Let's begin with an old cover of Sports Illustrated. The issue date is April 9, 1984. The image is of a Georgetown University basketball star, big-elbowed and bald-headed, dunking over two flailing University of Houston basketball players during the Final Four.
That’s how America remembers Michael Graham, at least on those occasions when it does. In the process of helping the Hoyas win their first national title with that victory, the freshman from Southeast DC with the most fearsome reputation on the team became a household name.
“He was a scary dude on the floor,” says Chuck Everson, who played at Villanova University from 1982 to ’86. “Very, very aggressive. He wouldn’t think twice about ripping your head off.”
To the media, Graham’s attitude perfectly aligned with the philosophy of his team— then the most subversive in college basketball. While black superstars had long propelled the sport’s powerhouses, all but a few of their coaches were white men. Georgetown, though, was led by an opinionated, brilliant, wagon-circling African-American coach who suffered no fools: John Thompson Jr. With his team’s win against Houston that April, he became the first black basketball coach to win a Division 1 national championship.
The indomitable, stoic center Patrick Ewing was the face of the Hoyas. But for a short, profoundly memorable stretch, nobody embodied Georgetown’s establishment-rankling ethos more than Graham.
“He was a bald head in the middle of everybody wearing the Jheri curls, the Afros, the shags,” Public Enemy frontman Chuck D once told me. “That was a f---in’ statement.” And it was usually a statement that came trailed by controversy. Graham was the guy who in March 1984 alone was accused of throwing a punch at Syracuse forward Andre Hawkins and leveling University of Nevada Las Vegas center Richie Adams with an elbow; he also bowled over Dayton guard Sedric Toney, prompting Toney to say, “There’s such a thing as being physical, but he comes down and tries to hurt you.” Graham was the program’s id: a 220-pound, gum-chomping, hyper-aggressive menace.
And then it was over. After finishing with 14 points and five rebounds against Houston in the championship game, he never played for Georgetown again.
On April 4, 2013, the DC Lottery sent out a press release announcing the winner of a $1-million Powerball ticket. The lucky man’s name: Michael Graham. He’d bought the ticket at a Shell station on South Dakota Avenue, Northeast, while driving around during his shift at Rent-A-Center.
Later that year, I began trying to get in touch with him. It wasn’t easy. I knew a lot had happened to the guy in the intervening years and figured there’d be a lot of interest in the intriguing ups and downs in the life of the man who helped Georgetown win its only national title and then disappeared. But after our first quick phone conversation in 2013, it took five months of e-mails, Facebook messages, and phone calls to arrange a sit-down. Last year, the cycle repeated itself. Every time I thought I was close to pinning him down, poof.
In some ways, I could understand it. The media have never been good to Graham. He was a one-year wonder, and for a long time after the Georgetown triumph, sports pundits were still hammering him. Take the instance in 1989, a full five years after Graham’s last collegiate game, when a major newspaper columnist dubiously claimed that during the 1984 championship, Graham and a teammate “couldn’t speak a coherent English sentence in a postgame TV interview,” adding, “It embarrassed Georgetown students—past and present.” Or the time in 2013 when ESPN’s Grantland website included Graham in its “Most Hated College Basketball Player” tournament. This, 30 years after Graham’s lone season as a Hoya.
“I had a shaved head,” Graham says today. “You look at it and you’re like, ‘Damn, that was some scary shit.’ ” To many, he was just a poor, black, uneducated inner-city kid equipped with athletic talent and little else—a stereotype. In reality, his life has been more of an odyssey. “I’ve been places,” he says, “where very few have.”
Graham has had some bad luck, but he’s also been graced with incredible good fortune. The odd thing is that every time he’s caught a break or been given some enviable opportunity, he’s pulled his disappearing act or made a questionable decision that doomed him.
As we talk, though, it becomes clear that Graham is determined to correct for all that, to rewrite his history. His vehicle for doing so is the sort of thing that could make any future disappearing act a lot trickier: a restaurant, named—like the vanity establishments of so many all-time greats—after him: Michael G’s BBQ Backyard Grill.
Graham started working on the idea early last year. I got my first tour of the Bryans Road location, in Maryland’s Charles County, last November. With a spring in his Timberlands, he led me past a wooden crate containing a new deli case and into the kitchen, where he pointed to an old stove that would soon be replaced. The ceiling needed new tiles, the soda fountain needed fixing, and the expansive menu needed trimming. Nonetheless, the proprietor of Michael G’s sounded cautiously optimistic that the place could open by January of this year.
“Even though there are some days I say, ‘Why in the hell did I pick this?’ ” Graham said, “I’m pretty confident.”
The restaurant, as he describes it, is a celebration of the very short era that brought Graham so much fame. He plans on offering cheeseburgers named after Thompson and Ewing, and the walls of the 1,600-square-foot space are covered with photographs of Graham dunking on various opponents.
But more than that, Michael G’s is the culmination of Graham’s three-decade quest to be remembered for something beyond his maddeningly brief time as a Hoya.
“I’m trying,” he says, “to get a great storybook ending.”
Of course, he’s not there yet. January has come and gone, and as of press time, anyway, Michael G’s has yet to open.
Graham grew up with his mother and two younger brothers in the nowdemolished Arthur Capper housing project on Capitol Hill. He also had six half siblings, his father’s kids.
“We were on public assistance all my life,” Graham says. His athletic career was born of necessity. “I was such a bully in middle school. They tried everything to keep me out of trouble.”
He joined the basketball team at Jefferson Junior High and quickly distinguished himself—“just head and shoulders above everybody,” as Richard Bachman, his coach, once told the Washington Post.
At Spingarn High School, the now-shuttered Northeast DC hoops powerhouse, Graham led his team to the 1982 DC Interhigh championship. By the fall of 1983, he was enrolled at Georgetown on a full scholarship. And he was playing for Thompson, perhaps the proudest son of Washington basketball, who went from starring at Archbishop Carroll High School to later playing for the Boston Celtics.
“I didn’t have a father figure,” Graham says. “To me, he was that father figure—somebody you don’t mind running into a wall for.”
“Big John” Thompson, who’s six-foot-ten, saw eye to eye with Graham literally and figuratively. “Coach had an affinity for him because of where they came from,” says Horace Broadnax, a point guard at Georgetown from 1982 to ’86. “Michael didn’t come from an easy background, and coach Thompson didn’t, either.”
But adjusting to Georgetown—an exclusive, overwhelmingly white institution— was difficult. And Thompson didn’t pamper anyone. Graham’s life was far from the cushy, cloistered existence now associated with bigtime college basketball. “You could barely get shoes from Coach,” he says. “People thought you was getting something at Georgetown. They are totally wrong.”
Graham’s focus faded in and out; life outside the brick-walled campus tugged at him hard. He was a father—his high-school girlfriend, Thomasine Burrell, had given birth to their son, Michael, a year before. On weekends, he’d drift off campus to hole up with old friends and family. He’d disappear “to the place he felt comfortable,” says former Hoyas assistant coach Mike Riley, often dispatched by Thompson to go and find Graham. The city, he adds, “was like a magnet.”
Thompson suspended Graham at least once for neglecting his schoolwork. But the coach seemed to understand that his team—then in the midst of its best year ever—could use Graham’s muscle. By late March, the freshman forward’s playing time had increased and the Hoyas had rolled past UNLV and Dayton to advance to the Final Four.
During the tournament, Graham was dominant on the court. Against Kentucky in the semifinals, he finished with eight points and six rebounds. In the title game, he was even better and was named to the all-tournament team alongside Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, future Hall of Famers.
Off the court, though, he was an emotional wreck. The Final Four that year was in Seattle, and the weeks leading up to it had been full of travel along the West Coast. Graham had never been away from DC for so long. He remembers spending much of the Final Four weekend missing home. When Lionel Richie’s slow jam “Hello” came through the speakers during one practice at Seattle’s Kingdome, Graham started sobbing: “I just listened to it and boo-hooed.”
Now 51, Graham is no longer the lean, mean Michael Graham of 1984. He has added some weight to his six-foot-nine frame, and the glare he once perfected is nowhere to be found. In person, he’s an easygoing, genial giant who peppers conversations with his practically seismic laugh. The first time I met him, I asked why he still shaved his head. It’s not because he wants to look intimidating—if he didn’t, he told me, his hair would grow in gray.
We were at his newly built home in Waldorf, finally sitting down to relive his glory days. In the basement, he pointed to a blown-up copy of his Sports Illustrated cover, then grabbed another. This one, dated November 26, 1984—the fall after Georgetown won the national championship—features a portrait of Thompson, Ewing, and President Ronald Reagan. “Maybe I could’ve been a part of that,” Graham says. “I don’t know.”
He wasn’t a part of it because by then Thompson had suspended him for his sophomore season. After the Final Four, Graham had become a minor celebrity, appearing at events around town. He’d also slacked off on schoolwork. “I sort of, like, let it get in the way,” he says. “I was my own worst enemy.
“It was a void,” he adds. “One, I failed myself. And I failed my teammates. And especially my mother. You know, it was never a problem of [not being able to] do the work. I just didn’t.”
Under the terms of his suspension, Graham retained his full scholarship but wasn’t allowed to play or practice with the team. But unlike other star players—who in those days usually played at least two or three years of college ball before going pro—Graham had never been interested in school as more than a ticket to punch en route to the NBA. Once off the team, he lasted a semester before he remembers thinking, Maybe Georgetown’s not the thing for me.
Thompson, clearly frustrated, publicly rebuked his wayward star shortly after Graham dropped out.
“The biggest thing that disappoints me about this is that I know, as well as I know anybody that I’ve ever had here, that Michael had the innate intelligence to do the work,” Thompson told Michael Wilbon, then of the Post. “But a person can only be counseled by so many people so many times. He’s 21 years old. He’s getting to the point now where there’s not going to be anybody to talk to.”
The coach went on to tell Wilbon that he believed the Hoyas could have become national champions without Graham. Thompson, however, would never win another NCAA championship, and as Graham likes to point out, in 1985 the heavily favored Hoyas famously lost to Villanova in the title game without him. Still, he speaks of the era today with a note of regret, wishing Georgetown celebrated his accomplishments more.
To plenty of Hoyas fans, Graham remains a folk hero. In December, I tagged along with him to the Georgetown-Kansas game at the Verizon Center. Before walking from the concourse down to his courtside seats, a short, middle-aged fan approached and asked for a hug. Kansas ended up winning 75-70, and after the final buzzer a different fan spotted him. “We could’ve used you out there tonight,” the man said.
Graham smiled and replied, “I wish.”
After Graham walked away from Georgetown, the University of the District of Columbia’s coach, Wil Jones, took him in. “People thought that the scowl on Graham’s face was legitimate, you understand?” Jones told me last year before he died of cancer. “The scowl on his face was a facade. Michael was one of the sweetest kids in the world. But a lot of people didn’t understand that.”
Jones recalled how he’d tried to recruit Graham out of high school, until “all of a sudden, here come the big boys. John [Thompson] got in there and stole him.” Still, for Jones, eventually landing Graham at UDC was bittersweet. “Shit,” the late coach said, “I wanted him to go to Georgetown so he could win three or four national championships, you know?”
Graham broke Jones’s heart a second time, and in short order. After UDC informed him he wouldn’t be eligible for the 1985-86 season because he didn’t have enough class hours, Graham dropped out, just as he’d done at Georgetown. “The heck with it,” he remembers saying to himself. “I’m gone.”
It didn’t take long for Graham to get what he really wanted: a chance to go pro without any more bother about college. The following summer, the Seattle SuperSonics picked him in the fourth round of the NBA draft and he signed a contract with the team. But he blew his chance by partying his way through training camp. “Again,” he sighs, “immaturity.” A week before the season started, Seattle cut him loose.
He got yet another chance, this time with the Albany Patroons, part of the Continental Basketball Association. Then a virtual farm system for the NBA, the CBA should have been the perfect place for Graham to relaunch his career. His job was supposed to be simple. “All I had to do was rebound,” he says. “That was my strength.” The problem was he fancied himself a scorer, and “that wasn’t my strength.”
On New Year’s Eve 1986, Graham and his coach, Phil Jackson, got into it in the middle of a game. A few days later, the Patroons axed him after only 11 games.
Jackson, who went on to lead the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to a combined 11 championships, is considered by many to have been the best coach in NBA history. But even as he used his memoir to describe leading the likes of Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman, he still devoted space to Graham, the star he’d failed to mold back in the minors.
“Nothing I said made any difference,” Jackson wrote. “Whenever I tried to talk to him, his eyes would glaze over and he’d retreat to some dark inner corner nobody could penetrate.”
The coach described pulling off the highway the night he let Graham go and starting to cry at the thought that he might have ended the player’s promising career: “Here was a kid who was born to play basketball, someone who had enough talent to be a star in the NBA, and yet despite all my sophisticated psychology, I couldn’t reach him.”
Over the next few years, Graham bounced around basketball’s minor leagues, playing for half a dozen teams for about $1,000 a week. He was frustratingly inconsistent. One night he’d grab 14 rebounds; the next he’d get into a fight. “It always seemed like I took one giant step forward and two back,” he says. In 1989, shortly after the Tulsa Fast Breakers signed Graham, the team turned around and cut him for testing positive for cocaine.
Graham maintains that he wasn’t an addict at the time, nor had he ever previously failed a drug test. He’d done coke while hanging out with teammates, he says, and, “lo and behold, the next day they popped me. I was like, wow.” The incident still pains him: “I put myself in bad positions. That wasn’t a smart thing. It wasn’t at all.”
It was another opportunity squandered. Graham had been playing well at the time, too. “He worked his ass off,” says former Tulsa general manager Jay Stone, now a lobbyist in Washington. “He always showed up at practice. And [coach] Henry [Bibby] was happy with him. He was getting better and better all the time.” That year, Tulsa ended up winning the CBA championship without Graham. Stone never saw him again.
By early 2013, Graham was working at a Rent-A-Center location in Prince George’s County, delivering and recovering merchandise to make a living after two decades marked by various losses and disappointments.
Graham had quit basketball in 1993 after a few years playing professionally in Venezuela, Portugal, and Mexico. He’d fathered two daughters with women he met during his years on the road, but he wasn’t putting in a lot of family time with them or his son. In 1994, he married Francine Williams, a native of Charles County. But while he was with her, he says he fathered his fourth child, a son, with another woman.
Graham and Francine divorced, and he moved to South Carolina, where he became a furniture-store manager. In 2004, he married for a second time. Two years later, he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. “When the doctor told me that, I cried,” he says.
Then, in June 2008, things got unfathomably worse. During a trip to Kings Dominion amusement park, Graham’s son Michael, the one who was born when Graham was in high school, began vomiting, then collapsed and hit his head on the pavement. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital, where he died. Doctors told his mother that Michael had a tumor on his brain. “We don’t know whether or not it came on so suddenly or if it was cancerous,” Thomasine Burrell says.
Michael Burrell, who had worked as an armed guard, looked like his father, his mother says. In the years since his death at age 25, she and his dad have barely talked about their son. Graham says he shut down after the loss but also realized it was time to grow up: “You always think, being a parent, that you’re supposed to go before your kids. That was a real shock to me.”
Graham might have been lost to history by the time he’d divorced for a second time, moved back to DC, and started working at Rent-A-Center. But on the ides of March in 2013, he was graced with a very strange stroke of luck.
That day, his shift began miserably. After hearing that the Georgia Avenue location was missing some laptops, he drove over to see what he could find out. After his questions turned up little, he headed back to his usual posting in Capitol Heights. On the way, he stopped to use the bathroom at a gas station. As a courtesy, he wanted to buy something first. But nothing in the snack-food aisle looked very appetizing. So instead of candy or a bag of chips, he bought a lottery ticket.
“By the way,” he remembers asking the clerk, “you got a bathroom in here?”
“No,” the man replied from behind a glass partition. “No public bathroom.”
Graham was so angry he almost tore up the ticket.
A few nights later, Graham was nodding off in front of the nighttime newscast when he heard an anchor mention that DC Lottery officials were looking for someone who’d purchased a winning ticket at a gas station on South Dakota Avenue. Instead of checking his ticket right away, he went back to sleep. The next morning, he finally looked at it after getting out of the shower. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. Excluding the Powerball, Graham had hit five numbers: 3, 7, 21, 44, and 53. The prize was $1 million.
It’s here that Graham’s tortured relationship with Georgetown came full circle. He had lost touch with most of his old DC basketball friends and coaches. But not Thompson. Even after the coach had taken him to task in the Post, Graham still felt close to him all these years later. When he discovered his winning ticket, Thompson was one of the first people he called.
Thompson didn’t believe it. “Michael, are you sure?” he kept asking. Graham drove the ticket over to Georgetown and showed the numbers to his old coach. “Goddamn, you did, son,” Thompson finally said.
The press release the DC Lottery sent out that April to announce Graham’s $1-million win called him—predictably—“The Enforcer” and mentioned the 1984 title he’d helped the Hoyas win. But at a press conference, Graham refused to talk about Georgetown. “Today’s about winning the lottery,” he said.
After taxes, Graham took home about $750,000, he says. The first thing he did was buy new gravestones for his grandmother, mother, and aunt. He and his first wife, Francine Williams, had begun dating again, and on Christmas Eve 2013, Graham surprised her by taking her ring-shopping. They bought the house in Waldorf with his prize money, and last June, at the Aria in Las Vegas, they married for the second time. Their daughter was born a few months later, making Graham a father for the fifth time, at 51. “I needed that,” he says. “I needed that bundle of joy.”
The girl is seven months old now, and for the first time in his life, Graham is partaking in and enjoying fatherhood—even the early-morning feedings. “I’ve never been around any of my kids to do that,” he says. Now he’s hopeful he could become closer to his three older children, the youngest of whom attends a DC high school.
Michael G’s BBQ Backyard Grill is the last piece of making things right, of finally finishing something he started. Graham knows he faces long odds. The National Endowment for Financial Education claims that as many as 70 percent of Americans who experience a cash windfall end up losing it all. And the restaurant business—staging, equipment, inspections, hiring, customer service—is a slog.
Over the many months I spent chasing Graham, Michael G’s was supposed to open five or six times at not one but two locations. That’s pretty standard in the industry; openings are always delayed. And Graham seemed to be taking extra care. “I’m not gonna blow it,” he told me last fall.
January 2015 came and went. On the eve of the next target for opening day, in early February, Graham and I were supposed to meet at his Brandywine location, but when I arrived, a restaurateur named Terry Thomas, Graham’s business partner, seemed surprised to see me. Graham wasn’t there. He’d forgotten about our meeting.
We finally caught up a few days later, and he confessed that although the restaurants were getting close, there was still a little more work left to do.
“I gotta get this right—it’s gotta be right,” he said, trying to ward off any misunderstandings, but maybe also trying to convince himself that this time there will be no vanishing, that Michael Graham, owner of Michael G’s BBQ Backyard Grill, is here to stay.
Alan Siegel (email@example.com) has written for Sports Illustrated, Slate, and Washington City Paper.
We’ve seen lots of photos of Bill and Hillary Clinton holding the new “royal baby,” their granddaughter Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky, but her other grandparents have yet to get their photo op.
New father Marc Mezvinsky’s parents were once very public figures, too. Marjorie Margolies was a popular reporter for Channel 4 in Washington in the '70s and '80s. She made headlines herself as the first single woman to adopt two baby girls from Korea and Vietnam. She later married former Iowa congressman Ed Mezvinsky, and they had two sons together, Andrew and Marc. The Mezvinsky household eventually included 11 children—four from his first marriage, her two adopted daughters, their two sons, and three boys from Southeast Asia for whom they became legal guardians.
The clan moved back to Margolies’s home state of Pennsylvania, where she ran for and won a seat in Congress in 1992. A Democrat, Margolies won her election in a largely Republican district by 1,300 votes.
I shadowed her from the time she was elected through her first few months in Congress. Together we wrote “Freshman Rush” for the April 1993 issue of Washingtonian. “Triple M,” as she was known by her staff, hit the ground running and never stopped. Between jockeying for committee assignments and setting up her staff and office, Margolies-Mezvinsky worked on the schedule for her complicated household back in the Philadelphia suburbs. She munched granola and took frequent phone calls from Andrew and Marc.
She noted that “after a few days, some people were so wiped out that they started skipping events they’d have killed to be invited to just a week earlier.”
Not Marjorie. I had a hard time keeping up with her, and it was it was a great relief for me to see her take off her high heels and run down the marble hall in the Capitol in her stockinged feet to catch the elevator to cast her first vote as a member of Congress.
As new member of Congress, Margolies met new president Bill Clinton during freshman orientation. “He offered congratulations from Hillary, who had generously campaigned for me in the fall,” she recalled. Then he asked, “Do you really have 11 children?”
Margolies knew she was on shaky ground in her district, but it was her vote for Clinton’s 1993 budget that sealed her political fate. Triple M opposed the budget until a call from Clinton convinced her to cast the deciding vote in its favor. As she voted, Republicans in the House shouted “Goodbye, Marjorie.”
She lost her reelection race in 1994 and returned to Pennsylvania to run unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor in 1998.
Meanwhile, Ed Mezvinsky was engaging in a number of failed business deals, which would eventually lead to a conviction for bank, mail, and wire fraud. According to a federal prosecutor, Mezvinsky was conned by “just about every different kind of African-based scam we’ve ever seen.” In order to raise the funds needed to front the money for the fraudulent investment schemes he was being offered, Mezvinsky tapped his network of contacts and dropping the name of the Clinton family to convince people to give him money. Mezvinsky was indicted, pleaded guilty to many of the felony charges, and served time in federal prison.
Margolies dropped out of a Democratic primary for the Senate in 2000 because of her husband’s legal troubles and her own filing for bankruptcy. The Mezvinskys divorced in 2007, and Marjorie resumed her maiden name. She ran for political office again in 2014, but lost a primary for her old Congressional seat despite campaign help from the Clintons. Margolies’s campaign was hampered by claims in the Huffington Post that while she served as chief executive and chairman of the Women’s Campaign International, an overly large portion of the nonprofit's assets were allocated to Margolies’ salary and benefits.
This isn't the first time that Margolies and Mezvinsky have been left out of the picture—when Chelsea Clinton married Marc in 2010, the groom’s parents were not in any of the selected wedding pictures.
Retirement announcements from long-serving politicians are always followed immediately by eager campaign announcements from the next wave of candidates. When Representative Frank Wolf said yesterday that he plans to call it a career after 17 terms representing Virginia’s 10th District in Congress, the first person to jump in was Tareq Salahi.
Wait, that guy? The one who crashed a White House state dinner, starred on Real Housewives of DC, and whose wife, Michaele, left him for Journey guitarist Neal Schon?
Yes, that guy wants to represent Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties in the House of Representatives. We caught up with Salahi, who is running a Republican, last night at the Fairmont Hotel before he headed into a party honoring the US Olympic bobsled team. He wasn’t crashing: the bouncer waived Salahi in as someone’s plus-one. Here’s how he plans to go from gatecrasher to Congress:
Why are you running for Frank Wolf’s seat?
As you probably know I’ve been appointed by Democratic and Republican governors [to the Virginia Tourism Board]. If you only followed me on reality TV you’d have no idea what my real life was like. You only saw the Real Housewives and Michaele and I. The true me, the real me, is someone who has supported small business, who has been very strong and very aggressive in protecting small business.
Do you know how many votes you got when you ran for governor this year?
I don’t know exactly how many votes I got, but I understand from one of my staffers I got 4,801.
You know how difficult my name is to spell? Can you spell my name?
For most people that would be a challenge, so we’re happy with that number.
But let’s be honest. Most people know you from the White House, from Real Housewives, from your divorce. You’re trading on it.
Well, sure. Off course we’re playing off it. You ask anyone at the event tonight, you ask any student at UVA, George Mason, “How do you feel about that?” They’re probably going to smile about it and relate it to entertainment, and that’s OK. They love it. You should do your own poll. They not only want to hear what I have to say as a legitimate candidate—
Are you a legitimate candidate?
I’m a legitimate candidate. And this is why: Look at the whole thing. Certainly reality TV is reality TV and I’m paid to play the JR of the show, and I loved it. I enjoy the drama. It’s doing a job. I think Senator [Fred] Thompson did quite a bit of that in a different role.
For the general population, it won't be until January when we get a real-life glimpse at the National Zoo’s giant panda cub Bao Bao. But if you’re as famous as, say, a brooding superhero with retractable adamantium claws, then you can see the cub right now.
The actor Hugh Jackman, best known for playing Wolverine in the X-Men movies, got to press his face against the glass of the enclosure where four-month-old Bao Bao and her mother, Mei Xiang, are currently being kept away from public view. Jackman was in DC yesterday to host the annual Christmas in Washington television special, and stopped by the zoo with his family. Jackman gloatingly uploaded a few photos of himself in front of Mei Xiang and Bao Bao.
That's how the zoo rolls, apparently. Wolverine gets to see the panda, while the rest of us schlubs are stuck with the panda cam for another month.
NPR’s Ari Shapiro will be a full-fledged foreign correspondent come January 2, when he moves to London after almost four years in Washington on the White House beat. He’s hoping the new assignment will bring to his life fewer reasons to wear a suit, less knowledge of British Prime Minister David Cameron than he has of President Barack Obama, and the chance to meet some idols he can address as “Dame” and “Sir.” Shapiro, who is 35, says he expects to miss Washington but plans to return often to see his husband, Michael Gottlieb, and friends. What he’ll become, he says, is a “transatlantic commuter.”
Though he’s never been based in London for work before, he lived there for a few months in 2000 while Gottlieb was fulfilling a Fulbright fellowship. They lived in a “damp, moldy flat” far from the center of town, and those three months “were the rainiest winter on record,” he says. With the new gig, he’s found an apartment in Spitalfields, which he describes as adjacent to the East End, which is “the 14th Street of London—fun and creative.”
On Tuesday, we talked with Shapiro about the old assignment, the new assignment, and what he’ll miss about Washington.
How are you spending Thanksgiving, that most American of annual holidays, before making the big move?
We have 15 people coming to our house for dinner, and after we invited all these people I was asked to fill in as host of All Things Considered. I’ve never hosted it before. I enthusiastically said yes and then started scratching my head and asked, “How will I get dinner for 15 people on the table, given that I will be on the air?”
Isn’t that why we have husbands?
Yes, and parents and in-laws. A bunch of people will be cooking at my house in my absence.
What will you miss about Washington?
Besides my husband, who may follow in time but is not initially going with me? I love that I have what feels like an urban village. Most of my friends live within walking or biking distance. I have neighborhood bars and restaurants where I know the people who work there. I have an urban life that feels like a very old-fashioned, small-town community.
What won’t you miss about Washington?
“Where do you work?”
What is the most important lesson you learned on the White House beat?
It’s only radio. [At the White House] we cover so many real crises of international importance, profound tragedies, issues of war and peace. It puts in perspective a crisis in my job or my life.
What are you passing on, in experiences and legacy, for your NPR replacement at the White House?
My replacement is Tamara Keith, who has been our Congressional correspondent. She shadowed me for a week at the White House, and I introduced her to everyone I can think of. In our dimly lit booth, when I first arrived, I brought some lamps. I plan to leave them there. I also purchased from the MOMA [Museum of Modern Art] store a print by Louise Bourgeois that says “Be calm.” I’m leaving that on the wall of our booth.
What is your advice to White House correspondents, present and future?
Find ways to get off the treadmill from time to time. It is so easy to be consumed by the daily churn of news. You need to find ways to explore the stories that are not on the front page every day.
Do you see yourself having a lifelong career in radio and news, and, if not, where do you think you are headed?
The great thing about NPR is the number of role models here who have had decades-long, fulfilling careers: Nina Totenberg, Robert Segal, Mara Liasson. I could see myself easily following in that path. That said, who knows?
You’ve been on a lot of lists—for example, Paper’s Most Beautiful and MSNBC’s Power List. Did one matter more than the others? Do lists matter in general?
Every time I am on a list I take it as a great compliment, but I try not to let it become more than a passing compliment.
In 2007 you claimed you had four suits. You are about to move to a city more formal than DC. Do you have more suits now?
I do have more suits now, but I plan to wear them less, because many of the stories I do in London will have nothing to do with people who wear suits. I will have the opportunity to report on artists and athletes and scientists, in addition to politicians and businesspeople.
Not as a competition, but as a comparison, how do you expect to match David Cameron with Barack Obama?
I was having drinks with my predecessor on the London beat, and I asked him to tell me everything I need to know about British politics. He said, “If you are doing a story about it more than once every few months you are doing it wrong.”
What I mean by this is, at this point I could probably write a biography of President Obama and I could probably sketch a rough profile of David Cameron. By the time I leave the London beat I hope I don’t know as much about David Cameron as I know about Barack Obama.
Do you have any idols you hope to meet over there?
Dame Helen Mirren. Sir Ian McKellen. I wouldn’t turn down a lunch date with Elton John. I love that I will get to refer to people as “Dame” and “Sir.”
Washington is one of the more comfortable cities in which to be gay in the US, possibly in the world. What do you expect from London?
London is such a sophisticated global city, and the world is such a different place today than it was even ten years ago. I don’t expect much difference.
You are from Portland, Oregon. What do you think London will have in common with Portland, other than climate?
A great bike culture. Portland has more bicycles per capita than just about any city in America. London—and most of Europe—has a bike culture much more similar to Portland than DC. I ride my bike everywhere.
You sing with the Portland-based group Pink Martini. What will happen with your appearances with them? More of the Euro circuit?
I think so. The band performs a lot in Europe. I have done a few European tours with them, but I expect that will increase now. I still hope to do major East Coast shows, but shows in second-tier American cities and out West might become more infrequent.
You sing in five languages. Do you speak all of them, too?
Not at all. I kind of speak two languages other than English—French and Hebrew. When I have to sing in languages I don’t speak, I learn what the words mean and find a native speaker to teach me the correct pronunciation.
Do you have a favorite language for speaking or singing?
I love the sound of Italian. It’s such a musical language. Although it is fun to sing in Hindi, the syllables do not intuitively follow each other in a way the ear would expect.
You depart for London on January 2. How do you plan to send yourself off?
I don’t know. I love Komi. Maybe dinner at Komi. We have been going for years and years and years. It’s the kind of relationship with a restaurant that I would be lucky to find in London.
Most municipal transportation directors don't have groupies. But Gabe Klein has legions of rabid fans in two cites where he turned policies from "cars only" to bikes, pedestrians, and streetcars. Klein ran the District Department of Transportation from 2008 to 2010 under former Mayor Adrian Fenty, laying the groundwork for Capital Bikeshare, DC Streetcar, and other innovations that have changed the way Washington gets around and made him an idol of transit and smart-growth advocates.
When Fenty lost his reelection bid, Klein was quickly snapped up by Mayor (and former White House Chief of Staff) Rahm Emanuel to do the same job in the Windy City. After two and a half years transforming how Chicago moves (and winning another legion of fans), Klein, 42, announced last week that he was stepping down to move back to DC full-time to be with his family and figure out his next venture. Klein tells Washingtonian he's not interested in running for office, as some have urged him to do in the past—but whatever he’s planning, it’ll probably excite his fans.
In the time in you spent running transportation in Chicago, can you compare that experience to your stint running DDOT?
Both my mayors—Mayor Fenty and Mayor Emanuel—were awesome bosses. Very driven, focused on innovation, and very open to new ideas and implementing new strategies. This is why the innovation in government is happening at the city level. When I came into DDOT I didn’t have any sense of how government worked. I didn’t even know what some of the acronyms meant. I always say my ignorance was very helpful to me because I tried to get things done at a private-sector pace.
This year Kojo Nnamdi marks a milestone—15 years of hosting his daily radio broadcast on WAMU-FM—and he says what those 15 years mean to him is that “the listening public latched onto something most mainstream media today are not interested in, and that’s a long-form interview.” It is his specialty, even though he’ll tell you he takes great pleasure in changing gears from subject to subject, a sign of his own restless mind and vast assortment of interests and curiosities.
Nnamdi is as Washington as it gets, in part because, like so many other people who put down roots here, he’s from someplace else. He was born Rex Orville Montague Paul in Guyana in January 1945. He left Guyana to go to college at McGill University in Montreal, moved from there to Brooklyn, and arrived in Washington in 1969. He became the host of The Kojo Nnamdi Show in 1998, replacing Derek McGinty.
Nnamdi celebrated the anniversary of his show with a party at the Carnegie Library and by doing something that’s becoming a trend among Washingtonians: announcing on his show on Thursday that owner Dan Snyder should change the name of his football team. “I, like a lot of fans, have evolved from something we didn’t think about a lot to ‘no,’” he said.
We connected with Nnamdi for a wide-ranging conversation in which we got to turn the tables on him and do all the asking.
The promotional material for your show says it’s about news, politics, and cultural issues. Is one more of a favorite subject than another?
Politics would be number one. Even though I enjoy discussing all the other issues that we do, where my natural instincts are, for my own reading and listening pleasure, is politics. Living in Washington it’s difficult to avoid politics. It’s part of the air we breathe.
What about sports? When we first met, at a dinner party, your job was to watch a football game and report back to the chefs making the meal.
I love sports. I love going to sporting events generally—it’s one of the most relaxing things you can do. Basketball is my favorite. I am really passionate about it. I have season tickets to [American University] games. I watch football. I watch some baseball, when it gets closer to the World Series. I go to see cricket in the Caribbean, because I played the sport. I usually go to Antigua in February. I also grew up playing soccer. This past year I got season tickets to DC United, and it was their worst year ever.
Teresa Heinz Kerry, who was hospitalized in July after suffering a seizure, has given a revealing interview in which she talks about her “miraculous” recovery but notes pointedly that the process has cost her time with her husband, Secretary of State John Kerry. Does she see him? “Of course not,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, because she can’t travel with him on his frequent and “exhausting” trips. Heinz Kerry said, “I know he’s good at this job, but it’s not a life, and some days are hard. But I believe in what he is doing—even when I disagree with him, which I sometimes do.” She willingly lets her husband travel the globe. “I keep thinking I’m doing it for the world,” she said.
Some other nuggets from the exclusive interview, which took place in the Heinz Endowments offices in downtown Pittsburgh:
• In her story, reporter Mackenzie Carpenter described the 75-year-old heiress as looking “a little more tired, perhaps, but with the signature tousled hair.” In an e-mail exchange with Washingtonian, Carpenter added, “I was struck by how focused THK seemed, and her sense of humor was completely intact.”
• Heinz Kerry said the seizure was caused by the after-effects of “a bad concussion that was not properly treated at all [. . .] from a very bad fall.” She indicated the fall happened four years ago. “There were a lot of signs of impacts over the four years.”
Rob Sarvis has little money, no paid staff, and, by his own estimation, few fellow Libertarians among the Virginia electorate. Yet the irrepressible unpopularity of the leading candidates in the November 5 gubernatorial election—Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli—has allowed Sarvis, a 37-year-old Annandale attorney and software developer, to poll as high as the double digits. (The last Libertarian Virginian to run, Bill Redpath, didn’t clear 1 percent in the 2001 campaign.) We caught up with Sarvis to find out what makes him run.
At one point a Politico poll had you at 12 percent. For a third-party candidate to be in double digits says a lot about this election.
It shows the two parties have gotten so far from trying to serve the public. And these two candidates really exemplify exactly what’s going on in their parties.
What are your impressions of your opponents?
You can’t really tell much about a person from talking to them a little. They’re practiced politicians who say the scripted things you’re supposed to say, but the numbers don’t add up. It’s frustrating for voters to see such dumbed-down rhetoric.
What sparked you to run for office?
I grew up in a moderately fiscally conservative household. My mom is Chinese. My dad was white. He died when I was almost ten, and my mom raised us. I never heard anyone talk about social issues. I never really thought I would be in politics because I was really shy and introverted. But I’ve always been interested in public policy. In 2008, when the recession started, is when I got really fed up. I didn’t like that we had bailed out the big banks. It seemed there was a lot of cronyism.
Two years ago, you ran for Virginia’s state senate as a Republican.
I ran as a libertarian Republican. I just didn’t know how socially extreme the Virginia GOP is. There’s basically no libertarian influence—not like other states, where they’re kind of having a civil war.
Why did you quit the party?
I live in a fairly liberal district, and if I run again as a Republican, it’s just an albatross around my neck. It’s the easiest thing for them to say, “Hey, look—a Republican.” And that’s the end of the argument.
Where are you on the libertarian scale now?
I’m tempered by the fact of what’s politically feasible. Most Virginians aren’t libertarians. I accept that fact. I just start with the universe of politically feasible policy options and choose the best one.
If Virginians aren’t libertarians, why are you running?
Because they want something better, and moderate libertarian is far superior to Republicans and Democrats in their current incarnation. Take the marijuana issue. People see the ravages of the drug war and how ridiculous it is that we criminalize possession of marijuana. I think 70-plus percent [of Virginians] are totally fine with medical marijuana and a bare majority is okay with full legalization. Yet the parties aren’t talking about it, and the media generally won’t bring it up.
Can you pull this off?
Obviously, it’s still an uphill climb and we’re realistic about the possibilities, but there’s certainly a path there.
This article appears in the November 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
Hollywood and Washington got together for some laughs at the Kennedy Center Sunday night on behalf of Carol Burnett, one of the legends of American sketch comedy. The 80-year-old Burnett was awarded the 16th Mark Twain Prize, which has been given in the past to Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, and George Carlin, among others. Those who came to sing her praises included colleagues, friends, and a younger generation of women comedians, many of whom are graduates of Saturday Night Live and who consider her one of their pioneers. Tina Fey opened the show; Amy Poehler did a routine as her “assistant” with the help of half a dozen dogs; Rashida Jones and Maya Rudolph told anecdotes and introduced clips from Burnett’s enduring moments on television and in movies.
David Rubenstein, the chairman of the Kennedy Center board, was the warmup act, though he didn’t dare try to do comedy. Not in this company. He came onstage to thank the show’s underwriters and producers, and appeared later to introduce Burnett. The concert hall was nearly packed, with Burnett sitting prominently in a red-draped box adjacent to the stage with her husband, Brian Miller, and daughters Jody and Erin Hamilton. In the President’s Box were House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and DC Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton. The room had the lights, cameras, and other trappings of a TV show, because it was being taped by WETA for broadcast on PBS on Sunday, November 24.