Sometimes You Can Fix a Problem in Washington by Just Pulling the Plug

At an informal luncheon reunion yesterday of about 15 Washingtonian staffers from the 1980s there were margaritas, Mexican food, and lots of talk about the good old days. My favorite story was about Phil Merrill, the magazine’s publisher back then. He had bought the magazine in 1979 and it’s still in the family with his daughter, Cathy Merrill Williams, now the publisher.

Phil had come to Washington in the 1950s to work at the State Department. He left State in 1968 to buy the Annapolis Capital newspaper and along with being a publisher he was in and out of government until he died in 2006. From 1983 to 2003 he was, on and off, a member of the Defense Policy Board. From 1990 to 1992 he was in Brussels as Assistant Secretary General of NATO. From 2002 to 2005 he ran the U.S. Export-Import Bank. A bureaucrat at heart, you might think.

In 1980, in our annual Best & Worst issue, the Washingtonian named a punk rock group, Tru Fax & the Insaniacs, as the city’s worst band. To raise money for charity, we also had a big annual party at a hotel to celebrate those featured in the issue. It was a hot ticket, especially among young people, because there was lots of free food from Washington’s best restaurants. To add to the fun, we also recognized some of the worsts. We invited Tru Fax & the Insaniacs to provide some music.

The night of the party Phil and I were in the ballroom of what was then the Statler Hilton Hotel, watching people enjoy the food and drink. We were near the bandstand and the music was very loud. Phil walked over to the bandstand and asked Tru Fax & the Insaniacs to turn down the volume. Nothing happened. He made some comments and again walked over to the bandstand and more forcefully told the band to turn it down. Nothing happened.

I had learned fairly quickly that Phil had a temper and wondered what he’d say next. He walked over to the bandstand’s speakers, then followed the electrical cord to a doorway. He opened the door and went in. Ten seconds later the ballroom seemed to go almost silent. Tru Fax & the Insaniacs were still playing but could barely be heard.

It was fun to talk about Phil  and the loud music. If he were still here he’d tell the new bureaucrats in town that just finding the plug and pulling it is not how most Washington problems can be solved.


  1. Here’s what a group of magazine journalists who worked together in the 1980s looks like now after lunch at a Mexican restaurant.

  2. Ervin S. Duggan says

    Sorry to miss this reunion. Such great people, such happy memories– especially of the weekly editorial meetings.

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