Georgetown Inn, Washington DC. January 22nd, 1988.
A figure with a tan raincoat draped over his arm sat waiting to meet me. He stood and smiled broadly; we shook hands and entered the restaurant for a chat over lunch.
Clair George, then 57 years old, was in the process of leaving the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He had worked in their clandestine division for over thirty years and risen to its most coveted top job as deputy director for operations.
I was a 33 year-old literary agent; my specialty, packaging books by Washington insiders.
I had found Clair through Jack Smith, a former CIA deputy director for intelligence, who, in retirement, had turned to penning novels.
Clair had recently been in the news in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal; his marginal involvement in that arms-for-hostages operation had cost him his job. You’d see photos of Oliver North and Richard Secord in The Washington Post, but Clair’s picture would always be a generic silhouette, as if to confirm the authenticity of his profession.
The mystery photo now had a face: Bland doughy facial features, with a nose and mouth that resembled Marshall Matt Dillon (James Arness) from TV’s Gunsmoke; graying red hair, ruddy features and sparkling blue eyes. (A decade later, those eyes, which had seen so much, would dull from macular degeneration.) Clair was about 5’9” and had the air of a man who could fit in anywhere without being noticed, unless he chose to be.
Naturally curious, Clair was willing to meet me, wanted to know all about my involvement in the book publishing business, and what, specifically, I had in mind for him. He was funny, charming, and disarming.
I later learned that the only reason he met me was because my pitch had amused his wife, Mary, who acted as his shield during the first Iran-Contra news frenzy. She was his telephone call screener and front door gatekeeper. A couple of national security correspondents from major news organizations had even reduced themselves to threats when she would not allow them through: cooperate with me, they told her, or else.
Mary gave them short shrift as only Mary could. Clair rarely spoke with the media. Period.
But my pitch was this: How about writing a Spy’s Guide to Europe?
Mary thought my idea charming. The gate opened.
Mary and Clair had met at CIA headquarters, where, as a young woman, she had worked as a secretary. He was immediately smitten by her, and barged into her office to say, “I need to talk to you about this report. Over lunch.”
Mary left the CIA upon marrying Clair; some of their happiest years were spent in Paris, France, to which Clair was posted as a young CIA officer.
I explained to Clair how book packaging worked: I would help him write a detailed proposal, which I would submit to editors that specialized in the nonfiction espionage genre at five big publishing houses. We would, I was confident, be offered a contract, and Clair would write a book. If he needed a ghostwriter, this could be arranged.
Clair said he would think about it.
Many months later, we met again, this time for lunch at the swank Hay-Adams Hotel, across from the White House.
It was a good meeting, as Clair was fine company, with an easy laugh and great sense of humor. But it seemed he would never produce a tell-any, let alone a tell-all. Self-promotion was anathema to Clair. He was the perfect spy.
I was about to move to Monaco, on the French Riviera, in search of new adventure, so it hardly mattered to me anymore; I was happy just to have made the acquaintance of this legendary spymaster.
In time, we would travel to Europe together, on over twenty occasions, often aboard Concorde, on assignment for our clients.
In 1990, a legendary CIA spymaster and a young writer partnered to do creative problem resolution for select clients. These included a circus, a reclusive Monte Carlo investment adviser, a mega-wealthy Italian Countess, and a New York billionaire. They took assignments based on the potential of a high Laugh Quotient with this dictum: "If it ain't funny, we don't do it." In this way, Clair George and Robert Eringer commuted to Europe by Concorde, stayed in five-star hotels, and laughed their way through London, Paris, Geneva, and Monte Carlo. The Spymaster & Me is a poignant easy, breezy read, combining humor, zest and brio.
When I first moved to Washington, D.C. in September 1975 to attend American University (AU), Gerald Ford occupied the White House.
While researching the Bilderberg Group for a term paper in Dr. Abdul Said’s famed course on international relations that autumn, my letter to Ford (he had attended two Bilderberg conferences) prompted a written response from State Department flunky Francis Seidner, a "Public Affairs Adviser," who advised me to mind my own business.
The budding journalist I was (the second rule of reporting, after facts, is perseverance), I phoned Seidner to clarify his advice. He became rather snotty after I suggested that Ford had not been elected president (which he hadn't).
I was still at AU when Jimmy Carter was running for president. Of all the candidates (most of whom came to speak at AU), Carter was the smuggest; the only candidate selling campaign buttons instead of giving them away. I would later understand why, as my investigation evolved from Bilderberg to the Trilateral Commission, from whose American contingent (supported by globalists) Carter quietly garnished big money and Establishment support while the media all asked Jimmy who?
But Carter’s presidency was ill fated and Ronald Reagan replaced him in the White House in January 1981.
Not two months later, I was in DC for an Australian radio program to cover the Trilateral Commission’s annual confab when Reagan got shot.
And then I spent most of the rest of Reagan’s presidency in London and in the vicinity of Manhattan, where I operated as a literary agent, peddling books by Washington insiders, including former CIA Director Bill Colby and terrorism-studies pioneer Robert Kupperman.
George Bush occupied the White House when I moved to the DC-area in August 1990 and settled into the Westgate neighborhood of Bethesda, Maryland.
I had interviewed Bush inside his suite at the Madison Hotel in April 1979 when he was running for president against Reagan and Carter. Bush was having lunch all alone in the Madison’s café when I approached him and explained that I was his next scheduled appointment. He graciously asked me to sit down, the gentleman he is, and we were able to chitchat for short while before heading upstairs to do the interview.
Two years later, Bill Clinton beat Bush, and I watched the famous post-inauguration Memorial Bridge crossing-by-foot on TV inside my Westgate house.
I was cynical about Bubba’s presidency from the start, and was delighted when another Bush replaced him in the White House. Not that I believe in political dynasties (I don’t), but I felt that the White House needed adult supervision. And I also felt Clinton’s national security policies were useless, based on my experience operating undercover for FBI Counterintelligence thus having a ringside seat.
We have Bubba to thank for 9/11 and the rise of Vladimir Putin.
During the brouhaha over the Bush-Gore vote, television news reported that pro-Bush protestors had assembled outside the Vice President’s Mansion, where Al Gore lived, and were chanting, “Get out of Cheney’s house!”
I drove a straight run down Massachusetts Avenue to the alleged event and found that the vicinity outside the mansion was quiet as can be—the beginning of fake news?
When I lived in Wesley Heights, in a house known by my teenage daughter’s friends as Moon Castle because of the parties I allowed her to throw, Al Gore Jr. showed up, and I had to work out a contingency plan on where to hide him if the police came calling and discovered an underage keg party. (I grew up in London where the drinking age is 18 and, back then, if you looked fifteen-and-a-half you qualified for a drink.)
And when I put Moon Castle on the market n late 2000, First Lady Hillary Clinton came to see it, escorted by a full motorcade that left my neighbors astonished. Hillary apparently loved Moon Castle, and considered buying it, but the entertaining spaces were not large enough, and she purchased a house near Embassy Row instead.
I was living in Montecito when Barrack Obama got elected president. I thought he was unqualified and that his election an Obamaration (read aberration), and little about his presidency ever dissuaded me from my first impression.
So I'll be in DC once again. And the country that invented Reality TV got exactly what it deserved.
That said, the person most responsible for Trump’s election is Hillary Clinton, and her two-step program:
One, in collusion with the Democratic National Committee, sabotage Bernie Sanders.
Two, connive to edge Trump ahead of the pack on the basis that he would be the easiest Republican to beat. All Hillary's talk about Russia and misogyny is pure bunkum. The U.S. is ripe for a female president. But not her. And though Russia tried to influence our election (as we try to influence theirs and many others all over the world), he is now learning to be careful what you wish for.
But what you truly need to know about Washington is this:
For me it starts with an idea that kicks around in my mind, giving birth to characters, cultivating a plot.
The late Thom Steinbeck once imparted this bit of wisdom on me that he’d been told by his famous father, John, who wrote Travels With Charley, arguably the mother of all road books:
“You should carry a story in your head, live with it a while before trying to write it down. You should be able to take a lie detector about your story and characters before setting pen to paper.”
Only then, after months of scribbling notes about plot development and characterization, am I ready for the road.
Or so I thought.
I had planned a cross-country jaunt as the setting for my story. However, the day before departure (in late June, 2014), I had second thoughts and changed the itinerary.
My reasoning: Driving cross-country means too much time in a vehicle and not enough in the places that provide the aromas, flavors and sounds I’d want for peppering my prose.
More important, a cross-country drive is something of a cliché, and I felt that my idea for a novel deserved better treatment.
So I carve a new route that takes me from home base in Santa Barbara through Las Vegas, Nevada and into Park City, Utah—a twelve-hour drive—for the first overnight.
This establishes motion.
The essence of a road trip—and my novel—is motion.
Such motion needs to be conveyed to the read as if he/she is present, sitting in a car motioning along with the story's characters, overhearing dialog, enjoying the scenery, and witnessing every nuance.
Kerouac’s On the Road achieves this with “spontaneous prose”—part of the reason for its enduring success.
For my road trip, I take with me a friend who will partly form the character of my first-person protagonist. I want to see how this individual reacts to outside-the-box situations and unexpected events, reactions that will later become part of the story I write.
Now all I need to do is enjoy the ride; observe, and take lots of notes as our journey weaves from Utah to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and up to big sky country in Montana before veering southwest and rolling through Idaho, across Oregon, and finally alongside the Coastal Redwoods of northern California.
By the time I get home, I have a journal packed with detail and a mind stimulated by new experiences.
That’s when the fun begins; what Nietzsche called taking all that chaos and birthing it into a dancing star.
I know, from experience, that the time to write arrives when I can’t not write i.e. when a first line, or three, reverberate around my skull until, like a volcano, they erupt from my fingers onto a computer screen. Thereafter the words continue to flow like hot lava.
I write the way I road trip: end a writing session (or overnight somewhere) knowing where I’m heading next, so I will awaken in the morning with direction, excited to continue.
This—the writing—is the fun part, where I get to weave genuine setting with fabricated story, a marriage of journalism and fiction.
Restaurants, and the aroma of indigenous dishes, are woven into my story along with real people encountered along the way. Even random incidents become anecdotal to the plot, a verisimilitude that can never be accomplished by staying home and studying Google maps.
During the road trip, my friend/protagonist gets pulled over in Wyoming for speeding after he overtakes an unmarked police vehicle.
It goes into my novel.
A piece of jewelry I purchase in Boise becomes one of the story’s most poignant moments.
While traveling, in real time, I post captioned photos and commentary on this blog, named after the vehicle (acronymically, the COW) that I purchased just for road tripping.
The real reason I run this blog is so once my writing erupts I have a chronological photo essay for reference.
Although my methodology is to have plot and characters in my mind before rolling off anywhere, it can, of course, be done the other way round.
Take a road trip and be inspired by all the new stimuli and knowledge you encounter.
At the very least, bring your senses alive, clear your mind.
At best, you might stumble into the story of your life.
A road trip is a metaphor for living.
Because let's face it, we all end up at the same destination.
It is the journey. What we do, what we learn, how much fun we have, what we experience. This is what that truly matters.
Jack Savoretti played a short, sweet set, after which he and I enjoyed a short, sweet chat, corner of Cahuenga and Selma. Great guy. And an amazing, very passionate songwriter and musician. (And he liked my jacket. I should have given it to him.)