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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Not my business

by Philip Martin | October 5, 2021 at 3:00 a.m.

The story I didn't write was about a woman having an affair with a much older married male politician--probably not the one you're thinking of.

The affair was suspected; the woman was appointed to a government job for which she was arguably unqualified by this man, and they often traveled together on official business. Curious expense reports were filed. Curious memos were leaked. Some people thought they could divine something in the way Old Pol looked at the woman when she spoke.

Had this been a simpler time, the affair might have been an open secret, something that insiders rolled their eyes at, but never made it into the newspapers.

But this had made it into the newspapers, and some columnists were attacking Old Pol as an old fool and dismissing the woman as, at best, a naif. Others were less kind. It seemed clear she would have to resign her position eventually, though everything was deniable and the pretext of innocence--"we're just good friends"--had been maintained.

It wasn't my beat, but I was ambitious and had a friend who was her friend, and he gave me her number when I asked. That surprised me but a few nights later, when I was in the office just before midnight, I called the number and was surprised when she answered.

I identified myself. I told her why I was calling, to ask questions about her relationship with Old Pol. I expected her to hang up. She didn't. She said she wanted to explain it all but that she'd had a couple of glasses of wine and was sleepy. Could I meet her?

We arranged to meet a couple of evenings later, in a quiet bar where I knew the bartender. I got there early and put my tape recorder and notebook on the table. I didn't expect her to show up but she did, looking just like the photos in the newspaper, only smaller and braver.

We ordered drinks and she told me everything everyone suspected was true. She told me she was in love with Old Pol and she knew how foolish that was. She had never believed he would leave his wife and family even though he had promised her as much. She knew he'd been instrumental in getting her at job that she admitted was on the outskirts of her abilities but, she maintained, not beyond them. She made a reasonable case that she was actually doing a good job, and that she was out-performing others who had held the position.

And, she asked, hadn't they also been appointed to the job primarily for reasons that had little to do with their actual qualifications? It was political, a way to pay back party hacks and give the lesser talented relatives of donors a paycheck. It had traditionally been strategically bestowed by powerful men as a means to cement fealty and discharge obligations. It was part of Old Pol's capital--if he hadn't spent it on her it would have likely gone to somebody's no-account nephew or to a restless political scion waiting for a favorable election cycle in which to leap.

She acknowledged that she was going to resign. The affair had ended, though there were promises it would resume once conditions changed. But she was done. She still admired him, still loved him, but was grown up enough to realize how crazy the whole thing had been. She understood that a chapter of her life was ending, that she was about to try to rebuild her life.

She said she had originally wanted to be in movies, but that she'd hadn't known how to do that, so she'd sidetracked into public relations, and then become fascinated with politics and the way government could work to make things better for people despite inherent inefficiencies in the system. She said she understood that all bureaucracies breed cronyism, and that to individuals involved in government the reciprocal exchange of favors was often more important than achieving policy goals, but she still held out hope that good could be done by and through the state apparatus.

She had exploited her advantages, just as others had. But her advantages--youth and comeliness--were not privileged in the ways that advantages of wealth and family connection were.

We talked a long time. After a while I stopped taking notes, the tape recorder shut itself off.

I think that had I asked her, we might have met again.

We didn't, but we talked on the phone a couple of times over the next couple of weeks as the drama played out in the press. So far as I knew, she never gave anyone else an interview, the affair was never admitted to, some bookkeeping mistakes were admitted to, she resigned, and six days later was quietly hired by a private sector company in another state. Were you to Google her name, you would have to go through a couple of pages before you would find her; one of her namesakes has overtaken her in notoriety.

But if you were to dig around you'd find she did all right--a nice life, quiet, fruitful and happy. She still talks about the time long ago when her name was connected with Old Pol's, and says it was all blown out of proportion and things were taken out of context and in so far as it goes all that is true.

Old Pol went to jail a few years later, for unrelated things.

And I think about her every now and then and that scoop that I sat on.

It could have been she dazzled me, that she enlisted my empathy in a cynical way, but I don't think it was that. I liked her, but I think most of us, should we spend an hour or so in earnest conversation with anyone else, would come away with at least a germ of understanding of that person. We would recognize certain human commonalities, we might get clear of our biases and prejudgments.

I think I caught her at a vulnerable time and was the only one to ask without shouting and to genuinely listen, and that I understood the futility of piling on. That I had a moment of clarity, I could put aside the need to press my own advantages.

I had confirmation of what others had surmised, but nothing of substance to add.

I didn't need another cover story. It wasn't my beat.

I wasn't that ambitious.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

Print Headline: Not my business

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