By Brian McGrory
Published by Pocket Books
September 2002; 0-743-40352-5; 352 pages
Why is it that a seemingly inconsequential bud on an otherwise barren elm can lighten the darkest mood, or that a simple tulip, having pierced the earth on its April ascent toward the heavens, can melt the wintriest exterior and touch the coldest soul?
I pose these questions not out of any specific interest in nature or psychology, but only because rays of sunshine were suddenly caressing my pale, dry cheeks like the golden fingers of some generous god, allowing my heart to grow light and my thoughts to grow expansive. From where I was standing, the first light of morning appeared above the downtown skyline and cast a warm glow across the stately willows, the freshly filled duck pond, and the vibrant meadows of the Public Garden, in what felt like the virgin moments of a reluctant spring. Two weeks earlier, sixteen inches of snow had fallen on our quaint hamlet of Boston. The storm was followed by days of windswept rain that turned the blackened, crusty ice into deep puddles of unforgiving slush. And finally, meteorological salvation. Ah, but my benevolent mood gets away from me.
''Give me that,'' I said with mock seriousness, thrusting my hand into Baker's sizable mouth to pull out a muddy, slobber-soaked tennis ball.
No sooner had I grabbed it with my now-disgusting fingers than the fickle hound lost any semblance of interest, having directed his entire being toward a trio of squirrels playing in a nearby grove of trees. He stood frozen on the path, his right front leg delicately in the pointing position, casting an occasional sidelong glance my way to make sure I didn't do anything typically, foolishly human to disrupt his prey. Then he lunged toward them, sending the rodents scurrying in various directions for trees. He trotted in a wide circle, a victory lap of sorts, before walking back and taking the ball out of my hand with a half jump and a slight snort. Glad I could be of nominal use.
Rejuvenation. A renaissance, even. It was 6:30 in the morning as I peeled off my sweatshirt after a three-mile walk from the waterfront to the park and began skipping rope on an empty stretch of path. Baker roamed off in pursuit of more squirrels. My mind began wandering as well.
Things were good. Another hour of soothing sunshine and they might actually be excellent. I had moved from Washington to Boston, inarguably the greatest city in these United States. My heart was starting to feel whole again, or at least not shattered into a trillion fragments. Women seemed to find me interesting. I found myself fascinating. And I was on the verge of breaking one hell of a great story about our governor, the young Lance Randolph, lying about his prior record as a state prosecutor. Yes, good and getting better.
On about my fifth minute with the jump rope, it was either stop or die, so I caught my breath and began trotting around the pond toward the point of this Public Garden excursion, my meeting with Paul Ellis, who I could already see sitting on a wooden bench reading that day's paper.
Here, in a nutshell, is how that meeting would proceed:
Paul: ''Jack, I'd like you to come over to the front office and start acting like the newspaper executive that you're destined to be.''
Jack (that's me): ''No thank you.''
That would be followed by another temporary stalemate, which would be followed by another meeting next month. And so forth. In my mind, you string together enough temporality and you've created permanence. Or maybe not. We'd just have to wait and see, which I guess disproves the point.
Paul Ellis, by the way, is the publisher of The Boston Record, and as such, is not accustomed to hearing the word ''No'' with any great regularity, or even mild irregularity, as they describe it in all those TV commercials, especially from people like me, meaning people who work for him.
Allow me to explain. My name is Jack Flynn. I'm the senior investigative reporter for The Boston Record, a lofty position bestowed upon me after I wrote an exposé on a failed presidential assassination attempt a little more than two-and-a-half years ago. I was hurt in that shooting in more ways than one, and helped in other ways as well, but I'll spare you the details just now. The most important detail to keep in mind is that I'm home now.
Paul Ellis is, in the lingo of the business, my rabbi, an uncanny judge of talent who hired me at the Record, promoted me to my current job, gave me an equity stake in the company to persuade me from jumping ship to the Washington Post or the New York Times, and is now trying to convince me to become his heir apparent in the publisher's suite. That last bit is only partly out of respect for my abilities, more out of disdain for those of his younger cousin, Brent Cutter, currently the newspaper's president and the obvious choice to be the next publisher. That's just a theory, but my theories have a way of revolving into fact.
All of which, of course, leaves me with a choice. I could wear monogrammed custom-made shirts and dine on catered lunches as nervous vice presidents trek to my carpeted office with promises of shaving another 2.2 percent off the bottom line, or I could run around the city and its surrounding suburbs with a Bic Click and a yellow legal pad looking for news wherever I can find it, which isn't often where any normal person wants to be. So far, I choose the latter. Call me a moron, but I'm in love with words rather than numbers, emotion rather than profit. It comes down to how you want to live a life. Mine was being lived richer, but poorer, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, the Cutter-Ellis family has owned The Boston Record for one hundred and twenty-seven years, and over that time, has created not only one of the best family-owned newspapers in America, but one of the best newspapers of any kind. They've done it with equal parts journalistic savvy and unabashed paternalism. I'm a case in point for both.
I pulled within hearing distance of him.
Paul Ellis looked up slowly from the paper, his eyes, unusually sad, framed by uncharacteristically dark lines and grooves. His gloomy appearance stood in stark contrast to the glorious signs of spring all around us--the delicious odor of warm, fertile earth, the sun gleaming off the Hancock Tower in the near distance, the occasional self-important duck who had made his sojourn north.
''Step into my office,'' he said in a melancholic voice.
''My god, Paul,'' I said, standing over him. ''You look awful. You dip into capital or something?'' A little Wasp humor. Too little, apparently, because he didn't even feign a smile.
''Sit down, Jack.''
As I sat, he folded up his newspaper and placed it on the bench beside him, allowing me to catch a glimpse of the banner headline: ''Governor Randolph to Be Nominated U.S. Attorney General.'' I all but choked on my own good mood. When did this happen? Why? How did we find out? No editor had called me, and I saw nothing the prior night on the television news.
''Can I take a quick look at your paper, Paul?''
The byline was that of our star political reporter, the venerable Robert Fitzgerald. He attributed the information to ''an official familiar with the White House,'' and the story indicated that the leak had occurred late Saturday night, which explains why I had previously heard nothing about it. The Rose Garden press conference announcing the nomination, the story said, was scheduled for tomorrow afternoon.
''Quite a hit,'' I said, almost to myself, as I immediately began a quick and silent assessment of my own Randolph information, calculating the potential impact on his nomination. I suddenly liked my position--a lot. And now was not the time to care about all those pesky focus groups telling us that no one give's a rat's ass about politics anymore.
I looked up at Paul, who was staring at the ground in front of him. He looked as if he was unsure what to say, or at least how to say it.
''Everything good with you?'' he finally asked, his chin resting on his knuckles, his elbows on his knees.
He didn't seem to need an answer, so I replied, ''They're terrific. This is a great hit by Fitzgerald today.''
''Let's hope it holds up,'' he said absently.
Regarding Paul Ellis, he looked how an aging newspaper publisher should look, which is to say tall, perfectly manicured, and handsome in that unassuming, Jimmy Stewart kind of sixty-something way. He acted how a newspaper publisher should act, which is also to say, thoughtful, inquisitive, and confident. He was, quite literally, born to run the business, and did it quite well, inheriting the reins of a great newspaper from his cousin, John Cutter, and turning it into an even more reputable and profitable one. Best of all, he saw the Record not so much as a family cash cow, but as a calling, a form of public service different than politics or philanthropy, but not for one fraction of a single second any less important or noble.
He stared at me and said, ''This isn't a good day for us, Jack, not for me, not for you, not for this city.''
Since I have never known Paul Ellis to be even remotely melodramatic, I kept my mouth shut and my eyes trained on him, letting him continue at his own pace.
''We're facing a hostile takeover,'' he said, meeting my stare. ''A couple of weeks back, we got what's known as a bear-hug letter. I thought we could make the problem go away, but now our lawyers and finance guys are saying they don't think we can ward it off. Minority shareholders rights' and all that--if we fight it, we could be crippled by a lawsuit from within our ranks.
''Two of the three trusts that control fifty-three percent of the newspaper were opened last year, and now the Campbell Newspaper Company has come in with an offer that none of those shareholders will want to refuse. They're offering fifty-four a share. That's ten bucks over Friday's closing, a nearly twenty-five percent gain.''
I was stunned into silence as a dozen images floated through my mind, most of which involved me without a decent job and steady income. I eventually managed to say, ''Doesn't Campbell Newspapers own the Springfield American?''
Paul replied, ''And the Burlington News and the Rochester Gazette and the Lincoln Daily Star and two dozen remarkably mediocre small and mid-sized newspapers, all of which are incredibly profitable, and none of which have ever been known for their distinguished journalism.''
''Great. Why does a chain like that want a paper like ours, and how the hell can they afford us?''
The sun was now fully up over the distant buildings. A couple of morning joggers huffed past us, and Baker lay in the nearby grass chewing hard on a stick. All I could think of at the moment were the Campbell newspapers I had read before--papers that almost prided themselves in dumbing down to the lowest feasible denominator, papers so filled with color, graphics, and gimmicks that they made USA Today look like the trade publication for the American Funeral Home Association.
The owner, Terry Campbell, offered me a job once, and I turned him down cold. Now it looked like he'd have me in his employment after all.
Paul replied, ''My guess is that they want a flagship paper, something to give them a greater level of prestige than they now have. And I don't think money's really a problem for them. They sure as hell don't pour it back into the product.''
More silence as we both sat with our elbows on our knees, looking down. It was Paul who finally spoke: ''My problem is that there are so many Cutter and Ellis cousins spread all over the country, two and three and four times removed, many of whom have never even been to Boston and probably don't even read a newspaper. The Record doesn't mean a damn thing to them. All they see is the stock price and a way to get rich off all the hard work of the people who busted their asses to make the paper what it is today.''
I said, ''I don't know anything about finances, and the only family trust that the Flynns had was that my father would come home from work every day. But can you leverage the value of your trusts to outbid Campbell on the others?''
''The banks have already told me no.''
He exhaled hard and looked away for a long moment. Truth is, I was worried he might be losing it. Then, to my relative relief, he said in a firm voice, ''Jack, this newspaper, our newspaper, has won twenty-eight Pulitzer Prizes, including two last year. Our reporting has sent mayors to jail, had a United States senator impeached, blocked a Supreme Court nominee from confirmation, and unveiled the darkest possible secrets about the sitting president of the United States. God only knows how many other politicians stayed straight out of fear of us. God only knows how many times we've given voice to the voiceless on issues ranging from bank redlining to consumer fraud. God only knows how many times someone says to a friend or a colleague or a family member every single damned day of the week, 'Did you see that story in the Record?'''
He paused, then added, ''And now all that's at risk. All of it.'' In a much softer voice, almost to himself: ''Every damned bit.''
And you wonder why I love the man. I mean, for chrissakes, you could have turned this speech into a television ad campaign and our circulation would go up 20 percent in a week.
Before I could say anything, he put his hand on my shoulder and looked me square in the eye. ''Jack, I've never told anyone this before, but this same jackal, Terry Campbell, tried making a run at us five years ago. We staved him off. John Cutter was the publisher at the time. I was the president. Everything was done in secret. It put so much pressure on us that John had that fatal heart attack.''
Paul looked down now, his hand absently drifting off my shoulder, down my arm, and then gone. He added, his voice much lower, ''At least I hope that's how he died.'' Then he looked at me in silence.
I replied, ''You're suspicious?''
''I'm overtired and overwrought and I'm probably crazy. But this thing has been nagging at me. You know Campbell's reputation. He gets involved in bloodbaths with his unions. People have died mysterious deaths. I've started asking myself questions I probably didn't dare ask five years ago. What if he had something to do with John's death?''
There was silence between us until Paul broke it, saying, ''No, I'm just talking crazy.''
I said, ''You want me to check it out?''
He turned to me again and nodded. ''I'm not afraid, mind you. Sometimes I think that I love this newspaper so much that if I have to die for it, then so be it, and I know John felt the same way. But this battle's going to be harder than before because of the breakup of the trusts. I want to know what I'm up against.''
I nodded and said, ''Then I'm on it.''
He gazed hard at me, his eyes moving across the features of my face. ''Thank you,'' he said, and those two words said enough.
He pushed himself up from the bench and added, ''I'm heading into the office. I have one or two ideas left to play out. Call me if you learn anything I should know about. This is all confidential, the hostile takeover and my suspicions. Right now, Brent Cutter doesn't even know.''
With that, he walked across the grass in his stiff, familiar gait, past the tulip beds, past the statue of George Washington on horseback, and out onto Arlington Street, the weight of a family, of a first-class newspaper, of a city, on his shoulders. As I look back at the moment, I wish I had said something more to him, wish I had thanked him in some small way for all he had given, all he had done, and all he wanted to do. But in my current state--in fact, in any state--how was I supposed to know what was about to come?
© 2002 Brian McGrory
Washington press insider Brian McGrory, whose debut novel, The Incumbent, soared onto the national bestseller lists amid rave reviews, is back with a second sizzling political thriller featuring Jack Flynn, the intrepid newspaperman with the wry turn of phrase.
News is crackling all around him when Jack Flynn, ace reporter for The Boston Record, is summoned to a secret meeting with his esteemed publisher, Paul Ellis. Ellis sadly reveals that the newspaper they both love, owned by his family for more than a century, is the target of a hostile takeover bid by a shadowy corporate chain. Desperate, he asks for Jack's help.
Already on the brink of a hot political scoop, Jack sets out in pursuit of a hidden truth. But that very day his life is threatened. The Record is beset by horrific tragedy. And a death from years ago no longer appears what it once seemed.
Now Jack is forced to question not only the words published in his own paper but the relationships that have been the bedrock of his life -- in particular those with his gorgeous ex-girlfriend, who writes for a rival tabloid, and with the venerable Record reporter Robert Fitzgerald, Jack's longtime mentor.
And all along, Jack is sitting on a goldmine of information that could torpedo the president's controversial nomination of the Massachusetts governor to be the next U.S. Attorney General. As he balances on a tightrope of personal and professional peril, shuttling from the swamps of central Florida to the corridors of Congress, then back to the alleyways of Boston, Jack is left with just two questions: Will his newspaper survive long enough for him to tell his story? Will he?
Combining breakneck speed and tension-packed plotting with the insights of a consummate political insider, Brian McGrory explores the ethics and direction of modern journalism and analyzes how, in this era of media saturation, reputations are made and too often destroyed. The Nominee, peopled with irresistible characters that linger long after the last page is turned, confirms his position at the forefront of today's most talented young suspense writers.(back to top)
Brian McGrory has a biweekly column in The Boston Globe, and was previously the paper's White House correspondent. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts. The Nominee is his second novel, and he is currently working on a new Jack Flynn thriller, to be published in 2003.