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The Reporter and the Candidate

The Reporter and the Candidate



Last week, I received a novel titled, ‘The Incumbent’, from my brother and Lagos lawyer, Edo Ukpong, which he bought for me during his recent trip to the United States. Knowing Ukpong, there must be a message in the book written by an American journalist, Brian McGrory, a former White House Correspondent, he wants to pass to me. That is his style. Having read the novel, I can guess what is on Ukpong’s mind. 

 The story revolves around a reporter who was invited to play golf with the American President and while the game was on, he was offered the job of Press Secretary in the new administration only for the conversation to be cut shot by a hail of bullets. The lone gunman, who attempted to assassinate the president, was instantly killed by secret service men. Having been part of the drama, the reporter felt it was his obligation to get to the bottom of the story. But the moment he started his investigation, an anonymous caller told him: “Nothing is as it seems.” He would get other calls with the warning: “Do not believe anything they tell you.” 

Nudged to do a background check on the president, the reporter started by looking at Hutchin Clayton, a brilliant politician who had risen from poverty and obscurity to establish a technology company that produced personal finance software called Cookie Jar. The product became a staple in American households, earning its inventor hundreds of millions of dollars. That was how Hutchins became a folk hero, seen as “a uniquely American story-born and raised on a farm miles and miles from his closest neighbor, schooled at home, college educated later in life, entirely self-made in both the worlds of commerce and government.” 

However, a few months before the Iowa governor’s race, a group of business leaders and citizen activists, who were dissatisfied with the candidates for the two major parties, launched a massive campaign to draft Hutchins. He accepted the request and won the governorship election. Two years later, the Republican front-runner for the presidency, Senator Wordsworth Cole, lost out in Iowa public opinion polls about a week before the caucus. Hutchins came to his rescue and Cole won the primaries by a huge margin. Cole then went on to win the election and when his running mate was consumed by a scandal, Hutchins became the vice president. To cut a long story short, President Cole eventually died in office and that was how Hutchins became the president. 

Who was after the president’s life? That was what the reporter who witnessed the drama wanted to find out. The background check on a particular name that appeared significant to the story. The name was Tony Clawson. First, the reporter checked available records for all Tony Clawsons in the United States in the previous twenty years. On one, he could find no death record, no phone number, no credit or mortgage activity, no marriage record, no birth record, nothing. 

Going deeper into the Social Security history of this particular Tony Clawsons, the reporter realized he (Clawson) hadn’t been assigned a Social Security number until he the age of 40 when he began paying into the system, and continued for nine years. Then, Clawson disappeared abruptly from all records. Yet Social Security never paid out a death benefit to any Clawson survivors. However, the jigsaw soon fell in to shape. A Curtis Black who had a rough and dirty past was later to change his name to Tony Clawson in a deal involving the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A few years later, he changed his name again but to who? That was the puzzle the reporter unravelled. Curtis Black or Tony Clawson was now the President! 

The cover-up attempts were to ensure nobody ever got to hear the story of the president’s past. Curtis (now Hutchins) had changed his identity, done a facial surgery, made good and had become the president but there were still a few ghosts from the past that haunted him. That was the story which the reporter, with much tenacity, was able to eventually ferret out. But the scene I find rather moving was the final confrontation between the reporter and the president when the number one citizen tried to prevent the story from getting to the public. Let me take the dialogue from the novel: 

Said the president to the reporter: “It’s one thing I always liked about you, Jack, one thing that always drew me to you. You know what it is to lose everything you ever wanted, all of your hopes and all your dreams and all of your expectations for the future, all in one incomprehensible act of God…I paid a steep price. I struck a deal. I traded in my entire life, or what was left of it. You know what that’s like, to give up your life? And now that I’ve turned myself around, now that I’ve made it on my own, you’re going to hang all that around my neck and choke me to death, all over again?” 

The reporter who probably should have felt pity did not, all he really felt was relief. Relief that he had at last had his story. He even had his quotes, which he repeated in his mind several times to help commit them to memory. “Sir, you may be right. But you had a deal with the American people, and that deal was to tell the truth, to let them know who you are, to be judged on the whole rather than just the past few years.” 

To this the president replied: “I did tell them who I am. I am Clayton Hutchins. I made my money on my own, with no help from anyone. For Christ sake, I gave up a lucrative life to be Clayton Hutchins, I succeeded. And now you’re about to burn me with my own success. Where’s the fairness in that…You think I’ve been a bad president? You think any of those people who are planning to vote for me tomorrow believe I will make a bad president for the next four years? You think my policies aren’t carefully thought out? You think I have been corrupt? No.” 

The reporter was equally unrelenting: “The voters have a right to know who they voted for. They have a right to know your background, your experiences, the truths in your life, and the lies. All of that shapes who you are, and dictates how you’ll act in the future as the country’s leader, in times of good fortune and in times of crisis. The voters have the right to the truth.”

In a moment of reflection, the reporter told himself that truth is an amazing thing which keeps a democracy vibrant based on the conviction that informed people are usually wise people, or at least practical. “This wasn’t about his sex life or some ancient two-bit misdemeanour. This struck at the very foundation of who our president is, and in this case, was.” And rather than agree to a deal, he told the president “The public is entitled to the truth.” 

In the final dialogue with himself, a moment of introspection that confronts every reporter on the verge of breaking a big story, he reflected: “So is the truth even important anymore? Do we really need it, in life, in the body politic, or is it just better, easier to go with what feels good, to tell lies, to accept them, with understanding that even if lies hurt, the truth too often hurts even more? Truth is an immovable foundation. Lies shift and collapse. With truth, even at its most painful, you can address it, build on it, and move on. I believe the people can take the truth, decide if it’s important, and make sound judgements on the people put before them. Which is why journalism, for all its drawbacks, is still a decent calling…” 

The next day, the story was all over the United States. The choice was now left with the American people. As they went to the polls, the voters now knew who their president was, or is. But it did not matter much because Hutchins still won by 50.4 per cent of popular votes and took the Electoral College by a margin of nine votes. The bottom line, according to the reporter: “the people, the voters, knew what they were doing, and enough of them believed in the concept of redemption.” 

Of course we know we are dealing here with a fictional situation in which as far as they were concerned their man was doing well and they could not be bothered about his past. It is, however, not always that simple in real life where there are political sharks waiting for blood while there are some pasts that do effectively cut off the future. In such situation, if you gambled, then pray that you don’t break the eleventh commandment: Thou shall not get caught! 

One significant lesson which we cannot, and indeed should not, ignore while damaging documents fly around is that not all facts represent truth. Because facts in themselves are most often subjective depending on the motive of the person supplying them. We are in a situation where there is too much politics; where there is a penchant to settle petty scores; where those who seek to undo others may themselves have worse skeletons in their closets; where even those institutions charged with enthroning or enforcing these noble virtues act more for political expediency than for altruistic purposes. 

In the season we are in, there is only a thin line between the accuser and the accused. That is the tragedy of public office in Nigeria. But even these do not excuse constitutional infractions from which no serious people can look the other way. That is why moments like this task all of us. The lesson here really is that we all have a past and must come to terms with that past. As the Nomadic Governor of Jigawa State, Alhaji Saminu Turaki, told me last week, “if you want to know the history of your family, even up till the fifth generation, history you have never heard before, just join politics”. 

It is like that everywhere but as it happened to Hutchins, there is always the room for redemption. I am sending that message back to Ukpong but all the same, I thank him for the book.

ENDNOTE: As I stated earlier, this piece was first published 21 years ago. But it is as relevant today as it was back then. As we gradually move towards the 2023 general election, reporters will do their job of scrutinizing the candidates for various offices. But the ultimate decider are the voters.

OLUSEGUN ADENIYI  Journalist, writer and former presidential spokesman, Adeniyi is a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters (FNAL) and chairs THISDAY editorial board. Author of several books, including ‘The Last 100 Days of Abacha’ and ‘Power, Politics and Death: A front-row account of Nigeria under the late President Yar’Adua’, Adeniyi holds a first degree in International Relations from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife and a master’s in international law and diplomacy (MILD) from the University of Lagos.

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