This is Casey, who made his
debut on January 8 at DeKalb Medical, while outside the window of his
delivery room cars were skidding down North Decatur Road during what
passes in Atlanta for a Great Ice Storm. Casey is the first child for my
wife and me, and during the occasional peaceful evening at home when
he’s asleep and swaddled and I’m reading a book and the dogs are quietly
shedding over the carpet (there have been precisely two of those
moments so far, and their duration averages seven minutes), I have been
seized in mid-reverie by something I can only describe as terror. It’s a
quiet terror, sort of the panic attack kind, in which you become
especially cognizant of your heart beating and you wonder if you stop
concentrating on it, will it stop? What prompts this at any particular
moment is a mystery. Where it leads me to is my laptop, where I Google
“college 529 calculator” and punch in precisely one number—a zero for
Casey’s age. Instantly I am reminded, in stark math, how much my wife
and I need to be socking away for our boy’s college fund.
The answer is $602 a month, which, put into a fund that grows tax-free
at what the calculator assumes will be 7 percent annual interest (7
percent! That’s funny!), will compound until 2028, at which point we
will have $312,166, which I’m told is how much four years will cost then
at a college that today charges $25,000 a year.
Around this time I think of my own parents, who had not one kid, but
six. They both worked—she was a social worker, he in construction—and
their deal to us was simple: After high school, you’ll go to the
community college around the corner (it literally was three blocks away
from our house in central New York), get good grades, and we’ll figure
out a way to pay when it comes time to transfer to a four-year school.
And they did. The solution made perfect sense. Still, it didn’t stop a
few of us (okay, me) from grumbling as we watched our friends head off
to freshman year at Notre Dame, or Cornell, or Boston College. But when I
graduated from American University four years later after transferring
in as a junior, I had not a penny of debt. I took it for granted then,
but in the years since, seeing how college loans hobbled some of my
friends and forced them to curtail their ambitions, I am reminded of how
lucky I was.
Not surprisingly, our College issue couldn’t have come at a more
opportune time for this particular reader. I especially recommend Clark
Howard’s tips on footing the bill (page 67). Clark wisely reminds us
that raiding your 401(k) to fund your child’s tuition is just about the
worst idea imaginable. That said, I’m going to have to raid something to
In the meantime, I can’t stop looking at him. Let’s hope he’s as smart
as he is cute.
In June, Max Cleland appeared with President Obama in Normandy, France, to commemorate the sixty-fifth anniversary of D-Day. Just days before, Obama had named Cleland secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, charged with overseeing the cemeteries and memorials around the world that honor U.S. soldiers who died in battle. For Cleland, who lost both legs and his right arm to a grenade in Vietnam, the D-Day remembrance was the beginning of a new career, coming almost seven years after losing his U.S. Senate seat to Saxby Chambliss in one of the ugliest races Georgia has seen in years. Perhaps most memorable about the campaign was a Chambliss TV ad that linked an image of Cleland with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Cleland’s defeat unmoored him. His depression became so severe that he ended up back at Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C., where he’d gone decades before to recuperate from his war injuries. A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder led him to an even greater understanding of the challenges faced by returning veterans. Always an outspoken advocate for veterans (he served as head of Veterans Affairs under President Carter), Cleland has now written a memoir, out this month. Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove pulls no punches about George W. Bush, Georgia’s election system, and the long road back from defeat. Cleland will speak and sign books at the Carter Center at 7 p.m. on October 13. To accompany the following excerpt, Atlanta magazine editor Steve Fennessy talked with Cleland about the memoir.
You dropped out of the public eye after the 2002 election. As you write in your book, that period after your loss to Saxby Chambliss put you in a tailspin. It was the worst period in my life. The lowest point was when I ended up back in Walter Reed again after forty years and realized this time I had to repair my mind and my soul and my psyche, rather than my body. They are really the best in the business. They understand post-traumatic stress disorder. They understand the things that can follow from that—the depression, the extent to which life can go black. I’m still in touch with my counselor and my psychiatrist at Walter Reed, and they’re helping me put my life back together now, just like Walter Reed helped me put my body back together forty-one years ago.
You expose some very raw emotions in the book—feeling lost after the defeat in 2002, the anger as the war in Iraq ramped up, your own feelings of rage and sorrow as you came face-to-face with post-traumatic stress. Was it difficult putting this to paper and sharing it so openly? Was it therapy for you? It was a form of therapy. I wrote the book for myself, and I’m willing to share it with others. If anybody coming from Iraq and Afghanistan picks up the book and it helps save their life, then it will be worthwhile. It was therapeutic to go back over and over and over all of this stuff and try to make sense of it. Ultimately I came down to a point of belief that life itself is an act of faith. When I’ve come to the end of all the light I have and step out into the darkness of the unknown, whether I believe it or not, there’s always been something to stand on or I’ve been taught to fly. That’s the most powerful statement of faith I’ve ever heard. It’s from a book called A General’s Spiritual Journey, by [Lieutenant] General Hal Moore.
There’s been increasing coverage in the press about the spike in suicide rates among returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. When you come to the end of all the light you have, sometimes that darkness of the unknown can be home. Sometimes home can be a strange and weird place that you haven’t particularly gained familiarity with. You’re a different person when you come home from war. An Iraq veteran told me the toughest thing he ever did was come home. More than just readjustment, we have to understand that these young men and women have been in a difficult place. They’ve been to hell and back, and dealing with it is extremely difficult.
You write about being surprised to be diagnosed with PTSD so many years after Vietnam. What has your own experience taught you about the condition? I thought I didn’t have PTSD. But now we know that massive trauma disturbs the reptilian portion of your brain. You can deal with it. You can make it better. But wars are never over. My therapist says to concentrate on SOS—safety, organization, stability. But politics—especially Georgia politics—is anything but safe, organized, and stable. The Democrats made huge strides nationwide in the 2008 election, but Georgia remains solidly Republican. What can the Democrats in Georgia do to be a statewide force again? We need a two-party system. When I was in the state Senate and there were only five Republicans in the Senate—Paul Coverdell and Bob Bell and others—they were saying we need a two-party system. Now Democrats are saying that. A lot of what needs to be done is being done. A lot of people would like to think it’s message, but the candidates are going to put that out. But in terms of party structure, it’s all about organization and turnout.
In your book, you talk about “below-the-radar chicanery” that helped ensure your defeat, that Diebold’s control over our electronic voting system basically cut out any oversight by Georgia election officials. Is there a part of you that thinks you actually won the election in 2002? No. But there’s a part of me that knows it was tampered with.
You also talk about the backlash from young white males in the 2002 statewide election as a result of the flag issue. Why were they so susceptible to that issue? That’s the South. As the historian C. Vann Woodward said, the South is different because history has happened to it. A slave-based economy grew up, then the Civil War came, and then afterwards the slaves were free. Because the Republicans had authorized blacks to vote, the South turned Democratic—hard-core Democratic for well over a century. Then when Lyndon Johnson came along with the civil rights bill in 1964, he changed the South and made it Republican for a generation. The Republican Party has taken over the legacy of the old Southern Dixiecrats. It’s become the haven of the rural white males who have to compete with blacks for jobs as the emerging black community comes of age. In , Governor Roy Barnes and the Legislature changed the state flag. The Republicans took advantage of that. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and by that time chairman of the state Republican Party, and Karl Rove personally recruited Saxby Chambliss. The flag issue was off the charts with white males. Come Election Day in 2002, you had a dramatic increase by 140,000 votes of white males who came out and voted who normally would have stayed home. And then you had the Diebold effort. The combination caught all of us in between. Barnes, me, Tom Murphy—we all got caught in the anger and aftermath. So Georgia flipped big-time into the Republican column. Is Georgia’s system of electronic voting broken? It is broken, for one reason: It does not have a paper trail. Diebold fought a paper trail. The Republican Congress did not favor a paper trail. Now we see that state after state is calling upon the voting machine companies to have a paper trail. Why is a paper trail necessary? So that a third party—a Democratic poll worker, a Republican poll worker—can verify a vote. You write that Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, offered to denounce Chambliss’s attack ad, and that Chambliss asked him not to. Chuck was ready to do an ad for me that countermanded all that stuff that Chambliss and Rove and Reed were putting out. It was completely the strategy of Karl Rove to wipe out the service of people who ran against Bush. It started with McCain, perfected with me, then hit the stride with the Swift Boat ads with Kerry. I don’t think the American people want to go there. You can call McCain and Kerry and me anything you want, but don’t take away our service. Especially if you weren’t there, if you got out of going to the war of your generation with a bunch of deferments. Do you see yourself running for elected office again? No, I do not. Why not? That’s a good question. (Pause.) I think the answer to that is I don’t want to. I have this mission from President Obama, to make sure the twenty-four cemeteries worldwide properly memorialize our troops. That job pays the bills. Secondly, it gives me a sense of place and purpose I didn’t have before. I’m not born to be a consultant and I’m not born to be a lobbyist and I’m not born to be in the private sector. With public service comes a lot of good things. Memorializing those who gave everything they had, it touches me deeply.
*Note: The accompanying book excerpt is available in the print edition only
When Creative Loafing Inc. first declared bankruptcy almost a year ago, I blogged about it a lot,
leading some to wonder why I was so obsessed. Easy. I had spent five
years as a reporter and editor there, and my affection for and
admiration of alternative weeklies, which combine an irreverent
attitude with hard-nose reporting of issues the dailies shy away from,
remains strong, even if I’ve moved on.
But I haven’t said much in the past few months as the case wended its
way through bankruptcy court in Tampa, where the company is based.
Today, though, Ben Eason, the company’s CEO, lost the war:
Judge Caryl Delano awarded the company to Atalaya, which had lent Eason
$30 million a few years back to buy alt weeklies in Chicago and D.C.
The purchase of those papers, funded by borrowed money, led to interest
payments Eason couldn’t make. Hence the bankruptcy. (Read Creative Loafing reporter Thomas Wheatley’s account here. For his part, Eason said he was done in by Craig’s List.)
I called a former colleague after the news broke late this morning.
Representatives of Atalaya, who say that no layoffs are planned, are
slated to visit the Atlanta offices of Creative Loafing later this
week. “I plan to greet them as liberators,” my former colleague said.
Indeed, it is pretty stunning that a bunch of investment bankers with
no experience at owning a newspaper (they’ve hired a passel of media
execs to serve on their board) should be welcomed with such open arms.
It says something about the good faith that Eason squandered during the
years he presided over the company founded by his mother almost forty
“This is totally a matter of hubris,” said John Sugg when we spoke by
phone just now. “He’s incapable of understanding that he totally fucked
Sugg met Eason back in the mid-1990s when Sugg was an editor at the Tampa Tribune
and Eason was a young businessman on the rise, networking like crazy.
“I was attracted to his idealism, to his whole idea of civic
journalism,” Sugg remembered. He went to work for Eason at the Weekly Planet, an alt weekly in Tampa that Eason had founded.
In 2000, when I first joined Creative Loafing in Atlanta as
news editor, Eason had just bought the chain of weeklies (which
included papers in Charlotte and Sarasota, among others) from his
mother. By then, Eason’s reliance on a coterie of high-paid consultants
(who would fly up from Tampa to lecture us on management techniques)
was complete. An idea had merit, it seemed to us, only if it came from
someone Eason had met at a fundraiser or cocktail party.
“The corporate structure was big and it was bloated,” Sugg said. “And
Ben kept hiring people who were not competent. What else can you say?”
(I’m hoping, of course, Sugg wasn’t referring to me. I’m fairly sure he
In 2005, as Craig’s List was sucking up the paper’s classified revenue,
Eason’s involvement on the editorial side of the business became more
heavy-handed. After Hurricane Katrina, I remember him walking up to my
colleague Doug Monroe’s desk. Doug was writing a column about the
federal government’s handling of the aftermath in New Orleans. “Let’s
not have any Bush-bashing,” Eason said. Doug was dumb-founded. I think
he still is.
In 2007, after I’d left the paper, Eason borrowed $40 million to expand
his chain of weeklies. His board of directors, worried that the company
would be leveraged to the hilt, quit in protest. Later that year, Sugg
left the company. Meanwhile, falling ad revenues led to layoffs at
virtually every paper in the chain. The Atlanta paper, for example, has
three news writers, fewer than half of what it once did. When the chain
declared bankruptcy last year, rendering shares worthless, Sugg, like
others, lost his investment in the company, which he puts in “the
healthy five figures.”
Sugg is part of a loose affiliation of former CL’ers — such as former
Creative Loafing Atlanta publisher Scott Walsey — who have offered
their services to Atalaya to step in. (The Atlanta paper, for example,
has been without an editor for months, after Eason fired Ken
Edelstein.) I’m trying to reach Michael Bogdan of Atalaya to see what’s
next, but Sugg says that whether or not his group is called upon, he
will be Atalaya’s biggest cheerleader as they take over the chain of
“Creative Loafing today stands a much better chance of re-establishing itself.”
Eason, for his part, told the Tampa daily that he would start a new newspaper “tomorrow.”
Consistently ranked among the country’s best places to live, Asheville is one of the rare cities that live up to hype. Crunchy? Come for the vibrant music scene and vegetarian dining. Artistic? Soak in the galleries and art deco architecture. Adventurous? Biking trails and whitewater rapids await you. Best of all, you can get there and back on a single tank of gas.
Asheville owes much of its architectural singularity to the captains of industry who popularized the place in the Gilded Age. E.W. Grove, a St. Louis man who made a fortune selling “Tasteless Chill Tonic” to malaria sufferers, built Asheville’s most remarkable hotel, the Grove Park Inn (800-438-5800, groveparkinn.com), with granite cut from Sunset Mountain. With its enormous lobby, elevators tucked into stone chimneys, and breathtaking views, the Grove is worth a stop for at least a drink. For those on a more modest budget, drive to Biltmore Village, less than two miles from the city center. There, just outside the gates of Biltmore Estate, is the Grand Bohemian Hotel Asheville, the newest addition to the Kessler chain (877-274-1242, bohemianhotelasheville.com). The European hunting lodge theme boasts dorky touches such as chandeliers made from deer antlers and a stuffed boar wearing a Tyrolean hat.
You can’t go to Asheville without dropping by Biltmore Estate (800-411-3812, biltmore.com). Built by George Vanderbilt in the late nineteenth century, the château contains 250 rooms, an indoor pool, and a dining room straight out of Citizen Kane, bringing new meaning to the word “overcompensating.” Biltmore is still owned and operated by Vanderbilt’s descendants, who charge a whopping $55 to get onto the grounds. (It’s cheaper if you reserve online.) Be sure to stroll around the gardens, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and check out the winery. Before heading back downtown, drop by the New Morning Gallery (828-274-2831, newmorninggallerync.com) for a spread of handmade furniture, ceramics, and tasteful tchotchkes. Downtown Asheville is small enough to walk, but step aboard the historic trolley for a ninety-minute narrated tour (888-667-3600, ashevilletrolleytours.com).
For a city of its size (barely 70,000), Asheville boasts an inordinate number of awesome restaurants. If, for example, you haven’t had the sweet potato pancake at Tupelo Honey Cafe (828-255-4863), your time on Earth remains squandered. Executive chef Brian Sonoskus even has a twelve-acre farm that provides organic food to his kitchen. Carnivores will not miss meat at Laughing Seed Cafe (828-252-3445), where the cooks do amazing stuff with tofu and tempeh and fresh vegetables. At night, check out the intimate Table (828-254-8980), where the food is prepared right near the front door and the seafood choices are exquisite. On the way back to the hotel, drop by Jack of the Wood (828-252-5445, downstairs from the Laughing Seed) for some house-brewed Green Man ales. And for late-night music, check out the legendary Orange Peel (828-225-5851), one of the best small venues in the nation.
In a ten-minute conversation with Big Boi, you can learn a lot, such as the perils of robbing his wife’s boutique, the ways in which Shirley Franklin has let down Atlanta, and how he wishes his financial advisers had told him to invest in gold. Big Boi, whose Christian name is Antwan Patton, is one-half of Outkast and one hundred percent his own man. We sat down with him in Austin, Texas, minutes before he took the stage for a 12:40 a.m. set at the annual South-by-Southwest music conference. His new CD, Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, has been delayed and delayed, although Big says all it’s waiting on is a release date from a label he can’t stand.
What’s the deal with Luscious Left Foot? When’s it coming out?
It’s coming in a couple months, man. I’m dealing with Jive Records. You know how that goes. They’re jivin.’ I’m waiting for them to get their shit together. I’ve worked hard on this record. Two years, non-stop. I’m proud of it.
What’s the economy doing to the hip-hop scene?
It’s hard everywhere. Right now everybody’s just waiting on the jumpback. The name of the game right now is buyin’ bars of gold. The price of gold just went up so crazy. I was talkin’ to a couple of my financial planners and they told me a lie. They told me don’t get into gold. I would have been killin’ right now. You can’t listen to everything your brokers say.
What does it mean for you that President Bush, who inspired a lot of your music, is gone, and Obama is in the White House?
You hope for the best but you never really know. You got people out there sayin’ Obama’s basically a face card and he and Bush are playin’ on the same team. I don’t know. You can’t trust nobody. You don’t know who’s playin’ on which team. The only thing you can trust in is God. Keep your faith in the most high, you don’t put your faith in no man.
I’m curious about your writing style. Phrases like “cooler than a polar bear’s toenails”—does that come naturally to you or is it something you struggle over?
Sometimes you have to sit there with a blank piece of paper for six or seven hours and nothing comes out, and some days it just grabs you, like you go into a trance. Sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s not. It’s all about being there and losing yourself in the music.
We’re electing a new mayor in Atlanta soon. What do they need to do?
They need to do something. What’d Shirley Franklin do? She fixed the water pipes and got rid of the fire stations. The next mayor needs to address the issue of the police force. The crime rate in this city has been goin’ up like crazy, you know what I mean? When you got police on furlough and you’re shuttin’ down firehouses, it’s bad for the community. Houses getting robbed, people getting killed. I just don’t see what she’s done so far.
Is there anybody you like for mayor?
That new guy, what’s his name? Young cat.
You ever want do anything political?
Mmmm, maybe after all this stuff is done.
What about this stuff? Did you ever think it would go this far?
Yeah, I did! We’ve been doing this for fifteen years. We had a chance to move masses of people into thinking differently, having people not just wanna go with the norm. So you got people questioning things they’ve been taught all their lives. We pose different questions throughout different albums. It’s all about turning on their brain a little bit.
What’s the most important question you’ve posed?
The most important question…is, uh…The basis of our group is individualism. It’s all about being yourself.
How did you find Janelle Monáe?
She was a back-up singer for one of my artists called Scar. My A&R person gave me a CD of her stuff and I just thought it was cool. But what really sold it for me was I caught her at an open mic night at Justin’s, P. Diddy’s restaurant in Atlanta. From there I said okay I’m gonna sign her. She’s definitely the future of music and funk and strivin’ to be something that’s not like the normal. And she can sing like a motherfucker. That’s the weirdest thing about it. She’s incredible.
Anyone else you’re nurturing?
I have a new group, Vonnegutt, young guys from Atlanta. They rap, play guitar, the whole nine yards. And I got Janelle. So I’m good.
How’s your wife’s boutique doing?
She’s goin’ online with it. You know, the whole recession thing.
Her place got robbed, didn’t it?
Yes, a couple times, man. That’s why I was saying, the mayor of Atlanta she’s closing down fire departments and furloughing police, she’s getting people fucked up out there, man.
Didn’t you offer a reward?
I did. But it got handled. We found out who was at the bottom of it.
You did? How’d it get handled?
I can’t tell you. (Laughs)
Oh come on. Did she get her stuff back?
Some of it, yeah.
You found out, huh?
Yeah. We got a lot of friends in Atlanta, you know?
How’d you come to name your son Bamboo?
Ah, Bamboo! It’s strength. It’s unbreakable. When it’s young and green you can’t snap it. You can bend it but it won’t break. He’s an animal right now. I call him Bub right now, after my granddaddy.
You own a kennel that specializes in pit bulls. What’s it been like in the wake of the Michael Vick scandal?
It’s good! What people don’t realize is the Michael Vick thing was an isolated incident. We breed dogs for different reasons. I don’t fight dogs. I don’t condone dog-fighting. We sold dogs to Usher, Fifty Cent, Serena Williams.
What got you into it in the first place?
Just love for animals. When we were young, we’d have 30 people living in a two-bedroom house. My granddaddy used to have a German Shepherd that had puppies all the time. When we got old enough to get some money to get some dogs, we got some purebreds. Me and my brother started it. We got a ranch, twenty-two acres, indoor-outdoor. It’s the Ritz-Carlton for dogs!
It’s been years since the last OutKast album.
It’s been some time since the last album. There’s been a lot of songs in between though.
You feeling pressure?
For what? I got nothing to prove. Everybody else playin’ catch-up, baby. We know how high the bar’s set. As long as you’re stayin’ true to the music and doing’ what you believe in. No, there’s no pressure at all. Cuz if you heard what I got in my motherfuckin’ suitcase, boy, I’m tellin’ you! It’s at the hotel. The whole album. Sir Luscious Left Foot. It’s comin’, man!
Two months? Three months?
As soon as Jive stop bullshittin’.
So it’s their bullshit?
Different record company. Different animal. As far as when it comes to real organic music, it’s kinda hard to try to get that across to them. They want more Kool-Aid, watered down, do anything stuff. We don’t do that. We sorta butted heads with them. But I played them the whole record a couple weeks ago and they pretty much get what we’re doin’ now.
Are you looking for a new label?
Yes. Definitely. I really wish I was still under LA Reid cuz he really knows how to do it. He knows it from an arts perspective as well as it being a label. It’s chemistry. We’re real musicians.
For the next few days, you can view “We Fun” — the documentary about Atlanta’s indie rock scene — in its entirety at Pitchfork,
the barometer of the hipster set. The movie, made by a pair of
Nashville filmmakers, is supposedly inspired by a 1987 documentary
called “Inside/Out,” which featured some seminal bands from Athens,
including REM, the B-52s, Pylon, Love Tractor, and others. Chris
Dortch, one of the filmmakers, talked to Paste in late 2007, when the
documentary was still very much a work in progress. In the interview,
he said that there is a “legitimate love and camaraderie” among
Atlanta’s indie rock bands that “you don’t find in other cities.”
I spent seventy-two minutes of my Friday evening streaming the film
and, well, “We Fun” really isn’t. But before I get into that, a moment
for a full disclosure: Atlanta Magazine figures into a
scene late in the film. Back in January, 2008, we organized a photo
shoot of the filmmakers with many of the bands featured in the film.
Several dozen musicians gathered on the stage of the Variety Playhouse,
and just seconds after the photographer started shooting, Black Lips
guitarist Cole Alexander opened a fire extinguisher that sent everyone
running and coated thousands of dollars of sound and lighting equipment
with fire retardant. As it turns out, the post-mess scene outside the
Variety is the funniest bit of the movie: Black Lips bassist Jared
Swilley tearing into Alexander for ruining the photo shoot and wasting
everyone’s time, while some other dude tries to defend Alexander by
saying because there was no alcohol at the shoot, the organizers “had
it coming.” (You can see this in the “Strange Faces” chapter of the
The scene to me sort of crystallizes what’s wrong with the movie —
there’s a lot of rock-star affectation, as if the musicians felt their
performances on stage weren’t enough, and so they had to keep up
appearances offstage by swilling alcohol, talking nonsense directly to
the camera, rolling around on beds with each other, and creating mayhem
for its own sake. It occurred to me that the whole movie might be
satirical, but in interviews I’ve seen with the filmmakers, they seem
genuinely envious of Atlanta’s music scene and wanted to capture that
energy. And in the scenes at clubs and in basements where bands are
actually playing, they do capture it. The problem is in
between. In the past half-century, rock-and-roll excess has become
such a cliche that it’s hard to capture anything truly new, and so when
fresh bands are coming up, they’re faced with a conundrum — do we play
to type or do we go the other way? In “We Fun,” too many bands opt for
On the other hand, the movie promises to be a great time capsule,
capturing indie rock fashion at its stinky peak. And if you’re not from
here, you’d think Atlanta was the whitest city in Christendom.
At the risk of engaging in a little bit of hyperbole, “The Wire” is the best TV show in the history of the galaxy. Its creator, David Simon, was for not all that many years a journalist at the once-great Baltimore Sun, and it was his perspective as a reporter on the cops beat that gave us shows such as “Homicide” and, most notably, “The Wire,” which over its five seasons did more to capture the truth of the American city’s decline (in this case, Baltimore) than any newspaper series or non-fiction book ever has.
But although Simon long ago abandoned journalism for the “fleshpots” of Hollywood, as he calls it, his heart is still tethered to his old job. Yesterday he testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on the future of journalism, and his testimony is worth a read, assuming you’re American and care about the country’s future. (When you’re reading it, you might substitute “Atlanta Journal-Constitution” where he says “Baltimore Sun.” The comparisons are not clean ones but they are, to a degree, instructive.)
Some excerpts are below, which I’m aggregating, which Simon himself says really doesn’t serve much of a larger purpose. But anyway:
— “The Internet…does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin — namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.”
— “The very phrase citizen journalist strikes my ear as nearly Orwellian. A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor; he is not in any sense a citizen social worker. Just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to trained social workers and firefighters.”
— “My industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered, free-market logic that has proved so disastrous for so many American industries. And the original sin of American newspapering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place. When locally-based, family-owned newspapers like The Sun were consolidated into publicly-owned newspaper chains, an essential dynamic, an essential trust between journalism and the communities served by that journalism was betrayed.”
— “It costs money to do the finest kind of journalism. And how anyone can believe that the industry can fund that kind of expense by giving its product away online to aggregators and bloggers is an endless source of fascination to me.”
Our astute copy-editor pointed out this headline last week, and I’ve been chomping at the bit for our new website to debut so I could blog about it. So here it is — a little late, but better than never. (Click on the magnifying glass to see it best.)
This article originally appeared in our August 2008 issue.
Arthur Blank turned sixty-five last September, in the middle of the worst year of his professional life. Just weeks before, Michael Vick, the marquee Falcons quarterback around whom Blank had built the team, had pleaded guilty to running a dog-fighting ring out of his home in Virginia. The season would only get worse: In December, a day after assuring Blank he would remain as head coach, Bobby Petrino slithered out of Atlanta to take the top football job at the University of Arkansas. By that time, the season Blank felt would never end had only gotten longer. When the Falcons beat the Seahawks in the final game of the season, it was small consolation; the team’s 4-12 record was its worst in seven years.
Although he said he never considered selling the team, Blank must have asked himself at some point if it was all worth it. He is, after all, the 317th-richest person in America, according to Forbes, with a fortune of $1.5 billion, earned from twenty-plus years building The Home Depot into a retail leviathan. He has his own foundation, to which the vast majority of his fortune is directed. And he has six children, which include, with his second wife, Stephanie, an eleven-year-old son and six-year-old twins. Surely there are better things to do than endure the scrutiny that comes with being the owner of a professional football team whose fortunes were tied to a felon.
This year, though, Blank did what he hasn’t done since 1979, when he and Bernie Marcus opened the first Home Depot: He started building an organization from the ground up. He hired a promising young scout from the New England Patriots, Thomas Dimitroff, and named him Falcons general manager. He hired a new coach with a name—Mike Smith—as understated as his personality, And in this year’s draft Blank and company settled on Matt Ryan, a towering twenty-three-year-old from Boston College who will step into Vick’s position and lead the Falcons to what Blank hopes is a new era. It really is a new team, in virtually every sense of the word.
In late May, Blank sat down with Atlanta magazine’s Steve Fennessy for a wide-ranging interview that touched on Home Depot, his hopes for the Falcons, and how turning sixty-five has made him look at things differently.
This spring, for the first time since you left Home Depot in 2001, you were invited to address the annual store managers meeting here in Atlanta. The ovation the employees gave you before your talk brought you to tears. What was going through your mind at that point? It was great to be back in that environment. I spent twenty-three years there, so the company is like a seventh child to me. When you start a company, and you build it from nothing up to 250,000 people working with you, and then you leave and have almost no contact for six years—well, it was very painful for me, that separation, both personally and from a professional standpoint. One of the things I appreciated about Frank Blake was that when he became CEO, he reached out to me and Bernie. When he asked me to attend the store managers meeting, I didn’t know I was going to speak. But then he asked me to speak. I got to talk about a lot of things I felt were important—not so much living in the past and the good old days, but that these are the good today days. It was very emotional for me.
Last year was the first year that Home Depot’s revenue were less than the year before. What’s your advice for Frank Blake? My advice for Frank goes back to the very first breakfast we had. The opportunities in the marketplace are different than they were. This housing recession is the worst in a hundred years in America. The company was built on a certain set of values and a culture. I think those continue to be as relevant today as they were in 1979. They’re applied differently and the business environment is different, but those things are still the things that make it a great company. They kind of got washed out in the Bob Nardelli era. It’s like the foundation for a great cake. The icing may be wonderful, but if it’s a shitty cake, it’s not going to taste right. Frank is conscious of this. Let’s scrape away some of the icing and make sure the roots of the business are what they need to be. Even in the face of a bad economy, he’s done a lot of the right things. Hiring better people, investing not only in the quantity of people—putting more salespeople on the sales floor—but hiring experienced plumbers, electricians, and tradespeople that will make a huge difference to the business as the economy begins to turn.
Had Home Depot turned away from customer service? I think it had. I don’t think it was intentional. But the focus had gotten onto a lot of growth initiatives, a lot of things about how do you measure this and measure that, a lot of things that came out of a GE mentality. GE is a great company, but those are more appropriate for the kinds of businesses they’re running and not a retail environment. My feeling was they’d gotten away from a lot of the roots of the company in ways they should not have.
Your mother recently celebrated her ninety-third birthday. I wanted to ask about growing up in Queens and how that informed the person you are now and the philosophies you say you live by, such as “You’re your brother’s keeper” and “Give back.” My mother has had a very profound effect on my life. My father, too. He was an entrepreneur. He started his own business in his late thirties, died when he was forty-four. We didn’t have much in a material sense. We lived in a single-bedroom apartment till I went to college. I didn’t live in a house until I was thirty-two years old. My first house was $34,500. My values were rooted in my childhood, and my mom particularly—this notion of working hard, having integrity, giving back to the community. We didn’t have any money to speak of, but my mother would always be involved in the community.
Such as what? Any sort of community event. We lived in a big apartment building with 300 or 400 units. She served on the board in the apartment that set rules and regulations. She always was just in the middle of things and was not afraid to express herself. She didn’t do it with money; she was just involved and caring.
I read that you were in a gang when you were a kid. That’s right. Two of my best friends from my junior high school were killed when I was in high school. One was shot to death, one was stabbed to death. I had spent time with them, did things, ran around. My mother was telling my younger children the other night at dinner that I was a really good son. And I was a good son. But I got in trouble. I remember one day in junior high school I was going to get the crap beat outof me after school. They had closed the school yard and I was inside. My brother, who’s three years older than me, ran back and jumped the fence and got in front of me.
How did those things you learned influence the philosophy of your foundation? When the company had no money, we always were involved in the community. We always wanted to do whatever we could. We didn’t have money to write checks to philanthropies, but our store associates were always involved. A lot of that came out of [Bernie Marcus’s and my] religious orientation—being your brother’s keeper, being involved in the community. A core philosophy of the Jewish faith is: It’s fine to go on top of the mountain and study the issue, but you need to come off the mountain and deal with the problem. That’s always been an important part of my own personal philosophy. You need to be engaged on the ground and give back. We cared about the people who shopped in our stores and the people who couldn’t shop in our stores. As the company grew, we wrote over $125 million in checks [to various causes]. We were even prouder of Team Depot—associates spending tens of thousands of hours in the community, building playgrounds, hospitals. It wasn’t written up in performance reports or anything, but it was an important part of what we do as a company.
When you formed your own foundation, was there another one you looked to as a model? When [Wal-Mart founder] Sam Walton died, I was in New York. I had dinner with [Walton’s son] Rob. We were talking about philanthropies and families. Rob said, “We knew we were a real wealthy family. But my father never spent much time in terms of building a philanthropy. He was interested in building the business. And we had all this money.” So his children don’t really understand what it means to be a philanthropist and have a foundation. I thought about that in terms of my children and my wife. I really wanted them to be very much involved and not have the same experience, where their father would pass away and have all this money and the children would say, “What do we do with it? We don’t have the skills and discipline.” So in 1995, we started our own family foundation.
What surprised you most about giving away money? It’s very difficult to do it and to ensure you have the impact that you think you’re having. There are a lot of great organizations out there, but it’s a question of understanding the vision and being sure they’re doing what they say they’re doing. Follow-up is essential. You can fall in love with visionaries. A lot of grantees have visions in their heads, but their ability to carry them out in the marketplace is pretty limited.
Who’s setting the priorities for what the foundation targets? The family does. I’ve always said to my adult children and my wife and my brother and daughter-in-law that I don’t want to sit at the head of the table. So literally and figuratively, all of our meetings are around a round table. Although I chair the foundation, they all have an equal vote and an equal say. Often I say the least at these meetings. I’m really interested in the children expressing themselves. I don’t want to be sitting there on my deathbed thinking, “Oh, what’s going to happen now to this big estate? They’re not prepared for it, and they don’t care about the stuff we’ve been working on.” So a lot of the work we do—whether it’s Better Beginnings or Pathways to Success or greenspace issues—they’re things the family really cares about, as well as myself.
You’ve been a big financial supporter of the BeltLine. I’m a big believer in community and connecting the dots. I had a conversation once with Shirley Franklin. We were talking about Downtown, and this relates to the BeltLine. She had a real pretty pearl necklace on. I said if you took the necklace off and I cut the strand and you had all these beautiful beads just laid out all over the table, it wouldn’t look like a beautiful necklace. And what has to happen Downtown is that you have to connect the pearls. To have a great Downtown, you have to be able to walk, you have to commute easily, you have to be safe, you have to have a lot of greenspace. There’s a lot of people looking for that. With the BeltLine, you have an opportunity to connect these pearls of Atlanta in a way that brings together community in the most positive ways. So people don’t have to get in their cars and drive seventy miles an hour. They can do it by bike, they can do it by jogging or walking to get from community to community. It’s a unique opportunity.
Do you think the political will behind it is sufficient? I think it is. Frankly, it’s such a positive thing, no matter what part of the city you live in. Atlanta is a great city today. It’s a great city probably because we say it’s a great city. But from a world perspective, is it a great city like New York or London? Probably not. To some extent, Atlanta has been caught up in its growth, which has been unbelievable. When I moved here, there was a little less than a million people living in the region—780,000 or something like that. Now it’s five and a half million, projected to be fifteen million in the next fifteen years. How we deal with the quality of growth is going to be very important. It’s not only because of people we want to attract here, but it’s the quality of life for the people already living here. All of that fits into the BeltLine philosophy where we can reduce traffic and we can get people connected in all kinds of positive ways.
Do you see the foundation making further contributions? Absolutely. To us it’s a journey.
You’re sixty-five. That’s an age when people might start taking stock. I did a lot of that this year. Age sixty-five for me was interesting. I actually do it all the time anyway, but I did it with more rigor this year than I have in the past.
Because of the number? Yeah. It used to be when you were sixty-five you retired. It doesn’t mean that anymore. It certainly doesn’t apply to me. But we spent a lot of time as a family this year talking about the estate. I’ve redone my estate plan with my wife’s involvement and with my children’s involvement. A percentage of my estate will go to philanthropy, almost all of it.
How much? I can’t tell you how much, but almost all of it. Probably 95 percent will go to the foundation. Stephanie and the adult children and then the younger children will carry on the foundation after I’m gone. Coming to grips with that and developing plans to see that happen is something I’ve done this year. We spent a lot of time as a family talking about what that really meant. We had a consultant come in and help us facilitate the conversations, which was helpful.
What was the mood? It was sobering, but positive. You ask tough questions and you can’t give answers that are humorous. The answers we all gave were serious answers. I certainly want my family to be well provided for. My wife is well provided for. My children are all well provided for. On the other hand, they need their own mountains to climb and their own challenges and their own life. They need to do life’s work, and they’ll do that. But I really feel, at the end of the day, that we were really blessed at Home Depot. This is a way of recycling that estate back into the hands of society in a real positive way. We worked hard and we were good at what we were doing and the timing was good and maybe we had a little luck. We want to recycle that back in. There are tremendous needs today. The public sector—federal, state, city—all are able to do less today. It’s up to the foundations and people like myself that are the recipients of this wonderful society and opportunity to give back in a way that’s significant.
Let’s turn to the Falcons. How much did last year age you? It was a very difficult year. Professionally it was certainly the most difficult year of my whole life. And it was all played out in the eyes of the public, which is the nature of this business—the disappointment in the relationship with Michael and Coach Petrino and the lack of our ability to control that situation. Seeing our organization hurt, seeing our fans hurt, seeing our community hurt. And there were fans all over America that were hurt.
What personal toll did it take on you? There were a fair number of sleepless nights. The season seemed to go on forever for us. It seemed like a hundred years’ worth of football. But it finally did end. The organization is now in a very good place. We have a new general manager we’re excited about, a coaching staff we’re excited about, we had an outstanding draft. The energy level of our players is unbelievable. People have moved on. I’ve certainly moved on. Last year we tried to do the right thing for Michael Vick, the right thing for our organization, the right thing for the National Football League, and the right thing for our fans. I think we handled it as well as it could have been handled. But it was very difficult.
How did you explain all this to your youngest children? Well, at the time my youngest children were five and a half, so not a lot of explaining was necessary. For my middle son, Joshua, who’s now eleven, it was difficult. Joshua was close to Michael. And like every other ten-year-old in Atlanta, he admired Michael Vick the athlete and player. I had to explain to him. He was confused about it. I had to explain what Michael did wrong, what an indictment means, what it means to go to jail, to have a jury trial. I did the same thing that many other fathers and mothers did in trying to explain this to their children.
How did he react? He was certainly disappointed. But he accepted the explanation when I told him Michael was sorry for what he did. And I believe he’s sorry. It’s a severe price. But it’s the price society has deemed he should pay. He’ll have a second chance, I believe. His life will be okay. He’ll still be a young man when he gets out of prison and have the chance to get on with his personal and professional life.
You haven’t ruled out his returning to the Falcons. Does that still hold true? We have legal rights with Michael, we have financial rights with Michael, we have contractual issues with Michael. Our relationship with him is a very complicated one. From a personal standpoint, I certainly wish him well. I’ve told him this before, that anything I can do to help him, I’m prepared to do that. I’d love to see him back in the National Football League, not only as a player but as a role model, to go back into the community as an example of somebody who made some bad choices, who couldn’t cut the umbilical cord when he needed to cut it with folks who had a negative influence on him. I think that could be very positive. I’m hopeful that will happen. Whether it happens here in Atlanta or not remains to be seen. We drafted a young quarterback [Matt Ryan, from Boston College]; we view him as our franchise quarterback of the future. We have complete confidence and faith in him, and we’ve moved on as an organization. We owe it to the fans to do that, we owe it to ourselves to do that, and we owe it to the players to do that.
When the controversy broke last year, the debate seemed to split largely along racial lines in Atlanta. Do you agree with that perception? No question there was some of that. Michael within the African American community was considered to be a hero—playing the quarterback position, a great talent, a great athlete, who was involved in the community. That certainly was an issue. But what Michael did and what his punishment was had nothing to do with the color of his skin. It just had to do with what he did. At the end of the day, in my opinion, he was treated very fairly by the judicial process and by the National Football League. There was nobody out, quote, to get Michael. Everybody—certainly everybody in this building—gave him the benefit of the doubt for months on end. And was supportive for months on end of Michael based on what we were told and what he was telling us. I think today Atlanta has moved past it from a racial perspective. Those people that haven’t—frankly; shame on them. It’s not a racial issue.
How challenging is it being an NFL owner in Atlanta, a city full of transplants who have allegiances to other teams? It’s not. When I bought the team, folks said, “Well, Atlanta’s going to be a tough market,” because of the things you described. There are not many cities in the United States like New York or Chicago—great old cities that have been there two hundred years. Atlanta’s very much like Dallas or Houston or Charlotte—great emerging cities. People are great sports fans here if you give them a quality product and they have a great game day experience and they have players and an organization that are proud of the community. That’s been true. We sold out all of our games from 2002 through the majority of last year. We didn’t sell out all our games last year. People have responded beautifully and they’ll respond again.
How are they responding now with the new campaign? I think they’re stepping up. We’re not sold out yet. We’ve got a ways to go. But we’ve got a lot of time between now and the first of September.
You mentioned that the draft is not a new chapter, but a new book for the team. Well, it’s new leadership. With Thomas, Coach Smith, and all the coaches. Couple that with free agency and eleven draft picks, led by Matt Ryan, and on top of the draft last year, it’s going to be a young team. We’re going to be competitive, and we’ll probably win more games than most people think.
The road to the Clayton County jail is named Tara Boulevard, which sounds pleasant until you’re on it. Then it stretches on for miles, an endless purgatory of Hooters, Checkers, Popeyes and massage parlors with charmingly ironic names like the Good Natural Spa. Driving down Tara Boulevard is to be reminded that, ultimately, we are little more than consumers of flesh, and we’ll take it whether it’s served in bags or wrapped in Lycra.
You know you’re close to the jail when the spas give way to the bail/bondsmen. Most notable of these is Free at Last, which subscribes to two of the cardinal rules of commerce: It has a memorable name (offensive yet clever) and a location that’s convenient for its clientele—in this case, directly across Tara Boulevard from the Harold R. Banke Justice Center, an absolutely massive (727,000 square feet) complex where the front door opens onto a set of towering Greek columns and the back door opens onto a courtyard ribboned with razor wire. In most counties, a courthouse is downtown and the jail is miles away in the suburbs. In Clayton County, you can be sentenced in one room and locked up in another, all without once stepping outside.
The sheriff in charge of the jail is a man named Victor Hill, who took office on January 1, 2005. Hill wears a pencil moustache, clock-shaped Gino Franco cufflinks that actually tell time and a badge hanging from a chain around his neck. He stands 5-feet-5. Short men with power and the lust for more are inevitably likened to Napoleon, and in his 18 months as sheriff, Hill hasn’t done much to invalidate the comparison. On his first Monday in office, he summoned 27 employees to the jail on the pretense of reinstating them. Instead, he fired them. He assigned sharpshooters to watch over the proceedings as the sacked workers—most of whom had supported the outgoing sheriff that Hill had unseated—handed over their guns and badges.
Hill’s actions made headlines from New York to Los Angeles. Cynthia Tucker, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist who believes the office of sheriff became obsolete sometime around the dawn of the horseless carriage, called Hill a “tyrant in uniform.” The fired workers sued. And the whole affair brought to a boil the simmering resentment between Hill and Eldrin Bell, the former Atlanta police chief who is now the Clayton County Commission chairman. Over the past two years, Hill and Bell have cultivated the kind of animosity that can thrive only between people who were once close (Hill used to be Bell’s driver and protégé). But unlike most feuds between friends, this one has played out publicly—in newspapers, courtrooms and the halls of Clayton County government. The two men probably share more traits than not—both, for example, are extroverts with a reputation for flamboyance and obstinacy—but their likenesses appear only to have widened the gulf between them.
Bell isn’t talking (he says county lawyers have advised him not to), but Hill is. In fact, it’s hard to get him to stop. The office of sheriff in metro Atlanta, he feels, has been mocked, maligned and shortchanged. Hill’s plan is to “restore the office to its original jurisdiction,” which is another way of saying he wants to absorb the county police department into his office and kick its chief to the curb. That Hill used to work for that very department, under that very police chief, points up a conundrum typical to Victor Hill and his leadership agenda—the conflation of ambition with vendetta. Figuring out which is which can get confusing.
One thing, however, is crystal-clear: Victor Hill wants to change what it means to be a sheriff in the state of Georgia.
It’s a Wednesday and the Frito-Lay truck is making a delivery at the Clayton County jail. Honor inmates—those jailbirds who can be trusted not to stow away in the back of the truck when it takes off—pile cardboard boxes full of junk food onto dollies. One of the dollies is piled halfway to the ceiling, and a gray-haired inmate in his 50s slowly steers it down a gleaming hallway. One sudden move would send the whole teetering stack crashing down.
Turning a corner, the inmate gently pivots the load, peering around the boxes to see who might be in his way. Which is when he sees the sheriff striding toward him, surrounded by a security detail, some in uniform, some in civilian clothes. Hill himself is in a suit. He’s talking and doesn’t seem to realize that the pile of boxes is headed for him. He’s not slowing down.
Not long after taking office, Hill implemented a “boot camp” philosophy at the Clayton County jail. Among other things, it requires that an inmate drop what he’s doing when he sees the sheriff, hurry to the nearest wall, face-first, and clasp his hands behind his back. Failure to follow the directions leads to punishments, such as loss of TV and phone privileges. But what’s an inmate to do if by following regulations he spills a dozen Frito-Lay boxes on the sheriff? Still, rules are rules.
“Sheriff on DECK!” the inmate shouts, dropping the dolly handle and eating the wall.
The dolly stops, but the boxes don’t. Just as they’re about to topple forward, one of Hill’s escorts, who has canned hams for biceps, rushes up and steadies them. Hill walks on, still talking. “What you’re getting ready to walk through is the cleanest jail in Georgia. There is no jail cleaner than my jail.” In the two days that I spend with Hill, he’ll often refer to the jail as “my” jail, his use of the possessive almost a subconscious reminder to those around him—and perhaps to himself—that the jail is Hill’s responsibility and woe to him who thinks otherwise.
To become a sheriff in Georgia, there are really only two requirements: Don’t have a criminal record, and win the most votes. Newly elected sheriffs must attend four weeks of training before they’re sworn in, but beyond that, a sheriff can take office without ever having investigated a murder, tackled a suspect or written a speeding ticket. Still, the sheriff is—constitutionally speaking, anyway—the top law enforcement officer in every one of Georgia’s 159 counties. Purists say leaving such a decision in the hands of voters is what democracy is all about. Cynics say that’s crazy. Which is probably why, in about a dozen Georgia counties, most of them in metro Atlanta, sheriffs have been relegated to caretakers—sheriff’s deputies house the prisoners, secure the courts and serve warrants. The business of fighting crime, in the traditional sense, is left largely to county and municipal police forces.
This gnaws at Hill, who has wanted to be a cop ever since he was a boy flashing a toy badge around in Charleston, South Carolina. “My favorite thing as a kid was to play cops and robbers. People pretty much know what they’re gonna do when they’re children. I had a friend who played with Army men, and he pursued a career in the military. There were these other kids and they’d pick on children, take people’s lunch money. They grew up to be drug dealers, armed robbers, murderers. What we play as kids, ultimately, we end up playing on the stage of life for real.”
Hill was raised by his mother and grandmother, two God-fearing women who encouraged his love of police, comic books and martial arts. At 41, those interests are as strong as ever, as one look around his office will attest. Staring down from the walls are paintings of Old West lawmen, including Bass Reeves, a black deputy marshal who, in the late 19th century, killed 14 fugitives and even arrested his own son on a murder warrant. Hill himself doesn’t have children—he’s single—but if he did, they’d probably ask their dad to unsheathe the samurai swords that sit on his bookcase, or play with the 3-foot-high Batman replica that stands like a sentry atop a table behind his chair. Hill tends to slide down low in his high-backed leather chair, so when you’re talking to him across his desk, it’s sometimes easier to make eye contact with Batman than with the sheriff. It occurs to me that this may be intentional.
A sheriff who loves Batman. Who paints his name on his department squad cars. Who takes fact-finding missions to Scotland Yard. Who wears a dime-sized sheriff star on his lapel. Who reads Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and quotes ancient proverbs like “Tie two birds together yet with four wings they cannot fly.” Whose favorite award is a plaque from his employees with the words “Crime Fighter, Defender of Justice” engraved over a Batman logo. Yes, Victor Hill is an easy target. His unorthodox methods, combined with an almost unnerving enthusiasm for the job, have his detractors wondering whether Hill might be the best argument yet that the office of sheriff has become, at best, an embarrassing anachronism and, at worst, a dangerous liability. Even those whose job it is to defend the institution find it hard to muster support for Hill. When I called the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, Terry Norris, executive vice president, refused to discuss Hill, issuing only a “no comment.” But as unpopular as he is in some quarters, Hill has solidified a base of support among the voters of Clayton County. Being sheriff has not only given Hill a jail and hundreds of deputies, but also a bully pulpit behind which he is right at home. Says Thomas Brown, the DeKalb County sheriff who was inspired to emulate Hill’s boot camp approach at his own jail, “He’s a young man, and he’s got a lot of spit and vinegar.”
Speaking of vinegar, our first stop on the jail tour is the kitchen, where aides hold the doors open as shouts of “Sheriff on deck!” bounce off the industrial refrigerators and stainless-steel sinks. About 20 inmates in jail overalls scurry to various walls and assume the position.
“Most jails remind me of a zoo,” Hill says. “That’s the way this jail was when I became sheriff and I walked in—people yellin’, screamin’, shootin’ the birdie.” On Hill’s first day in office (presumably after he let those 27 employees go), he gave an order: Make the jail a boot camp. It didn’t happen overnight, of course, but it did take only 37 days. “We didn’t beat anybody upside the head,” he says. “We didn’t electrocute anybody. We just thought outside the box.”
“Outside the box” is one of Hill’s favorite expressions. When he won the election for sheriff, his hope was to bring in a team of fresh thinkers—“a crackerjack group of mavericks,” he calls them—and clean out the deadwood. Only then would the jail truly be his, and not fettered to the legacy of his predecessors. But since the firings, the courts have ruled against Hill, saying the employees were protected by civil service. Hill was forced to reinstate them, and even to get a judge’s approval for certain personnel changes. It’s the kind of meddling Hill didn’t bargain for, and in a few days, he’ll be back in court, answering charges that he’s retaliated against those very employees. Despite all this, he’s in a good mood. Hill is nothing if not an optimist, and he sees the impediments before him as validation that he’s on the right path, that he’s moving ahead with the mission. The mission, he explains, is simple: to become the single best law enforcement agency not only in the country, but the world. And that mission can only be achieved by thinking outside the box.
As an illustration, he points to a cafeteria tray, which is being held up for examination by an employee of Aramark, the company that contracts with the jail to prepare meals. On top of the tray sits what appears to be a brown turd, wrapped in clear plastic. “This is Nutraloaf,” Hill says, looking at the turd, then at me, then back at the turd.
This, I find out later, is how you make Nutraloaf: Take some powdered milk, grated potato, tomato juice, raw cabbage, ground turkey, lard, onion, dry beans, an egg and some chili powder. Shape into a loaf. Bake at 350 degrees for an hour. Serve to incorrigible inmates three times daily, with water. Wait for inmate rehabilitation. This is Nutraloaf. Outside the box.
I ask Hill if he’s ever tried Nutraloaf. He nods. “It didn’t taste that bad to me, but I’ve tasted better.” He laughs.
“At ease, gentlemen,” Hill calls out, and the inmates come unglued from the walls.
When Victor Hill was 14, a friend of his in Charleston was dragged into the woods, sexually assaulted, mutilated and strangled. The killer was caught, thanks in part to the persistent work of a Charleston homicide detective. Looking back, Hill sees the ordeal as his Batman moment—a tragic instant that transformed him, Bruce Wayne– like, into a crime fighter. “I’ll never forget how terrorized our neighborhood was,” he says. “Even though I’d always wanted to be a policeman, I think that’s when Victor Hill was born.”
Hill was still a teenager when he was hired as a cadet with the Charleston Police Department in 1983. From there, he moved to other departments in the Charleston area, until he was fired from the local sheriff’s office in 1990. Hill was accused of running a stop sign while on duty. He doesn’t deny that it happened but says he did it because he was following another deputy to the courthouse. No matter what the circumstances, the incident is emblematic of Hill’s career in law enforcement, which found him frequently butting heads with his superiors. It’s an attitude that can be fatal to a young officer’s career aspirations. In Hill’s case, he found his prospects weren’t keeping pace with his ambitions.
In 1991, Hill moved to Georgia, where he wound up on the Clayton County police force, eventually rising to detective. At the time, Terry Baskin was a cop whose beat in southeast Atlanta meant he occasionally crossed paths with Hill. “He was always energetic, always outspoken,” says Baskin, who is now Clayton County’s tax commissioner. “Victor was—how can I say?—a go-getter. He was like the young officer who comes out of the academy, ready to clean up the streets.”
Hill was also, when the situation demanded it, a hostage negotiator. He took easily to negotiating, he explains, thanks in part to his martial arts training. “What martial arts is really about is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. A true practitioner is trying to achieve a state of mind where earthquakes don’t shake you and storms don’t move you. When you get to that state of mind, you have a different aura about yourself. It’s hard to get into a fight. Because you have so much inner peace that it’s hard to get into conflict with anyone.”
Hill’s equanimity with suspects seems to desert him when he’s dealing with superiors, politicians or Clayton County power-brokers. Right after Hill won the sheriff’s election in 2004, his boss at the Clayton County Police Department, Chief Darryl Partain, transferred him from the homicide division to the pawnshop unit, a desk job that Hill felt was beneath him. Instead of riding out his last months before taking office, he quit. But it was the way he quit: Hill locked his badge and gun in the trunk of his department vehicle and left it in the chief’s parking spot. “When I resigned, I did it colorful,” Hill says. “That’s part of my personality.”
And then there’s Eldrin Bell.
“I learned early that if you want to get somewhere, try to expose yourself to as many people as possible who’ve already been there,” Hill says. So, in 1998, when his day job was still county police detective but his aspirations were much higher, Hill became Bell’s driver.
For Hill, an ambitious cop who wanted to skip a few rungs on his climb up the ladder, Bell was the mentor he was looking for. When Bell took on Hill as his driver, Bell was running for chairman of the Fulton County Commission. It was his second try, and he had long ago acquired many of the traits that Hill still lacked—one of which was name recognition. Everyone in Atlanta had heard of Eldrin Bell. He was the cop’s cop, the one who had little patience for bureaucrats, who stepped on toes, who got results. In the late 1980s, when Bell commanded the notorious Zone 3 district, an area of South Atlanta plagued with shootings and drug trafficking, residents were ready to put his face on a coin. In 1987, the AJC asked Louise Watley, president of the Carver Homes Tenants Association, what she thought of Bell: “He’s out there in the streets at all hours of the night. He’s out there walking in dark alleys at 2 or 3 in the morning, talking to people.”
For a cop, Bell was not a big man (5-foot-8, he says, although age may have shrunk him a bit), and his diminutive size belied his fierceness. One urban legend, perhaps apocryphal, had Bell summoning an ambulance minutes before taking down a barroom full of thugs with nothing but an ax handle. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bell was a lightning rod for trouble, investigated numerous times over the years for ethical lapses, although never charged. Most infamously, he was among the crowd at a restaurant in 1985 that was the subject of an FBI drug sting. Although never named in the sting, Bell was, within days, demoted three ranks, from deputy chief to lieutenant. (Bell sued to be reinstated, precisely what Hill’s fired employees would do 20 years later in Clayton County.) Indeed, Bell’s 33-year career with the Atlanta Police Department would put him in every rank at one time or another, but his career trajectory more closely resembled a yo-yo than a ladder.
By 1998, though, Bell had mellowed. Retired four years from the police department, Bell wanted to see if his popular support extended beyond Atlanta into Fulton County at large. His campaign took him from Alpharetta to College Park, and driving him to almost every stop was Victor Hill, the hungry detective from Clayton County. Did Bell look at him and see a younger version of himself? Maybe. In any case, Hill appreciated having a mentor with whom he could discuss his own political aspirations. Those aspirations were simple, really: Become sheriff.
Hill’s timing was perfect. In 1990, whites outnumbered blacks in Clayton County by three to one. Within a dozen years, the balance had shifted; African-Americans outnumbered whites, and the racial make-up of the county’s political leadership was starting to reflect that change. Blacks, for so long shut out of Clayton County electoral politics, finally had demographics on their side.
In 2002, Hill ran for state representative and won in a run-off. He came to the General Assembly as a neophyte, and Ron Dodson, a veteran state representative from Lake City, sought to welcome him to the Gold Dome for the 2003 legislative session. “I sat next to him, tried to help him, tried to be his friend,” Dodson says. “To some degree, he accepted that. But he had his own agenda.”
Hill calls his two-year stint as a state rep “basically transitional” as he readied for a run at the job he really wanted. To Dodson, it reeked of opportunism. “You can’t serve two years in the General Assembly and get anything done. It takes two years to even realize the process down there. I’ve been eight years and, even this year, I still learned a few things. Anyone who serves two years and then moves on isn’t serving the people.”
Hill would argue otherwise. His most significant piece of legislation, as it turned out, was a bill that would have allowed voters to decide every four years whether their county police department should be taken over by—you guessed it—the sheriff’s department. Hill believes the people should determine whether there’s one countywide law enforcement agency or two. Consolidation, he says, is the key to efficiency and effectiveness.
“Why should we have two law enforcement services?” Has it been more effective with two? No, Hill says. “We’re not getting double the results. We have the highest murder rate in the state now!”
A sheriff, on the other hand, that’s the answer, according to Hill. A sheriff answers to the people, doesn’t have to worry about jurisdiction issues and, if he screws up, can be voted out of office (or, if he really screws up, can be recalled from office or booted by the governor.)
But Hill’s legislation went nowhere, and in 2004, sniffing the prevailing political winds, he concluded that incumbent Clayton Sheriff Stanley Tuggle, who is white, was vulnerable. The 2004 elections were historic in Clayton County. The “Old Guard” was sent packing. Bob Keller, a white politician who, until then had been the longest-serving district attorney in the state, was trounced by Jewel Scott, a young black attorney with little experience whose husband, Lee Scott, was ready to exploit the demographic shift in the county to his wife’s advantage. Scott’s influence transcended the district attorney’s race; he lent his support to contests countywide, including Hill’s. One person Scott didn’t choose to help was Eldrin Bell, who, after losing the chairman race in Fulton County, was running for the chairman’s seat in Clayton. Some in Clayton County saw Bell as a carpetbagger. Then again, so was Scott. Then again, so was Hill.
On Election Day, Clayton County voters elected their first black-majority county commission. Their first black tax commissioner. And their first black sheriff. Victor Hill, whose career with the county police had stalled, was now the top cop in Clayton County. It was a triumphant night, and Hill and Bell had reason to celebrate together. But by then, they couldn’t stand each other.
A few weeks after my jail tour, I’m sitting across a table from Hill at the Golden Corral on Tara Boulevard. He’d invited me to join him for an afternoon patrol, but first he needed to grab lunch. Joining us is Sergeant Lawrence Ethridge, a former corrections officer who’s known Hill for 14 years and is now his driver and bodyguard. Ethridge is just slightly shorter, and probably only somewhat weaker, than an oak tree, and he is also very funny in an understated way. He is fiercely loyal to Hill, who, in turn, trusts Ethridge with his life.
One of the reasons Hill deployed sharpshooters on the day he fired the 27 employees was as a precaution: in 2000, just days before he was to take office, Derwin Brown, the DeKalb sheriff-elect, was gunned down in his driveway.
“My orders [to the sharpshooters] were specific: ‘Do not brandish any weapons up there and do not let anyone see you. If you see something happening, notify me so we can make a decision about what to do.’ The way the papers were written, you’d imagine somebody was up there looking through the scope of their rifle. That did not happen. I wanted them there strategically so in case two things happened—if somebody went to a car and got a weapon out or somebody tried to re-enter back through the front door. The last sheriff to tell people they weren’t coming back to work got killed in his front yard. I wasn’t gonna let history repeat itself.”
Hill’s only regret was that he didn’t alert the media himself right away. Instead, he says, an exaggerated story hit the papers, fanned in part by Harlan Miller, the attorney for the fired employees. “I guess he knew if he told the truth, y’all wouldn’t be interested. So he put out there that there were armed men standing and pointing guns and that people were forced into transport vans. It just never occurred. At the end of the day, when the truth is reported, there’s not much to the story.”
That may be a bit of an understatement. Nationwide coverage notwithstanding, the dismissals prompted several lawsuits, including one discrimination case that is still making its way through federal court and could end up costing county taxpayers millions of dollars.
“If this goes to trial, I’ll have more ammunition than I know how to deal with,” Miller says when I talk to him by phone. “What I want to see is a considerable financial recovery to compensate the people he’s completely abused. . . . It’s my view and the view of many that the man is not acting rationally. He feels no one tells him what to do and he’s free to disregard whatever laws are on the books that he doesn’t like.”
Still, Miller’s various descriptions of Hill—“villainous,” “petty tyrant,” “this idiot”—don’t seem to jibe with the guy who’s squeezing globs of ketchup onto his potatoes and talking excitedly about crime mapping and installing digital cameras in high-crime neighborhoods. Before we leave, Hill, ever the campaigner, shakes some hands and takes down the number of a Golden Corral worker who’s having trouble with her housing inspection. Who says the sheriff is just about the jail?
Not long before Hill took office in January 2005, the county commission voted to move a crime scene investigation and a narcotics unit from the purview of the sheriff to the county police. The county said it was a way to avoid duplicating efforts; Hill saw it as retribution for his victory. “The Old Guard did not want to give that office [of sheriff] up. They were determined to stop me from running, and when they couldn’t stop me from running, they were determined to stop me from winning. And when they couldn’t stop me from winning, they were determined to take everything from the office they possibly could just because I won.” The net effect was that Hill saw his influence as sheriff diminish even before he took office. But since then, he’s created various units and beefed up others, extending his reach beyond the jails and the courts, and, consequently, sticking his nose where many say it doesn’t belong.
For instance, there’s the SCCIP unit (called “skip”). Short for Sheriff’s Clean Community Initiative Program, SCCIP refers to the handful of inmates that Hill dispatches around the county to clean graffiti and pick up garbage.
As we pull back onto Tara Boulevard after lunch, Hill points to a median with knee-high grass. “It’s the county commission’s responsibility to keep the grass cut. And, as you can see, the grass is not cut. But knowing I got that inmate labor, knowing I can go and clean up some of that stuff, we’ll do it. If you let a community start to look trashy or full of graffiti, you’re telling the criminals, ‘We don’t care; move in here and take over.’ Because if the graffiti stays up, they won.”
The SCCIP unit isn’t the sheriff’s only extracurricular activity. There’s also the SORT unit (short for Sex Offender Registration and Tracking), which keeps tabs on sexual predators. Then there’s the stalking unit, which purports to “stalk the stalkers” by following violators and catching them in the act. There’s also Scared Straight, a fugitive unit, and an eight-men-strong Cobra unit targeting drug dealers and street crime. And, for good measure, there’s also a department-wide choir, called the Sheriff’s Voices of Praise.
Victor Hill is clearly about more than minding the jail and securing the courts, and he makes no apologies for it. “We’re supposed to be handling everything anyway,” Hill says, as he turns off Tara Boulevard in his unmarked Crown Victoria. “The sheriff’s office existed, not just in this county but in this country, before anyone knew what the word ‘police’ meant. We were the original law enforcement. We were chasing bad guys longer than anybody in this country.”
He pulls down a side street off Gardenwalk Boulevard, a tree-lined stretch of apartment complexes. The street dead ends, and at the end of the pavement, it looks like someone has left behind their living room set. Couches are overturned; old pallets are rain-soaked; trash is strewn everywhere.
Hill dials his office and explains where the mess is. “If you would, bring the inmates back here and clean that up for me,” he says into the phone. “Okay? ’Preciate it.” He hangs up. “When you let stuff like this stay, it sends a bad message. Next thing you look you got crackheads sittin’ out here like it’s a place to hang out, smokin’ weed, doin’ whatever. It shows you’re just giving your community over to those type of folks.”
During our afternoon rounds, Hill checks in on a convenience store owner; takes a call from Fulton County Sheriff Myron Freeman, who’s looking for empty jail space; helps a motorist who’s run out of gas; and stands, shaking his head, outside a spa with yellowed Venetian blinds covering the windows.
“I busted this place when I was a cop,” he says. “This is the type of stuff I’m talking about that’s reflective of the leadership in this county. If you’re chairman and you know you’ve got houses of prostitution, why are they still here? I’m determined by the end of my first term to start shutting these places down. We’ve got a county where people feel if they want to go and get a prostitute, this is a safe haven. It’s ridiculous.” Within minutes, he’s accelerated his schedule for shutting down the spas: “In about the next three months, you’re going to see me attack this problem.”
Hill’s efforts to expand the duties of the sheriff’s department have been well-timed, as the county police force has been catching flak for being insufficiently responsive. As a result, Hill is winning hearts and minds—at least at the street level. “When somebody’s house gets broken into, they want somebody to respond. They don’t care who pulls up,” says Wole Ralph, the 28-year-old Clayton County commissioner who won his seat the same year as Hill. “The county police is underpaid, underfunded and undermanned. That’s an issue. And Victor responds quickly. He gets a call about drugs, he sends a Cobra unit out. People take comfort in that.”
Roberta Abdul-Salaam, who succeeded Hill in the General Assembly, says, “When we had a missing children’s case, I could not get the Clayton County police to even return my calls. When I called Sheriff Hill, 15 minutes later his Cobra unit was on the street knocking on doors, looking for these children.”
But some cops outside the sheriff’s department are not convinced. Lou Arcangeli, a retired deputy police chief who worked alongside Bell in the APD for years, says the drug sweeps by Hill’s Cobra units are overhyped. “That’s low-hanging fruit,” he says. “That’s not long-term community problem solving. It’s Band-Aids and window dressing. It allows him to grandstand as opposed to working toward any kind of substantive change.”
Hill sees the 2004 elections (in which he won almost twice as many votes as Tuggle, the incumbent) as a mandate that will only be strengthened this fall. With a new commission, he says, he can begin implementing his plan—to hire more deputies to staff a wing of the jail that is shuttered because of a lack of manpower, add 22 officers to his Cobra unit, install a crime mapping program and, oh yeah, fold the county police department into his office. But even if 2006 doesn’t give him the commission he wants, he’s patient. “It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when,” he says. “Just like it wasn’t a question of if I became sheriff, but when.” Given his ambitions, it’s natural to wonder how long Hill will be satisfied as sheriff. But he doesn’t hesitate. “Just 20 years and I’m outta here,” he says with a bark of a laugh. “There is no job that’s better. People say, ‘What about Congress?’ You gotta understand, this is what I’ve always wanted to do. . . . This jail is going to become a model for the nation. To take it to that level, to take it to another height, to restore the sheriff’s office to its original jurisdiction, that’s gonna be quite a feat in itself. So this is it. This is what I want to do.”
It’s the last day of May, and Victor Hill is, as usual, impeccably dressed—a navy-blue suit, cuffed pants, black shoes of shiny leather, a pocket square folded precisely into four points. He is sitting on one of the pine benches in the waiting area, a cavernous space of granite walls and plush red carpeting. The sunglasses perched on his forehead reflect the soft gleam from light fixtures that, from high above, give the 21st floor of the Richard B. Russell federal building the air of an expensive restaurant with no tables. One by one, spectators file past Hill into the adjacent courtroom, where he is the guest of honor.
In April 2005, Hill signed a consent order requiring him to run certain personnel changes by Thomas Thrash, a federal judge. Hill’s done that . . . to a point. For instance, he moved two employees—a pair of lieutenants who, together, have 38 years of experience in the sheriff’s department—to the previously unmanned courthouse atrium, where they would spend half their shifts working security. The employees saw it as retaliation. Their attorney, Harlan Miller, will argue before Thrash today that Hill should be held in contempt of court. Walking past Hill, the plaintiffs ignore him as they enter the courtroom. Hill, though, is affable as ever, soundbites at the ready. “It’s the policy of my administration to not settle frivolous lawsuits,” he tells me.
One spectator who passes quietly is Eldrin Bell. Bell has been among the most vocal supporters of the 27 employees Hill fired in January 2005. But the squabbles between the two men transcend the firings. In the past 18 months, Bell has proposed forming a marshal’s service to take courthouse security from Hill-which is like telling the Secret Service they can’t protect the president. And Bell got attorneys involved when Hill took down a plaque at the jail honoring the commission. (He later put it back up on a “Wall of Honor.”) And when Hill offered up an old vacant jail as temporary housing for Katrina victims, Bell said the sheriff lacked the authority to make such an offer.
And on and on. People who know both men, such as Valencia Seay, a state senator from Clayton County, compare it to a father/son relationship gone sour. “I tend to put it as a grown man growing up and the father doesn’t see him as a grown person,” Seay says. “You had this vertical relationship and then when you become equal, it becomes horizontal. And it’s hard to get horizontal when it’s always been vertical.”
Hill is by turns charitable and cutting when discussing Bell. “At one point, he was the grandfather I never had.” But, Hill says, his exposure to Bell also gave him exposure to Bell’s acquaintances, some of whom Hill calls unsavory. “You know the kung fu movies? There’s the student and the master; then one day the student wakes up and finds his teacher’s evil, and he has to fight the teacher.” Hill laughs at the analogy, and even offers a Biblical one. “When David first became king, there was the house of David and the house of Saul. It was like a two-year civil war before it finally united under David. It’s history repeating itself. Anytime you try to effect change, and you’re a reformer —and I consider myself a reformer —you’re gonna step on toes. That’s all part of it.”
So what soured their relationship? Hill says it was simple: Bell asked him to wait another four years to run for sheriff, but Hill didn’t want to. I’m eager to hear Bell’s take on all this, but when I buttonhole him during a break in the proceedings, he’s friendly but clearly not interested in talking. “People have tried to make this personal, but it’s about the legal issues,” he says. And that’s that.
The contempt hearing itself is, like most court proceedings, colossally boring, with each witness describing his responsibilities before Hill took office and how they changed after Hill was sworn in. There’s testimony about typing up files, sending e-mails and eating lunch. There are semantic arguments about whether “adding” duties to someone’s job amounts to “changing” their duties. At one point, Ethridge mumbles that he’d like some oxygen. As the hearing drags from morning to late afternoon, even the attorneys seem to feel the effects. “Stick around,” one of them jokes during a break. “Next we’re gonna talk about where the Coke machines are.”
With each witness, Miller tries to add color and shading to his portrait of Hill as a vindictive and capricious leader. Major Larry Bartlett, a 29-year veteran, testifies that he was disciplined for failing to write up underlings who spoke critically of the sheriff at a Board of Commissioners meeting. Lieutenant David Ward, a 28-year veteran whose job was to act as a sort of clearing house for homeland security intelligence, testifies that Hill moved him to stand guard in the courthouse atrium. “They could fill that position with someone who makes one-third my salary,” Ward says.
With Hill in the witness box, Miller brings up the consent order. “You don’t like that, do you?” Miller asks.
“No, I love it,” Hill responds. “We consented to the order, and we’re very satisfied with the courts overseeing that.”
It must kill him to say that. The fact is, Hill’s administration has been hamstrung ever since he fired 27 people on his first day in office. For a man who has spent his life dreaming of the title of sheriff, having his decisions second-guessed by a judge must be a galling insult. And yet both on the stand and off-Hill seems at peace. Even when Thrash rules finally that Hill has shown a “willful violation of the consent order” by not seeking the judge’s approval first in a few personnel decisions. Even when the judge calls the ongoing litigation a “disaster for Clayton County, the Clayton County sheriff’s office and the public interest.” Even when Hill is threatened with a $4,000 fine-to be paid out of his own pocket-if he violates the consent order again. And even later, when Hill is in the elevator proclaiming that “all great commanders will lose more battles than they win in order to get a decisive victory.” Even when he’s walking through the lobby, past the security guards who shake his hand and smile and call him by name. Even when he’s walking with his aides to his black Ford Excursion, and they’re unlocking their service pistols from the back, and Hill’s re-holstering his 40-caliber Glock. And even when he’s driving away, back home to Clayton County, where, no matter what anybody says, he’s still sheriff.