I spoke with Gary Webb only twice- once in a phone conversation to arrange a radio interview for my KDVS-FM public affairs show on the Drug War, and later for the hour-long interview. It was the only time we met in person.
When we first spoke, our conversation went on for about 45 minutes. He sounded relieved to hear from someone else who already shared some research background on the connections between parts of the U.S. government and the global trade in illegal drugs- the controversial topic that had led to such notoriety for his work, and himself. We had a good time exchanging notes.
Later, when we met in person, I found Gary to be likable, even-tempered, and good-humored. He was knowledgeable and professional, with not a trace of the grandstander about him. He didn’t pretend to know more than he did, or make exaggerated claims. He was easy to interview, and on reviewing my audio record of the interview, I think he was very patient with my occasional interruptions, which sometimes diverted into off-topic asides that sound a bit amateurish to me in retrospect. Gary went into the interview cold: I gave him no advance notice on the specific questions I would be asking. He responded unhesitatingly, with candor and obvious command of the facts.
This is the memory of Gary Webb that I keep most prominently in my mind: his response when I asked him about his current status [c.1998] in the halls of respectable professional news journalism, in which he had worked for 19 years before the Dark Alliance articles.
Gary replied, brightly, “oh, I’m a pariah!”
And he grinned at me. Ear to ear. All teeth. Dennis the Menace. It was the smile of a man who knew what he had and hadn’t done, and who regretted nothing. For all the loss of his professional fortunes, he put himself into the story for a brief moment, taking pride in his integrity.
I grinned back. I laughed out loud. I was happy for him. At the time of the interview, Gary seemed to have landed on his feet. He had received a settlement from the San Jose Mercury-News (terms and amount confidential, per legal agreement) upon his resignation a few moths before; he had found another job with the California State legislature investigating waste and fraud for the same pay than his old job, albeit in a contract position; he had a wife, three kids, a nice house (out in Folsom, if I recall correctly.) He sounded as if he was on the way to taking it to the next level.
At that point, he couldn’t have known. Neither of us could have known.
I, on the other hand, had considerably less going for me. (But that meant I had less to lose.) I was a rank amateur, running down every rabbit trail and red herring I sniffed up (albeit while trying to uphold a fairly rigorous standard of critical thinking). I recall showing him my box of files after the interview, with a jumble of entries on subjects like the Propaganda Due Lodge, the Yakuza, and the World Anti-Communist League- and just for a split second, he looked at me like I had a tinfoil hat on.
(Compared to Gary, I did have a tinfoil hat on. Part of me was still looking for the one true grand unified conspiracy, a ramble toward the edge that it took me some time to step back from. But that’s a different story; readers will need to be very patient if they want to hear the telling of it, because I have more important matters of verifiable fact on my mind.)
Gary had gotten boxes of documents, depositions, affidavits, testimony, trail transcripts, and other primary source evidence to make his case in Dark Alliance; I was a couple of years out of college at UCD with a BA in Cultural Anthropology, doing an ad hoc historiography research project based largely on my perusals of the stacks in research university libraries (LoC HV5801-5825, a set of shelves that’s sufficient to kick off anyone’s research project on this topic. Nobody is going to put the toothpaste back in that tube.) I found my researches of secondary sources to be fruitful: they’ll be providing the core of the historical material I’ll be presenting in this blog. There was never any doubt who the professional reporter was, when it came to research detail and investigative rigor.
One more scene that I like to remember from that day: Gary and a group of us, leaving the KDVS studio in the basement of Lower Freeborn Hall. Gary was trying to recall how to exit the building and get back to his motorcycle in the parking lot. Lower Freeborn is sort of a confusing place; one of the entrances from outside leads down a set of stairs to the campus bowling alley, and then up a side aisle to a set of double doors and the hallway leading to the radio station. So I directed him back through those double doors, making a joke about the bowling alley: “It’s a secret entrance, see, like that booth in the tailor shop in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.…”
Without missing a beat, Gary came right back with “…Get Smart.” Smiles and laughter all around. We shook hands, and he strode off toward the double doors.
That was the last time I saw him.