Page 74 of Overload


"I still think someone wrote his lines," Nim said. "From all I bear, he doesn't know that much about anything."

O'Brien shrugged. "It's academic."

He added, "I'll tell you something else. When Clarke had finished testifying and was ready to leave, the presiding Commissioner sent word he would appreciate an autograph. Wanted it for his niece, he said. Damn liar! It was for himself."

"Whichever way you slice it," Teresa Van Buren pronounced, "Cameron Clarke has done our cause a lot of harm."

No one mentioned what scarcely needed saying: That TV, radio and print reviews of the movie actor's brief appearance had eclipsed all other news about Tunipah. In the Chronicle-West and California Examiner, the statement by the Governor of California in support of the project rated a brief paragraph near the end of the Clarke-dominated report. On TV it was not mentioned at all. As to Paul Sherman Yale's appearance, that was totally ignored.

13

Instinct told Nancy Molineaux she was onto something. Possibly a major story, though so far it was shapeless and insubstantial. There were other problems. One was that she didn't really know what she was looking for. Another was the practical need to do other, regular reporting jobs for the California Examiner, which limited the time available for her nebulous quest. Making it even more difficult was the fact that she had not confided in anyone yet, particularly the Examiner's city editor, who was always in a mad rush for results and could never understand that finesse and patience could sometimes be important tools of a good reporter. Nancy had both.

She had been using them since the Golden State Power & Light annual shareholders meeting when Nim Goldman suggested to her in anger, "Why not investigate him?"

"Him" was Davey Birdsong.

Goldman, of course, had blown his cool and did not expect her to take the suggestion seriously. But, after thinking about it, Nancy bad.

She had been curious about Birdsong before. Nancy mistrusted people who were always on the side of righteousness and the downtrodden, or would like you to think they were, as Davey Birdsong did. Nancy's experience was that those kinds of liberal-populist do-gooders were usually looking out for number one first, with all others trailing a long way behind and getting the leftover crumbs. She had seen a lot of that at first hand-in black communities as well as white.

Mr. Milo Molineaux, Nancy's father, was not a liberal do-gooder. He was a building contractor who, throughout his life, had pursued one forthright, stated objective: To transform himself from a poor boy, born of black parents in rural Louisiana, into a rich man. He had succeeded, had done it honestly, and nowadays Mr. Molineaux was very rich indeed.

Yet her father, Nancy had observed, had done more for people of his own race-by providing steady employment, fair wages and human dignity-than a thousand political activists and their kind who (as the saying went) "had never had to meet a payroll."

She despised some of the liberals, including white ones who acted as if they were trying to atone personally for three hundred years of black slavery. The way those idiots behaved was as if a black person could do nothing wrong-ever. Nancy amused herself by being rude and bitcby to them, watching them take it and smile, and letting her get away with the inexcusable just because she was black. While they did, her contempt for them grew.

She did not despise Nim Goldman. In fact-though the knowledge would have amazed Nim-she had come to like and admire him.

Goldman hated her guts, and Nancy knew it. He hated her straightforwardly, making no effort to conceal it. He hated her as a reporter and as a woman. Nancy was perfectly sure her color had nothing to do with Goldman's hatred, which would have been just as intense had she been white, yellow or a shade of purple. Where his hatred of Nancy Molineaux was concerned, Goldman was color-blind.

Which was as it should be. Ergo, Nancy respected him.

In a perverse way-which she recognized as perverse-she rather enjoyed arousing Goldman's anger. It was so goddam refreshing! just the same, enough was enough. Twice she had impaled him well and truly, but it wasn't fair to go on doing it. Besides, the son-of-a-bitch had guts and was honest, which was more than you could say for most of those sleazy pontificators at the bearing where Goldman had spoken his mind and afterward got gagged.

About that hearing, Nancy had written the story she had to because she prided herself in being-first and foremost-a good journalist. Which meant being ruthless, putting emotions, personal feelings, second. But none of it had stopped her feeling sorry for Goldman and mentally wishing him well.

If she ever got to know him better-which was unlikely-someday she might tell him all of that.

Meanwhile there was a certain logic and justice, Nancy Molineaux thought, in that having abandoned Goldman as a target, she had switched attention to Davey Birdsong.

Birdsong she most certainly did not admire, being certain-even at this early stage of her inquiries-that he was a phony and probably a crook.

She had begun, soon after the GSP & L shareholders' meeting, by quietly investigating Birdsong's p & lfp. That had taken several months because she worked in her spare time and there were some extended periods when she didn't have any. But results, while slow, were interesting.

Birdsong, Nancy learned, had founded p & lfp four years earlier, at a time when inflation, plus increased oil prices, had forced electricity and gas rates substantially higher. Without question, the rate increases caused hardship to lower- and middle-income families. Birdsong had proclaimed himself the people's champion.

His flamboyance earned him instant media attention and he capitalized on it by recruiting thousands of members into p & lfp. To accomplish this, Birdsong employed a small army of university students as canvassers and Nancy had managed to locate several-now ex-students -who had worked for him. All, without exception, were soured by the experience.

"We thought we were doing something noble, helping the underprivileged," one of the former students, an architect, told Nancy. "But we discovered what we were mostly doing was helping Davey Birdsong."

Her informant continued, "When we went out canvassing we were given petitions to take with us which Birdsong had had printed up. The petitions were addressed to the Governor, State Senate and House, the Public Utilities Commission . . . you name it. They urged 'reduced utility rates for bard-pressed residential users,' and we went door-to-door, asking people to sign. Hell!-who wouldn't sign that? just about everybody did."

Another ex-canvasser-a young woman who had consented to talk to Nancy at the same time-took up the story.

"As soon as we had a signature-not before-we were told to explain that organizing petitions cost money. So would everyone please help by donating three dollars to the campaign, which included a year's membership in p & lfp? By that time, the people we'd been talking to figured they owed us something for our trouble-it was smart psychology, Birdsong's good at that-and there were very few, even poor families, who didn't come through with the three bucks."

”There was nothing really dishonest, I guess," the young architect said, "unless you call collecting a whole lot more money than was needed to run p & lfp dishonest. But what really was cheating was what Birdsong did to the students who worked for him."

"Birdsong promised us, as wages," the young woman said, "one dollar out of every three collected. But he insisted all the money must go to him first-as be explained it-to be entered in the books, then we would be paid later. Well, it was later, much later. Even then we only got a fourth of what he'd promised-twenty-five cents instead of a dollar out of every three. We argued with him, of course, but all be would say was that we had misunderstood."

Nancy asked, "You didn't have anything in writing?"

"Nothing. We trusted him. After all, he was on the side of the poor against big business-or so we thought."

"Also," the architect added, "Birdsong was careful-as we realized later-to talk to each of us separately. That way . . . no witnesses. But if there was a misunderstanding, all of us made the same one."

“There was no misunderstanding," the young woman informant said.

"Birdsong is a con man."

Nancy Molineaux asked those two ex-canvassers and others for estimates of how much money was collected. In his own public statements, Birdsong had reported p & lfp as having twenty-five thousand members. But most whom Nancy talked to believed the real figure was substantially higher-probably thirty-five thousand. If so, and allowing for the amount paid out to canvassers, the first year's receipts of p & lfp were probably close to a hundred thousand dollars, mostly in cash.

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