By Pete Dexter
Playboy, September 1985
Nobody knows exactly when the quiet man turned the corner—they don’t call him the quiet man for nothing—but somewhere along the line, Doug Campbell, a ten-year reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, came to a point in his life where he did not love his newspaper at all.
There is some question now, in light of what happened, whether or not the quiet man ever loved The Philadelphia Inquirer in the first place. I mean, in ten years, he never died for the paper. And it was obvious enough that he wouldn’t kill for the paper that they never even thought about making him management.
And kill or be killed is entry-level affection if you are going to be one of the hearts-and-minds boys, the occupying army on the fifth floor.
The fifth floor, I ought to explain, is where you find the Inquirer city desk—reporters and copy editors and clerks, and the middle managers out to win their hearts and minds. The hearts-and-minds boys mingle with the staff; many of them kid with favorite reporters or play practical jokes. Animals—everything from frogs in large numbers to camels—have regularly been delivered to that floor for years. I believe it is considered good for morale.
As a rule, the staff returns these pleasantries, but it is apparent, even to the casual observer, that the hearts-and-minds boys are foreigners in a land where they are not entirely welcome.
That’s a price you pay when you undertake to win hearts and minds, of course—that anybody with any character at all is going to hate your guts. You have to worry all the time about being fragged.
The quiet man sat at his desk in his cement shoes for ten years, watching all this shadow casting, and somewhere along the line, he quit loving the Inquirer.
Which is not to say that no one is comfortable at the Inquirer. There is always someone comfortable. In this case, it is Gene Roberts. Roberts is the Inquirer’s executive editor, the man universally acknowledged as the force that changed the paper from pigshit into one of this country’s most decorated and honored broadsheets. It is universally acknowledged in the newspaper business that those two things—pigshit and Pulitzers—do not occur at the same time in the same place.
I think it can be fairly reported that on the outside, Roberts resembles a frog. The hearts-and-minds boys send 100 of them to his office; I guess I can say the word out loud, right?
What Roberts resembles on the inside—well, you might as well try to understand eating flies. He is smart in ways you never thought of; he is magnetic, about half hypnotic; and he has—inexplicably, year after year—moved certain reporters and editors to believe that they, like The New York Times, cast the long shadow. That they are part of something important. That working for the Inquirer is a reward in itself.
Not everybody believes that, of course. The ones who never believed it—the fuck-ups—got cement shoes. The ones who believed it with all their hearts were allowed to continue to believe. You still see them around—they’re like those 60-year-old Japanese who appear from the jungle about every three years and won’t believe the war is over.
But it was the ones who believed it and then grew out of it who eventually got ahead—who went to bigger jobs and bigger titles and were moved, in their bigness, to see that they had been gullible before and, having learned that, were now ready to cast long shadows of their own, to win the hearts and minds of their staff.
And the quiet man sat at his desk in his cement shoes for ten years, watching all this shadow casting, and somewhere along the line, he quit loving the Inquirer.
The quiet man worked night rewrite. Two years ago, in the closest thing Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., has ever seen to a self-immolation, he asked for and received that job, the worst on the paper.
The quiet man’s thinking may have been that there were fewer long shadows to look at when he worked at night, but what he probably never took into account was all the extra time the new hours gave him to think about the ones he did see.
About what they were doing there and what he was doing there and, of course, about M.B.O.
M.B.O., without going into a lot of detail, stands for Management by Objective, a philosophy of business management that sets specific individual goals for managers—largely involving getting other people to do the work—and then rewards or punishes the managers on the basis of how well the goals are met. Yes, somewhere along the line, corporate America has decided that fear and greed work better than fear alone. And where a company used to threaten to fire you, now it threatens to fire you and hold up your bonus.
The evaluations these awards are based on are made twice a year. Sometimes there are disagreements over whose leadership is responsible for someone else’s work. In some cases, the disagreements are argued out in computer memos, which the staff intercepts and reads. In those cases, M.B.O. can be pretty entertaining stuff, but outside of that, it just doesn’t do much for the morale of those who sit in cement shoes, watching.
And hearts-and-minds-wise, morale is always a consideration.
The quiet man’s morale had been low even before he’d heard of M.B.O. He had taken the night rewrite job and regretted it right away, because, as a protest, it was ignored. He missed his family, and it turned out that on night rewrite there was nothing to do. And one of his quirks, as a fuck-up, is that he likes to work.
So the quiet man waited awhile and then went to the metropolitan editor and asked to be returned to dayside reporting. The metropolitan editor said no. He said he wanted the quiet man to work for the “Neighbors” section for New Jersey instead, writing a get-your-picture-in-the-paper column. You may have such a column in your own local paper: “Dorothy Snyder has been named to Society Hills Realty’s Million Dollar Club…. Mary Bender was re-elected last night as president of the Camden Civic Association.”
The quiet man thought it over and decided it was unethical journalism. He called it “Nerds in the News” and refused to do it. The metropolitan editor said he didn’t understand, that he couldn’t refuse.
The quiet man said it was the metropolitan editor who didn’t understand, that he already had refused. Then he went home and made a papier-mâché model of Gene Roberts’ head. Nobody knows exactly why.
It was two feet across, and the quiet man wore it to the office the next afternoon. He walked around the city room inside it, and everyone who was not willing at that moment to kill or die for the Inquirer had to admit that the quiet man was a genius.
But that was just the beginning.
Three days later, a puppet appeared on the quiet man’s desk. It was hung by strings from two crossed sticks that were hung, in turn, from the ceiling. It was the metropolitan editor, and it caught more of him in one look than you got from being around him for a week. It had his posture and his anxiety and something of his struggle to cast a shadow.
“This isn’t the way to get ahead around here.”
All day, people in the office stood around the desk, admiring the puppet.
On Friday, the metropolitan editor’s two children visited, and on the way out they stopped at the desk, dead still, until slowly, the younger one reached out and touched the strings.
“It’s Daddy,” he said.
A week to the day after the first puppet appeared, there was a second. This one had a pink tennis ball for a head, cotton eyebrows, a cigarette in one hand that went to its mouth when you pulled the strings. It would also urinate when the Gene Roberts puppet asked it to. It was the night city editor.
The third puppet, which came a week later, was the half-Pakistani assistant managing editor in charge of the Sunday paper. The quiet man constructed him out of panty hose and gave him a turban and diapers and set him up on a bed of nails labeled M.B.O. CARPET.
And it was with this puppet—an editor in diapers on a bed of nails—that people had the first inkling that, genius or not, the quiet man was subject to the same problem as the great artists before him. Yes, he was misunderstood.
The half-Pakistani editor liked the puppet. He posed with it for Polaroid pictures; he played with it when he passed the desk.
The quiet man, who had considered taking a week off, went back to work with renewed purpose.
The fourth puppet was the assistant managing editor in charge of the daily paper. He was made of corduroy and had a small, anatomically accurate hunch in his shoulders.
The assistant managing editor in charge of the daily paper complained that the hunch was cruel and that it was unfair to make his the only puppet without socks. So, later that week, the quiet man came in on his own time and sewed on socks.
By then, I believe, he was beginning to feel things getting away from him.
He held on, though, making puppets, taking his byline off the stories he wrote for the paper—something that had started about the same time as the puppets—and still refusing to do “Nerds in the News.”
One day while I was there, the metropolitan editor called him into his office. “This isn’t the way to get ahead around here,” the editor told him.
One of the quiet man’s followers began to shout from outside the office, “Quit wasting Campbell’s time. He could be making puppets.”
The quiet man built the M.B.O. Playhouse the next week, a theater about half as big as his desk, with a chair and a toilet. It looked a lot like Gene Roberts’ office.
The next week’s puppet was the managing editor. The quiet man gave him a boy-scout uniform with an M.B.O. neckerchief, and although the likeness was unmistakable, it wasn’t nearly as disrespectful as the others.
Some of the quiet man’s followers began to whisper that he was selling out. Office feminists complained, wanting to know when he would make a lady puppet. He worried about vandalism—the hearts-and-minds boys are capable of anything—and built a security camera out of cardboard so they would see that he knew what they were thinking.
He was feeling new pressures now; too many people were depending on him. But what probably troubled the quiet man most was the fact that the last puppet, the one of the managing editor, had actually been requested by the associate managing editor/news. (That mark between editor and news, by the way, is read slash.)
The sixth puppet the quiet man made was that same associate managing editor/news. It was called the Killer Choirboy, and it was, arguably, his best work: an editor in a church robe holding a cross. When you pulled the strings, the choirboy brought the cross up, revealing a hidden knife, which he used to stab the managing editor and the night city editor in the back.
There was a fresh wave of congratulations among the quiet man’s followers, but, distressingly, there was growing enthusiasm for the puppets among the hearts-and-minds boys, too. While three weeks earlier Roberts had been overheard saying, “How do I know what he’s doing? He hasn’t spoken to me in five years. I didn’t know all that shit was going around in his head,” now Roberts was bringing occasional guests by to show them how the associate managing editor/news stabbed the managing editor in the back.
The company had somehow turned his puppets into official humor, like delivering frogs or chickens to the newsroom.
The next week, the quiet man put Roberts’ head on the wall and added another puppet. It was the city editor, who had threatened to tear the M.B.O. Playhouse to pieces if he were ever included. The quiet man built him handsome, though, leaving off the belly and about 20 years. The city editor couldn’t bring himself to touch it, even when he and all the other puppets were found kneeling to the head of Gene Roberts every morning, always in a slightly different attitude than the day before. The subtleties of the elbowing for position were little stories in themselves.
Then the quiet man built a casket. When you opened it, you found the Inquirer’s embarrassing and pointless “investigation” of Geraldine Ferraro.
Then he gave a performance or two of M.B.O. Theater, only to be congratulated by a guy in a three-piece suit from the business side of the paper, who said a picture of the puppets ought to be on the cover of the company’s annual report.
And the quiet man saw then that it was over. The company had somehow turned his puppets into official humor, like delivering frogs or chickens to the newsroom. That night, he talked with Gene Roberts.
The next night, he took the puppets down. His followers, of course, were hurt and disappointed, as followers often are. Some of them said he had gotten tired; some said he had sold out. He gave the two-foot head of Gene Roberts to one of them; he gave the puppets to his kids.
And a week later, the quiet man was quietly returned to daytime hours, which, you may remember, is what he wanted. You might call it an objective.
And that is the lesson here, I guess. Just because somebody is quiet doesn’t mean he isn’t paying attention.
[Picture by Bags]