The assault of a reporter by a congressional candidate in Montana got me thinking about my confrontations with politicians – and a strange press scrum at the bedside of a comatose Mafia don.
Like the Guardian reporter who was “body-slammed” to the floor in Bozeman on Wednesday, I have inserted myself in political places I wasn’t welcome.
The first time was after a televised debate between Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Democrat Arthur Goldberg in New York in 1970, when I followed Rocky and his entourage into a freight elevator at the TV studio.
The governor was steamed. He hadn’t done well.
As the door was closing, I raised my notebook and pen and asked Rockefeller a question.
“Who the hell are you?” he spat.
“Ken Becker – UPI”
“Get him out of here,” the governor ordered.
His bodyguards obeyed, opening the doors and pushing me out of the elevator.
I have written before in this space about my experiences covering Pierre Trudeau and his wife Margaret for UPI in the 1970s. And about the skirmish I had with Trudeau in 1974.
In case you missed it, here’s the setup and the blow by blow:
I was in the office that September when one of our reporters in Ottawa called with a tip that Margaret was in the psychiatric wing of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, and that her husband was on his way to visit her
By this time, I had covered Trudeau often enough that he recognized me.
So, when he arrived at the hospital with a two-man security detail – they stayed in the car – he knew the one guy waiting for him was a reporter.
“What are you doing here?” he snapped.
“How’s your wife doing?” I responded.
“And how would that be your business?”
I tried to make the case for the public’s right to know. He countered with his best harrumphs and shrugs of dismissal. I followed him into the lobby, to the elevator doors.
“Fuck off,” the prime minister of Canada said.
I was a wizened old hand in the news biz when I had a more public spat with a future prime minister.
It was 1991, when I was working for Canadian Press, mainly as an editor. But I put on my reporter hat to cover an early morning news conference held by the federal justice minister, Kim Campbell, in a meeting room at a Toronto hotel.
We knew she was going to announce whether to order a review of the 1970 murder conviction of David Milgaard, whose supporters had made a persuasive argument for his innocence.
I commandeered the only phone in the room – this was the Paleophonic Era – called my office and was ready to dictate a bulletin as soon as Campbell announced her decision.
“Hang up the phone,” one of her lackeys told me.
“Because the minister is about to speak.”
“I’m not stopping her.”
By now, all of those in the room were focused on me. Including the minister of justice.
“Somebody’s not a morning person,” Campbell said with a smirk.
“You do your job, I’ll do mine,” I said.
I held onto the phone, kept the line open, and dictated my story as soon as she announced the news.
Now to that bedside vigil with the Mafia don – one time you’d think reporters would be unwelcome and in peril.
Joe Colombo was a mobster who craved media attention. Fed up with being shadowed by the FBI and angry at the portrayal of his family business in The Godfather, Colombo went public, saying he and his paisans were discriminated against not because they were killers, but because they were Italian.
He founded the Italian-American Civil Rights League, the Mafia’s answer to B’nai Brith or the NAACP.
In June 1970. the league, with Colombo the star attraction, held its first Italian-American Unity Day rally, drawing 50,000 people to Columbus Circle in Manhattan. A few months later, Frank Sinatra headlined a benefit concert for the league at Madison Square Garden.
I was working for UPI when Colombo was shot at the second unity day rally, on June 28, 1971. He was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, a few blocks from Columbus Circle.
I followed the herd of reporters – right into his room. About a dozen of us were at his bedside, with Colombo’s wife and sons.
While the wife cried, and the sons talked of revenge – everybody suspected the rival Gallo gang had set up the hit, though the shooter was a black guy posing as a news photographer, shot dead at the scene – reporters shouted questions at the unconscious Colombo, some sticking microphones within inches of his mouth, which was hooked up to a ventilator.
“What happened, Joe?”
“How do you feel, Joe?”
“Who did it, Joe?
“You going after the Gallos, Joe?”
It would be Joe Colombo’s last news conference. He never said a word.
He never woke up either – was “vegetabled,” as Joey Gallo put it – but hung on for another seven years.
Jimmy Breslin’s wonderful comic novel, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, was a take on Crazy Joey’s Brooklyn crew.
The Colombo-Gallo war was effectively over less than a year after Joe went into a coma, when Joey was gunned down in Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy.
A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.