It was 48 years ago tonight (August 28, 1974, the Feast of Saint Augustine) that I heard Ralph Nader speak at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University:
It was 48 years ago tomorrow (August 29, 1974) that I went to work for the office of U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, on the morning before my first class at Georgetown University.
Thanks to the Navy SEAL veteran, son of a Philadelphia Inquirer classified ad department workplace friend of my Aunt Helen, I was in like the proverbial Flynn
Like the character played by Robert Morse in the musical comedy "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," I started in the mailroom.
It was around the corner from Senator Kennedy's main office. In fact, it was formerly and formally one of five rooms assigned to progressive Democratic Senator "Fritz" Hollings of S.C., which he had lent (permanently, it turns out) to Senator Kennedy after RFK was murdered, to handle the overflow of mail, which never abated.
For 2.5 days/week, as a freshman and sophomore (Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoon), I worked as an intern, first free, then paid ($53/week for up to 30 hours of work).
I opened and stapled mail, read mail, assigned mail to other people to read, auto-pennned and stuffed response letters, ran errands, did research, helped with casework, and quickly earned a mafia-sounding nickname. My widely-used nickname in Senator Ted Kennedy's office was "Fast Eddie."
Because if you needed to send something somewhere quickly (this was 1974), there was no Internet, no E-mail and only slow cumbersome fax machines, which took 4-6 minutes per page (and emitted fumes that could make you dizzy).
You put it in an envelope, you called the mailroom, and you asked for an intern. Any intern.
Or, if it was Tuesday, Thursday or Friday afternoon, you would say, "Is Fast Eddie there?"
Fast Eddie (the EMK staff gave me that nickname) had survived rheumatic fever and arthritis. I was (and still am) a klutz. I did not drive (still don't and you should be glad I don't).
But Fast Eddie moved swiftly, got things done quickly, and did not tarry, unlike your typical undergraduate interns, who moved like molasses going uphill in Vermont in January.
I got to meet and talk and laugh with phenomenal staffers and superlative secretaries, including legislative director Carey W. Parker (a Rhodes scholar, one of several in that big room, and his secretary Shannon McDonald), Mary Murtagh and Melody Miller, and people who went on to be Ambassador to NATO (Robert Hunter), first Jewish director of the Peace Corps (Marc Schneider), and be appointed on EMK's death to the U.S. Senate (Paul Kirk). I learned how to answer a telephone, how to solve problems, how to use the telephone, and how to persuade government officials to do their jobs.
I would walk several times a day and take the subway (a/k/a the Toonerville trolley in Tom Wicker's novel, Facing the Lions) from the Richard Brevard Russell, Jr. U.S. Senate Office Building (a/k/a "OLD S.O.B.) to the Capitol, dropping freshly mimeographed speeches and press releases to the three Senate press galleries (newspaper, tv and periodical), sometimes to eye-rolling from journalists who were amazed to see so many EMK press releases.
I read the press releases and speeches, and learned from the scholarly style of Carey Parker, et al.
On November 21, 1974, by vote of 65-27, the United States Senate overrode President Ford's veto of the Freedom of Information Act -- urged by then-youthful Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Antonin Scalia. After the historic veto override, I carried the triumphant Ted Kennedy speech and press release to the press galleries. To get there, I took the subway to the Capitol Building, took the elevator to the second floor, walking up the marble steps to the third floor, past this venerable painting of Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation:
Less than nine years later, I became the "pest who never rests," using FOIA to win declassification of the largest mercury pollution event in Earth history, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on May 17, 1983, as Appalachian Observer editor.
We also helped empower Sheriff's deputies to blow the whistle. Result: the FBI arrested and incarcerate a corrupt Anderson County Sheriff (two-time Tennessee Sheriff of the Year Dennis O. Trotter).
We also helped run off a corrupt school superintendent, Paul Eugene Bostic, Jr., a "school dictator" of the sort documented by Harry Caudill in Night Comes to the Cumberlands.
After spending much of eighth, ninth and tenth grades on my back, my health became more robust as I walked several times a day, learning the corridors of power on Capitol Hill, walking by beautiful U.S. Capitol Hill artwork, paintings, sculptures and frescoes, and through secret corridors and hidden basement corridors, to obscure places like the Capitol basement, the Senate Folding and Stapling Room, the Senate Carpentry Shop, and the Russell Building Attic.
I would watch committee hearings and Senate sessions, pre-CSPAN. I would watch the legislative assistants in the Dance of Legislation (as Eric Redman called it), and the warp and woof of constituent correspondence and casework.
I would hang out with the likes of Mary Murtagh, press secretary Dick Drayne and the case workers, and by sophomore year even had a tiny 2x3 table-desk between press and case operations, complete with tiny chair and, of course, a telephone.
I found that saying "This is Ed Slavin in Ted Kennedy's office" got your calls returned, and that we could perform minor miracles.
It's like Harris Wofford said on January 20, 1961: "You can do anything with these phones!" (After calling to desegregate the Coast Guard, after JFK complained there were no blacks in the Coast Guard contingent at his Inaugural Parade.
In Senator Kennedy's office, I learned the power of positive thinking, knowing that with a keyboard, a telephone and a democracy, we could do anything to make the world a better place.
Mary Murtagh and I helped to end sperm whaling with our research on jojoba, an oil seed that is an exact chemical duplicate for the oil of the endangered sperm whale, of which there were 20,000 killed in the world back then -- 2/3 of all the world's whales murdered then, saved by the wonders of the market system and a replacement product that nature created and we promoted. Google® jojoba and see what happened!
I was inspired by hearing Ralph Nader speak in Gaston Hall at Georgetown University the evening of August 28, 1974 (Feast of St. Augustine). (It was also the eleventh anniversary of the "I have a dream speech" by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial.)
Be not afraid.
My political theory professor, Jose Sorzano, said "Ideas have consequences." (He was later Deputy UN Ambassador under President Reagan, working under Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, another GU professor whose class on "Personality & Politics" I never took, only because it was only offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays, my work days).
Yes, hearing Ralph Nader's speech 48 years ago tonight had consequences.
It led to life in, around and surrounded by, investigative reporting, government service and working to improve the lot of others.
It led to work for EMK and in two other Senate offices (Gary Hart and Jim Sasser), investigative reporting, two judicial clerkships at the Department of Labor (Charles P. Rippey and Chief Judge Nahum Litt), work at the AFL-CIO Occupational Safety and Health Legal Rights Foundation and the Government Accountability Project and privately, representing whistleblowers around America.
It led me to stand up for equal rights and honest government here, in the City of St. Augustine, where for years, we band of brothers and sisters have worked to transform our City government, from one of the worst to one of the first in North Florida on human rights, winning Rainbow flags on the Bridge of Lions, respect for GLBT rights, respect for Environmental Justice, and transforming our town (electing the incomparable Nancy Shaver, the first woman Mayor elected by vote of all of the people as such, on November 4, 2014)(see Folio Weekly article here).
Most recently, we enjoyed beating numerous demolition permits before the Historic Architectural Review Board and watching as yet another federal court victory in Bates v. City of St. Augustine (Bates II), by U.S. District Judge Brian J. Davis (fine visual artists harassed by 32 years of Jim Crow law ordinances and oppression by City).
In 2016, votes were counted in four fixed county races, including the fixed Sheriff's election, one of four illegally closed primaries, with two shills (one of them the Sheriff's own massage therapist, a former jailer) claiming "write-in" status, violating the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article VI, Section 5(b) of Florida's Constitution, denying us the universal primary to which we're legally entitled. I asked the Justice Department Civil Rights Division to bring a lawsuit. A resolution was passed by the St. Augustine City Commission, calling for an end to such illegally closed primary shenanigans.
In 2017, activists and tourism business owners and managers united, with eight of us convincing the St. Johns County Visitors and Convention Bureau, Inc. to reverse the illegal firing of CEO Richard Goldman. In all my years of labor law, I'd never won reinstatement of a CEO before, or any victory nearly that quickly.
As Alexander Hamilton said, "Here, sir, the people govern."
Activists saved The Outpost and Fish Island, which has remains of eight slave cabins, slave graves and the mansion and graves of Jesse Fish, Florida's first crooked realtor, and founder of the citrus agricultural industry here. We've stopped a proposed Planned Unit Development by developer DONALD R. HORTON and look forward to buying the land for a park -- part of a future St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore.
- Enactment of the St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore, first proposed by Mayor Walter Fraser, Senator Claude Pepper, et al. in 1939.
- Monument at Emancipation Park (where locals heard the Emancipation Proclamation read in January 1863);
- Monuments to documented local lynching sites;
- Monument to St. Augustine's Union Civil War veterans;
- Seated sculpture honoring slavery victims, showing a family being split for auction;
- Seated sculpture of civil rights heroes and sheroes Dr. Robert S. Hayling, D.D.S., Stetson Kennedy and Barbara Vickers, engaged in conversation, perhaps looking at the slavery sculpture and one of the other Civil War monuments (like the one honoring General William Wing Loring);
- A large civil rights museum honoring St. Augustine's pivotal role in adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, not unlike the ones in Memphis, Atlanta and elsewhere, putting everything in perspective;
- A new Florida law requiring K-12 civil rights education, like in Mississippi;
- Florida fourth graders trekking to St. Augustine to learn history and empathy, with National Park Service rangers explaining to them and millions of other visitors the places here where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Andrew Young, Ralph David Abernathy, Dr. Robert Hayling, et al. helped change history for the better, making America truly a shining "City on a Hill" for the world.
My parents, both union organizers, were my first teachers. It took them twelve years to have their only child -- the result of my father having malaria in Sicily and my mother being subjected to unethical x-ray experiments at age 11. They taught me about right and wrong and standing up to power and oppression, something they were both adept at doing during most of their lives.
My aunt Bunny is a Franciscan nun in South Korea -- I did not meet her until I was ten, and I was impressed with her dedication to human rights. She said if she said anything against the South Korean dictator on a bus, she'd be overheard and bounced out of the country as persona non grata in 48 hours. She's still there, and South Korea is now a democracy.
History is complicated, I've learned. One of my professors, Holocaust hero Jan Karski, is memorialized with this monument on the Georgetown campus, NYC, Israel and three places in Poland:
True to the standards of my first boss, Senator Edward M. Kennedy and his two murdered brothers, remember EMK's words at the 1980 Democratic National Convention:
may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now:
"I am a part of all that I have met
To [Tho] much is taken, much abides
That which we are, we are --
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
.... For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.