Log Cabin Chronicles

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OF COURSE YOU CAN HAVE ICE CREAM FOR BREAKFAST
A Journalist's Uncommon Memoir

RON COHEN

This book was published by Trafford Publishing and can be ordered in hard cover, soft cover, and digital format from the Trafford Book Store and from Amazon.com and Amazon.ca


"THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT!"

In 40-plus years in journalism, I heard these terrible words twice. The first was November 22, 1963, and nobody alive back then ever will forget exactly where they were and what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a presidential motorcade in Dallas.

As a junior staffer in UPI's small Hartford bureau, I was scarcely more than a spectator as our national reporters monopolized the wires for four days with stories covering every angle of his assassination.

The distance between Connecticut and Washington is but 400 miles, but my bureau might as well have been on Mars that weekend. For hours I was hunched, mesmerized, over our clackety-clacking teletype machines, reading one riveting story after another carrying bylines of UPI colleagues I knew only by their names on the wire.

For his brilliant coverage of the murder of the young president, UPI White House reporter Merriman Smith would win a Pulitzer Prize, journalism's highest award. But that weekend in Hartford, as I marveled at the skills of Smitty and his colleagues, I could only dream that someday I might win a transfer to Washington to "play with the big boys." A decade later I joined UPI's most important reporting bureau, but not just as a teammate to a roomful of established stars. I would be their boss.

On March 30, 1981, just a couple of months after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as America's 40th president, I heard the horrible words for the second time. The president has been shot.

Reagan was targeted by John Warnock Hinckley, a young man haplessly, hopelessly lovesick over an actress he never could possibly have. And I found myself not a few hundred miles away in some small bureau but right smack in the middle of a story as difficult to corral as Jell-O.

It was Monday after Gridiron Club weekend. No, that has nothing to do with football. Gridiron members are journalists who cannot throw a tight spiral but can throw a wonderful annual white-tie-and-tails dinner to poke fun at "Official Washington." Guests, usually including the president, must at least act as if they enjoy four hours of speeches, skits, and song parodies lampooning ridiculously easy targets - - the politicians, the pundits, and the journalists themselves.

Attending his first Gridiron as president, Reagan was surprised and delighted to discover that his wife, Nancy, target of merciless criticism for imperial taste as she put her fashion stamp on White House drapes and china patterns, had slipped from her head table seat to reappear on stage in tattered rags, singing amusing new lyrics to the old Roaring Twenties hit, "Second-Hand Rose." Her parody, "Second-Hand Clothes", delighted her husband, charmed detractors, captured front-page encomiums, and brilliantly melted her ice queen image. Less than 48 hours later her husband, the president, would be fighting for his life at George Washington University Hospital.

I had come to work that Monday morning with a big-time headache. It also was my first Gridiron show, and I had sung silly lyrics on stage with my fellow hams. Plus, I had seen my lyrics from Nancy Reagan's show-stopping "Second-Hand Clothes" lauded on the front pages of newspapers across the country. My aching head was the result of too much "party hearty."

Things were quiet in the newsroom early Monday afternoon, so I told night desk editor David Wiessler I was going to return my rental tux, then take the bus home. But with a few minutes to kill before the bus came I decided to run back upstairs to the office just to make sure everything still was under control.

It wasn't. The lazy tableau I had left 20 minutes ago was bedlam: teletype bells clanging out bulletins, staffers barking into phones. Relief creases Wiessler's face with the discovery that I am not actually on a bus going home, and he shouts to me, "The President's been shot!"

I rush to a computer to lead a legion of rewrite deskers who will serve as UPI's nerve center the next 12 hours. I begin assembling a preliminary story basedon bits and pieces of information from our White House reporters, especially Dean Reynolds, who had been UPI's man on the scene at the Washington Hilton Hotel.

In the dozen hours following the fateful shots, the frenzy never abated. Lead writers churned out dozens of updated versions of the main story, every word under Dean's byline. Reynolds had been inches from the presidential limousine, which was idling outside the hotel when Hinckley fired six shots that wounded Reagan; his press secretary, Jim Brady; a D.C. police officer; and a Secret Service agent.

Reynolds raced the wrong way up a hotel escalator and dashed across the lobby to the check-in desk where he grabbed the phone from a startled clerk and dictated UPI's bulletin.

Thirty-five years later and now a widely admired network television correspondent, Reynolds recalls:

"I remember that day like it was yesterday. My first call was answered by Eliot Brenner, who was on the desk. And my first words, I believe, were, 'Shots were fired at President Reagan as he left a Washington hotel.'

"Eliot was calm and collected as I went on describing the scene. I remember momentarily losing my composure at the enormity of what I was dictating. "‘Get back! Get back!' yelled the Secret Service agents. Eliot could hear the emotion in my voice and just said, 'Steady, partner.' I will always remember those words and the underlying meaning - - that we were all partners, every day, at UPI."

His recollection brilliantly summed up the ethos that carried United Press International through 80 years of competition at the pinnacle of the journalism world."We were all partners, every day, at UPI."

My computer screen is just a few steps from where Wiessler sits in "the slot." All of our stories will flow to him for final approval before he pushes a computer button and sends them flying out on the wire to UPI subscribers all over the world. I position reporter Pat Koza at my side, to be my eyes and ears. She clutches the TV remote for dear life.

Of course, this being UPI, we had only one television set.

Like Siamese twins, we are inseparable for what will seem like forever. No need for instructions - - Pat knows exactly what I will be needing: Keep clicking the remote and changing the channels. I must know exactly what the networks are reporting at every second.

Across the city, our reporters scramble for tidbits. Secretary of State Alexander Haig takes the podium in the White House briefing room and proclaims, grandiloquently: "As of now, I am in control here, in the White House ..." Haig, a retired Army general accustomed to delivering orders obeyed swiftly and absolutely, has blithely ignored the Constitution's order of presidential succession. When the president is incapacitated, the vice president, in this case George H. W. Bush, takes over. After that come the speaker of the House and the Senate president, respectively. Secretary of State is fifth, so Alexander Haig isn't even close to being "in control here." That careless burst of bravado will make a man who had devoted his entire adult life to his country the butt of cruel jokes forever.

On Capitol Hill, UPI staffers buttonhole everyone, furiously hunting any nugget. We transmit everything we can quickly confirm - - reaction, analyses, a history of attacks on presidents, how the country will be governed until Reagan recovers.

If he recovers.

Several reporters are working from a makeshift briefing room at George Washington University Hospital, where the president is in surgery. In a nearby operating room, Press Secretary Jim Brady lies unconscious as a neurosurgical team races to control his brain hemorrhaging. Brady's prognosis is beyond grim. Any moment, we are certain, we will be reporting that Jim Brady has died.

This stuff is the meat and potatoes of a wire service, its very raison d'etre. Using our internal message wire, we implore bureaus around the country to unearth anything, however insignificant it may seem, on John Hinckley and Jodie Foster, the young actress who was the unwitting muse behind his rampage.

Our reporters react with alacrity. The Denver bureau tracks down the gunman's family in suburban Evergreen. John Hinckley Sr., chairman of Vanderbilt Energy Corp., had contributed big bucks to George Bush's unsuccessful presidential challenge to Reagan in 1980. In fact, Hinckley's older brother, Scott, has a dinner date the following night with Bush's son, Neil. Interesting, if not crucial. It goes into our story.

Sixteen minutes after the shooting, our Dallas bureau reports that the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has learned that Hinckley purchased a $47 handgun at Rocky's Pawn Shop in Dallas. Plus, Hinckley had been an inconsistent and vaguely intermittent student at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Into the story it goes.

The six illegal and almost always fatal "Devastator" bullets Hinckley fired are specifically configured to explode on impact. The first two hit Brady and the D.C. cop; the third a building across the street; the fourth the Secret Service agent and the fifth bounces off the bullet-resistant window of the presidential limo. The final one ricochets off the limo and through Reagan's left rib cage, settling in his lung. Luckily none exploded, or four men likely would be dead. Into the story this goes.

UPI staffers in Nashville report that Hinckley had been arrested on gun charges in 1980 for stalking Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter.

My old bureau chips in. Hartford staffers get in touch with Jodie Foster, who is a student at Yale. She has no idea this deranged young man has shot the president in an inconceivably aberrant effort to impress her. Jodie Foster, famous actress and now Ivy League coed. Into our story.

From UPI's Vernon Scott in Los Angeles comes word that Hinckley's infatuation with Foster began a few years earlier when he saw the film "Taxi Driver" for the first of at least 15 times. Hinckley apparently identified with Robert De Niro's character, Travis Bickle, a cabbie who befriended a 12-year-old prostitute played by Foster. Toward the end of the film, to impress her, Bickle attempted to assassinate a senator running for president.

Bickle. Hinckley. Could this possibly get more bizarre?

As Hinckley's obsession with Foster grew, he followed her around the country, even enrolling in a creative writing course at Yale in 1980. He began writing and phoning her, refusing to take no for an answer. At her wit's end, reports our Hartford gang, she turned the matter over to New Haven police.

But Hinckley fled before authorities could investigate. Appropriating the film's narrative, he decides to kill a politician to impress Foster, who many years later would, ironically, reveal she is a lesbian. Muttering "You couldn't make this stuff up," I fold in Vernon Scott's contributions.

In mid-afternoon our wire service competitors, the Associated Press and Reuters, report that the shambling Brady, whom reporters adore and endearingly call "The Bear," has died on the operating room table. UPI-only subscribers on deadline jam our switchboard with frantic calls, and are told UPI hasn't been able to confirm Brady's death. My mood darkens. We are getting creamed on an important piece of the biggest news story in years.

When reporter Peter Brown phones in from GW, I tell him, "Find out if Brady is dead. I don't care how - - steal scrubs and burst into the operating room." We cannot get back into this crucial competition without confirmation on Brady. I don't try to sugarcoat our dismal predicament.

"Peter, dammit, FIND OUT IF BRADY'S DEAD!"

Clicking her clicker, Pat Koza lands on ABC as veteran anchorman Frank Reynolds is informing viewers Brady is dead, quoting both AP and Reuters. The pressure on us mounts. From Capitol Hill, veteran reporter Steve Gerstel calls to say he has just been told by Tennessee Senator Howard Baker that Brady is dead. I've never trusted any reporter more than the peerless Gerstel, and I know he and Baker are great pals. But I tell Steve no - - it must come from a responsible source at the hospital.

Suddenly Peter Brown is on my line.
"Brady's alive!" he shouts.
"Who says?"
"Nofziger!"

Lyn Nofziger. At Reagan's side from the back lots at Warner Bros. movie studios in Hollywood, to the governor's mansion in Sacramento, and now to the pinnacle, the White House. Nofziger's word is plenty good enough for me.

We rush out a bulletin. Everyone else is wrong, UPI is right. Brady is alive. Stay tuned. Frank Reynolds, eyes flashing angrily as he reads our bulletin, dramatically pounds his desk and thunders, "This is a man's life we're talking about!" I raise my eyes briefly from my computer keyboard to shout at the TV: "Believe the UPI story, you idiot - - the one that's GOT YOUR SON'S NAME ON IT!!" Of course he can't hear me - - but it's true. Frank Reynolds is Dean's dad.

Brady's continued presence on the planet goes immediately into our story. Thank you, Lyn Nofziger. Great job, Peter Brown.

That's how it works at UPI: The reporter at the scene gets the byline and glory, the vital supporting cast labors in anonymity. Some of the best rewrite men and women spent entire careers crafting brilliant stories under somebody else's byline. Teammates selflessly subjugating ego for the greater good is just one reason UPI was the best damned job I ever had. By miles.

When the last loose ends are finally tied up, about 2 a.m., I glance at the stack of stories spilling crazy-quilt off oversized clip-boards. Tens of thousands of words from dozens of reporters, crafted by brilliant writers under excruciatingly competitive deadlines. Never a false step. Nary a correction. Flawless contributions from bureaus from Atlantic to Pacific, and points in between. I have been a Unipresser for 20 years and I still only know some of that day's biggest heroes by their bylines on the wire. Thinking of that day still gives me goose bumps. Goose bumps writing this chapter, too. Merriman Smith, who committed suicide in 1969, would have been proud.

Pat Koza had missed her last bus hours ago, so I drive miles out of my way to take her home. We quietly replay the dozen hours we just had spent as a makeshift tag-team. Pat opens the car door and steps into the darkness in front of her house - - then leans back in through the window.

"That was the most amazing day I've ever spent," she says. "Thanks for letting me be part of it."

I love you, Pat Koza. I will always love you for that day, and now you and everybody else know it.

A year later, on April 5, 1982, UPI Managing Editor H. L. Stevenson phones from New York. In a few minutes the Pulitzer Prizes will be announced by my journalism alma mater, Columbia University.

"I just got a call from the Pulitzer board," Steve tells me. "You guys are runner-up in the national reporting category."

I am stunned. What could possibly have beaten out our coverage of the attempted murder of the president of the United States?

Soon I found out. It was Rick Atkinson of the Kansas City Star for "a series of national articles" about problems in the water supply of greater Kansas City. Now I have never met Atkinson, and I am sure he is a very fine fellow. But c'mon Pulitzer jurors, you are the cream of our profession. Drinking water in Kansas City versus "The President Has Been Shot?"

Atkinson would also share a Pulitzer in 1999 as a reporter for the Washington Post, and won another four years later for the first of a trilogy of bestsellers about World War II. Pulitzer scoreboard: Rick Atkinson, three; Ron Cohen, none.

Jim Brady spent 10 harrowing hours on the operating table and was still unconscious when they wheeled him, after midnight, into his room in GW Hospital's intensive care unit. A nurse sits with him through the night, periodically moistening his lips and watching the tiny lights on his respirator, blinking eerily green in the ICU blackness. Her weary eyes suddenly snap open. Have I nodded off? Am I hallucinating? Or had Jim Brady's right hand really moved? She stares hard at that hand and sure enough, a half-minute later - - "He's doing it again!"

Painfully, slowly, the Bear's claw reaches toward his nightstand, pulls a single sheet of Kleenex from its dispenser, crumples it and tosses it, super slo-mo, toward the trashcan. Dr. Arthur Kobrine, still asleep after performing a dozen hours of surgery, groggily picks up the phone that is ringing on his bedside night table. Not only is Jim Brady alive, Kobrine hears the ICU nurse say, he is conscious. "AND HE IS SHOOTING HOOPS!"

Kobrine, a renowned neurosurgeon, is a brusque, no-nonsense, seemingly unsentimental man. Whoever coined the praise-phrase "good bedside manner" probably never met Arthur Kobrine. Yet his heart leaps. Against overwhelming odds, he had saved Jim Brady's life. Maybe he is the only person on the planet who could have. When he looks into Brady's room a short time later, Kobrine sees the proof for himself: Wadded-up balls of Kleenex littering the perimeter of his patient's wastebasket. Now it just so happens that Dr. Kobrine in later years would perform three back surgeries on my wife, Jill. I've never seen a better doctor.

Brady's speech and brain functions were badly compromised, but he would survive for 33 years, largely confined to a wheelchair. He and his wife, Sarah, became tireless advocates for handgun control, and in 1993 Congress passed "The Brady Law" requiring federal background checks for handgun purchases. Sarah Brady died early in 2015, eight months after her husband.

Nine months after the shooting, in my capacity of chairman of the Washington Press Club's annual "Salute to Congress" dinner, we secretly invite Jim and Sarah Brady. Eight hundred formally dressed diners barely are settled into their seats in the dark ballroom of the Shoreham Hotel when a huge spotlight leaps to life and zeroes in on the two large double doors being pushed open.

And there is Sarah Brady wheeling her husband into the room and up the head table ramp, his first public appearance since that fateful afternoon last March. Crusty journalists shrug off their carefully nurtured cynicism and leap to their feet, whistling, shouting, stomping. And shedding tears of happiness.

At the head table, UPI's chief political reporter, Clay Richards, greets his fraternity brother with the Sigma Chi handshake and a "Hi, Brother Bear."

Brady, eyes moist, haltingly rasps his reply. "Thank you, UPI, for not killing me."

Rick Atkinson, congratulations on your Pulitzers.

Because Jim Brady's "thank you" is prize enough for me.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Ron Cohen recruited me in 1965 for the Vermont bureau of United Press International. Along with the late greats Jimmy Breslin of NYC and Ken Wild of Rutland, Vermont, Ron was one of my news heroes. He writes about Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast! A Journalist's Uncommon Memoir: The breezy, easy-to-read chapters cover my growing up years, my incredible Jewish and Italian relatives, my 41-year career as a professional journalist. It won advance praise from my pal, Ed Asner; from PBS News stalwarts Judy Woodruff and Mark Shields; from Dan Balz of the Washington Post, the best political reporter in the world; from Joe Galloway, my former UPI colleague, a war correspondent without peer and co-author of the best-seller, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young; and from another old friend, Jeanne Phillips, known to the world as Dear Abby.

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