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Updated Jun 16, 2024, 7:20pm EDT
mediapolitics

Excerpt: ‘The opposite of a Pulitzer’

Henry Holt
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Excerpt

This is excerpted from Phil Elwood’s upcoming book, ”All The Worst Humans: How I Made News for Dictators, Tycoons, and Politicians,” a chronicle of the underbelly of public relations in Washington, D.C., which will be published June 25 by Henry Holt.

My cab heads across the underside of Foggy Bottom and stops in front of the Watergate Hotel. The driver hands me a blank receipt. Blank cab receipts are the joy of every expense-accounted staffer in DC. An eight-dollar cab ride can transform into a fifty-dollar trip to the airport. I go to the airport a lot.

The Watergate’s exterior looks like ribbons flowing in the wind. Once a posh address, the Watergate is slowly dying. Bob Dole used to live here; now the highlight is the Safeway in the basement. DC’s zone-based taxi fare system was influenced by Dole, who wanted to ensure that he could ride from his residence in the Watergate complex to his Senate office in a one-zone ride.

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I’m stressed because Peter Brown called me an hour ago and said, “You need to get down to the Libyan embassy.” Lately, Brown has developed a penchant for calling at all hours with orders. Orders to jump on the next plane out of town. Orders to put out a fire. Or to light a match.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Our client is very happy,” Brown said. “But the world will be very displeased.”

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Inside the Watergate’s office building, I head through a nondescript door into a suite full of Libyan flags and portraits of Muammar Gaddafi. The embassy’s décor is tacky, stuck in the 1980s. Everything about the Gaddafis is stuck in the ’80s—and covered in layers of cigarette smoke.

Ambassador Ali Suleiman Aujali invites me to sit down at an oval desk.

Last time I was here, we had Donald Trump on speakerphone setting up a game of golf for the Libyan ambassador.

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“I gotta ask. Why did you pick the Watergate?” I say once I’m seated.

“It was available,” Aujali replies.

“I’d imagine,” I say. “Nothing shady has ever happened here.”

“Today is a great day for our country,” Aujali says, beaming.

He fills me in. Tomorrow, Scotland will release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the terrorist responsible for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. Apparently because he has cancer and the Scots believe in compassion toward terrorists. Al-Megrahi is set to receive a hero’s welcome back home in Libya.

“The Brother Leader doesn’t want the press to spoil his moment of triumph,” Aujali explains.

“Oh, they are going to try.”

We’re in a fiery-red space beyond crisis. The world will find out about al-Megrahi’s release in less than twenty-four hours. Then comes the storm of negative coverage.

Al-Megrahi murdered Americans. Men, women, children. A lot of them. There is nothing I can do to stop this runaway train. But I can create a counternarrative. I think it up before I leave the Water- gate: Libya is America’s ally in the war on terror. We have bigger fish to fry than one asshole who blew up a plane in the eighties. I need one story. One headline to say that there is some dissent in the international outcry against Libya. Anything counts.

Back at my apartment, I scan old Google Alerts for “Libya.” Four members of Congress traveled there in 2004, before the United States restored diplomatic relations. They tried to open the door to the West. I smile when I see that one of them was Solomon Ortiz.

I know Congressman Ortiz from a recent operation in Mexico. When an earthquake rocked Turkey in 1999, the Mexican government sent dogs trained to locate survivors in the rubble. Saved a lot of lives. After a flood hit Mexico’s Tabasco region in 2007, BLJ’s Turkish American client decided it was time to repay the debt and donated ambulances to the relief effort. Ortiz facilitated the transfer.

The next morning, the press begins. It’s worse than I imagined. So bad that FBI director Robert S. Mueller pens an open letter to Scotland’s cabinet secretary for justice. “Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice,” he writes. “Indeed your action makes a mockery of the rule of law . . . You have given Megrahi a ‘jubilant welcome’ in Tripoli, according to the reporting. Where, I ask, is the justice?”

I give the news an hour to flood through DC before I call Ortiz’s office. “Listen, Libya is getting the shit kicked out of them in the media,” I say to the staffer who answers the phone. “Your boss helped restore diplomatic ties so they won’t sell C-Four and Semtex to anyone with fifty cents and a cause. You switched them to players in the war on terror. All this shitty press is going to push Libya away from us. We don’t want them to undo all the good work your boss has done.”

“I haven’t hung up yet.”

“I can draft an open letter. Ortiz can sign it.”

“He’ll consider it. That’s the best I can do right now.”

I dash off the letter: “Restoring diplomatic ties after such a prolonged period of animosity is not an easy process. There will be stumbling blocks on the road, but we should not be deterred from the course of peace and dialogue . . . consider the years of hard work on behalf of both nations to build this relationship and to avoid undoing these efforts lightly.” I throw on a suit, head up to the Hill, and drop off the letter at Ortiz’s office. A few days later, it appears in my inbox, signed by the congressman. Not a word changed.

I ship the open letter off to Ken Vogel, an influence reporter at Politico. Once I’ve piqued Vogel’s interest, I float him an invitation to a reception later that week at the Willard Hotel. BLJ is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Muammar Gad- dafi’s rise to power. According to DC legend, the term lobbying was coined at the Willard during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Seems like the appropriate venue for the occasion.
Nobody from any self-respecting nation attends the reception. So, the room is quite full. If North Korea had an ambassador, he’d be snacking on the cheese plate. I stand with Vogel at the bar, burrowing talking points into his ear.

“Congressman Ortiz wanted to be here,” I spin. “But he had to attend Obama’s address to the Joint Session of Congress.”

Vogel’s report on the party runs in Politico the next morning. The headline: “Knock Off the Libya-bashing, Ortiz Says.” Politico prints whole chunks of my ghostwritten letter. A positive piece of press. Landed for the Gaddafis. Within weeks of al-Megrahi’s release. I deserve whatever the opposite of a Pulitzer is.

I forward the article to Ambassador Aujali. “I’ll pass it on to the Brother Leader,” he says. “He will be pleased.”

Peter Brown is also pleased. I get a ten-thousand-dollar- a-year raise. The extra money gets spent in bars instead of paying off my credit card debt.

I’m sleeping off a Commissary hangover when my phone rings.

“Get out of bed, pack a bag, and get in a cab,” my manager’s voice blares.

“Your flight leaves for Vegas in an hour. I’ll send you info via email.”

I don’t have time to ask questions. I’ve fastened my seat belt in coach before the email blips through on my BlackBerry. Subject: “Leaving Las Vegas.” My stomach drops into my shoes as the boarding door closes. For the next three days, I’ll be babysitting Muammar Gaddafi’s son, and Libyan national security advisor, Mutassim Gaddafi at the Bellagio hotel.

Excerpted from ”ALL THE WORST HUMANS: How I Made News for Dictators, Tycoons, and Politicians,” by Phil Elwood. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2024 by Phil Elwood. All rights reserved.

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