CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - How My Iraqi Colleague and I Won the War but Lost Our Piece…


By Jack Cawthon

He stood there, resplendent in his military uniform, a smile of victory on his face, knowing full well that the enemy forces were in hasty retreat, and I had pride and respect in my heart for him in his moment of triumph. No, not one of OUR military leaders, but the Iraqi Minister of Information.

I knew a true professional when I saw one. I, too, once practiced the same craft, but one of somewhat lesser importance.

I trust you will allow me to explain and not pick up a hammer and bust your computer much as some people have done with the recording of the Dixie Persons. (I am not about to infuriate feminists by calling three luscious, sexy babes "chicks," even if they call themselves that.)

I have no doubts that the Iraqi minister had no doubts about the outcome of the war. If the White Star Line had had its information officer on board the Titanic that fateful night and he could have presented reports as they happened to the outside world he might have stood there on the tilting deck proclaiming that the ship was unsinkable and would sail on safely to port, even as the water licked at his heels and his final words ended in bubbles.

This is the mark of the true professional, and if I may be so modest to say so myself, I was once a master of the art in my own small world of Atlantis.

If you will peruse the list of personnel for any government agency you will find various descriptions for, the more open being, "information officer" or "public relations specialist," to the more exotic "executive secretary" or "administrative assistant." In government these title are often interchangeable and can all stand for the same purpose: keep the public informed, not about the real world, but about how important we are, how necessary and efficient we perform, and, most importantly, how we require more money in our budget to continue our good work even better.

And the number one necessity: keep the boss out of trouble. You know he, or she, nowadays, is in trouble when the information person stands in as a substitute. That means the boss is really in deep doo-doo. Because when all is well, the boss will be there to proclaim the victory and take the credit in person, and that is how I knew that my Iraqi compatriot was on the sinking ship and that the boss had already taken a lifeboat, probably loaded with women and children.

I have been in that lifeboat-short position myself, although my job was more to connive by issuing publication-filled words instead of spoken ones, as I have always had an honest face and difficulty speaking the untruth. But it is amazing what one can do with an honest face and lying fingers as most notable embezzlers have learned.

My personal battle of Baghdad came in my final days, with the outcome quite similar, during my last days in the Institution. Oh, I could have stayed safely behind my desk working in the vineyard, but in my case the stockyard, continuing my anonymous existence, but, gee, as the president spelled his name, I had always wanted to write and having never served in the legitimate press, if you'll pardon the oxymoron, you might say I moved from being anonymous to that of being notorious. I felt the call-or was it a wail?-of actually writing words for my clients instead of assembling their words in proper sentences.

I remember well a researcher who was working with a nasty black fly problem in southern West Virginia. He was spreading something on the water other than oil and claimed it wasn't chemical in nature but purely biodegradable to rid the larvae of the noxious creatures that were eating the native population out of skin and blood. The problem was that fishermen thought he was also eliminating the fishing by destroying the food chain.

As the controversy raged, I pulled a Tammy Wynette and stood by my man, issuing press releases that were brilliant in their content, if somewhat fuzzy in their logic. Unfortunately, they went out with my name attached and the Charleston Gazette began giving me a byline, either in the spirit of acknowledging good writing or in the know that I stood on a tilting deck and would begin blowing both smoke and bubbles simultaneously. (The Gazette likes nothing better than a disaster at sea with a government PR person at the helm.)

I assume that Jay Rockefeller, who was governor at the time, read the paper, or had it read to him, as he had been bitten in a sensitive spot by the black fly contagion. Once bitten, twice shy, as my dear old grandmother used to say. People have a tough time remembering my name, but as it appeared several times, and although Jay isn't the swiftest even if he often wins the race, I'm sure he learned to spell it, and, worst of all associate it.

To make a long story short, as was done for me, that famous researcher lives in our neighborhood. We have attended several community functions together, but he never looks me in the eye or speaks. He has moved on and upward. I have moved to the Preston County wilderness to seek solace. But it is as it should be. I am certain that my Iraqi colleague will not be welcomed by his leader should he still survive in this world, and he had better forget about collecting the virgins in the next one.

However, somewhere out there, providing he didn't go down with the ship or his grenade launcher, is one heck of a good information specialist. Perhaps Enron, WorldCom or Health South will find they need his talents, and just, maybe, he will need an able assistant with an honest face and fingers still itching for adventure. My head may be somewhat bloodied by both experience and black fly bites, but given the chance, I have learned to hold my breath under water.

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