Terry Irving is one of those guys you can meet and instantly be drawn into. He has done it all and if he hasn’t done it then he’s read about it– from bartender to Emmy Award winning news producer. Terry gave me one of his rare interviews this week. He was happy to oblige and I was happy to listen. Has there ever been anyone more interesting to profile? Perhaps Elvis or Ronald Reagan come to mind? Read on as Terry reveals his dealings with both. Meet Terry Irving!
Q) It’s a pleasure to meet you, Terry. Let me ask you something personal before we begin. You didn’t come across Bobby Darin on your journalistic travels, did you?
A) He died in 1973. I did interview Ricky Nelson about Elvis Presley.
Q) Really? What was he like?
A) Dumb as a rock.
Q) No way! I like Ricky.
A) I was doing a story on the seventh anniversary of Elvis’ death and all the hagiography was just beginning. He had a fantastic manager that had all the stories about Colonel Tom down. Ricky was a loss. Also met Colonel Tom Parker at Elvis’ birthplace and Sam Philips in the the original Sun Studios down in Memphis.
Q) Colonel Tom was a genius in my opinion. I’m a huge Elvis fan and I don’t think Elvis would have been as big without Tom Parker.
A) He might have been bigger. Tom (Parker) kept him from growing. Do you know that he didn’t start advertising until Elvis’ shows were completely sold out? He created a frenzy.
Q) Did you know that it was rumoured in the mid 70’s that he was going to sell Elvis to Gordon Mills? That would have been interesting. I’m not sure anyone could have been bigger in England– Elvis was it.
A) Elvis was “it” everywhere. That was the story. Graceland was becoming a sacred pilgrimage location like Lourdes. A Secular Saint. When I was at the birthplace in Tupelo, it was swamped with Elvis lookalikes from Liverpool. Very strange
Q) I can imagine– are you an Elvis fan?
A) Not really. He was my babysitter’s idol.
Q) What’s your thing music-wise? Byrds? Beatles? Cream?
A) My friends who were musicians were all crazy about ummm…Purple Haze.. I liked the Doors- saw them from the 7th row.
Q) Jimi Hendrix?
A) That’s him. I also really liked the Grateful Dead.
Q) American Beauty is a fine album.
A) My favorite. We got married to “Touch of Grey,” however.
Q) Hendrix once played guitar for Little Richard and Engelbert Humperdinck. Did you know that?
A) Yup. He was a session man for years. You know, I’m just realizing, most of the artists I like died early.
Q) So, let me ask you– why did you choose a life in media?
A) I graduated from college and was given the gift of complete freedom. I had been cut off by my parents, didn’t owe much money to the college and had everything I wanted (a motorcycle, a girlfriend and a cat). We were sitting around the week before graduation (1973) and the plan was to stay around college for a while. I was tending bar and my girlfriend was teaching French. Suddenly, I realized that if we stayed we would become “alumni ghosts” – the people who hang around the parties and play basketball on the college courts. I couldn’t stand that possibility so we thought for about thirty seconds about where we should go. My brother had moved to Washington, DC and we figured that would be ok for a couple of months, anyway.
Never have left Washington. I keep marrying women who refuse to leave. I could name thirty cities I’d rather live in.
At first, I bartended all over DC – having lied my way into my first job by saying I knew what I was doing. Of course, after three weeks on a lunch shift “service bar” with ten demanding waitresses, I could make four drinks at once.
I got a letter from my Uncle Andy – he needed help driving a school bus/camper and a Jeep Wagonneer up to Alaska from Indiana so I went and did that – a thousand miles of incredibly beautiful gravel road.
When I got back, I was thinking of becoming an English teacher. One of my brother’s roommates was a courier for Metropolitan Motorcycles and he told me I could get paid for riding THEIR BMWs. I applied.
I was the worst courier ever. I didn’t know Washington at all and wasn’t willing to drive at the level of sheer craziness of the other guys (most of whom were injured or killed eventually). So on the third day, I got called by the dispatcher and told to go over to ABC News.
ABC News paid by the hour so I wouldn’t keep losing money for the courier company. Anyway, I was the only rider they had without an arrest record. My predecessor had been hit with an unlicensed .45 during a nightshift job at a 7-11. I’ve always thought it was rational to have a gun overnight at one of those places but the boss disagreed.
So there I was. In and out of the White House every day, up on Capitol Hill, chasing various Watergate figures, bringing back the film of Spiro Agnew pleading “nolo contendere” to taking bribes.
One day, I was walking into the bureau carrying an enormous 1200 foot (film) magazine on my shoulder and felt the pulse of the place – the editors, the writers, the whole aspect of a team working towards a common goal. It just seemed like something I could enjoy for a while.
Turned out to be 40 years.
Q) I must ask- are you a Democrat or Republican?
A) Democrat or Republican? I have noticed that journalists are instantly affected when they take sides. They start to subconsciously root for “their guy”. I’ve always thought that the best thing about being a journalist was the right to hate all sides. All sides being just about equal idiots.
So, I’m registered Independent and never tell IF I’ve voted much less who I voted for.
Q) Very wise– that is your right. So, you were right in the middle of Watergate. What is your defining memory of that story?
A) The Saturday Night Massacre. That was when Nixon freaked out because the Special Prosecutor was subpoenaing the tapes and had him fired (even though the whole point of a Special Prosecutor is that they can’t be fired). I was sitting in the upstairs hall at the SP’s office and watching staffers racing around gathering up boxes of documents and notes – they were afraid that the FBI would take them and “lose” them. The Attorney General and his assistant quit rather than fire the SP and it took the number 3 (the incredibly partisan Robert Bork) to actually fire the Special Prosecutor.
Anyway, there was a real feeling of Things Falling Apart. The burglary at the Watergate was more fun for the press than something really serious, but as the pressure had built – even I felt that the whole government could come crashing down.
Of course, to the 21-year old courier, it was all just a lot of fun. I wasn’t supposed to be up there and I was damned if I was going to leave and not be able to get back in.
It wasn’t that I didn’t pay attention to the importance and the History and all that – after all, in my previous bartending jobs, I’d always put the Watergate Hearings on to give the daytime barflies something to argue about.
I was just much more involved with things like hitting the curve right before one of the Burglars homes without going over the edge or finding gas when the lines were blocks long or trying not to kill myself in the snow or slide down into the Metro.
The funny thing is that I never thought Nixon was as much of a criminal as he actually was. No one did. You’d have to be on the radical fringe to believe that he was really bending the entire government to his political and personal ends, but he really was. That was the most interesting thing about the research for Courier. A few of the authors have kept up with all the information that came out in the next thirty years. The Sirica Trials, various tell-all books, confessions, etc. The end result is that Nixon was a complete crook. Crass, corrupt and arrogant. Every one of his first three Attorney Generals committed a felony during their first day in the office. At the time, I just thought he was a creepy guy and was mostly worried about being sent to Vietnam. Last One to Die for a Mistake.
Q) How close were you to being conscripted?
A) Drafted you mean?
Q) Drafted sorry– conscripted is the English term.
A) In reality , I wasn’t close at all. Only one guy from my high school class went directly into the Army after college and he told me recently that you would have had to break regulations to even get sent to Vietnam by that point. The last combat troops were pulled out of Vietnam in February of 1973, but Americans had stopped fighting about a year before. The really bad years were ’65 through ’70.
In retrospect, the draft was insanely unfair. Anyone who could go to college (or get into the National Guard like George W. Bush or on Mormon mission like Mitt Romney) didn’t get drafted. It really was a military made up of poor, minority kids.
Also, I’ve never bought the Post-Vietnam “Americans won’t stand for body bags” theory. Americans can sacrifice for a war – Vietnam was just an incredibly STUPID war and I knew perfectly well that if I threw away my life there, it would be for absolutely nothing.
Q) Rather similar to conscription in the UK. The rich using the poor? Is that a statement that holds truth?
A) I’ve covered the military many times since. It’s no longer true. Today’s military is almost exactly a reflection of the broader society in terms of whites, blacks, Hispanics, whatever and in terms or income and education. Vietnam was a colossal mistake perpetrated by the civilian leaders (the Best and Brightest) and the military suffered for it.
Now, there is a whole other – and very interesting – story about what’s going to happen to today’s troops when they come home. The tempo of combat is FAR, FAR faster than in Vietnam or WWII, the danger greater and the physical and mental damage catastrophic.
Q) Moving on from Vietnam– did you cover the first Iraq conflict?
A) Iraq? Only from a distance. I’d burned out a few years before and was working the control room in Washington. I broadcast the final surrender and watched everything, but I wasn’t there.
My only experience in a war zone came in Beirut during ’82 and ’83 when the various Lebanese factions were betraying each other and the Marines were in the middle.
During the second Iraq war, I was writing and producing a show called This Week at War. For various reasons I was left alone to do what I wanted, and turned it into a really great deep discussion of Iraq, the entire region in turmoil and some great in-depth discussions rather than the canned stuff you usually hear. It was, of course, cancelled in six months, but I got to do the show I really wanted to do for six months. That happens less than you think.
Q) Beirut was during the Reagan Presidency. Can you give a rundown of events for the readers? What actually happened?
Yes, I can. Beirut was a well-intentioned effort by George Shultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State, to try and cool off the Middle East – which eventually led to James Baker’s historic bringing the sides together. It was sabotaged by Cap Weinberger at Defense who didn’t want his nice clean soldiers dirtied up, and by Security Advisor Bud MacFarland who was in Gemayal’s presidential palace one day when they got shelled – which happened almost every day – and freaked out and ordered the US and French troops to fire on the civil war going on in the mountains. The Italians refused. The French and American troops were hit with car bombs – the Italians lost one soldier (accident) even though they were BASED IN THE Shabra and Shatilla refugee camps – the scene of the allegedly Israeli-inspired massacre of old men, women and children only a year before.
Reagan really didn’t have a foreign policy except to spend so much on weapons that the Soviets would go broke trying to catch up. That worked.
Q) Reagan is often cited as the man who destroyed American industry in cities like Allentown and Detroit. Did you cover the decline of American industry?
A) I did. Aliquippa would be a better example. That’s the river valley that flows down near Pittsburgh and where the really big steel mills were. I was there a couple of times. I really think the “Rust Belt” turnover of American industry had more to do with the rise of the metal cargo container. That enabled factories anywhere in the globe to produce goods for any market in the globe. Once that happened, grunt labor mills in rich countries were doomed.
Q) How about Margaret Thatcher who is held responsible for the decline of British industry and a close friend of President Reagan. Did you meet her?
Q) Indeed, the most split opinion poll British Prime Minister of the modern age.
A) No, I never met her. I was supposed to be assigned to the London Bureau twice (and the Paris Bureau once) but internal politics wiped out both those chances. I covered the Royal Wedding – Charles and Diana. My mom asked me to take pictures of “my view of the Wedding” so I sent her pictures of an edit suite built into a hotel room. We almost burned down the hotel, though. We had to air condition the equipment and it started the wires smoking under the floor. The British manager was standing in the hall about to shut off the power and the Senior Producer for the wedding coverage was screaming in his face. He didn’t shut off the power.
I actually thought that Thatcher might have been a bit of … umm … medicine after the extremes of the old Labour party.
Q) The Labour party under leaders like Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson was considered by many to have been extremely effective in providing for the UK- free healthcare, higher wages, etc.
A) Having been both a union shop steward and a management scab, I think companies and countries work best when there is a balance between powers. Neither side works well when they get everything they want. TV used to be heavily unionized. I still flinch when I find myself about to touch a piece of gear. It was a death offense to do that in the old days. However, I’ve also worked freelance at ABC in recent years and found myself looking for a union engineer so I could actually get things done. Management has 21-year old interns doing all the work for free.
Q) So moving back to your book– what drove you to pen a novel?
A) Hunger drove me to “pen a novel”.
Q) Next month’s mortgage comes around like a punch from Ali, doesn’t it?
A) I left CNN in 2010 and there was this little recession going on – there wasn’t a damn job or even a short-time freelance gig in NY or Washington. So, since I had time on my hands, I decided it was time to “put up or shut up” and see if I could write the novel that had been sitting in my head for years. After cranking out news copy for some of the best in the business for lo, these many years, I found that I was quite fast. Not good, mind you, but at least fast. I could slam out 2000 words a day and then fix it up on the second pass. It didn’t do a damn thing for my severe lack of money, of course. I thought I’d be like Lee Child who sold his first Reacher novel to a publisher before he’d even written the second half
That’s not exactly what happened. Three months to write Courier. Six months to find an agent and two years and counting to find a publisher.
It’s fun but I’m really not sure that it’s a way to make a living.
Q) Many readers will be shocked to hear that an Emmy award doesn’t open doors. Why do you think you’ve had such a hard time progressing?
A) You know, that’s always been a pet peeve of mine. How do some people always get introduced as “Emmy-Award-Winning” producer and I can’t seem to convince anyone that I’ve done anything at all? I complained about it at MSNBC when I was Executive Producer of the Morning Show and my crew made me a special Emmy Award Winning credit – complete with exploding fireworks and rainbow colors.
To answer your question, seriously, I don’t know but it always seems as if that next award or the next cool title (Vice-President, Director of Content) will be the one that guarantees a cushy future forever. It just never does. Yet,there are people who get fired over and over again and still get these great jobs. Useless to complain about it.
Oh yeah, one more thing about television. It’s FUN. I used to take all the interns out into the newsroom and say, “Look around, everyone here wanted to come in to work today.” That’s not something that’s true in all that many fields.
On the other hand, if I had listened to that little voice inside me and gone to law school or into banking when I’d had my fun on a bike, I’d be able to retire today instead of trying to work out a way to survive. So that’s my advice to all the kids out there – forget about doing the cool things like writing or making movies or television or running around the world covering the news. Law School, MBAs and private equity funds is the way to go. You would be stunned if you knew how many people my age are just scraping by.
Q) Oh I know– my father in law to be was an architect– recession wiped him out and he’s now blind and broke. It’s a bitch.
A) I had one of my high school classmates say they couldn’t go to a reunion because they were embarrassed about being broke. I said, the whole damn class is broke, you’ll fit right in.
Q) Well Terry this has been a fascinating interview and I will leave you to get to back to your work. Thank you for your time!
A) Oh, it so nice to run into someone who hasn’t heard all my stories before. Thanks, Nick.
With that last answer Terry was back to work and I was left with one helluva interview to edit and play with. The man is much more than a journalist. He is a walking encyclopaedia of recent history. From Watergate to Beirut to Elvis Presley. Terry Irving was there and by reading this interview- you were too!
Catch Terry’s upcoming book Courier very soon! It’s so hot it’ll burn your hands red raw!
Part two coming soon!
Did you miss my article about the new Terry Irving novel “Courier”?
Check it out now!