Communist reporter on Capitol Hill and other adventures

In 1984-1985 the National Press Club decided to drastically revamp the old National Press Building (NPB) where the People’s Daily World had its modest one-room office. One reason for the existence of the NPB was to provide affordable office space for struggling newspapers like ours. But the media moguls had decided on a policy of ruthless consolidation, the giant fish gobbling up the small fry. Our office was to be demolished. The space we had once rented for about $500 monthly would rent for well over $1,000 monthly.

We decided to close the office. I would move to the House Press Gallery on Capitol Hill. I was sorry to lose the office a five-minute walk from the White House. But there were many pluses. The space in the House Press Gallery was free. It eliminated the last leg of my commuting. When I rolled into town every morning on the commuter train from Baltimore, I simply strolled over to the Capitol and there was my office crowded with other reporters like myself searching for a hot story.

Soon after that move, I got a surprising telephone call in the Gallery. It was Portia Siegelbaum who had worked with us on the staff of the Daily World. She had married a Cuban man and was now living in Havana. She was calling me from there.  She worked for Radio Havana Cuba (RHC). Would I agree to serve as an RHC stringer, sharing my stories with RHC listeners?

I was thunderstruck. “Portia,” I replied, “I don’t speak Spanish.”

“That’s O.K.,” she said. “We will call you once or twice each week. All you need to do is read your story aloud to us over the phone. We will record it and broadcast it on our English Language Service to our North American audience.”

I told her I would check with our editors in New York.

They agreed to Portia’s suggestion. It lead to a mutually agreeable arrangement that lasted for several years.

It was a cause for some amusement in the House Press Gallery because RHC would call the Press Gallery switchboard. The telephone receptionist would then announce over the public address system in the Press Gallery: “Tim Wheeler…Havana calling.”

I would take my copy to one of the old-style phone booths that lined the wall. I would close the folding door and dictate my story. I should say I tended to bellow my story into the phone thinking that a loud voice was necessary for the message to reach Havana. The result is that everyone in the Press Gallery heard every word.

Those were wonderful days. Soon, I was on a first-name basis with many other reporters. And I was a regular at the House Speaker’s daily news briefing. I remember especially House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas.

He was a courtly gentleman and he was very friendly to me. He defied President Reagan by meeting with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, seeking to end the deadly contra-war that Reagan had instigated and armed through his secret, illegal Iran-contra conspiracy. The rightwing extremists terminated Wright’s political career with a phony real estate scandal that forced Wright to retire.

My routine was to sit beside other reporters at the long, narrow counter with a telephone in front of me and my Tandy-200 laptop. I would gather material for my articles, compose them, and transmit them over the phone line to our office in New York.

One morning I was sitting beside Tom Kenworthy, the Washington Post Capitol Hill correspondent. His phone rang. It was Dale Russakoff, a Washington Post columnist who penned a popular column called “Federal Diary.” Her modus operandi was to call Post correspondents on Capitol Hill and all the various agencies in all three branches of government to ask them for tips on a good story for her column.

So she asked Tom: “Do you have any tips for me?”

And I heard Tom reply, “Gee, Dale. I don’t know. I can’t think of anybody you can interview.”

Then he happened to turn in my direction. His eyes lit up. “Why don’t you interview Tim Wheeler? He’s the only U.S. Communist reporter here on Capitol Hill. It would make a great story.”

A second later, Tom thrust the phone over to me. “Dale Russakoff wants to talk to you.”

She asked for an interview. I agreed on the spot.

We met in the gallery and went down to the little cramped coffee shop in the basement of the Capitol so she could ask me questions undisturbed.

We hit it off immediately. She had grown up in Birmingham Alabama and was strongly sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement. She was witty, smart, and irreverent.

She was greatly amused by my story that I was regularly summoned to the phone in the Gallery with the message “Tim Wheeler…. Havana calling.”

Her story appeared in the March 8, 1990 edition of the Washington Post under a headline, “Fidel’s Man in Washington” and the subhead, “Rowing Against Anti-Communist Tide.”

I was inundated. My fellow reporters in the Press Gallery slapped me on the back, praising the story. I received calls asking for interviews. Just hours after the story appeared, I was summoned to the Gallery phone. “Tim Wheeler…. Sam Donaldson calling.”

Donaldson was White House correspondent of ABC News. I lifted the receiver. “Is that you, Wheeler? I’d like an interview?

“Well…. When?

“The sooner the better.”

“Where?”

“You name it. I’ll be there.”

I told Donaldson I was headed downtown to interview people picketing a department store demanding higher wages. I was leaving immediately.

“I’ll meet you there,” Donaldson said.

So I rode the subway downtown and walked to the picketline. As I was interviewing workers on the picketline, a black, Cadillac stretch limousine rolled up. Out jumped Donaldson, holding a microphone.

The workers were chanting as they marched in a circle. Donaldson pulled me aside.  “The Soviet Union is collapsing. Isn’t this the end of Communism?”

“No, I don’t believe so. It is the end of the Cold War. The contradictions of capitalism are sharper than ever. The Cold War blinded people to the class struggle here in the U.S. Now they will see clearly who their real enemy is.”

Donaldson grew more and more agitated as I spoke. “You’ll never give up!” he exclaimed.

“That’s right! We’ll never give up.”

Sam pumped my hand, leaped back into the limousine and roared off.

The crowd on the picketline had been listening in amazement to this mini-drama and were shaking my hand and congratulating me on my excellent interview. I promised them I would write up the story of their struggle.

When I got back to Capitol Hill, reporters were waiting to hear how it had turned out. I told them I thought it went fine. I was waiting for Donaldson’s story to air and so were my fellow reporters in the House Press Gallery.

When the story didn’t appear at the promised hour, I telephoned Donaldson. I detected a crestfallen note in his voice as he told me they had decided to scrap the interview in exchange for a full interview with Gus Hall at his home in Yonkers New York.

And sure enough, a week or so later, ABC News aired a full story about Gus Hall emphasizing how old he is. The interview with me ended up on the “cutting room floor.”

Photo: A Tandy 200, shown next to a 21st-century Windows-based laptop. Wikipedia


CONTRIBUTOR

Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler estimates he has written 10,000 news reports, exposes, op-eds, and commentaries in his half century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper. He lives with his wife Joyce in Sequim, Wash. His new book, “News From Rain Shadow Country,” is a selection of writings covering his childhood and youth growing up on a dairy farm near Sequim in the 1950s and his retirement on the family farm in recent years. Tim’s much anticipated complete memoirs will be out later in 2017.

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