you, and he saw nothing
wrong with it. Mr. Journalist. The whole newsroom was just appalled that he
would do this sort of thing. It was hard on the editors. I felt bad for them. They get
the call, and what are they going to do? That's their boss; are they going to tell
him to go pound salt? They'd be out of a job. But that was my baptism into it, so I
never had any illusions that there was any connection between the theory and
the practice of objective journalism. You know, it's up to the front-line to maintain
it. It was up to those tough reporters to say, I'm going to write about Al Neuharth,
and I don't care if it pisses him off. You know, there were zoning hearings. It was
a public event. It would've been shameful not to; how could you not cover it? He
was the most prominent guy in town at the time. So I'll never forget those phone
calls. I thought to myself, so this is what we're up against. You know, you're sort
of armed going in. They aren't the enemy. Management, it may be, isn't the
enemy, but they aren't necessarily your friends either, and they aren't necessarily
committed in the way that reporters and front-line editors are to putting out a
complete and thorough and balanced newspaper.
P: Then there's a lot of hypocrisy.
H: A terrific amount of hypocrisy, and I would go so far as saying, in some cases,
corruption. I don't mean criminal corruption, but there's certainly a corruption of
the unspoken bond between the readers and the newspaper. We'll always serve
you first-that's just plain bullshit. If we believed that, we wouldn't be laying
people off right now at the Miami Herald. We wouldn't be trying to buy out people
and get them out of there. We barely have enough photographers to cover the
day-to-day news, and they want to lay off four more now. That isn't what a
newspaper in a big, dynamic, growing community does for its readers. It's
basically the same as cutting your police force in the middle of a crime wave.
That's basically what we're doing. But believe me, we aren't alone; it's going on
everywhere. You can walk into any newsroom and hear these horror stories, so
I'm not singling out Knight-Ridder. I'm just saying that there's an illusion. We
shouldn't even pretend that we're working hard for you, the reader. We're
working hard to make that 25 percent for Tony Ridder, is what it boils down to,
and the shareholders, so that he doesn't get yelled at at the next shareholder's
meeting. I was, a few years ago, invited to speak to some journalists at a big
convention up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and for the hell of it, I picked up the
Knight-Ridder annual corporate report, [which] had just arrived. I looked through
it, Knight-Ridder, a newspaper company, and it was a forty-, fifty-page report,
and on exactly two pages of that report was the word journalism even mentioned,
what we do for a living, which is put out papers to serve readers. The rest of it
was all about bottom-line, profit. Newsprint-what is the cost of newsprint? It was
disgraceful. So I just read from it. I read little pieces from it. It was hilarious. But,
you know, it's hypocritical. If we're really operating a giant McDonald's franchise
and we're cutting back on the syrup or the oil we're using to fry, well, they used to
tell people that's what we're doing. We aren't really doing journalism here; this is
a franchise operation, and our job is to make money, and you got to understand
that. And, by the way, we'll put something on your front lawn every morning;
some days it's going to be better than others, some days it's going to be real
good, and some days it's going to be disgraceful, it'll be so thin. At least be
honest with them, say, lookit, we're getting hammered from corporate
headquarters, [and] that's why the paper is getting thinner. It isn't because
there's less news happening, folks; it's because we're printing less of it than we
P: What is your view of USA TODA Y? Is that the wave of the future?
H: No. Everyone said that. Everyone said it was, and I don't think it is. I think it's
great for what it is. I mean, I read it when I can on airplanes and things like that.
But I think most readers are sophisticated enough to know that you're just getting
little M&M bites of news, and if you really want to know what's going on in the
Mideast, you don't look it up in USA TODAY. You go to the New York Times and
the Washington Post. Having said that, I also have to note that probably eight out
of every ten readers, that's all they really want to know about the Mideast. They
don't mind if it's only twelve inches on the front of USA TODAY, that's fine. That's
all they need to know, and some days that's all I really need to know. So, for
what it is, it's great. I think the efforts to replicate that short style and the
brightness and everything didn't result in any big circulation gains. Atlanta
Journal for a while went through a phase, and [Atlanta] Constitution went through
a phase, where they weren't going to jump any stories off the front page. I don't
know if they still do that or not. You know, they were going to contain everything
on the front, and it was essentially a front page for morons. That's what you're
telling your readers-you're so stupid we can't trust you to turn to page A17 and
finish the story, so we're going to end it here for you. Earthquake kills 25,000, 6
inches-that's great. (That was a joke.) Those experiments didn't do very well,
and I don't think it's the wave of the future, but I don't think the future is all that
bright either. I think for what it is, USA TODAY, and I will say this, it's gotten
better, I think, over the years, the quality of the writing. They break stories. They
P: They do some investigative journalism.
H: They do, and they've gotten a hell of a lot better than when they first started. But
I know everybody, all of us, went to color weather pages. That was our answer.
Let's make the weather map almost real life-size, and that'll show readers we
really care about them. It's expensive putting all that color in the paper, and the
same number of people looked at the weather page who looked at it before. So
they abandoned that. All these brilliant ideas spun out of it. Papers are a lot more
colorful because of USA TODAY, that's true, but I don't think the idea of writing
shorter .... I think there are plenty of times when shorter is good, and I think
there are a lot of times that it's the only way to distinguish us from the broadcast
media and from the thinner newspapers and magazines, is to be able to do what
they call interpretive journalism, whatever you want to call it. A good paper can
deliver something that TV, radio and the Internet can't give you; depth and insight
and basic investigative stuff can't be duplicated by TV or radio to the extent, I
mean, to the devastating effect that it can have in a newspaper. So, that's really
our only trump card over these other media. One thing we can do that they can't
do is depth. More and more papers are shrinking away from depth-let's just be
just like radio, only let's be it in print. It's insane, and that's why the circulations
are [falling]. I mean, they wonder why nobody is picking up circulation, why
advertising is flat. Well, there are a lot of complicated reasons. One of the
reasons is, we aren't offering people anything they aren't getting anywhere else.
We're failing in that regard. The best newspapers, the ones that are making tons
of money, are spending tons of money on the product. They're going through
down-cycles now because of the economy, but the fact is the New York Times
remains a highly-profitable newspaper, the Washington Post, a highly-profitable
newspaper, and also at the same time high-quality, and they spend a fortune
covering the world. You know, we close all our bureaus outside of the United
States, we do all this great cost-cutting, and then we wonder, gee, I wonder why
our circulation is flat. We can't figure it out-why is our circulation flat? Isn't that
strange? These geniuses, this is what they get paid to think. So, in the absence
of getting more readers, the answer of most of the world of journalism these
days, in the absence of attracting more readers, is to cut costs so that they can
maintain profits even though our circulation and penetration isn't going up. See,
most products would be looking for bigger market-share. If it were Coke and
Pepsi, they would be finding ways of getting more people to use their product
and not just putting less syrup into the soda. But that's not what we do in the
newspaper business. That would make too much sense.
P: Talk a little bit about your experience with COCOA TODAY. You once referred to
your time there as being a garbageman for a day.
H: No. Actually, that was just one of many feature stories I did. I wasn't
characterizing my stay there at all, because I was there about two-and-half years
and I had a great time. It was a great learning-ground. I was very lucky to be
surrounded by some talented people. But, as I mentioned, it was one place
where I did also get a dose of the reality of the business-side of journalism, of the
limitations. That paper doesn't exist anymore as COCOA TODAY; it's now
FLORIDA TODAY, and I think they moved to Melbourne. But, at the time, being
fresh out of school and I had a very small child at the time, it was exciting and
exasperating, both, because you come out of a college like Florida with big
ambitions. You know, you're all revved up by people like Buddy Davis and Jean
Chance, but to be fair to them, they also said, you know, when you get out there,
it isn't going to be everything you hoped it would be. And it certainly wasn't. So,
at the same time, the good thing about a small paper is, if you got a little bit of
ambition and a little bit of talent, they'll let you try and do almost everything,
which I did. They had a little Sunday magazine, and I worked for that. All kinds of
different stuff. I would get a crazy feature idea, and it was, why not, try it. There
wasn't the level of bureaucracy that you get at a bigger paper where you have to
go through all these channels just to try anything new. That was the good part. I
think the part I didn't like was, it was small-town, and it did a lot of small-town
stuff that drove me crazy. There were some editors who were very good and
some who were really parochial and also nervous; there was a nervousness.
Again, some of that came from publishing in the same community where Al
Neuharth lived, and there was this fear that Al was reading everything, and he
didn't hesitate to tell you if he thought something was terrible. He didn't have any
problem at all calling up an editor and saying, what did you do that for? And he
was way above them. I mean, this wasn't like their immediate superior. So I think
there was some of that. I guess the thing I was left with was, I didn't realize going
into it the level of turnover. When you have a smaller paper like that, you have a
lot of people on their way to somewhere else, and I was included. I always hated
for those, losing these talented people to the St. Pete Times or the Herald or the
Orlando Sentinel. That's where I was educated to the fact that this is a business
of high turnover, and people leave. You have a good solid group of experienced
reporters, and in a month's time, it can be completely dismantled, because
people go elsewhere where there's money. The only way to make any money
was to change jobs, honestly. When you're getting $7.50 a week raises and told
that's good, people with families, you know, you aren't going to hang in there.
That was the sad part of it. You know, I understand that people move around,
and the same thing, of course, happens here at the Herald on a bigger scale. In
the twenty-five years I've been here, if you just took the people who walked out
the door to the Washington Post, to the New York Times, or Time magazine or
Newsweek or L. A., you would have an extraordinary staff of talent, I mean,
unbelievable talent. A certain amount of it is inevitable, that kind of change, but
it's hard, because just when someone would get to know a community or get to
know a beat, someone who was covering Cocoa Beach, just when you finally nail
it down, you get moved to another beat, or they leave. I don't know that readers,
most readers . .. Activists in the community and the politicians certainly are
aware when there's a change in the reporter covering. They certainly are really
hip to it, and they know-ah, now we got a little bit of a free period here where we
can get away with some stuff. But the readers don't really know. They aren't
really aware that a whole re-education process now has to begin. Where you
start sometimes with a rookie or sometimes with just a new reporter now, you
have to learn who is who, who are the players. Every time you change a beat, it
sets the level of coverage back in the community. The result is a lot of smaller
communities aren't covered very well. The Herald, there has got to be twenty-
eight or twenty-nine municipalities, maybe more, nowadays in Miami-Dade
County, we're their paper of record in Miami-Dade County, but I can't sit here and
tell you that everyone of those communities is being covered regularly, much less
well, and that's wrong. But it gets back to what we were talking about, the issue
of the staff reductions, the issue of what happens when you don't have the
money. When the payroll is decreased, you aren't going to be hiring a lot of
experienced reporters; you're going to be hiring a lot of people you can afford.
P: Why have you stayed with the Miami Herald for twenty-five years? Did you ever
have a desire to go anywhere else?
H: No, I didn't. I had some opportunities, but I didn't. First of all, I couldn't see myself
living anywhere else. This is where I was born and raised. Florida is really, it's
just a character in the novels, it's a character in my life. It's very hard to walk
away from this place for any length of time, even as much as it has changed and
as heartbreaking as it has been to watch some of the change. [In] Florida, [the
Herald] is really the biggest game in town. The only other paper that I would've
even considered would've been the St. Pete Times, and I wasn't all that
terrifically enamored of the St. Petersburg/Tampa area. I mean, it's okay, but I
much prefer down here. It's a fine newspaper; it's a hell of a newspaper. On any
given day, it's probably the best newspaper in the state, and we are on any given
day, too, but it's certainly neck-and-neck with us. People at the Herald cringe to
hear that, but it happens to be the truth. They have fantastic coverage in
Tallahassee and government. They're good. So that would be a paper that you
would certainly not ever be ashamed to work for, but I'm from South Florida and
this is the game in town. This was the big leagues. The interesting thing was I
never had aspired .... Towards the end of my term at [the University of] Florida,
you know, they have you send them applications, and, of course, I sent one to St.
Pete and to the Herald, probably thinking I was going to get on with a smaller
paper, and the Fort Lauderdale News had offered me a job-it was then the Fort
Lauderdale News, not the Sun-Sentinel. But I didn't really want to come back to
South Florida because I knew how tough it would be, even after the four years I
was going up for school, to see the changes. It was so traumatic for me to see
just the place I grew up in turned into a parking lot. It was depressing as hell to
come back, and I really wanted to raise my son somewhere where there was still
at least a taste of what Florida used to be. But then after about two years at
COCOA, the Herald called me up because I'd won second place in some national
award. So they called up and said, do you want to come down for an interview,
and I said, yeah. I'll never forget, I was such a smartass. They said, do you want
to fill out an application? I said no. I said, I filled out an application two years ago
in college. I said, I haven't been anywhere, and it's in your files; I'll be happy to
come down, [but] I'm not doing another one. To their credit, they still had me
come down, but I was so pissed off because they'd never responded. I'd never
gotten a letter back for the first one, and so I said, screw them. I mean, I wasn't
that keen on it. Two things changed my mind. One is that I had a young family,
and it was a lot more money than I was making or would ever make at COCOA. I
mean, that was the [most salary possible] for Gannett at the time. I mean,
honestly, to be fair. Then second of all, my father had just passed away, and my
mom was alone. My sisters were at college, my younger brother was getting
ready to go to college, and I just thought it would better if I would be around for
my mom. I would be closer to her, because she still lived in Plantation. So those
two things are what made me decide to come back. Then, once I was here, once
I was at the Herald, beyond that, unless I wanted to pick up and move to
Washington or New York, which I didn't want to do .... It was much better for
me, I think, for a lot of reasons, to be writing about a place I cared about and at
least had some roots, and, also, because 99 percent of the people who work for
the Herald were from somewhere else at that time; they didn't know anything.
They came, they would show up, and they didn't know where Broward Boulevard
was, they didn't know where Biscayne was. At least I had some frame-of-
reference, [and] if I had to go cover something, I knew where it was. But a lot of
the young kids working hard, it was a stop for them on their way somewhere
else. For me, it was a place I knew from childhood, so the learning curve wasn't
nearly as steep for me.
P: So one of the critical factors eventually was that you got your own column?
H: I probably would've left, not to go anywhere else, necessarily. But I'd always, you
know, when you join a paper, they always say, what do you have [for] long-range
plans, and I'd written down, just whimsically almost, some day I would like to
write a column again. I wrote one in college, I had a good time in Gainesville. I
thought they would forget about it. I didn't actively go look for the column. I had
been on the investigations team, working for a terrific editor named Jim Savage.
We just finished up a long investigation in the Bahamas. It was very grueling,
about corruption involving the prime minister, and I'd been away from home a lot.
I was just fried; I was burned out for the time being. Not on all of it, but you
always have a post-partum period after you spend a lot of months on something
and you finally get it all in the paper in the space of a week or six days or
whatever. You're just spent. Then Heath Merriweather, who was a friend [and]
who was the executive editor at the time, came to me and said, would you be
interested in taking a shot at doing the column, alternating with Charlie
Whitehead? I thought about it for a while. It was one thing I hadn't done at the
paper. It was one of the few things, writing jobs, I hadn't had, and I said, yeah, I'll
give it a shot in sort of an experimental way. I did three and Charlie did four a
week to start with. Then, once I got comfortable in the voice and comfortable
doing that length-doing the same length every column, which was another
discipline I had to learn-what I found happened was, and I had no intention of
making this a long-range thing, but what I found was, you do get a sort of
emotional connection with your readers, and the mail you get, a sense that they
start looking for your column, they expect you to be responding and writing about
certain things to get them angry.
P: A little like Skip Wiley.
H: Yes. All of a sudden, you feel like it's your duty. It sounds odd, that's the last
thing I expected. I go through periods all the time when I say, to hell with it; I
don't want to do it anymore. I'm tired, I can't do that and the books at the same
time. But then you get this mail, and people seem to really depend on you in the
morning over their breakfast cereal to at least say what they've been thinking and
ranting and raving about. Part of it gratifies your ego, but part of it is also, in my
own way, I look at the paper, and I told them this, the only way I'd ever leave is if
I thought there was someone else with as strong a voice about especially the
environmental stuff that I feel strongly about. Liz Balmaseda writes a great
column, but her focus is really the Hispanic community, and Bob Steinbeck is
many, many times writing about Afro-Americans and minority communities as
well. You know, I always feel like if I go, no one is going to do this. Not that I do it
exceptionally well, but there won't be anybody doing it, because our pattern is,
we aren't replacing people who leave. Then before you know it, the years pile up
and you're doing it, and the longer you do it, the harder it is to walk away from it. I
mean, I certainly don't need to do it anymore. It isn't a financial decision on my
part. I've been so ridiculously lucky with the books. I've just been blessed with
being able to do the novels and enjoy some success with that, but I do the
column because it's important. I do the books because it's therapy. It's therapy
for me, and it's fun. It's different. It's a very challenging kind of writing, to sit down
and construct a whole novel. You have to use up a lot more tricks in your bag to
do a novel. But the column is important because you write it, and it's in the paper
the next day, and you're responding to something hopefully fairly quickly, shining
a little spotlight on this one thing before it gets too far in the legislature, too far
with the county commissioner, before somebody's life is messed up because
they do something stupid or somebody is sitting in jail who shouldn't be in jail.
These are things you can't deal with in a novel, because the process is an
eighteen-month process, and by the time it comes out, it's too late for these folks.
So, the immediacy of it, that this adrenaline rush of jumping on a big story still is
there. I think if it wasn't there, I wouldn't do it. I'm saying all of this, [but] six
months from now, I could bag it. I don't know. For me, the tough part is going to
be keeping the loyalty to the paper going while they're shoving good people out
the door. I mean, there's almost a point of a moral line in the sand that you have
to draw. This isn't affecting my life at all. I still get my paycheck and they're still
happy to get my column, but these are people I've worked with for years, good
people who don't deserve to be treated this way. At some point, you say, I can't
sit by and watch this happen. I hope it doesn't come to that, but that would be
one of the deciding factors, not anything to do with my own personal life.
P: I have been really interested in your columns, particularly in your descriptions of
politicians-"pernicious little ferret," "worthless blowhard," and my personal
favorite, "a veritable slag-heap of mediocrity." Do you get a lot of pressure from
editors, phone calls?
H: I think I used to get the occasional cringing phone call saying, gee, do we really
have to say that? And I'd say, look what he did. Yeah, but he's going to be on the
phone tomorrow. Let him be on the phone tomorrow-so what? I don't relish or
take any joy in knowing, I mean, these are folks with wives and husbands and
kids, and I take it very seriously. As frivolous or as whimsical as some of those
names sound, those are applied to individuals who did some really bad stuff and
whose actions affected people. To me, they were perfectly accurate descriptions.
But yeah, they get queasy about it. Readers love it. I don't hear much from the
politicians themselves, because they're always afraid if they write to me I will put
that in the column too. So I don't hear much from them, but certainly there's
[some] second-hand. But in the case of, like, the pernicious little ferret, I think I
was referring to Humberto Hernandez [former Miami city commissioner], whose
now in jail for voter-fraud and for money-laundering and fixing an election. He
first came to the public attention when the ValuJet crash happened in the
Everglades. He has a law firm, and he sent someone in his law firm to infiltrate
the busful of relatives who were taken to the crash site so they could hand out
their business cards to try to get lawsuits against ValuJet. To me, I was easy on
him. He is lucky that all I called him was a pernicious little ferret. But I mean,
where on the food chain does a guy like that fit? There's no bottom. He's right
where he belongs, jail. Good for him. I don't have any compunction about that at
all. Again, keep in mind that I save these sorts of little rants for people who have
a public trust. I don't pick on the little guy; I don't pick on a gas station owner or a
grocery store clerk who's rude to me or something. I never do that. These are
people who have put themselves out there and said, lookit, I'm the best and the
brightest: I'll do this for you, I'll do that for you, I'll represent you fairly, I'll be
honest, I'll not steal. Then they turn around and do everything they said they
weren't going to do, to the detriment of government, the people they're elected to
serve, their families and everything else. I mean, they pretty well cashed in their
chips with credibility and every other thing. So, those kinds of columns are saved
for some really... You know, I wrote about this guy Sunday, Demetrio Perez [Jr.],
who is just slime from way back, back when he was in the city of Miami politics.
This guy is a sitting member of the Miami-Dade school board, and he's getting
money from the federal government to run low-income housing. He's taking a
check to subsidize rents for older people, and at the same time, this one
individual, he was going to her every month and shaking her down for, I think it
was, up to $350 a month, when she was supposed to be paying $28 a month
rent and the rest was paid by the government. This is a member of the school
board. He's shaking her down for extra cash, so he's getting paid twice, by the
feds and by the woman who the program was designed to help. Now, my
question is, what can you say about that individual? I mean, the school board, it
just says it all; it's Miami-Dade County. But he's going to be treated brutally in
the column. There's no way he's going to read that column and not feel sick to
his stomach if I have anything to say about it, because it's a shameful and
disgraceful thing that he did. The judge is getting ready to order him, you know,
he's under investigation for perjury. His lie was that he was just charging the
extra money to rent the furniture in the apartment, except the only problem was,
she owned the furniture in the apartment. So he's a liar on top of everything else.
And this is the school board. These are the people running the school system of
Dade County. I think every parent ought to be aware that this is what they got
there. I don't care if Demetrio breaks down in sobbing, hacking hysteria when he
reads the column. I don't care, frankly, if he throws himself off a building. At some
point, if you put yourself out as a protector and a defender of the public trust and
this is how you behave, your number is up as far as I'm concerned. I have no
sympathy whatsoever for him.
P: Where do you get most of your information? Do you ever have insiders?
H: Yeah, sometimes you get tips, but a lot of that, I pass on to reporters because I'm
sensitive about (we call it) big-footing into someone's beat area. I really just read
the paper and watch TV and just poach liberally and then check with the
reporters and watch a story evolving. I have files of stories that I see evolving
over time. Some are tips I get. It just depends. Part of my job, even though now
I've switched to the Op Ed page, at my own request, because they gave me so
much space. The column had shrunk down to about 600 words, that's what all of
us were writing, and I just didn't find it sufficient. It became epigrammatic instead
of a column. But when I switched to the Op Ed page, I can write up to 750 words
if I want to, which is like it was in the old days. So I was very happy to do that.
They still like me to be on top of the news. Part of my job description is
responding to things that are happening in the news. That's also because it's a
daily paper and you want to be topical. It isn't always possible. I only do two
columns a week, so if something happens out-of-cycle, you know, if I want to
write about a trial and my deadline is Tuesday at 5:00 and the verdict isn't in yet,
I'm kind of screwed. I've got to wait and take a shot at the Sunday column or not
at all. Those are just the practical constraints of it. But I do try to bounce off
what's happening because, also, your readership level is highest for those stories
that are making people talk. You know, you don't want to do Elian Gonzales to
death, but it was on the front page for months. I had to write a number of
columns about Elian Gonzales. The election fiasco, the recount fiasco, well, I had
to bite the bullet after the first couple. Even when you knew which way it was
headed, you had to do it. You knew the outcome; you still had to write the pieces.
It's being timely and trying to find something original to say, if you can.
P: Looking back on Elian Gonzales, while you mentioned that, what is your reaction
to it now?
H: The same. I think the outcome was absolutely the only morally-acceptable
outcome. When you have a living parent of a kid, I don't care if he is a communist
or whatever, he's the kid's father. He belongs with his father. Any other civilized
society, there wouldn't have been a question, but he became a pawn [and] he
was used shamefully in this country. He was held up like a bowling trophy and
trotted around, look what we have got, nah-nah, looking at Fidel. Well, the whole
world thought this was insane. Give the kid back to his old man; give him back to
his father, for God sakes. It wasn't like he was orphaned. If it'd been an American
boy who had washed up on Cuba's shore, what do you think America's reaction
would have been? And the other stupid thing was it played right into Castro's
hands. I mean, you couldn't have scripted it any better for him. He couldn't have
done anything. If you had done anything else to get half a million people on the
streets of Havana .... They weren't marching at gunpoint; they were really
pissed. It was just stupid, the whole thing. I understood both sides, I understood
their emotions, but right is right, and as a parent and a father, if I would have
been that little kid's father, I would have been just as upset as he was. But
looking back, it divided the community. Also, it's important to remember, you
know, the editorial board is much more concerned, and I guess they should be,
with writing temperate columns that don't offend anybody. But there were a lot of
people in this community who felt that the obvious thing was not being said, and
that was he belonged [with his father in Cuba], because they were scared.
There's this fear that if you speak out, and especially if you're Cuban-American,
that you would be persecuted or even worse things happening to you for
agreeing. I heard from a lot of Cuban-Americans on my voice-mail at work and
letters, scared to give their names. It was very sad. You know, they hated Castro
as much as anybody. This isn't about Castro; it's about a boy and his father.
When he is sixteen, seventeen, if he wants to come back over, all he has to do is
hop on a raft and he will be back. But right now, he belongs with his dad. They
would say this stuff to me, but then no one else would say it; no one else was
getting up and saying it, really, in the community. That was when the column was
valuable because, what, are we going to upset people? Well, of course; every
day, I upset people. Well, you're going to upset a lot of them. Lookit, as long as
I'm consistent, they can disagree and they can scream and yell and they can rant
and rave on the talk radio. They do it on Anglo talk radio about me; then why not
on the Latin talk radio? What do I care? So what? I just got tons of mail from
people saying, thank God somebody finally wrote what should have happened in
P: Who won the presidential election of 2000?
H: Well, I think from the study the Herald did with USA TODAY and others, clearly
the intention of most Florida voters was to vote for Al Gore. Unfortunately,
because of the ballot confusion, I mean, essentially it was lost, it turned out, in
Palm Beach County. Anywhere from 8,000 to 16,000 people, depending on the
analysis you read, got confused, who intended to vote for Gore ended up either
voting for both Gore and Buchanan or botching the ballot in such a way as to
making it an illegal or unreadable ballot. Using the typical standards of judging
these ballots, by that measure, Bush would've won, or did win, but the intent of
the voters, just looking at the numbers, clearly was to elect Al Gore, meaning, of
course, he should be in the White House now. But the rules are the rules, and if
your ballot isn't proper, you can't.... There were so many. You knew that in
sixty-seven counties, there was going to be chaos; there was going to be all
kinds. It was on one level infuriating to watch the Republicans go to the length
they did to prevent ballots from being counted. This is a democracy, after all, and
you would think that the objective would be to include as many voters as
possible. But they knew; they knew the exit polls at the TV networks weren't
wrong; all three TV networks didn't get it wrong. They were all saying Gore was
going to win, and win by several thousand votes, because that's what these
people believed when they walked out of the polls. That's who they thought they
had voted for. Didn't work out that way. They voted incorrectly, or the machine
malfunctioned, as it did. Whatever happened, if you're George W. Bush, there
are all kinds of reasons to be extremely humble, not only losing the national vote
by half a million votes but knowing that the people of Florida didn't pick you.
P: And it would have been interesting if the positions had been reversed; they would
have taken exactly the different arguments.
H: Oh yes, absolutely. And be assured that the Democrats would be doing
everything in their power to stop those votes from being counted. One thing,
people are all upset at the Republicans. I say, don't you think the Democrats
would've moved heaven and earth to save the election for Al Gore if the situation
[had been reversed]? Of course, they would've.
P: And Jim Baker [George W. Bush's campaign representative] would be saying we
have to count every vote.
H: Yes. It would've worked out the same [way]. It was a mess, and kind of a
dispiriting one, and I guess the only philosophical thing you can say was that it
was always Gore's race to lose, not just in Florida, but nationally. The other thing
you can say is that Ralph Nader, without any doubt, cost Al Gore the election,
without any question whatsoever. In Florida, he certainly did.
P: Particularly in Alachua County. Just in Alachua County alone, he got enough
H: Yes. You look at some of the other states, it is the same thing. Nader had a much
bigger impact. Buchanan was zero impact, really, on the election, but Nader
clearly had enough margin of votes, and the election was that close. So, when
they start plopping those oil derricks in the wilderness, the Arctic Refuge in
Alaska, they ought to name one after Nader, because that's why it's happening.
P: Let me ask you about Operation Court Broom? How did this corruption and
bribery go on so long, and how was it uncovered?
H: That was some time ago, and I'm not sure.
P: This was Judge Davis, who said that he could not be blamed for taking a bribe
because he was on drugs.
H: Right, yes. There was a whole crew of them. There was a little system going on,
and I don't know how this story broke. I don't remember how it broke. I do know
that it went on because, as these things often unfold, there was a fraternity of
judges and attorneys who were friends, and ex-judges who later became defense
attorneys, and it could be done fairly quietly because they were all in on it. You
know, wink, wink, they all knew, and it was pretty tight-knit. I forget how it broke,
whether [it was] a girlfriend of Judge Davis. It was some break in the code of
secrecy there. I also do know that whatever was written about it was probably the
tip of the iceberg. There were a couple of judges, I recall, who retired rather
suddenly, before they could be gotten to. One of the reasons it went on so long,
obviously, was because, again, the issue of changing [reporters]. You have a
reporter who covers the courts for eighteen months, and he is off the courts. It
would be very tough to break that story. You have to have someone who has
been there a long time and knows all the players, unless you get a real big break.
But, secondly, the reason it went on is because the state attorney's office has
always been a political office; it's an elected office in this town. So they end up as
friends or colleagues or golfing buddies of some of the judges, and there's an
incestuous little thing. Not just in Miami-Dade; it's even more true in some of the
rural counties in Florida. Everybody knows everybody else. You just don't spend
much time investigating your friends, is the way it works out. And until you bring
them the case on a platter and say, here's where he took the money, here's
where, look, he's doing the drugs. Then they have to. And that's the function of a
newspaper, is you have to light a fire. The sad thing is that so many of our
corruptions down here are made by the federal government. The FBI [Federal
Bureau of Investigation] comes in or DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] or
whatever it is, because they aren't part of the local political network. These
agents are here from Blaine, Washington, or wherever. They could care less.
They aren't out drinking and hanging out and going to the same fund-raisers and
cutting the same ribbons. That's why the federal government has had to take
such an active role down here, because there has been a general reluctance,
going back to when Janet Reno was state attorney, to spend a whole lot of time
on public corruption cases. The prosecutor's position will be, well, the feds have
much better laws for that. And they do; they have RICO [federal anti-racketeering
laws], they have conspiracy laws. But you can also make good conspiracy cases
with the state of Florida law. The feds don't have the discovery procedures that
make it easier for defense attorneys that the state does, and there's some merit
in that, but there's also a general reluctance and queasiness to go after
somebody who contributed to your campaign. Let's face it. You asked me before
about Miami; is it more corrupt than other places? Yes, certainly, I think it is. I
think there's corruption everywhere, and I think in a state as booming like Florida,
I think greed is going to rule the day in small towns just as it does in cities, but I
think Miami just has a history. It has a particularly bumbling form of corruption.
It's egregious corruption. It's clumsy; it isn't sophisticated. We have many other
great corrupt cities. You go back to Boston, Chicago, New York City, of course.
But Miami, it being somewhat of a younger city compared to those, it just has a
real unsophisticated ... at least the ones who get caught are unsophisticated,
and they're goofy. You know, the FBI videotape is showing, and there's the guy
taking the money, and he's giggling like a six-year-old and then counting the
money on videotape. I mean, there's just no cool to it at all. Instead of just
slipping it in their pocket and slipping out the door, they're just idiots. It's great for
me, for my job; it makes it a lot more fun, but it also makes me grateful that I
don't live up there and pay taxes in the city of Miami and have to watch this kind
of stuff go on. But it exists everywhere. I'm firmly convinced that it exists
everywhere. I think just the level of it and the sometimes bizarre nature of it is
what makes Miami a little bit special.
P: They continue to re-elect Joe Carollo and Xavier Suarez [former mayors of
Miami] and all these guys.
H: Yeah, it's really amazing. The other thing is these are folks with absolutely no
charisma. You mentioned Marion Barry [former civil rights leader and mayor of
Washington D.C.]. Well, that's a guy who can give a speech. He can fire up a
crowd. You can see he's got a little bit of [charisma]. But, I mean, we've got just a
history of rewarding .... Alcee Hastings, one of our congressmen, was
impeached from the federal judiciary, for God sakes, on corruption charges. He
was acquitted in a criminal trial, but a panel of justices decided he was guilty.
They booted him off the federal bench, which almost never happens, and we put
him right back in Congress. Humberto Hernandez, whom I mentioned earlier, the
city commissioner in Miami, they were well-aware of what he did in the ValuJet
crash, the voters were well-aware that he was under investigation for money-
laundering and bank-fraud, and they elected him resoundingly. Now, granted, the
election was fixed, but he still had enough votes. They just had another county
commissioner who resigned in disgrace down here, in Miami-Dade, after being
caught having phantom employees on the payroll. A couple of elderly people
never showed up, and one of them had a joint bank account with the
commissioner's wife. The money, the paycheck, was deposited every two weeks
in the commissioner's wife's bank account. That was not suspicious at all.
P: Well, the Miami Port Authority.
H: Oh yes, the port of Miami. Everywhere you go. The airport is an ongoing scandal.
Here you have the chance, and thank God they did, they hired this lady from
Atlanta who had run Hartsfield Airport to come down and clean everything up,
one of the most qualified applicants, a minority applicant, just what they wanted,
and the mayor pitched a fit because he wanted his next-door neighbor to be the
airport director. Mr. I-Hate-Corruption, Mayor [Alex] Penelas, wanted his next-
door neighbor to be the new airport director. Luckily, they overlooked his little
objection. But they just give you so much material. People ask, how long do you
want to do the column? I will do the column as long as they continue to
misbehave this way. It's a relatively easy job.
P: We did an interview with Ricky Bragg [Southern correspondent for the New York
Times], and Ricky said that when he first came to Miami-I suspect you worked
with him, or was he here earlier?
H: He was here about the same time, and he worked at the Miami News. Yes, I
P: He said the first night he was in Miami, they broke into his house and stole his
television, and he knew he was at home.
P: What do you think of his work?
H: Oh, I think he's a tremendous writer. The Herald had a chance to hire him and
didn't, and then he immediately won a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Times.
P: In the Herald today, they were listing the 100 most lucrative corporations in the
state, and Linar Homes was at the top. I know you wrote about them at least in
Tourist Season. Does that sort of thing still go on, this shoddy building?
H: Well, I think they have to be more careful. I'm sure it does. We'll find out when
the next big hurricane hits, won't we? Linar certainly got their share of press,
well-deserved, after Hurricane Andrew. Other companies did as well, but that's
the largest home-builder. They got mad at me for doing some columns about
some stuff they had done, and then they got caught in another development
building houses on, basically, dump sites, tire dumps and things like that. There's
a long history of that kind of behavior in the building industry in Florida.
Presumably, the new building codes will help. Presumably, the insurance industry
is actually going to start paying attention to what kind of homes it insures now.
That'll be a big help. They could have solved a lot of problems if they started
P: And wouldn't insure.
H: Yeah. They just wrote the insurance without any professional opinion as to
whether the houses were nailed together or glued together, and they found out
the hard way. So, as a result, we're all paying these serious insurance rates now.
P: Well, it hasn't seemed to hurt the company very much, has it?
H: Not at all, no. That's why I wasn't too upset when they pulled the ads out of the
Herald for awhile and they were mad at me. You knew they had to come back.
You don't sell a lot of homes on the Internet. They had to come back. But I never
got any pressure about those columns. I was told they were unhappy and they
were yanking some ads. Of course, I lost about thirty seconds of sleep over that.
I mean, you can't worry about that stuff. They were wrong. People's lives were
completely disrupted and ruined because these folks couldn't build a house that
stood up to ninety-mile-an-hour winds, in some cases. They want me to take it
easy on them? I don't think so. I'm not thinking about them. I'm thinking about the
people and their kids who had to tape garbage bags over the holes in their house
and huddle in the rain for three days, and the mosquitos, after Hurricane Andrew,
because they were living in a cracker box and didn't know it. Those are the
people that I'm writing for. I couldn't give a damn about the people at Linar
Homes buying the advertising-screw them. I mean, who cares?
P: While we're on that, this is off-the-subject a little bit. The character Skink-where
did that character come from? Is it modeled on anybody?
H: No, certainly not modeled on any former governor. In the novels, he's an ex-
governor who goes crazy and goes running into the woods and only comes out to
wreak havoc and seek vengeance. He's just sort of a wild man, a little on the
outside of the wall. Confronted with the kind of corruption that really exists, he
couldn't deal with it, fictitiously. I've been asked, certainly, by ex-governors if they
were modeled for Skink, and they wish they were, but, no, absolutely not. He's
the sort of character I wish existed in real life, and it's one of the great joys of the
novel, being able to turn him loose and have him kick some butt.
P: He's sort of your conscience, I guess, in a way?
H: I think in those novels that he appears, if not my conscience, he really is the
moral compass of those novels, and he was never created that way, he just sort
of popped [up]. I needed a kind of a renegade character, and in an early novel
called Double Whammy, I just invented him and modeled him rather loosely on a
kid that I had gone to high school with and who had passed away very young,
and very loosely some of his physical and emotional manifestations. But it was
just supposed to be around, originally, for a couple chapters in that book, but he
sort of took over. That's what happens sometimes in fiction. I liked him so much
that I brought him back for a couple other books. But I wish there had been
someone like that who had been in the governor's mansion at some point.
P: Well, there's a little resemblance to Claude Kirk.
H: Well, maybe physically. But politically ... I think Claude is one of the ones who
insists that he is modeled after him one of his many delusions.
P: Let me talk to you a little bit about, I think, one of your major interests in your
column, the environment. I wanted to read you a couple of comments. I am doing
an oral history of the whole Everglades restoration, so I've talked to
environmentalists and I've talked to Bubba Wade and all of these various people.
One of the interviewees was Nathaniel Reed. I wanted to quote what he said
about your writing: "He takes no prisoners, whether they're black, white or
human. If you're ludicrous, if you're a droll, if you're an idiot or a bandit, he will
either have a great deal of fun with you or he will absolutely skewer you."
H: That's high flattery from Nat. Nat knows more about the Everglades than any
living human I think I know, so I respect his opinion on it. You know, I'm not a
hydrologist and I'm not a biologist, and I don't know all the intricacies of this
program. All I know is that there's a whole lot of money to be spent on this, and
that means a lot of it is going to get stolen and wasted. That's my concern, that it
be spent doing what the intent of the law is and what the will of the people of
Florida wants. It'll never be the same Everglades. The Everglades are now
broken up by two different highways and eaten up by subdivisions on both flanks,
so it can't ever be the old Everglades, but the least they can do is put the
freshwater back. If they got any brains at all, they will. Now, it's complicated. See,
I don't pretend to understand it all, and even the environmental community is
periodically at each other's throats over a disagreement. I have to look at the big
picture and sometimes remind people that twelve and fifteen years ago, nobody
gave a rat's ass about the Everglades. You never heard a politician talk about it,
except for Bob Graham. It wasn't popular. In his first run for governor, Jeb Bush
had almost nothing to say about the environment or the Everglades. It's no
accident that he got on this bandwagon in a big way, and I give him credit for it. I
don't know whether he cares or doesn't care, but he did get involved. He threw
his weight around in Washington, and he did what he had to do to get it rolling.
We have to do something. The point is we can spend the next fifty years arguing
about how much acreage Big Sugar needs to give up or what the phosphorus
levels should be coming into Taylor Creek, but it has to get rolling, because we
don't have a whole lot of time. As the drought that we're now going through
attests, it doesn't take much to throw the whole system out of whack and cause
incredible upheaval in the wildlife community and in the demand and supply
equation for both coasts, west coast and east coast, of Florida. So, [there are] all
kinds of imperatives to do it. I think it's a victory that the bill got passed. I think it'll
be a tragedy if people are allowed to loot it and scam it and milk it the way is
inevitably going to happen at some level. I think that somebody has got to ride
herd on it, and it would be a perfectly wonderful legacy for Jeb Bush. I'm not sure
he will be around, now. I mean, this is a process that will take years. I'm not sure
he will be around, and I'm not sure his level of interest is that intense. But some
politician needs to get on it, whether it is at the congressional level, to make sure
that it happens and lean on all these people, the Bubba Wades as well as the
Charles Lee of [the] Audubon [Society] and everyone else. At some point, the
reality of it ... it would be very nice to say, yeah, let us get Big Sugar to pay for
fixing up the whole Everglades. Well, there are a couple things wrong with that.
First of all, I will be the first one to say that they treated the place as a toilet for
four years, and it's atrocious what they did to the pine. But they aren't singularly
at fault for what the Everglades has become. The problem, for instance, of what
has happened in Florida Bay is a result of the freshwater flowing out of the
Everglades. It can as much be traced to the south Dade avocado farmers and
tomato farmers as it can [to the sugar farmers]. There's no evidence that what
happens at Belle Glade is killing the snook in Joe Bay. There may be some sort
of domino-effect [and] it certainly isn't good, but some groups want to make this
great leap; they want someone to blame. You want to look to blame; look at the
people who developed from West Palm all the way down to Florida City. You're
talking about massive sucking-up of water from Naples, everywhere. The
municipalities and the government and the politicians who were running them
were as much as looting the Everglades and doing damage as Big Sugar was
and everyone else. There's no shortage of people to blame. Certainly there's a
public relations value for U. S. Sugar and Flo-Sun to now be on board and say,
lookit, we're going to be good citizens from now on; we want this to be fixed, too.
They've got to do that, because they almost got hammered in that referendum.
The public opinion is against them. They aren't stupid; they need to do
something. But by the same token, the environmentalists need to understand,
you can't expect the private sector to pay for all this; they aren't going to.
Politically, they don't have a chance against the Fanjuls. They don't, not a
chance. So, as grim a statement as that's, having said that, let us get on with
fixing the damn thing as best we can, if it is possible, and it may not be possible.
Even now as we sit here, they're back-pumping into Lake Okeechobee again
after years to raise the level for the farms and the ranches up there. It makes you
sick. They learned nothing from this. Nat Reed pulls his hair out about this stuff.
There's no historical frame where every new set of water management diddles
and daddies and tries something new. The bottom-line is that much of South
Florida was developed in wetlands that were swamp. It's going to get wet, and
you're going to have to either pump the water out or live with it. There ain't no
cure for that. That's what we get for building condominiums in the middle of the
swamp. These people want miracles, and it isn't going to happen.
P: How powerful are the Fanjuls?
H: I think they're powerful to the extent that, you know, as Vanity Fair suggested,
can they affect the presidential recount? Probably not. I think they can suggest
lawyers, but I don't think the Fanjuls are calling the election. [Tape interrupted.]
I'm not a big conspiracy theorist, or whatever you want to call it. I think they give
a lot of money to Republicans and Democrats, and I think they probably had as
much access or more with Bill Clinton than they do with Bush, and I don't think
they're alone. I think all the press and all the anger about the Everglades has
been good. It's certainly straightened them up a little bit. You can't undo all the
years that they were dumping water, sucking water out and dumping it back in,
but you can certainly make sure that they're sticking to some level of conduct
now that wasn't applicable forty years ago. I have very little sympathy for the
sugar industry, and that goes back to the virtual slavery in which they held
migrant workers for so many years. Their solution to that instead of upgrading
their living conditions was just to bring in machines.
P: Things haven't changed a whole lot.
P: I thought both you and Nat Reed point out the fact they have one of the best
deals in the country-they get subsidized for their crop, they get free water, the
state helps to clean it up, and then they have cheap labor.
H: Right. Yeah, it's one of the biggest welfare programs that the American people
support, and they don't even know it. It's huge corporate welfare. Of course, the
Fanjuls go nuts when you use that phrase, but that's exactly what it is. It's a
handout; it's a big, fat, juicy hand-out. The sort of thing that politicians love to
scream and yell about-if it's some unwed mother with three kids, they would be
raising hell, but if it's two multimillionaires in Palm Beach, it's okay.
P: Let me quote another statement from Nat Reed and particularly in line with your
comments on the sugar industry: "Hiaasen, with laughter and a rapier, has
skewed most of the Everglades opponents more than once. He knows how to
hurt, and he knows how to make you cry with laughter." I notice you have applied
that quite a few times over the years, specifically to the sugar industry. Although
they're not the only one, it is very clear that you have had a very strong sense of
the violation of the environment by sugar.
H: I did, and part of it was based on their reaction to the initial...the very early stages
of the Everglades movement, if you will, was complete intransigence, complete
disavowal of any responsibility for what'd been done. That, more than anything,
inspired those kind of problems. Now, they got their thinking adjusted a little bit,
they want to be good citizens, but at first it was complete arrogance. Complete
arrogance. It was basically we can do whatever we want, [so] go screw yourself.
At that point, you have to go at them with both knuckles. A good bit of ridicule is
something that they, of course, despise. They would rather be screeched at than
made fun of, so whenever possible, I like to do that, and I try to do that. Any
column I can, if I can turn it into that kind of a column, I will. Every time I think a
brief glint of some sort of conscience, thinking to myself, gee, have I been too
tough on them, all I got to do is pick up the Palm Beach Shiny Sheet, the society
pages, and look at the party rosters for the Fanjul social schedule. Again, this is
money that the taxpayers have stuffed into their pockets to live this kind of a life,
so that their crop will get sold at a guaranteed price and so that crops out of
Jamaica and other poor countries that could use some capital don't get it. I
mean, then all the sympathy evaporates in the world. They're just fine, and I
haven't hurt them any. But the one thing that they do fear is that shift in public
opinion. They could care less about whether I'm making fun of them, but they do
care if the politicians start reacting to calls from constituents who're reacting to
either a column I wrote or a speech Nat gives or whoever gets up and rants and
raves. Again, as much as I loathe that industry for what it has done, I'm not going
to sit here and say they're the big, only culprit. That's too easy. They aren't. It lets
off everybody up and down both coasts.
P: Dairy, citrus...
H: Dairy, absolutely. Cattle ranchers. All of them have been dumping crap into the
Everglades. And not least of all are the municipalities that have changed their
master-growth plans to build all the way up to the rim of the Everglades. Look at
what the Broward County Commission did to expand all the way up to the dikes
into wetlands that were all part of the original Everglades drainage basin. That's
just a massacre. You can't attack Big Sugar and let these other folks off the hook
and say, oh, they're just being responsive office-holders by expanding the
boundaries and increasing their tax-roll. It's all the same; it's the same crime.
P: You did a really good column on the Sawgrass Expressway.
H: Oh yeah, for all the good it did. That's a classic example. That was built for
developers; that wasn't built because they needed a highway out there. And now
you see what it has done.
P: Big Sugar demonstrated their clout by defeating Amendment Four. Although Nat
Reed and the environmentalists spent a lot of money, a lot of the writers
supported that, in the end, Big Sugar was able to defeat it. How did they do that?
H: TV. It was just a classic counterattacking and misleading TV ads. That'll do it
every time. They told people the tax will mean it'll cost them more to buy sugar.
They said it was a tax on the consumer, and it wasn't. It was never going to be
passed along to the consumer. That was a complete lie from the beginning. But if
you say it enough times and you spend enough money... They outspent the
environmental expenditures two or three to one, at least. I don't remember, but
they spent a ton of money on it.
P: They even admit to spending at least $20 [million].
H: At least $20 [million], I'm sure. It was an astonishing thing that they did, but that
was to be expected. You knew they were going to come back. You know, that's
part of the system. You could see it coming, and I wasn't that bitter or
disappointed. I mean, it was disappointing, but what was encouraging was, A, it
had gotten on the referendum, and B, that many people had turned out. And it
put the fear of God into them; it scared the piss out of those people.
P: And Amendment Five passed.
H: Yes, and Amendment Five passed, so it just went to show you that the sentiment
and the will of the people was that someone has to pay for this damage, but we
don't want to pay at the grocery store, which is exactly the kind of misdirection
that these guys specialize in. They won the referendum, but in the end, they
didn't win. Public opinion of them is still low, and they know it's low. That's why
they're doing everything they can to look like they're out there as friends of the
alligators, doing whatever they can.
P: Are environmentalists much stronger today in political and economic terms than
they were ten or fifteen years ago?
H: Yes, absolutely. I don't think you would see [George W.] Bush backpedaling on
all his energy stuff already and mealy-mouthing about conservation. You know,
he's already shut up about the Arctic Refuge in Alaska, because he doesn't think
he's got the votes. Yes, I think they're much stronger. Do I think they're
organized? Not as organized as they should be. Are they effective? Sometimes. I
mean, I think some groups are very good and effective. I think that there's so
much work to be done in so many different places in this country, around the
world, that it's very hard to expect them all to be marching to the same drummer
or all on the same page. These are people who care and they're vocal, and it's
to be expected that they aren't going to agree on how to fix the Everglades. But
at some point, political expediency has to sink in. I think some of them, to be
honest, have forgotten what it was like fifteen years ago when you got laughed at
when you talked about endangered alligators. Alligators were an endangered
species; they forget about that. When you talk about the fact that politicians
wouldn't devote a paragraph of a speech when they were running for governor to
any kind of conservation measures, and now you have battles going on, almost
in every part of the coastline of the state where development is taking place, over
these issues. It has made environmentalists out of the meek and mild electorate
that normally wouldn't even show up at a city council meeting or a zoning board
meeting. Republican, Democrat, it doesn't matter; it's a quality-of-life issue, and I
always tell people that. Here in the Keys, it's a big issue. If you make this as ugly
as Hialeah, Florida, then your tourism is going to reflect that; it's going to go
down, and everyone suffers. Then if you start talking in terms of, oh yeah, you're
right; gosh, if the reefs die, then the charter boat business dies. It has to come
down to money, ultimately, people's pocketbooks, and then they say, you're right;
it's good economic sense not to destroy the beauty of a place, not to wreck the
ecology of a place like Florida. It's stupid to destroy it, even for a real-estate
sale. There's definitely a bigger price to pay now for some of the most egregious
kind of developments. The battles, they still end up winning most of them,
because they've got the money and they've got the politicians, the development
interests, but the fights are longer and costlier. What has happened is that a lot of
the folks are, like Nat Reed, successful in life. They can afford lawyers, they can
afford to sue, they can afford to tie you up. At some point, some companies say,
you know what, this isn't going to be worth it, it's going to be ugly, and we're
going to be in the headlines, and it's going to take a lot of time; let's see if we
can change this and don't do this; reduce the density. These things are
happening more and more. I can't say I'm optimistic, because I think the general
thrust of most development is to see a piece of property and envision how many
people we can stick on it, how many people we can cram in there, how many will
they let us stick on it, shoehorn in? I think that's probably never going to change.
P: Well, there's a problem now. I noticed that last year the legislature of Florida
almost did away with growth-management laws. This year, they took money out
of Preservation 2000. In Washington, the oil barons are now in charge of the
energy policy. That looks like a movement that's going to undermine the
environmentalists, doesn't it?
H: Absolutely. It's all very scary. But also, the public isn't going to put up with the oil
barons running this country for more than four years. Bush thinks he can scare
people into thinking, just let me have my way and gas prices are going to go
down. That isn't going to happen in four years, first of all. Second of all, he's
being ripped up left and right by a lot of people for it, and I don't think he can take
four years of that kind of heat. It'll be bad in the short-term. You know, he wants
to start oil-drilling up in the panhandle, and his own brother doesn't want him to
do that. But by the time that gets up and running, he would have to be well into
his second term, and I think what happens is towards the end of about the third
year in office, these people like Bush start saying, I don't want to rile anybody,
and all of a sudden these ideas kind of shrink away again. So, I'm not sure it's
going to go that far, and I think that people are pretty hip to the fact that Dick
Cheney is running the country, and Dick Cheney's people are running the
country. I would be very surprised if, at the present rate he's going, George W.
Bush has any shot of winning Florida again, especially now that we got the new
voting machines coming. But I think you're going to see, and you're seeing, that
this kind of stuff galvanized and unified the environmental movement. There's
big money in the environmental movement right now. There are a lot of people
with money, and they'll tie him up in knots. They'll spend money on counter-
advertising, and they'll do things that little Georgie can't imagine. The public
appetite for this, his constituency for these kind of policies, [is] basically the
western states only. There's no constituency in the East for it. California heat
[referring to the energy crisis in California] is a lost cause. He's got the western
bloc of states, and, frankly, most people don't live out there. He can't afford to
alienate the rest of the country to please Texas and the western bloc states. And,
these things take time, these great changes that he wants. Again, it's going to
start getting closer to his second term, and he's going to be catching flak left and
right. I don't know. I'm hopeful that the opposition will have made an [impact].
Already, he's showing signs of queasiness about some of this stuff. Somebody's
gotten to him and said, look, you're getting creamed. In terms of what our
legislature is doing, you know, we just have a bunch of... they're pathetic. Every
year, they try to get away with more and more stuff. This is where it's so
important to have strong editorial positions, strong columns, just good strong
vigilant journalists who're watching, because so much of what happens in
Tallahassee is done secretly and you find out after the fact. Looting Preservation
2000 is just the beginning, I imagine. You have a couple of real jokers who are
positions of strong power in the [Florida] House and the [Florida] Senate, and this
stuff is kind of dull day-to-day stuff that it's hard to [get] voters and readers
interested in until it's something that appears in front of them that the change
affects their life so directly, either visually or some other way, that then they're
mad, then they want to raise a ruckus; by then, it's sometimes too late, so it's a
challenge to keep people worked up about it.
P: If you look at the last day of the session and all the stuff they added, the debate
over the [State University System's Board of] Regents, the Democrats were
given fifteen minutes-not even that, five minutes or something-to discuss that
bill. I mean, the Republican majority pushed through a tremendous amount, and I
don't know if we know yet some of the details in that.
H: No, we don't.
P: Let me just ask a couple of questions, and then I'll let you go. I was very intrigued
by your book Team Rodent. What persuaded you to write that book, and I am
sure Michael Eisner [CEO of Disney] loved it.
H: No, he didn't. Random House had this little series of books they were going to do
for a Library of Contemporary Thought, [and] they called me and said, we're
trying to get a bunch of writers on board for this; anything you want to just rant
and rave about, a short little book, think about it, just anything that ticks you off
that you haven't written that much about. So, I said yeah, I could write about
Disney, because I think they've had a tremendous impact on Florida, but I think
they've also had a huge sort of financial and cultural and every way impact on
American society. It's their philosophy that their way is the only way and the best
way. I see Disney World as a metaphor for all of it, because of what happened in
Central Florida, the phoniness of all of it, the fatuousness of it. The idea of putting
this theme park, which I'll be the first to admit is just an incredible technical
achievement, in a place that could be anywhere. I mean, the fact is you could be
anywhere. Disney World could be in Omaha, Nebraska, because it's so
insulated and so alien to the true Florida experience, and that's, for someone
who cares about Florida, a source of some resentment. They transformed the
tourist economy of Florida, and they certainly turned Central Florida into a
parking lot, and a tacky one at that. It has a lot of impact. You know, I'm one of
these people who the few times I had to cover stories there and I have had to go
up there enough times that I devoutly hope I never have to go back again. It was
just a good subject to ruminate on because, you know, they took the same
philosophy that they applied in Florida, and now it's Times Square. They went to
what had been the slimiest place in urban America to clean it up. It was just
interesting, and I had written enough about them in news stories and the columns
about stuff that happened. You mentioned about hypocrisy. That was one of the
underlying themes in that novel, is that how they act and how they present
themselves and how they really behave as a corporate citizen are two different
things. Since then, the horror stories I have gotten from employees. I mean, there
are many, many books that have been done, and there are many more to be
done about what Disney is really like. But that was really an old, old-fashioned
essay form, small paper, a pamphleteer sort of thing, and it was fun to do; it was
a good riff and free-wheeling ...
P: I was interested in the building of their utopian community. I know you're aware
that most of the building was shoddy and had to be repaired, and they of course
took no responsibility whatsoever for that.
P: They aren't really good citizens, are they?
H: Not in my view, no. They're just like any other big company. What's interesting,
the subdivision-what is the name of their dream community-to show you how
they've captured, and successfully captured, the American myth, people go there
and see it as a tourist [attraction]. It's a subdivision, and the tourists stop there
and wander around expecting to see, what, Mickey and Goofy playing in the
yards. I don't know, but it's such a problem that the people who really live there
have these signs in the yards that tell people, this isn't a tourist exhibit, we live
here, please don't come into our house. Because you had people walking in.
That's what I mean. It's truly more about illusion than about the reality. For the
employees, certainly, it's a different world. When they get involved in lawsuits,
they're a big, bare-knuckled hard-ass company. The one I mentioned in there
was the security guards, rent-a-cops, that they use...chased him off the property
and had a car accident, this kid, and the family just trying to find out what
happened had to go through hell and back. And, of course, for the longest time,
the judges up in Central Florida did whatever Disney wanted them to do. They
really do have their own government, their own fiefdom. Extraordinary autonomy.
P: Reedy Creek.
H: Reedy Creek, yes. It's really an amazing thing to see basically the entire state
system of law-and-order and government, judiciary, everything, roll over for one
company, and that's what happened when Disney came to Florida. They haven't
had such luck other places, thank God. The Virginia theme park thing ...
P: They lost badly there.
H: Yes, they did.
P: They have more lawyers than anybody else.
H: Yes, they do. Yeah, it was just a fun thing to do, and it was made more fun by the
fact that it was the same company that was doing Eisner's autobiography. That
made it even more humorous for me and not so humorous for him.
P: I understand he denied he read it but had told them he didn't like it.
H: Yeah. He sent a note to my editor [being] critical of it, so if he hadn't read it, I
don't know how he could make the criticism. He had uncommon knowledge of
what was in it for someone who hadn't read it. He was on NPR [National Public
Radio]-I wish I had heard that interview. He isn't known for his sense of humor.
Let's put it like that. He isn't famous for his sense of humor.
P: You'll be interested to know I gave that book to Glenda Hood, who is the mayor
of Orlando. She hadn't read it and was quite intrigued by it, about what was in it.
H: Yeah, that'll make her day.
P: She ought to know, right?
H: I would say, absolutely.
P: Let me conclude with a couple of broad-based questions. I realize you're still in
the middle of your career, but when you look back on your time as a journalist
and as a writer, what would you think would be your greatest contribution to your
community and the state?
H: I don't know. I mean, I honestly don't know. I would like to think I was really just
another voice that raised the awareness of the public to certain issues. Really, if
nothing else, I think the columns have served as a signal to, I hope, lots of
readers and people living in the community, that it's all right to get up and say
what you think. We live in South Florida, a place where lots of people are scared
to get up and say what they think; they're scared to stand up and make a
statement. They're really worried, and that's intolerable. So when you write a
strong column, suddenly people realize that it's okay to have strong opinions.
This is what America is all about, and it's good to remind them of that. I think
that's some value, that I take comfort in knowing that people might be less afraid
to take a stand because they see it can be done without any dire consequences.
In terms of, I don't know, legacy, newspaper work is all transitory. I hope the
novels are read. It would be lovely if they're read fifty years from now and people
laugh and say, hey, I know what he was talking about, the way John
MacDonald's [books] are read now, and maybe they will still laugh and they will
still see some relevance to some of the issues.
P: The condominiums.
H: Yeah. In terms of the newspaper work, I probably am most proud of a project we
did that stopped a couple huge big condo projects up on Card Sound Road in
north Key Largo, where they were going to turn that into basically a huge city of
condos and apartments. Card Sound Road, or County Road 905, is a beautiful
stretch of north Key Largo that they were perfectly prepared to rape and pillage
until we wrote about them. Brian Duffy and I did a series about it, and it was all
being done quite improperly and illegally and eventually it all collapsed. The state
has bought a lot of that property now and it's still under protection, but every
time I make that little drive, instead of taking the Jewfish Creek exit out at the
key, I go up Card Sound Road, just because it's still green and it's still living, for
the most part, hardwood hammock up there. A lot of that is destined for
destruction, so I feel good that [I was able to help save it]. I mean, we didn't
single-handedly stop it, but it was the classic example, you put on the front page
and people have to pay attention, as reluctant as they are to go against the
banks and developers. There was so much wrong with it, and it had been
approved so casually and hastily that everybody had to get involved, and it
eventually fell apart, which was good. It wasn't glamorous, we didn't put anybody
in jail, but it was really the last stand of. ..
P: Plus, you did stop a McDonald's here.
H: I don't know if I did. The people got together and did it.
P: Well, but it demonstrates that it can be done.
H: Oh, absolutely. They're still trying to get it in, by the way. They're still trying to get
that through. But, no, that was a case of people just showing up, and that's what I
mean. That's what gives you some hope, is when you have people who care
about their neighborhood, and you have a bus stop and the little kids playing.
They say they're going to put in a McDonald's-the last thing you need in
Islamorada, Florida, is another fast-food joint. It's an anathema. A lot of folks felt
that way and they made a difference, and that's the lesson you try to teach
people. I'm just one person writing a column that may or may not be on-the-
money, but if it's your life and involves your kids and your family and equality of
life, if you turn out in enough numbers, you're going to intimidate the politician
into listening to you. Otherwise, you aren't going to be heard, and that's the sad
truth, is you aren't going to be heard unless you show up. And to the extent that
the columns get people riled up enough to make them show up, then I feel good
about it. I don't take a credit for it, but I feel good about it.
P: How many papers do you appear in?
H: I don't know. It just depends. I mean, the columns are syndicated, but the column
is strictly about Florida or South Florida. It probably is very limited. Then the
national columns, I guess there are a few, but nothing like Dave Barry or
anything. But I never know, because they have a choice of running them or not
running them. It's around the country. I get letters from all around the country.
P: One reason for your success might be that your ripostes aren't caustic, and
they're tinged with a sense of humor so that, although you make a strong
statement, you don't appear to be too judgmental. Is that a fair assessment?
H: That's a charitable assessment. I think that some of the targets of the columns
would argue with that. I mean, there are times when I'm very judgmental, I think,
when what has happened is so obvious that it's an insult to the intelligence of
the readers to presume that they don't know something [about] how things work.
But I think what I do try to do is limit the scope of the column to some individual
thing, an action, a vote, something that was done that was wrong that needs to
be fixed. You know, I don't think you want to do a broadside; I think you want to
be specific. And I certainly don't have any trouble saying something laudatory
about Jeb Bush or whomever when they have taken a courageous stand on
something, what I perceive to be courageous or out of political character for
them. By the same token, I don't have any qualms about kicking them in the
knees when I think they've really sold the citizens down the river on something.
But you have to have that ability, I mean, if you're going to be tough on them for
doing something you think is wrong, you also have to be fair; when they do
something that took some courage, you have to be able to say that, too, and I've
done that many times. Not as often as I would like, because I haven't seen
evidence of it as often as I would like. Generally speaking, these things unfold
predictably, and the pattern of behavior has been going on for a long time. So,
you're so delighted when somebody suddenly goes against the grain-Democrat
or Republican, it doesn't matter-and does something that you don't expect and
say, lookit, here's where we draw the line and we aren't going to do this
anymore. That you're so elated that you have to mention it. That's the extent of
P: But people don't see you as an ideologue like Rush Limbaugh [conservative
media pundit] or Pat Buchanan [former Nixon aide and co-host of CNN's
Crossfire] or anybody like that, do they?
H: I would hope not. No, because I think it's vital to have the ability to, as I said
before, I would be uncomfortable knowing, for instance, if a Democrat or
Republican liked everything I wrote. I mean, you have to be, and I've said it
before, an equal-opportunity son of a bitch-that's my job. I have to be able to
write about . it wouldn't matter: party, liberal or conservative. It doesn't matter.
Wrong is wrong, right is right, and, presumably, you're writing the column
because you have a strong sense about that, strong feelings and positions about
what's right and what's wrong, and, presumably, that's why they gave you a
newspaper column. It doesn't mean you can't be an ideologue because, you
know, it's all well and good to say that we have this disastrous Republican
legislature right now, and they're pretty bad, but you could go back and look at a
lot of Democratic legislatures and see the money that was looted and pillaged
and handed out to friends and sold. A lot of what happened to the most precious
parts of Florida, a lot of the raping and destruction, went on [during] a Democratic
watch, too. So, one can hardly sit here and say, oh yeah, the Democrats are
great environmentalists in Florida. That's a crock. Here in the Keys, for example,
most of the most outspoken environmentalists are Republicans. So, these
generalizations, you always have to be mindful of that. God, you would hate to be
anything as predictable as Rush Limbaugh or any of these guys. I mean, they're
so boring. The whole idea is to be able to react as independently. You can be
just as ornery, but you can't put labels on. I mean, right is right and wrong is
wrong. You see good being done by people who aren't always behaving that
way, and you still have to say, this was a good thing he did, he put his neck on
the line, but it was okay. Even if it kills you and you know that, deep down, the
guy is morally a wretch, you still have to say, that took a little bit of courage, and
give him credit for it. That's the only way. You got to reward them for something.
You can't be on them all the time.
P: But you always have to be sort of a curmudgeon, do you not?
H: I think you do. I don't think you want to be friends with them. Part of it is the role
that you see yourself different. People have different visions of a newspaper
column. Some are very comfortable writing about walking their dog or a funny
thing that happened at the supermarket. That's never been my style. There are
places for those kinds of columns in newspapers, but my mission has always
been to get out there, mix it up and be right in the middle of it and be on top of
the news. You're going to get enemies, you're going to get flak, but to be relevant
and germane and topical and all that means getting off the fence. And some days
are better than others; some days you wrestle. Not everything is black-and-white,
and some days you struggle and you don't really know-what's going on behind
the scenes, why's he acting this way? Every column is a risk to that extent. But
my experience has been, it's much riskier to say something nice about a
politician than it is to say something tough, because, by and large, sadly, they'll
disappoint you if you invest the hope that they're the guys in the white hats, or
the women in the white hats. Something you learn as a reporter long before you
start the column is that when you go into writing about any situation, nobody's all
good, nobody's all evil, and you have to take everything with a grain of salt. I
mean, I remember vividly sitting down in Marathon, Florida, with the captain of
the marine patrol who had, I thought, courageously gone in and pointed out to
the prosecutor a drug case that he thought had been fixed, a big boatload of
marijuana, I mean, five tons of grass had been plea-bargained down to
misdemeanor possession of five grams or less, in like a week. He gave me all
the names, and, sure enough, it panned out into a very good story. Very
suspicious-how did this case get knocked down to nothing? Obviously,
somebody got to pay. I thought, well, this guy was ballsy for doing this to me. It
was part of a series we were working about drug corruption in Key West. So we
did the [story]. It wasn't a year later he was arrested for taking money from a
smuggler for misdirecting marine patrol surveillance on another side of an island
so that a drug boat could come in on one way. He had the ability to make that
phone call and get them out of the way, and it was all on tape, him doing this. All
been set up. Here, it was just a classic example of, gee, I thought he was a good
guy, I thought he was one of the guys in the white hats, and he wasn't. The case
against him was eventually dropped, because the warrant was faulty where they
had put the bug in. It was thrown out later by a judge, so he's off the marine
patrol, but he never went to jail for it. But the fact is his voice was clear as a bell
on tape. There he is, a guy that I thought . .. So you learn early on that
everybody has an agenda and that everybody is human and that there aren't any
superheroes. You got to be ready to write whatever you have to write about
whomever you have to write about, good or bad.
P: One final question, then. What do you want to accomplish in the future?
H: I can't answer that question. The only thing I want to do is to keep writing
columns that mean something, about things that are important. When that
becomes impossible to do, for whatever reason, then I stop. I think as a writer
you're really just trying to stay afloat. If you're realistic, you don't have any grand
ambitions beyond that next sentence you're trying to write. You want every
sentence to be better than the last one that you wrote, and as a novelist, that's
what you do. Even as a columnist, you want every column to be better than your
last column. You're at the mercy of the headlines and the events of the day, of
editors. I mean, it's all you can do to bang the damn thing out and get 700
cogent words into the newspaper. Most days, you're grateful, you're delighted,
when that happens. If you're a realist, you don't think in terms of making a
difference; you think in terms of doing a good job, writing the best thing you can
write, and then it's up to the readers and voters and citizens to decide how they
want to react. That's all you can do. You aren't proselytizing, you aren't
preaching, you aren't running a pep-rally. All you're doing, this is me, it's my
opinion only, take it or leave it, but here's what is happening and here's why it's
important to you. If that lights a fire under people, then you're blessed. If it
doesn't, then you suck it in and you try it next time. But that's all. It really is just
keeping afloat and trying not to lose your love of the language and your skills and
your sharpness. You know, I don't have any grand ambition except to keep the
same sort of level of honesty up. I always joke around with my editor at the
Herald. I say, look, when the day comes when I turn in a column about
something funny that started growing in my garden the other day, I just want you
to come up behind me and put a bullet in my head and drag me away from my
desk, because it's over. I think the thing you can't and don't want to do ever in my
job is get mellow. I think that would be the end. I've seen writers who mellow out
and chill out and say, oh, it's okay. I think staying angry is the most important
thing to do if you write the kind of things I write. Even the humor, it all comes from
anger. I mean, satire has always come from a sense of anger and injustice. Mark
Twain, [Jonathan] Swift, whoever was writing it, they were all writing about
something very serious and something that really upset them, and they were
making people laugh at the same time-a tough thing to do. But [when] you lose
that anger and you get a little too passive and mellowed out, then you're of no
use at all to the readers, in my opinion, at least in my job.
P: That's great. On that note, I will end the interview, and I thank you for your time.
H: Thank you.
[End of the interview.]