Column: The Watergate? No, the Holiday Inn

James Bornemeier
James Bornemeier

I was a newspaperman for 25 years at a string of some pretty good dailies, including the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, which in the 1980s, when I was there, was the third best paper in the country.

They are both embarrassments now, pummeled by a market transformed by the internet and a series of unwise sales to buyers who thought some money could be wrung from them. That they still publish at all is something of a miracle since traditional revenue streams have all but dried up.

Back in their heyday, they were capable of superb journalism with annual caches of Pulitzer Prizes to show for it. It was something to behold when they trained their sights on powerful people and entities and brought them to heel. At the Times and Inquirer, I held various editing posts and never reported with one of the many investigative teams over the years.

But I happily guzzled the celebratory Pulitzer champagne when the women from advertising and circulation in high heels would come down from whatever floor they worked on to mingle with us ink-stained types for an hour or so. Then they retreated upstairs to come back down in a year’s time for more prizes and drinks.

I had a solid career and can truthfully say that somewhere stashed away is my own little Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer board often awards some prizes to newspaper staffs, not individuals. And that’s how mine came to be, for some reporting I did out of Washington, D.C., on one of the bigger California earthquakes.

One of my most memorable assignments was to head to North Carolina and greet Hurricane Bertha in 1996 as she barreled (they always “barrel”) into North Myrtle Beach, the predicted landfall. I got a room in an undistinguished yet fort-like motel on the beach and saw some amazing wind and rain and waves, and, momentarily, an airborne riderless bicycle. But Bertha at the last moment veered north and slammed into Wrightsville Beach (they always “slam”), which attracts hurricanes with eerie frequency.

A colleague was waiting for it there and all I had to do was give him some color details to weave into his main story. I then made the slow slog home to Alexandria, Virginia, enduring a foodless/waterless day before lucking into an elementary school manned by the National Guard: water, yes; toilets, no; and a cot I had to beg from a family hoarding them.

But there was one of my stories that had considerable lasting impact. It happened when I was just starting out in the business and ran the massive Montpelier, Vermont bureau, which consisted of me and a tiny Italian woman who handled the newsboys.

My typical routine would entail making the rounds at City Hall, trolling for news, and attending various meetings of city boards and commissions. City Council meetings could get contentious and there was always something to write about. The sleepiest group was the Planning Commission, which rarely had any interesting business before it.

Early into my Montpelier days, I was drowsily monitoring the half dozen old white men who sat on the commission. Just as the meeting was about to break up, one of these graying civic servants uttered these immortal words: “What’s the latest on the plan to build a Holiday Inn across the street from the statehouse?” (Montpelier is the capital.) Nothing to report came the reply. I instantly raised a questioning left eyebrow and shot it at the lithe, raven-haired Laurel Matta, the comely recording secretary, whom I got to know a little bit better over the years. She gave me a confirming eyebrow raise and I knew I had a front page story if I could run it down.

I didn’t talk to any of the commissioners and went straight to the office a couple of blocks away to call my managing editor in Barre, where the paper was printed, to let him know what I was chasing. He licked his lips and told me to get moving.

This was not Watergate-caliber sleuthing. As one did in those days, I called “information” and got the number of Holiday Inn headquarters, somewhere in the South. A pleasant woman picked up and, after I told her my business, connected me to a pleasant man who gave me everything I needed, including the local businessman who was heading up the project. He was Henry Augustini, an executive at the life insurance behemoth near the Interstate. He was very upset to learn of my plan to write a story.

The project’s finances had not finalized and he was terrified that news of the project could sink it. His fears were well-founded.

The story ignited a firestorm, as we fully expected. Perhaps there are small state capitals where such news would be taken with a calmer reaction. The statehouse is a beloved, beautiful structure and it sits on State Street on the edge of a thriving set of businesses. But a Holiday Inn across the street? For Vermonters, the general reaction was taciturn outrage (it’s always “taciturn”).

Lawmakers of all stripes got busy and pulled together legislation that set up a historic district around the statehouse that would heavily restrict new commercial projects. I was back there last year and State Street looks pretty much the same it did when I first showed up in 1970.

The legislation took some time to enact but as Mr. Augustini suspected, his business partners backed out on him almost immediately amid the uproar. I accidentally ran into him at a bar a year later. He looked awful but he didn’t lash out at me. We awkwardly chatted for a few seconds. Just doing my job, I said.

Small comfort to a man whose life I had seriously messed up.