On Working With a Smart Writer Known as Sam

Robert J. Samuelson says he’s retiring from writing his Washington Post column about economics—after, he estimates, about two million words.

He began writing for The Washingtonian 47 years ago and if I remember right he got around the city on a bicycle, carried a backpack, and didn’t dress at all like the Harvard graduate he was. He was known as “Sam,” not “Robert or Bob.” And he was very smart and a clear writer.

In November 1974 he wrote a big Washingtonian piece—The Economic Establishment—and in the editor’s note about him he said   “I am no relation to economist Paul Samuelson—although the confusion is more embarrassing to him than to me.”

From the story:

“The recent fashion has been to picture economists as a flock of cackling chickens, each telling the government to do something different.

“You should take that with a grain of salt.

“Most economists have massive egos, and, if they focus on their disagreements, it is to emphasize their individuality.

“Not that there disagreements aren’t real. Here are profiles of 16 prominent economists who have had—and in most cases still have—an important influence on government policy.”

A sidebar to the story, written anonymously, says, “In all honesty, it cannot be said that Washington’s economic press corps attracts much admiration in any circle. They are a pretty disappointing bunch, famous neither for their investigatory skills, their grasp of the subject, nor their ability to see beyond the narrowest confines of the story as the authorities present it—and they are quite incapable of living up to the enormous importance of their subject in the modern-day world.”

His story in the November 1975 issue was headlined “The People Everyone Loves to Hate.” The lede made fun of Woodward and Bernstein’s Deep Throat character in All the President’s Men:

“It was warm and sticky and I was suffocating. As I cut into the underground garage, the cool concrete felt good. Down three levels, I tightened my tie to keep the cool from turning to chill.

“Information was what I wanted. Once you could get it according to the book. You chaperoned your man to a chic restaurant, made him feel important, and he told you what you wanted to know. But flattery no longer comes in the conventional package. Secrecy is in; expense accounts are out. My man wanted a rendezvous in an underground garage.

“You know,” he said, as I approached, ‘I’m risking my job by seeing you.’

“The underground garages were so packed these days that you almost had to make a reservation, but, if that’s what my source fancied, so be it. A reporter suffers all sorts of indignities and insanities in the case of truth.

“And the truth was I needed him. He worked in the Office of Management  and Budget, a realm of the government for which my editor had recently developed a strong fascination. ‘Those guys at OMB  have got their hands into almost everything.'”

His story explaining OMB and the federal budget process goes another 20 columns of type and concludes: “There is bound to be an enormous amount of bargaining, and, potentially, tension.  Ultimately, the question is simple. Will the dog wag the tail, or the tail wag the dog?”

It’s not easy to make economics interesting and Sam almost always got through to the reader.

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