If the walls of Sam Smith’s office could talk, the neighbors would have complained about the noise by now. Smith’s cluttered second-story Dupont Circle walk-up is a kind of a clubhouse for progressive politics, down to the hand-lettered sign by the door: “Open by appointment or by chance.” Visitors to Club Sam are immediately cloaked by walls covered with photos, cartoons, leaflets, newspaper clippings, invitations, and personal letters, which taken together tell a kind of cacophonous living history of Smith’s political life and times.
Smith, the 56-year-old editor of the Progressive Review (formerly the DC Gazette, and before that, the Capitol East Gazette) and longtime local activist, is no stranger to clamorous debate—in fact, he’s caused more than his share of it himself. His office walls pulsate with three decades of political tumult. Here’s a photo of Marion Barry back when Smith first met him, during the 1966 bus boycott of D.C. Transit, staged to protest a fare hike. Next to that is an invitation to Barry’s Jan. 21, 1990, announcement of his candidacy for re-election, an eventabruptly canceled by Barry’s arrest at the Vista Hotel.
Sharing the wall is a photo of a fiery local activist and co-founder of the Statehood Party, the late Julius Hobson, being shoved into a police wagon during a protest. Hobson was a Smith favorite: Sam supported his 1971 candidacy for nonvoting delegate to Congress, launched with the intention of raising as much hell as possible. Hobson was Sam Smith’s kind of politician—a man whose high principles, sense of outrage and refusal to be diplomatic doomed him as a viable candidate but made for provocative politics.
Not far from Hobson is a daily newspaper clipping headlined “Smith Decides Not to Run,” recounting Sam’s own mercifully aborted career as a politician, turning down the Statehood Party’s invitation to take on Sterling Tucker in the race for D.C. Council chairman. Not that Smith had much of a chance. In a race against Tucker, Smith would have been a sacrificial lamb—a loudly bleating one at that. As an elected official, Smith rose no higher than the lofty heights of ANC member from Cleveland Park in 1976-77. It would be as a journalist, social commentator, and professional contrarian that Smith would contribute to the political debate.
Down the wall a bit is a long quote from H.L. Mencken about iconoclasts, part of which seems to distill the essence of Smith’s political philosophy: “One horse laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.” Smith is often serious but seldom solemn. After being booted out of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) last year Smith called the national organization “a liberal Leisure World.” He’s written reams of doggerel too painful to recount here, including one poem containing the names of every member of Congress.
Nearby is a photo of Eugene McCarthy, who Smith campaigned for in 1968 and who remains Smith’s friend. McCarthy even wrote a blurb for Smith’s book Shadows of Hope: A Freethinker’s Guide to Politics in the Time of Clinton, published last May by Indiana University Press; McCarthy deemed it a work “in the style and tradition of I.F. Stone.”
“Sam’s one of the few independent voices left,” says McCarthy. “The press today is either extreme and special interest or else just establishment, an extension of the corporate spirit. I think we were better off back in the old days when we had Hearst and McCormick. Even though they were bad negative guys, their papers had some real spirit. Now it’s just bland. There are only a few voices left who come at it from outside the way Sam does.”
“Sam always brings a perspective that you hadn’t thought of,” seconds Peter Edelman, counselor for Donna Shalala and longtime Cleveland Park neighbor of Smith. “He has a wonderful combination of being absolutely realistic about the vagaries of people in political life while still being an idealist.”
Close to McCarthy’s photo are two bumper stickers: “NIXON EATS GRAPES” and “DON’T BLAME ME, I VOTED FOR MCGOVERN.”
“I’ve hated Nixon since 1947,” beams Smith, a man who prides himself on holding sensible views before most people thought they were sensible. Indeed, many of the causes Smith has championed over the years—home rule for D.C., city planning that serves residents rather than commuters, a more decentralized (or “devolved,” as Smith calls it) political system, greater citizen access to the political process, and above all a need for an alternative to the increasingly monolithic two-party system—have come to wide acceptance, if not fruition. Smith may be the consummate outsider, but his ideas have a way of sneaking through the back door.
“I guess I’m inside the Beltway, but outside the loop,” Smith smiles. “I’m really most proud of not being involved in official Washington society. I’ve never been a part of that.”
The term most often applied to Smith is “gadfly,” and indeed his behavior in the political barnyard roughly fits the dictionary’s first definition: “any of various flies that bite or annoy livestock.” Smith isn’t crazy about being called a gadfly, feeling it’s a term used by political “players” to diminish outsiders. But if the alternative is being an insider, Smith is happy to view politics through the gadfly’s compound eye.
“Players are annoyed by gadflies because they won’t play according to the players’ rules,” Smith says. “On the other hand, gadflies don’t clutter up the bureaucracy making dull speeches, and they don’t create toxic waste sites or corrupt the political system. The gadfly approach to freeways, urban policy, Vietnam, the environment, and Bill Clinton will, I think, hold up pretty well. The problem gadflies face is not that they are irrelevant but that their timing is a bit off.”
In some causes, such as D.C. statehood, Smith’s timing would seem to be off by several millennia. These days, Congress is no more likely to approve statehood than it is to allow the District to print its own paper money with Marion Barry’s grinning mug on every sawbuck. But Smith holds fast to other seemingly utopian goals, such as the right of a citizen to be served by the state and not be a servant of that state. Raised in a Quaker high school, Smith retains a kind of Quaker fatalism in his politics, believing that while government will never be perfect, one is a witness to the truth by trying to make it better.
“The best politics,” says Smith, “is when sinners come together.”
Fortunately for Smith, he has lived most of his adult life in Washington.
The history recounted by the walls of Club Sam unfolds like a huge Möbius strip—the beginning of the story wraps around to meet the end and form a new beginning. Over the years, a lot has changed in D.C. politics, and not much has changed. Local pols still denounce Congress as meddlesome and patronizing. Conservative members of Congress still openly question whether the District is competent to govern itself. The murder rate is high, the town is polarized by race and class divisions, and the city’s public housing is a national disgrace. Is it any surprise that Barry is back, dashiki and all?
“It’s a high-risk proposition,” Smith says of Barry’s impending mayoralty. “Marion’s always been at his best when someone held his feet to the fire. I just hope he’s held accountable.”
And since Barry is about to seize the reins of power, gadfly Smith can’t resist biting the horse in the ass.
“In one sense, Barry’s like the drunk uncle who keeps turning up at the door,” says Smith. “We’re not a city anymore, we’re the world’s largest AA meeting.”
Sam and Marion aren’t tight, but they have an interesting relationship. When Barry introduced Sam to Cora Masters for the first time, he said, “Sam and I go back a long way, and over the years he’s become more radical, and I’ve become more conservative.” Smith met the once and future Mayor-for-Life when Barry was head of the Washington office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Barry and cohort L.D. Pratt helped coordinate the D.C. Transit boycott in January 1966, and Smith found himself volunteering, hauling boycotting passengers around town in his ’54 Chrysler.
In what would become a familiar pattern for many of Barry’s causes, the boycott was only a temporary success. D.C. Transit got its fare increase and then some. But one unintended result of the boycott was that it helped distill Smith’s twin interests in journalism and politics, a blend that was a lifetime in the making.
Smith was born in Washington in 1937. His father, a Philadelphia lawyer, worked in several government positions for FDR’s National Recovery Agency, the Justice Department, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Smith recalls his father as “a Cold War liberal” who helped set up the ADA, which for decades was the nation’s premier liberal organization. His son’s politics would turn out to be considerably harder to pin down.
The Smiths were reasonably well-to-do. They moved back to Philadelphia when Sam was 10, and settled in Germantown. Sam’s father owned a local radio station, WFLN, that would become the city’s leading classical station. Sam attended Germantown Friends School, a Philadelphia version of Washington’s Sidwell Friends School, where Smith would later send his children. He wrote for the school literary magazine, and appeared on a local radio station’s Junior Town Meeting of the Air criticizing the ruling Republicans for not being responsive to the problems of ordinary working people. Over the next quarter-century, neither Smith nor the Republicans would change their views very much.
Smith went on to Harvard, where he studied anthropology, but not very well. His grades suffered because he was more interested in the campus radio station, where he hosted a jazz show called Jam With Sam. Jamming Sam’s wall today contains a 36-year-old letter from Zeph Stewart, his senior tutor at Harvard, whose brother Potter would later become a Supreme Court justice. Stewart may not have been able to define “bad student,” but he knew one when he saw one—Smith was placed on academic probation in his junior year. In spite of his best efforts, Smith graduated from Harvard in 1959.
After school, Smith signed up with the Coast Guard, where for a time he was assigned to a 180-foot buoy tender and search-and-rescue vessel based in Bristol, R.I. Smith served in the Guard for six years, then settled in Washington.
Journalism was already on his mind. During summer breaks from Harvard, Smith had done general assignment reporting for Washington radio station WWDC, covering everything from fires and White House press conferences to the fall of Charles Van Doren. Smith still has tapes of his radio work from that period—his portentous delivery sounds like Ted Baxter imitating Walter Cronkite filtered through Eric Sevareid. While in the Coast Guard, Smith was also a contributing writer for the congressional newspaper, Roll Call.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” says Smith. “I just knew I wanted to do my own thing.”
Smith received offers to work at the Washington Post and the New York Times (as James Reston’s assistant), but turned them down. In 1964, he launched a small local magazine called The Idler, the beginning of a publishing career that’s spanned three decades. For the past 30 years, Smith has always had a local publication up and running, a record no individual in Washington, and few publishers, anywhere can claim. In 1966, Smith married his wife Kathy (now the head of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.) and settled in Capitol Hill. He then started the biweekly Capitol East Gazette, which later morphed into the DC Gazette and finally the Progressive Review. (Smith recently took his gospel to cyberia by e-mailing swatches of the monthly newsletter to on-line readers.)
From the start, Smith focused on the District, as opposed to official Washington. He printed detailed stories about neighborhoods and local government, and debated issues that were being ignored by the dailies in town. Readers began to take notice, but running a small business in Washington in the late ’60s was a dicey proposition. The slow gains made by the Capitol East Gazette were virtually wiped out by the 1968 riots.
“From my point of view, some of my readers wanted to burn down some of my advertisers,” says Smith. “That wasn’t terribly good for business.”
Smith hasn’t gotten rich on any of his publications. According to Smith, the DC Gazette “sometimes made money,” while the Progressive Review is likely to lose “in the mid-four-digits” this year. Smith has kept his publications going by keeping his overhead low, and whenever necessary writing the whole damn thing himself.
“I’ve lost less money than anyone else in town on running an alternative newspaper, including City Paper,” says Smith, which in the world of publishing passes for a brag. “I’ve watched a lot of people start publications through the years. The money some have wasted is incredible.”
Local politics remained a part of Smith’s publications through the late ’70s, but national politics became a larger ingredient of the editorial mix. Contributors to Smith’s publications have included Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Tony Auth, syndicated columnist Chuck Stone, satirist Paul Krassner, and Post TV critic Tom Shales. Even after he joined the Post, Shales continued to write for the Gazette under the pseudonym Egbert Souse, a W.C. Fields character, until his bosses at the Post found out about it.
In local politics, Smith usually allied himself with rabble-rousers like Julius Hobson over accomodationists such as Walter Washington, the first post-home-rule mayor. Hobson, an unabashed Marxist and atheist, wasn’t afraid to take on anyone, whether it was the white establishment or the black church. In one story Smith relates in his 1974 book about the District, Captive Capital, Hobson was asked by a local black minister to speak at his church. After watching the mostly dirt-poor congregation get soaked for six collections, or “love offerings,” Hobson took the pulpit and launched into the minister.
“Goddamnit, if this is Christianity, I want no part of it,” roared Hobson. “This son of a bitch is stealing from you, and the thing is, he’s not just stealing your money, he’s stealing your minds. And I refuse to be part of this.”
Troublemakers Smith could understand. Get-along politicians sometimes set him off.
“I remember when I introduced Sam to Walter Washington,” recalls Josephine Butler, a longtime Statehood Party activist. “As soon as I said, “Mr. Mayor, do you know Sam Smith?,’ Sam lit right into him about some issue. Later, I had to say to Washington, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know he was going to bite you like that.’ ”
Smith is no bomb thrower. He usually infiltrates groups like a good-natured boll weevil, gnawing at them from the inside. Over the last quarter-century, Smith has burrowed his way into groups such as the D.C. Democratic Central Committee, the United Black Fund, Citizens for City Living, the Metropolitan Washington Housing & Planning Association, the National Drug Strategies Network, the ADA, and the Green Politics Network. Most remember Smith as the guy with a smile and a gleam in his eye who reliably challenged the conventional wisdom. A few wished Sam would shut up and stop making trouble.
History may wind up remembering Smith as the co-founder of the D.C. Statehood Party, launched with high hopes in 1970. Statehood remains a cause for him today, even if the fire burns less brightly around town than it once did.
“The Statehood Party has come on hard times, there’s no doubt about it,” says Smith. “But so have a lot of things. I never said statehood was going to come soon. I think you have to take a longer view of it.”
Over the years, Smith has become something of a “professional Washingtonian”—one of a small group of natives who serve as reminders that everyone else is just passing through. These people, as near as I can tell, are unique to Washington—it would never occur to someone in Philadelphia or Cleveland to brandish their native credentials. Washington needs these keepers of the flame, even if it means having to listen to them explain one more time why we should bring the trolleys back.
Smith is a regular guest and commentator on local radio and television, and his pro-statehood opinion pieces in the Post and City Paper are a cyclic Washington occurrence, like the cicadas. The Utne Reader is another of his bully pulpits, where he has rabble-roused about green politics, “surviving” the Bush era, and the art of city living. He was an influential adviser in Eleanor Holmes Norton’s campaign for congressional delegate, but his powers as kingmaker are suspect.
“When I first ran for office in 1982, the start of a dismal political career, everybody said the first thing you gotta do is see Sam,” recalls Mark Plotkin, the over-quoted political commentator for WAMU-FM. “I thought, “Who the hell is Sam?’ People were talking of him in such lofty terms, like he was some sort of philosopher-king. So I went to his Cleveland Park porch and got the papal blessing. And I lost.”
Smith is too iconoclastic to be an effective power-broker and too opinionated to be much of a politician. He wound up cutting his own path, almost out of necessity.
“It’s not that I rejected the establishment,” says Sam. “It’s more that they wouldn’t let me in.”
It’s a measure of Sam’s good nature that he has few enemies, even among people who think he can be a royal pain in the ass. Take Howard Croft, a University of the District of Columbia professor and former head of the ADA. Croft and others on the ADA are still smarting over Smith’s sharp characterizations after he left the group, likening the ADA establishment to “a range of exhausted volcanoes.” (Smith says he and other progressive ADA members were booted out in a purge; ADA officials, including Sam’s brother Lewis L. Smith, who replaced him on the board, say the ousters weren’t pre-planned and hardly constitute a purge. With controversies like this, it’s no wonder you don’t hear much from the ADA these days.) Croft says you can’t understand Sam Smith’s behavior without looking at his class background.
“Sam ended up resigning from the ADA in a spoiled-brat kind of way,” Croft says. “It’s completely in line with the rich person he is. I think Sam’s understanding of poverty and oppression is all intellectual. I think Sam fits in with all kinds of people, it’s not that. But when Sam has to choose who to pick to hold a leadership position, then they become people like himself. One of my big disagreements with him used to be who would be the shadow delegate. He would always want to talk about someone like [hardware store magnate John] Hechinger.”
Smith isn’t quite rich—the steady drip of red ink from his publications has seen to that. In 1988, the Philadelphia radio station owned by Smith’s father was sold for $15 million, but because the money was divided among five survivors and the taxman, Sam isn’t retiring quite yet.
Still, Croft is accurate that Smith comes from a different social class than many involved in D.C. politics. And it’s not just a race thing—not many whites are born into families that own a radio station and send you off to dear old Harvard. But having traced Sam’s progressive politics to a kind of noblesse oblige, Croft says he has mixed feelings about Smith’s contribution.
“I’m ambivalent about Sam, because he’s been terribly influential in my own life,” Croft says. “Sam’s been right on a lot of issues. I think there are lots of people in this city who got their first sort of experience in progressive politics through their relationship with Sam Smith. This city would have been a far more impoverished place if it didn’t have the DC Gazette and the Progressive Review. There are issues that wouldn’t have gotten any play if it hadn’t been for Sam’s newspapers. He can be self-righteous as hell, but he’s been right on a lot of issues.”
Smith’s social and class origins hardly tell the whole story. In some respects, Smith is as much a product of his times as his class. These days, underachieving Harvard brats like Sam are more likely to become writers for The Simpsons when they graduate than they are publishers of their own alternative paper.
But class is the starting point from which one’s worldview is shaped. When Smith was with the ADA, for example, he supported the national board’s call for the elimination of all criminal and civil penalties for the possession of illegal drugs. Making possession—not sale—of drugs legal is a policy that looks downright enlightened when viewed from Smith’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, which doesn’t have to worry about drug sales. But to someone in Shaw or Anacostia, such a policy seems incredibly naive, if not subtly racist.
A far more progressive approach—one that might occur immediately to someone already living wherever dime bags are sold—would be to make the sale of drugs legal, while making possession illegal. That would shift the drug war from the supply side to the demand side, from the poorer to the more affluent neighborhoods. That might not solve the problem either, but you could argue that a drug crisis in Ward 3 has a better chance of being attended to than one in Ward 8.
When Smith lived on Capitol Hill in the ’60s, he used to kid his friends who were moving to the “gilded ghetto” of Ward 3. Now that he’s lived in Ward 3 for more than 20 years himself, he doesn’t have any apologies.
“When I moved to Cleveland Park [in 1972], Marion Barry said, “Why are you moving, Sam—bigger and better?’ ” says Smith. “And I said “Yep.’ He understood. I’ve never been very good at white liberal guilt. I’ve always thought that the way to get along in this town is to consider yourself as a Jew in New York would—as a member of a minority. That’s the reality. But it doesn’t mean I have to shut up and apologize for what I am.
“I’ll tell you this—my neighborhood is not what it was 20 years ago,” Smith continues. “People describe it as a lot of two-income families, but I think what it’s really become is a lot of two-lawyer families. I’m not sure that I could be elected as a neighborhood commissioner now.”
The ADA ouster at least supplied Sam with good copy; he delightfully described to his Progressive Review readers “How I Got Fired as a Liberal,” and dubbed himself an official “ex-liberal.” And even though some ADA members sound like they wouldn’t mind wringing Sam’s neck, there’s no deep-seated animosity. Unlike many in Washington, Smith doesn’t have a permanent list of enemies. His generosity and humor make it hard for people to stay mad at him for long.
“You’d really want to be Sam’s friend,” says one ADA member. “As long as you don’t have to work with him.”
With the recent publication of his book, Shadows of Hope, Smith comes full circle, returning to the national arena that sparked his interest in politics in the first place.
“I never set out to write about D.C. politics,” says Smith. “It just happened that way. Now I feel I’m finally getting back to national politics.”
Shadows of Hope hasn’t broken any sales records, but some reviewers have compared it favorably to Bob Woodward’s more publicly acclaimed insider account of the Clinton White House, The Agenda. Woodward’s book is essentially a compilation of facts from anonymous sources, a rather bloodless account. That may be because everyone in Woodward’s book—including the author—is a Washington insider. It’s like trying to report about an entire forest with your head shoved up the trunk of one tree.
Smith’s book is not a Washington insider’s account—in part because no one would let Sam inside. But what it lacks in inside poop it more than makes up for in passion and clear-minded analysis. Smith’s perspective is outside the Beltway looking in.
In Clinton, Smith sees more shadows than hope. While many progressives have consoled themselves with the notion that Clinton is at least better than Bush, Smith looks at Big Bill and sees a continuation of the Reagan years. Smith writes: “Former free marketers like Reagan and Clinton see the country’s salvation increasingly in a manipulation of the capitalistic system to serve the political and military goals of the state, in return for which the government serves the interests of its largest private firms. A sort of Arkansas writ large, only with multinationals rather than chicken producers calling the shots.”
Clinton, says Smith, makes national policy the way a CEO makes corporate decisions—he seeks input from a wide variety of sources and then contrives a compromise. The problem is, the compromise has only occurred in Clinton’s head—nothing has changed politically. What works in business, which values a correct decision over consensus, is resoundingly ineffective in the political realm.
Some of Smith’s criticisms of Clinton—his coverage of Whitewater in the Progressive Review, for example, trumpets a sinister conspiracy being ignored by the national media—make him sound uncharacteristically like Rush Limbaugh. And one senses a subtle streak of negativity creeping into Smith’s description of “the unctuous, unreliable, untrustworthy, and insupportable Bill Clinton and his crowd of hubris-laden hustlers.” Some of Sam’s friends can’t understand why he has such a bee in his bonnet for Clinton.
“I don’t know what Sam’s politics are anymore,” says one liberal friend, sounding a little worried. “He almost sounds libertarian.”
We’ll know Sam has gone completely over to the libertarians when he drops this statehood stuff and proposes that the District government and all its assets be sold off to the highest bidder. Until then, Smith seems content to make his own way, blending progressive, libertarian, and green concepts into a grass-roots movement. Smith’s book really shines in the final chapter, in which he offers nothing less than a blueprint for citizen recapture of government.
“I’ve worked hard on trying to define what I call “the new mainstream,’ ” says Smith. “We’ve misplaced what the battle’s about. Its not about abortion, or health care, or gun control. It’s about elites and non-elites, establishment and not establishment, ins and outs.”
Smith’s new mainstream would include almost anyone dissatisfied with the present two-party structure—more than half the populace, according to a recent poll. Certainly anyone who voted for Ross Perot—especially those who later became disaffected with the maximum leader’s very top-down political style—would make the cut of the new mainstream. In fact, Smith was heartened to see some members of the Patriot Party in Virginia, which is led by disenchanted Perot supporters, team up with green activists and produce the first draft of a platform. The platform calls for single-payer health care, term limits, performance-based standards for high schools, action for clean water and air, a bottle bill, and reducing crime through strengthening families and education—all grass-roots ideas launched from outside the two-party system.
Just as great rivers change course, Smith believes, the American political mainstream is shifting. It’s hard to imagine a great river like the Potomac changing course anytime soon, but Smith thinks the new mainstream will be defined not so much by new policies and new parties at first, but by a cultural and value shift that will undermine old elites. Even Gene McCarthy, the darling of a previous new mainstream in 1968, sees reason to believe that this time around, disaffected voters will realize their own power.
“Well, just looking at the numbers is cause to be optimistic,” McCarthy says. “The first stage of any big political change is dissatisfaction, and I think that’s beginning to congeal. The new mainstream Sam talks about isn’t simply a group of indifferent people, they’re beginning to stand for something. They just have to be fully defined, and then presented in some way that they can act. The problem is, what form will it take? You’ve got 20 million people voting for Perot. They’re not freaks, they’re good citizens.”
Smith hopes to speed the process along by changing some of the rules of the game. The American electoral system of first-past-the-post-takes-all discourages voting and discriminates against minorities and minority views, since a candidate or party finishing third receives no seats, regardless of how many votes they received. Smith calls for a move to proportional representation, a system currently employed in Germany and elsewhere. Under proportional representation, if a minority party receives 25 percent of the vote, it would receive 25 percent of the seats in Congress, rather than be frozen out entirely by the two major parties. That way, future Gene McCarthys will be more than protest candidates—they’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
“John Adams said that the worst political situation he could conceive of was to have politics controlled by two strong factions,” notes McCarthy. “So here we are 200 years later with just that. You either get two parties which diverge—sort of the way the British Labor Party and Conservatives used to be—or you get two parties that are almost indistinguishable, which is what we have now with the Democrats and Republicans. You can see that demonstrated by the PAC contributions. They contribute almost equally to both parties. The only difference is incumbency.”
Sam Smith isn’t the first observer to suggest that the primary political struggle in America is a battle between the ins and the outs. But perhaps only a lifelong outsider such as Smith can bring into clear focus the issues around which the outs should unite. Millions of people are coming around to many of Smith’s long-held ideas—local solutions to problems, rather than national ones; greater access to the electoral system by ordinary people; and the inalienable right of citizens to make their own mistakes. This time, the gadfly’s timing may be just right.
“All I’m trying to do is have a good argument,” says Club Sam’s owner and sole occupant. “In this town, that’s getting hard to come by.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.