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Fabulist Stephen Glass gets a new day job: Superior Court law clerk.
Stephen Glass, journalistic wonder boy turned infamous fabricator, is curled in the fetal position under his desk.
He’s there not because I’ve asked him about his lies: the dozens of made-up stories, cooked quotes, and imagined sources that he gave life to in the mid-’90s, nor because I’ve mentioned the New Republic, where he was dubbed a “scorpion” after he left.
Glass cradles his pasty body on the floor, cushioned with gum wrappers, smashed cans of Mountain Dew, and Indian takeout containers, because he’s frustrated with his current anonymity. “I could have been Dave Eggers,” he laments.
Instead, Glass is now clerking in D.C. Superior Court for Judge A. Franklin Burgess Jr. The former A-list journalist now makes his living in the bowels of jurisprudence on Indiana Avenue NW. And he’s hating it.
Glass hates his desk most of all. Fucking Formica! He hates his pens most of all. Bics, plastic Bics. They came pre-chewed. He hates the copy machine most of all. It’s always wearing an “Out of order” apron.
Then there are tears. Big-time tears. “I want more money,” sobs Glass. “I want purple I-Mac. I want Lexus SUV. I want Redskin seats next to Danny Snyder. I want…” He blubbers on, as nouns and assorted sounds mix into a cocktail of tears, drool, and ego.
“Did David Boies have to suffer this?” asks Glass. The Superlawyer is Glass’ favorite subject, the vision of perfection that he wants to attain. He has a shrine to his hero: an 8-by-10 glossy of Boies, an autograph (really just his initials plus a “Best Wishes”), and framed articles from People and USA Today.
And there is the Bagel. It’s Glass’ most prized possession. The clerk once read that the Microsoft Slayer ate his bagels in a peculiar way, devouring only the doughy insides and leaving the crusts. He flew down to Tallahassee last November in an attempt to seize one of Boies’ prized leftovers.
Glass points to a glass case perched on his desk. Inside, a poppy-seed carcass rests. “If you look closely,” Glass whispers, “you can see teeth marks. His teeth marks.”
OK, I made almost all of that up. I cribbed quotes and cut scenes from Glass’ own fake reportage and pasted them here. I cadged from the now-infamous fake story he penned about “Ian Restil,” the greedy 15-year-old hacker being courted by the fake tech firm Jukt Micronics. I stole from Glass’ works on fake investors. When that didn’t suit me, I made up some stuff on my own.
It was easy. As easy as the fabulist’s all-too-easy makeover.
What’s true in my account is that Glass, 28, has made the transition from overachieving fake to overachieving law clerk. He is, indeed, a clerk for D.C. Superior Court Judge A. Franklin Burgess Jr.
Glass has jumped from one narcissistic D.C. society to another. In a city made rigid by subcultures that rarely sit cheek to cheek at the neighborhood watering hole, it’s not surprising to hear that the journalist and his former colleagues haven’t exactly kept in touch. Nor is it far-fetched that the expat ain’t exactly the object of much gossip down at Superior Court. His smooth trajectory makes sense when you realize that Glass, despite his fairy tales, knows how to insinuate himself into any cultural hot tub.
The disgraced journalist didn’t have to enter a public confessional with Katie Couric to achieve absolution. Glass didn’t have to take refuge in New York City, like another TNR alum and serial plagiarizer, Ruth Shalit. He didn’t end up selling Liz Claiborne wearables in Kalamazoo, Mich., like former Washington Post faker Janet Cooke. Despite his authorship of dozens of pieces of questionable veracity during the mid-’90s that tarnished the reputations of magazines including TNR, George, and Rolling Stoneand such presumably savvy editors as Andrew Sullivan, Michael Kelly, and Charles LaneGlass lay low, graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center last May, took a summer off, and now has that respectable day job.
The headlines and stories that dogged Glass’ exit from journalism a few years ago were scathing: awful duds like “Shattered Glass,” “Stained Glass,” and “Recycled Glass” sat atop hundreds of column-inches that dove into every aspect of his life. These stories sketched out a Richie Rich upbringing and boasted quips from former friends and colleagues saying ugly things. A Web site devoted to cataloguing his “art” (dubbed “Tissue of Lies”) sprang up. A $10 million lawsuit was filed against him by the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, a group he skewered with his fictions. Glass settled the suit for an undisclosed sum.
That’s old news now. And Glass’ new job is a pretty good one. Burgess says that out of the 100 or so applicants that judges usually get for a clerk’s job that pays roughly $40,000, Glass was the best, having passed the bullshit detector with flying colors.
“He was recommended to me,” says Burgess. “He had a good record in law school. I wanted to give him a chance to prove himself, which he’s done. I’m disturbed by the fabrications. But I believe in giving people a second chance. He told me about it. I was satisfied with his explanations….I think he’s done very well.”
It’s helped, of course, that Glass hasn’t had to explain his journalistic past to his colleagues at the courthouse. Interviews in recent weeks with dozens of law clerks working at Superior Court revealed that Glass has told few people there, if anyone, about his infamous past.
“I think he’s a very pleasant person,” says clerk Scott Nelson, adding he doesn’t know much about Glass.
Other clerks say Glass is a hardworking colleague who mainly keeps to himself and has a good relationship with his judge.
Karen Holston, a former Burgess clerk who now works for another judge, considers Glass a friend. She’s nicknamed him “Brainiac.” He calls her “the Tornado.” They talk regularly, says Holston, mostly about Glass’ obsession with Survivor.
“Stephen was very nice, very professional,” Holston says. “He didn’t make you feel any less than he was or any more than he was. You were on the same level.”
Holston says that when she worked alongside Glass, he arrived at work early and left late. She adds that she never saw him eat anything. When he wasn’t researching case law, he might indulge in a game of computer Scrabble. He’d win every time. “He was like a little boy,” says Holston. “A true sweetheart.”
Glass wasn’t exactly a sweetheart to American journalism. But descriptions of Glass during his years at the New Republic resonate with contemporary accounts of his demeanor as a clerk. In a way, the same traits that hastened his rise to a journalistic position where he could do damagediligence, hypersensitivity to environment, eagerness to fit inhave softened his landing in the aftermath.
Of course, Glass didn’t come to the District to spoil the credibility of a few news rags. The bespectacled kid from good parents in a tony Chicago suburb went to the University of Pennsylvania and edited its major student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian. He ended his farewell column at that paper with a fervent wish for his school and its students: “I pray this community will continue to value the truth which can only be reflected in an independent press.”
After graduation, Glass worked for the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review and then interned at TNR under then-Editor Sullivan. It didn’t take long for Glass to ingratiate himself in the newsroom. According to accounts from those who worked with him, he was a social butterfly, a hardworking kid who reveled in helping his colleagues with their assignments and his editors with menial tasks. He worked long hours, and when he wasn’t immersed in his stories, he was organizing poker games and field trips to bowling alleys. When there were parties, Glass would focus on other people’s stories or perhaps tell some amazing tales of his own, like the one about the heavyweight title fight he attended.
When it came time to talk up his work at TNR’s story meetings, Glass found a persona that clicked. In front of the other wonks and cynics at the magazine, says one former staffer, he turned the make-or-break pitch into a “kind of performance art,” says one former staffer.
“He was really good at selling [his stories],” this staffer remembers. “We all got caught up in these pieces. He would be his own straight man. He would always figure in these stories as this fool, this Jack Benny, where all these things are happening around him. It made them more credible.”
And when Glass came back with a notebook full of juicy stuff, he wouldn’t boast about the fat fishes he had caught. He came back always seeking approval, says another staffer. Is it good enough? he would ask. Is it good enough?
These qualities won him a number of bylinesand a lot of trust. When new Editor Kelly wanted to revamp the fact-checking system, he charged Glass with the task.
“You have to be a good con man to have gotten away with what he got away with,” says another staffer. “The whole cliché was that he was the last person you would suspect.”
Glass’ fantasias went undetected because of his fact-checking responsibilities, his desire to belong and become the center of TNR’s universe. He imbued his creations with the mag’s neo-con cynicism, turning out flippant pieces on easy targetsconservative jarheads, pimpled hackers, dumbass teenagers, and social-service blowhards. His pieces on the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ, the “Newt-O-Meter,” and Monicondoms mirrored the sensibilities of his editors. In a sense, Glass’ chicanery was simply feeding the beast.
Feeding the beast also made the prolific Glass a very rich 20-something before he was found out. According to a September 1998 Vanity Fair article, he might have been making as much as $150,000 a year, including his $45,000 gig at TNR. His freelance work had made the pages of Harper’s and the New York Times Magazine. All those assignments, and he still found time to attend night classes at Georgetown Law.
It took a publication that had never worked with Glass to uncover his trail of bogus stories. After TNR published “Hack Heaven” in May 1998Glass’ fake story on Ian Restil, the 15-year-old hacker lured to join a fictitious computer companyAdam Penenberg, a reporter for Forbes Digital Tool, wanted to do a follow-up. He started to do his own digging, e-mailing hackers and anyone else who could fill him in on hackers who’d gone corporate. He searched the Web for Jukt Micronics. He found nothing.
After Glass failed to return his call, Penenberg called then-TNR Editor and current Washington Post Supreme Court reporter Charles Lane. This Glass story, and numerous others, unraveled when Lane started digging. Glass had gone so far in covering his tracks as to belatedly create a fake Jukt Micronics Web site and use his brother’s cell phone as the company’s main number.
It didn’t take long before Glass was dismissed, and a media frenzy ensued.
When told of Glass’ clerkship for the first time on Tuesday morning, Lane says tersely: “I’m very surprised. All I can say is I hope Steve’s learned his lesson. That’s all I can say. Good luck to him.”
Sullivan, another of Glass’ former editors, declined to comment. Kelly could not be reached.
Outside of media circles, however, everybody seems to like Glass. Law-school professors, who admit that they knew very little about his transgressions, simply fell for him. Of his past, one admiring teacher offers, “I’m not sure what happened.”
By all reports, Glass obsessed over his studies. He went to office hours. He led discussions in class. He got really good grades. “I liked him,” says another professor, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He seems kind of young and eager to please….He’s likeable.”
This same professor says that Glass talked about his journalistic fraud during one office-hour visit. “He didn’t have excuses,” says this professor. “He seemed to be able to talk about it in a kind of straightforward way that didn’t seem full of shit to me. It wasn’t politicking at all.”
Glass also received support from his classmates. When he got fired, students rallied around him and encouraged him to stay with his studies, according to another professor who taught Glass at the time.
“The bottom line was,” says this professor, “he wasn’t on his own.”
If Glass really was on a “suicide watch” during his drubbing, as had been reported by the Washington Post, his grades and work habits didn’t reflect it. He made it onto the staff of the Georgetown Law Journal but dropped out, fearing that controversy would dog him. His grades remained exceptional.
Despite Glass’ academic achievements, there are still grumblings from a few Georgetown professors. One, who does not know him, went to the dean to ask what the school’s response would be after the writer was found out. That prof still isn’t happy that the dean decided not to discipline the infamous student. “On the face of it, it seems preposterous that we didn’t do anything about it,” he says.
“It always pays to have a wealthy family,” says another critic, Professor Norman Birnbaum. “You see his wisdom in choosing his parents well….I wouldn’t engage him as my attorney. Let somebody else give him a second chance.”
As it turns out, somebody else has.
The wooden pews in Landlord and Tenant Court are filled with sleepers. Men and women bundled in overstuffed winter coats and wool hats huddle together, heads nodding back or pressed against wood. It’s 10:50 a.m., and they don’t want to be here. This is the courtroom of last resort, where tenants get to make their cases to evade eviction. Today’s crowd looks especially somber and worried; it’s only five days before Christmas. This is no place to be for the holidays.
It’s no paradise for Burgess, either. He looks a little bored this morning, and his interaction with tenants comes off as gruff.
There’s only one person bursting with energy today. Glass walks in, files in hand, with his head upway up.
I notice his walk first. It’s a practiced walk, weightless, as if he’s trying hard not to disturb a soul, to preserve the necessary anonymity of a clerk. His head tilts to the side as his feet move effortlessly down the aisle of snoring mothers and fathers.
It’s my first glimpse of Glass. Later, there’s another encounter, consisting of a short phone call in which he politely rejects my interview request. So I’m left to trail him through Superior Court once again.
On Friday morning, March 2, I catch up with him in Courtroom 517. He’s still playing the consummate government employee. Glass has the same walk that I’ve observed before, the same eager-beaverness that everyone likes. This morning’s proceedings are exceeding dull, a series of scheduling conferences. It’s pure paper-shuffling. Yet I see him joke with another clerk, take Burgess’ orders, follow the judge’s every instruction with due speed. When Glass issues his own instructions, it’s in an automated voice: “I need you to sign right here, please.”
As an attractive woman steps to the plaintiff’s microphone, Glass smiles at her. It’s a flat, tight grin that bares no teeth. She’s trying to get a restraining order on her old roommate, who hasn’t shown. His grin could pass for empathetic.
Glass tilts his head again. His face is pink. He wipes his nose with his hand. He’s trying. To fit in again, to belongalbeit to a different fraternity.
When I call Burgess’ chambers that evening, Glass answers in his usual soft tones. I ask for the judge, and when Glass tells me that he isn’t in, I prepare to let go, ready to hang up the phone.
But Glass wants to talk. Not about his past. He just wants to tell me where the judge isexactly. “He’s attending another judge’s, um…”
Glass isn’t quite sure of the term. Is it a swearing-in? Is it an oath-taking? Finally, the former writer gets itan “investiture.”
Glass wants me to know this. For accuracy’s sake. CP