Transcript

240:

I'm In Charge Now
Transcript

Originally aired 06.20.2003

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/240

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Alex Meyer wants my job. He's 16, and he wants my job. But nobody is going to give him my job, or really any job in radio. And so last year he decided to create his own radio show as a high school freshman in Seattle. And he did it with the kind of devotion and attention to detail of a true believer. It's kind of an amazing show actually, starting with the opening, which he lifted from one of his radio heroes, Tom Leykis, who does a syndicated show out of Los Angeles.

Alex Meyer

I was pretty much ripping off Leykis, because at the top of every hour he plays Metallica, "Enter Sandman." And he has this big thing. They're all saying, "Live from Los Angeles, it's the Tom Leykis Show." And he's like "Thank you for tuning into the Tom Leykis show. It's not hosted by a right wing wacko, a convicted felon. No, I'm your host." Blah, blah, blah, blah. And gives out the numbers and everything. So I was like, I want something like that.

Ira Glass

Yeah that sounds good.

Alex Meyer

I want my big thing. "Hey everybody. It's The Alex Meyer Show. 1-800-421-ALEX, toll-free. Yeah that's free. 1-800-421-2539--" Actually, if you call that number, it's AT&T. And I think they ask you if you want it in Spanish. In Seattle, a lot of the radio station numbers start with 421. That's something I noticed. And put 421, put ALEX, 1-800. Oh, sounds good.

Ira Glass

Now sometimes you have your friend Matt come on and--

Alex Meyer

Yeah, my quote, "producer." I gave him that title, because I needed a producer character to pretty much yell at. Because you hear that a lot on the radio here, dysfunctional radio shows. So I figured, wow. He's pretty much just a character.

"Well we have Matt the producer here to talk to you about this actually. This is Matt's area of expertise. It's something that happened to him. His ex-girlfriend pretty much wanted him for the dance. It almost seems like--

Matt

That's what it seems like.

Alex Meyer

She used him for the dance.

Matt

That's what it seems like.

Alex Meyer

And I'll tell you something. A while ago, she asked me to the next dance.

Matt

Wow.

Alex Meyer

And see, I never really wanted to go with her. First I told her I was building houses for poor people in Mexico, and therefore would not be able to make it.

Ira Glass

What's remarkable is that even though Alex is making the show in his room on his dad's discarded cassette recorder, and even though the show never actually broadcasts anywhere, it sounds like a real commercial radio talk show. The pacing, the fact that Alex is closer to the mic than any of his guests so he sounds clearer and louder. He has phone callers, though of course, since he's not broadcasting, Alex plays those himself.

Alex Meyer

And I have Dan from Eugene.

Ira Glass

Dan is an irritating character.

Alex Meyer

Yeah, I had to have the guy who hated me. And he's that character.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Alex Meyer

So every time he calls, I'm, Alex, I hate your show. You suck. This is Dan from Eugene.

Ira Glass

I love how part of the formula of having a fantasy radio show is that you have a fantasy person who hates your guts.

Alex Meyer

Well, it's kind of fun being someone that hates you though. It is kind of fun.

Ira Glass

To make it sound as real as possible, Alex uses real commercials that he tapes off the radio. Sometimes he and Matt pretend to have a seven second delay, like Howard Stern and the other big shows use. And someone has said a bad word, so what you hear is this sudden gap and jump in content, though of course, it's just a cassette in his bedroom. It's not a real broadcast. And like any modern ambitious talk show host, there are right wing rants. That's just part of the formula.

Alex Meyer

You know what makes no sense at all.

Matt

A dollar bill--

Alex Meyer

For me to pass high school, according to the state, I need to learn Spanish. Yet--

Matt

Or any foreign language.

Alex Meyer

Wait, wait. But yet, foreigners working in 7-Elevens don't have to know a god damn word of English.

Matt

No they don't.

Alex Meyer

What sense does that make? For me to live in this country, I have to learn a foreign language. They don't have to learn anything.

Ira Glass

I wondered if you're more like a real radio personality or shock jock, where that's a thought that, actually, you only half believe that. But your views aren't quite as extreme as you're saying in the recording.

Alex Meyer

Yeah pretty much. I mean it's more of an shtick thing, I guess.

Ira Glass

Alex distributes his show by copying it onto CDs for friends at school. Big ratings for him, he says, are when he gets an audience of six, six people. But frankly, having people listen doesn't seem to be the important part of it to him. He's in training. No one seems to be interested giving a 16 year old a job in radio or a place to learn. So he created his own place where he's learning, honing his skills, preparing for the future, which brings me to the subject of today's radio show.

Today on our program, we bring you three stories of people who take on unlikely tasks, put themselves in charge in very unpromising circumstances. And we see what happens to them as a result. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. Act One of today's show, It's Not Just the Aces That Are Wild. In that act, David Sedaris tells the story of how as a teenager he was scared of certain people until he made them scared of him.

Act Two, Playing Clinton in the Bush Leagues, in which we bring you the story of a politician with tons of charisma, full of promise, who goes through the fastest rise and fall we have ever heard of in politics. Act Three, You Talking to Me? Yes, we all know we Americans declared ourselves the rulers of Iraq for now. So why is one of the most popular rumors in the country that Saddam Hussein is not only alive, but living in the White House? Stay with us.

Act One. It's Not Just The Aces That Are Wild.

Ira Glass

And let's get right to it with Act One. Here's writer David Sedaris, recorded in front of a live audience in Boston.

David Sedaris

My parents were not the type of people who went to bed at a regular hour. Sleep overtook them, but neither the time nor the idea of a mattress seemed very important. My father favored a chair in the basement, but my mother was apt to lie down anywhere, waking with carpet burns on her face or the pattern of the sofa embossed into the soft flesh of her upper arms. It was sort of embarrassing. She might sleep for eight hours a day. But they were never consecutive hours, and they involved no separate outfit.

For Christmas, we would give her nightgowns, hoping she might take the hint. They're for bedtime, we'd say. Then she'd look at us strangely as if, like the moment of one's death, the occasion of sleep was too incalculable for any real preparation.

The upswing to being raised by what were essentially a pair of house cats was that we never had any enforced bedtime. We were the family that never shut down, the family whose TV was so hot we needed an oven mitt in order to change the channels. Every night was basically a slumber party. So when the real thing came along, my sisters and I failed to show much of an interest.

The first one I attended was held by a neighbor named Walt Winters. Like myself, Walt was in the sixth grade. Unlike myself, he was gregarious and athletic, which meant basically that we had absolutely nothing in common. "But why would he include me?" I asked my mother. "I hardly know the guy." She did not say that Walt's mother had made him invite me, but on watching her turn away, I knew that this was the only likely explanation. "Oh go," she said, "it'll be fun."

There were four styles of houses on our street, and while Walt's was different from my own, I was familiar with the layout. The slumber party took place in what the Methodists called the family room, the Catholics used as an extra bedroom, and the neighborhood's only Jews had turned into a combination dark room and fallout shelter. Walt's family was Methodist, and so the room's focal point was a large black and white television. Family photos hung on the wall alongside pictures of the various athletes Mr. Winters had successfully pestered for autographs.

I admired them to the best of my ability but was more interested in the wedding portrait displayed above the sofa. Arm in arm with her uniformed husband, Walt's mother looked deliriously, almost frighteningly happy. The bulging eyes and fierce, gummy smile. It was an expression bordering on hysteria, and the intervening years had done nothing to dampen it. On passing Mrs. Winters waving gaily from her front yard, my mother would whisper, "What is she on?" I thought she was being too hard on her, but after 10 minutes in the woman's home, I understood exactly what my mother was talking about.

"Pizza's here," she chimed when the delivery man came to the door. "Oh boys, how about some piping hot pizza?" I thought it was funny that anyone would use the words piping hot. But it wasn't the kind of thing I felt I could actually laugh at. Neither could I laugh at Mr. Winters' pathetic imitation of an Italian waiter. "Mamma Mia, who want another slice of the pizza?"

I had the idea that adults were supposed to make themselves scarce at slumber parties. But Walt's parents were all over the place, initiating games, offering snacks and refills. When the midnight horror movie came on, Walt's mother crept into the bathroom, leaving a ketchup-spattered knife beside the sink. An hour passed, and when none of us had yet discovered it, she started dropping little hints. "Doesn't anyone want to wash their hands?" she asked. "Will whoever is closest to the door go check and see if I left fresh towels in the bathroom?" You just wanted to cry for people like her.

As corny as they were, I was sorry when the movie ended and Mr. And Mrs. Winters stood to leave. It was only 2:00 AM, but clearly they were done in. "I just don't know how you boys can do it," Walt's mother said, yawning into the sleeve of her bathrobe. "I haven't been up this late since Lauren came into the world. Lauren was Walt's sister, who was born premature and had lived for less than two days.

This had happened before the Winters moved onto our street, but it wasn't any kind of a secret. And you weren't supposed to flinch upon hearing the girl's name. The baby had died too early to pose for photographs, but still she was regarded as a full fledged member of the family. She had a Christmas stocking the size of a mitten. And they even threw her an annual birthday party, a fact my mother found especially creepy. "Let's hope they don't invite us," she said. "I mean Jesus, how do you shop for a dead baby?"

I guessed it was the fear of another premature birth that kept Mrs. Winters from trying again, which was sad, as you got the sense she really wanted a lively household. You got the sense she had an idea of a lively household, and that the slumber party and the ketchup-covered knife were all a part of that idea. While in her presence, we had played along. But once she said good night, I understood that all bets were off. She and her husband lumbered up the stairs. And when Walt felt certain they were asleep, he pounced on Dale Gummerson, shouting "Titty twister!" Brad Clancy joined in, and when they had finished, Dale raised his shirt, revealing nipples as crimped and ruddy as the pepperoni slices littering the forsaken pizza box.

"Oh my God," I said, realizing too late that this made me sound like a girl. The appropriate response was to laugh at Dale's misfortune, not to flutter your hands in front of your face, screeching, "What have they done to your poor nipples? Shouldn't we put some ice on them?"

Walt picked up on this immediately. "Did you just say you wanted to put ice on Dale's nipples?" "Well not me personally," I said. "I meant, you know, generally, as a group. Or Dale could do it himself if he felt like it."

Walt's eyes wandered from my face to my chest. And then the entire slumber party was upon me. My shirt was raised, a hand was clamped over my mouth, and Walt latched on to my nipples, twisting them back and forth as if they were a set of particularly stubborn lug nuts. "Now who needs ice?" he said. "Now who thinks he's a god damn school nurse?"

I'd once felt sorry for Walt, but now, my eyes watering in pain, I understood that little Lauren was smart to have cut out early.

When eventually I was freed, I went upstairs and stood at the kitchen window, my arms folded lightly against my chest. My house was located in a ravine. You couldn't see it from the street, but still I could make out the glow of light spilling from the top of our driveway. It was tempting, but were I to leave now, I'd never hear the end of it. The baby cried. The baby had to go home. Life at school would be unbearable.

And so I left the window and returned to the basement where Walt was shuffling cards against the coffee table. "Just in time," he said. "Have a seat." I lowered myself to the floor and reached for a magazine. "I'm not really much for games. So if it's OK with you, I think I'll just watch." "Watch hell," Walt said. "This is strip poker. What kind of a homo wants to sit around and watch four guys get naked?"

The logic of this was lost on me. "Well won't we all sort of be watching?" "Looking maybe, but not watching," Walt said. "There's a difference." Again, I had no idea what he was talking about. Walt made a twisting motion with his fingers, and I took my place at the table, praying for a gas leak or an electrical fire, anything to save me from the catastrophe of strip poker. To the rest of the group, a naked boy was like a lamp or an extension cord, something so familiar and uninteresting it faded into the background. But for me it was different. A naked boy was what I desired more than anything on earth. And when you were both watching and desiring, things came up, one thing, in particular, that was bound to stand out and ruin your life forever.

"I hate to tell you," I said, "but it's against my religion to play poker." "Yeah right," Walt said. "What are you Baptists?" "Greek Orthodox." "Well then that's a load of crap, because the Greeks invented cards," Walt said. "Actually, I think it was the Egyptians." This from Scott, who was quickly identifying himself as the smart one. "Greeks, Egyptians, they're all the same thing," Walt said. "Anyway, what your pooh-bah doesn't know won't hurt him. So shut the hell up and play."

He dealt the cards, and I looked from face to face, exaggerating flaws and reminding myself that these boys did not like me. The hope was that I might kill any surviving atom of attraction. But as has been the case for my entire life, the more someone dislikes me, the more attractive they become. The key was to stall, to argue every hand until the sun came up and Mrs. Winters saved me with whatever cheerful monstrosity she had planned for breakfast.

Usually when forced to compete, it was my tactic to simply give up. To try in any way was to announce your ambition, which only made you more vulnerable. Here though, surrender was not an option. I had to win in a game I knew nothing about. And that seemed hopeless until I realized we were all on an even keel. Not even Scott had the slightest idea what he was doing. And by feigning an air of expertise, I found I could manipulate things in my favor.

"A joker and a queen is much better than a four and five of spades," I said, defending my hand against Brad Clancy's. "But you have a joker and a three of diamonds." "Yeah, but the joker makes it a queen." "I thought you said that poker was against your religion," Walt said. "Well that doesn't mean I don't understand it. Greeks invented cards, remember? They're in my blood."

At the start of the game, the starburst clock had read 3:30. An hour later I was missing one shoe. Scott and Brad had lost their shirts. And both Walt and Dale were down to their underwear. If this was what winning felt like, I wondered why I hadn't tried it earlier. Confidently in the lead, I invented little reasons for the undressed to get up and move about the room. "Hey Walt, did you hear that? Sounded like your mother calling." "I didn't hear anything." "Well why don't you go to the stairway and check? We don't want any surprises." His underwear was all bunchy in the back, saggy like a diaper. But his legs were meaty and satisfying to look at.

"Dale, would you make sure those curtains are closed?" He crossed the room, and I ate him alive with my eyes, confident that no one would accuse me of gaping. Things might have been different were I in last place. But as the winner, it was my right to make sure that things were done properly. "There's a little gap down by the baseboard. Bend over and close it, will you?"

It took a while, but once I explained that a pair of kings was no match for the two of hearts and a three of spades, Walt surrendered his underpants and tossed them onto the pile beside the TV set. "OK," he said, "now the rest of you can finish the game." "But it is finished," Scott said. "Oh no," Walt said. "I'm not the only one getting naked. You guys have to keep playing." "While you what? Sit and watch?" I said. "What kind of a homo are you?" "Yeah," Dale said. "Why don't we do something else? This game's boring and the rules are impossible."

The others muttered their agreement. And when Walt refused to back down, I gathered the deck and tamped it commandingly upon the table top. "The only solution is for us all to keep playing." "Well how the hell do you expect me to do that?" Walt said. "In case you haven't noticed, there's nothing more for me to lose." "Oh," I said, "there's always more. Maybe if the weakest hand is already naked, we should make that person perform some kind of a task. Nothing big, but you know, just a token kind of a thing." "A think like what?" Walt asked. "I don't know. I guess we'll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it."

In retrospect, I probably went a little too far in ordering Scott to sit on my lap. "But I'm naked," he said. "Hey," I said, "I'm the one who's going to be suffering. I was just looking for something easy. Would you rather run outside and touch the mailbox? The sun will be coming up in about 20 seconds. You want the whole neighborhood to see you?" "How long will I have to sit on you?" He asked. "I don't know, a minute or two. Maybe five, or seven."

I moved on to the easy chair and wearily patted my knee as if this were a great sacrifice. Scott slid into place, and I considered our reflection in the darkened TV screen. Here I was, one naked guy on my lap and three others ready to do my bidding. It was the stuff of dreams until I remembered that they were not doing these things of their own accord. This was not their pleasure but their punishment. And once it was over, they would make it a point to avoid me. Rumors would spread that I had slipped something into their Cokes, that I had tried to French Brad Clancy, that I had stolen $5 from Wade's pocket. Not even Mrs. Winters would wave at me. But all that would come later in a different life.

For now, I would savor this poor imitation of tenderness, mapping Scott's shoulders, the small of his back, as he shuddered beneath my winning hand.

Ira Glass

David Sedaris is the author of Me Talk Pretty One Day and several other books.

[MUSIC - "ONE NIGHT OF SIN" BY ELVIS PRESLEY]

Act Two. Playing Clinton In The Bush Leagues.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Playing Clinton in the Bush Leagues. And now the story of another precocious upstart, a winner in this case, someone who people love so much that he went into politics and took on some of the trappings of a minor, very minor, demagogue in the small Texas town of Gun Barrel City. Katy Vine tells this cautionary tale.

Katy Vine

Tye Thomas was one of those kids who appeared destined for success, the one adults look at and say, that kid's going places. The kind of kid who'd buy bulk candy and lottery tickets and hawk them in his classes at a markup of 300%, 400%, sometimes 500%.

Tye Thomas

Now my best idea that I ever had was my dad used to carry me down to the local bar. It was called Captain John's in Gun Barrel City. They have in some Texas bars what they call a jukebox fund. And somebody will go around and collect $1 or $2 from everybody in the bar. And they go stick it in the jukebox. But what I would do is I would go around on a busy day, and collect $1 or $2 or $3 from everybody. And I was so young and cute then, people were just happy to give me the money. But what I'd do is I'd go put about $10 in the jukebox. And whatever was left over I'd stick in my pocket. That's just flat out stealing. However, I made a hell of a lot of money.

Katy Vine

The elements of most of Tye's stories are contained in this anecdote. He starts with a big idea. The big idea skirts the fine points of the law. Then he feels a little bit guilty about his actions. And he ignores it. When Tye was 15 years old, he founded a little six page newspaper, The Cedar Creek Briefs, which by the time he graduated, he had turned into a 24 page publication, mostly made up of ads. Before he went off to private college, he sold it for more money than his parents' combined income that year.

After college, he picked up where he left off. He bought the town newspaper, founded another one, and started buying up residential and commercial properties. Once he had his economic empire established, he started building his political empire. He decided to run for mayor. He launched a direct mail campaign. Every day after work, he went door to door asking people to vote for him. He even staffed a phone bank. For a town of 5,000, it was a well-oiled machine. Plus he was running as a reformer.

Mike Hannigan

When Tye Thomas came on the scene in Gun Barrel City as a political figure, Gun Barrel City was somewhat of a laughing stock.

Katy Vine

Mike Hannigan is the editor of the Cedar Creek Pilot, which had been the main competing newspaper to Tye's two newspapers.

Mike Hannigan

We had a city manager that one time came out and said someone had put a bomb under his car. And it ended up being a jug of gasoline. And this is a town that was coming off of watching our mayor kick in a door in City Hall on TV. And Tye Thomas looked like the kind of guy that would make that kind of stuff go away. He knew how to sell things. He knew how to sell himself. People believed that he would be able to sell Gun Barrel City. I mean he was a young guy, new ideas, good personality, had a great smile. Everybody liked him. How could this kid get us into trouble?

Katy Vine

On election day, Tye went down to City Hall, where the secretary had posted the results. He had won 67% of the vote, a landslide. He was 21 years old.

Tye Thomas

You know after three months of working for something, I felt like doing cartwheels in the parking lot. I felt like taking my clothes off and running down the highway naked. But I contained myself. I remember I wrote a journal entry the next morning, that next Sunday morning, May 7, And it felt so weird waking up on the couch-- because I sleep on the couch every night-- it felt so weird waking up on the couch knowing that I was now the mayor of my city.

Katy Vine

A lot of people can win an election. But to win an election in a landslide usually takes a certain kind of politician, one who motivates the community and one who also feeds off the affirmation of his people. Tye Thomas is one of those politicians.

Tye Thomas

The first three or four months after I was elected were I would have to say probably the greatest four months of my life, looking back. I was invited often to speak to groups to share my vision for the city. I received lots of positive press, lots of great publicity. The city was receiving wonderful publicity as a result of my winning the election. I was working on the promise that I would return the peace and the serenity to City Hall, which I didn't do. I actually probably made it worse.

Katy Vine

One of the things that makes Tye such a remarkable character is that he's so candid. His candor was refreshing, maybe even necessary, for success in a town whose motto was "we shoot you straight." But in politics, like in all sorts of careers, there are just some times you are better off keeping your mouth shut. Again, editor Mike Hannigan.

Mike Hannigan

I remember the time he went on a Dallas radio station for a win a date with the mayor contest, where they actually had women calling in and talking to Tye and Tye talking to them. And one of them got to have a date with Tye Thomas.

Katy Vine

So somebody did win a date?

Mike Hannigan

Oh, yeah.

Katy Vine

Were people in the community embarrassed, though, that he did that?

Mike Hannigan

People in the community were horrified. One of the best examples was he goes to a bar and admittedly-- in a newspaper article admits that he drank a little too much and didn't think he should be driving home. So the first thing he thought of was to call the police to give him a hand, call for a police escort home. And all this is not quite what the average person would think that the police was supposed to be doing. But Tye never gave it a second thought. I mean hey, he was in trouble. The police were there to serve. I'm Tye Thomas. Let me give them a call.

Katy Vine

There is more than one story like this about Tye stretching the boundaries of what was acceptable. They eventually led to a DA investigation. And on April 27, 2001, Tye was indicted by a grand jury on perjury charges, a Class A misdemeanor. He was accused of lying about his residency in the town on his application for mayor. Remember, Tye was the town hero. He had won in a landslide, which is maybe why he assumed the public would give him the benefit of the doubt. And so Tye Thomas did what a lot of popular politicians accused of wrongdoing have done before him. He denied the charges. He said the attack was politically motivated. Tye says his problems started right after he declared publicly that he wanted to run for state rep against an incumbent named Clyde Alexander.

Tye Thomas

That's when all of my troubles began. That's when his ally, Democrat District Attorney Donna Bennett opened up all of her investigations into me and things I had done in the past. She used investigations as a political war tool to discredit my character and my job that I was doing as mayor.

Katy Vine

There is, of course, one problem with this conspiracy theory. And that is that the incumbent, Clyde Alexander, didn't run. In any case, it shouldn't have mattered. Mike Hannigan.

Mike Hannigan

Now I think Tye probably could have survived all of that. But that's when he went to the alcohol, and the drugs, and the Xanax.

Tye Thomas

It was a Monday morning. The grand jury was the upcoming Thursday. Even though I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was not guilty of the crimes that she was trying to present against me, there was this little voice in my head that's saying, Golly, four to 20 years in prison? I'd rather die. I was scared. I've got to admit to you, Monday morning I woke up at about 7 o'clock and I was scared to death. And I took two, or three, or four Xanax. I can't remember how many. Xanax is an anti-anxiety medication that my doctor prescribes to me.

And then that evening I went out and I started drinking vodka tonics. And by the end of the evening, I was drinking straight vodka. And I was completely and totally intoxicated. Well I don't know when, but sometime later I vomited, because I had had so much to drink. And I was still asleep on the couch. My ex-fiancee [? Kathy ?] decides to come over. She finds me passed out on the couch in a pool of vomit. She picks up the phone and calls 911, and tells the dispatcher that she was in the mayor's condo and that he had overdosed on Xanax.

I didn't wake up until there were about six police officers in my house and about eight paramedics. She'd made a 911 call, which is public record. And I knew that the newspaper would pick up on that. And boy it would be the hot story that week. So in some nutso, idiot, ridiculous, drunken state of mind, I decided I wanted to go to jail.

Officer Red

Gun Barrel Police Department.

Tye Thomas

Who's speaking, Red?

Officer Red

This is Red.

Tye Thomas

Red, this is Mayor Thomas.

Get ?] off the phone.

Tye Thomas

I need an officer to come and immediately arrest me.

Officer Red

What's the emergency?

Tye Thomas

I am guilty of public intoxication. And I need to be taken to jail.

Officer Red

Well, you can't be publicly intoxicated in your own home, sir.

Tye Thomas

Well, I'll be in the parking lot.

Officer Red

Mr. Mayor, as soon as I got one available, I'll send him right away.

Tye Thomas

And I think I called five or six times. I didn't know what I said until my competitor newspaper got a copy of all the 911 tapes, and so did the TV stations in Dallas, and played them. It was pretty embarrassing to hear yourself drunk on the 10 o'clock news.

Katy Vine

These days, having attended his share of AA meetings, Tye Thomas will be the first to admit that he had problems with substance abuse. But you get the sense that he first grasped the seriousness of his trouble just as it was being broadcast to everyone in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. The incident was the nail in the coffin. 21 days later, he resigned as mayor.

Afterwards, he had bouts of depression. He sat in his condo with the blinds closed for days at a time, not bathing, wearing only his bathrobe. He became paranoid, and went so far as to re-shred paper shreddings in his apartment. He thought he was being watched. Eventually he left town.

One of the most striking things about the whole episode is the extremes of Tye's confidence and his fragility. It seems strange. How can somebody who had such absolute faith in his ability to lead be dragged into a drug and alcohol spiral by charges he could have beaten? But at least in Tye's case, the confidence and fragility seem linked. They both come from a failure to anticipate the thought that occurs to all the rest of us as second nature. What if I fail? What if I can't lead? What if they don't like me? It's a very innocent thought. Tye had an innocence about other people's faith in him and an innocence about his faith in himself.

Tye Thomas

You see when I ran for mayor, and after I was first elected, I really felt that emotionally and mentally I was invincible. I didn't believe that anything or anybody could change my self-esteem or the way that I felt about myself. And I was dead wrong.

Katy Vine

If you could maybe wipe the town memory absolutely clean, would you go back and try again?

Tye Thomas

No.

Katy Vine

If they had no memory of who Tye Thomas was and you were going in for the first time?

Tye Thomas

No, I wouldn't go back.

Katy Vine

How come?

Tye Thomas

I've become very sensitive to how situations that I place myself in are going to affect me emotionally. And that's not something I would ever put myself through again. Even if it had a completely different outcome, even if I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was going to be positive, I wouldn't go back and do it.

Katy Vine

Despite all that, as Mike Hannigan points out, his term wasn't exactly a failure.

Mike Hannigan

He made himself into exactly what he wanted to make himself into. He became a public figure, almost an icon.

Tye Thomas

Light a fire within you. Some will come and join you. And others will come just to watch you burn. And back then, I had a strong fire going with me. And people couldn't get enough of it.

Mike Hannigan

Tye Thomas has an unholy hold on the Gun Barrel City imagination. He has been gone for years now, and I still get phone calls with people telling me, hey, he just did this. Hey, he just did that.

Tye Thomas

Let me tell you, it's a wonderful feeling to go to the newsstand and buy a newspaper and not have to worry about your picture or name being on the front page. At first I loved it. And now that's something that I grew to despise.

Katy Vine

Some politicians take a lifetime to get to the point Tye got to in a year. The stunning rise to the top, the scandal, and the fall from grace. Tye says he hasn't entirely ruled out a future run for office. But he figures he'll have to wait at least 15 years before he can claim it's all behind him, that he's someone else. So he waits. He's not even 25.

Ira Glass

Katy Vine is a writer for the magazine Texas Monthly. Coming up, US officials, many of them young and charming, come into Iraq carrying their message of hope, and democracy, and freedom. And why even the Iraqis who want to hear that message don't seem to. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. You Talkin' To Me?

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, I'm in Charge Here, stories of people who get filled with American entrepreneurial spirit to take over, create something new, full of self confidence, and what sometimes happens to them.

We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, You Talkin' to Me? Nearly every day, there's some story from Iraq about how badly the US occupation there is going. Soldiers getting shot, basic services still not working. And one of the big problems there is the information gap between the Iraqis and the Americans who are running the country. One small, telling sign of that gap, even the name of the agency running the country hasn't gotten out to most Iraqis. That agency's name? It's called the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA. When Iraqis know any name, it's usually the name the agency used to be called, ORHA, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. Well, reporter Adam Davidson says the information gap is one of the most ominous things about living in Baghdad these days.

Adam Davidson

There's an information void. And as a result, rumors are everywhere. Amjad, my translator, tells me the new ones every morning. And then I hear them repeated by different people all day. People say the Americans are burning Iraqi currency in big trash barrels at gas stations, because they want Iraqis to be poor. They say Israelis are buying up the most valuable real estate in Iraq so they can occupy Iraq just like Palestine.

Then there's the rumor you hear most often, that Saddam Hussein is living in the US somewhere in a big mansion. I hear this all the time, that Saddam worked with the Americans, arranged for the American invasion so that the US could take over the country and steal its oil. In the last few weeks this rumor has changed a bit. People now say Saddam is living in the White House.

Mustafa

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

Whether the rumor is right or correct or not, what we do is convey the rumor by itself without giving our own point of view or our own opinion about this rumor.

Adam Davidson

Mustafa publishes Al-Saah, The Clock, one of the newspapers that have sprung up in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein. So many papers have appeared that nobody knows exactly how many there are. The last count I heard was 105. Mustafa tells me the paper has 30 reporters. Every day they try to find some American somewhere who will answer their questions.

Mustafa

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

We need to interview members of ORHA personally to ask them their questions, to know their feelings, to know what kind of measures they are taking.

Mustafa

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

We always try to get information from ORHA. We are always sending our reporters there to the office. But they found difficulties in getting this information.

Adam Davidson

So they're left printing rumors. One issue of Al-Saah reported that American soldiers were giving pornography to schoolgirls, another rumor I heard a lot. Another explained how the Americans had promised to give $50 to every Iraqi. The photo on the front page was of an American soldier attacking an older man. In red writing along the sides there was a prayer, "Merciful God, deliver us from this damnation." All this was an Arabic, along with editorials denouncing the US occupation.

But like a lot of Iraqi newspapers, one of Al-Saah's eight pages is in English. The English page seems to come from some other newspaper. It's completely pro-American. The photo on that page was of a friendly female soldier giving a bottle of water to a grateful young Iraqi girl. There's an article about how the Americans had helped to open a school. As one reporter told me, the English page is for the Americans to read, so they won't get mad at Al-Saah. The Arabic pages are for the Iraqis.

In general, Iraqis know the Americans are in charge. But they have no idea what the Americans here are up to. Most people have heard of Paul Bremer, the guy who's in charge of Iraq right now. But they don't know anything about him. These men were standing near the [? Jamuhuri ?] Bridge, about a block from the American headquarters in Iraq.

Adam Davidson

What have you heard from the Americans about what their plans are?

Iraqi Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

I heard nothing. I heard nothing from them.

Adam Davidson

What do you know about Bremer? What do you know about Bremer?

Iraqi Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

I don't anything. If he--

Iraqi Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

Only promises. Only promises. That's all I know about Bremer.

Adam Davidson

If he were walking down the street, would you recognize him?

Translator

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Iraqi Man

No. No. [SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

If he was walking along we don't know him. Maybe you are Bremer.

Adam Davidson

Talking to people in Baghdad, I've thought a lot about what it would be like to be back home in America if the situation were reversed. If there were this group of Iraqis who don't speak English running my country, knowing they're making plans that will affect every part of my life and not knowing anything about what those plans are. Not even knowing anything about who those people are. One thing you hear all the time is if the Americans wanted to fix all this with all their money and power, they could. So the only explanation is they don't care. Or worse, they want Iraqis to suffer.

The headquarters of the US administration in Iraq is right in the center of Baghdad, Saddam's Republican Palace. It's like a fortress. All you can see from the street is barbed concertina wire and a whole lot of US infantry. In the distance is this large arch and, through it, a tree-lined road. It's like a small city in there. This was Saddam's main governmental complex, a huge area, big enough that the US has set up bus routes inside with dozens of buildings and thousands of Americans living and working there.

And this gate is like the border between the country of Iraq and the American country within a country. It's where US soldiers shot and killed protesters this week who were throwing stones. Every day there's a crowd of Iraqis at the entrance off to one side of all that barbed wire. They're trying to get in there, hoping to talk to someone in charge about whatever problem they're having.

Iraqi Women

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Adam Davidson

Two women are there dressed in their best clothes, like they were going to a job interview. They're principals, they say, and they want to talk to whichever American is in charge of the Ministry of Education. In all the postwar confusion, some guy no one knew just showed up one day, and said he's now in charge of their school district. He's awful, they say, bossing everyone around and stealing money. They want a different guy to be placed in charge. Someone prepared a letter for them, which neither can read because they don't know English.

Soldier

Hey, tell these people to back up.

Adam Davidson

A soldier comes up and tells them to get back from the gate. They don't know what he's saying, and he doesn't know what they're saying. So they keep standing there and eventually the soldier walks away. It turns out this is the wrong gate if you want to talk to an American.

There is a right gate. It's off to the side behind a bunch of trees where army specialist Laura Moore, a 21 year old in the Civil Affairs Corps, is standing behind some barbed concertina wire. She has blue eyes and blond hair that comes down out of her bulletproof helmet. You can just picture her walking around a mall back home with her friends. And here she is, the face of the US occupation of Iraq. In the whole country, only Laura Moore and a small number of co-workers have the job of meeting with average Iraqis, finding out what's bothering them and trying to offer solutions.

Even though she could move into the shade of the trees, she stands with a translator out in the hot sun. A few yards away, there is a long line of Iraqis who are also standing in the sun. Most of them are older men, and they look sick like they're wilting in the 115 degree heat. When they are waved over, they walk up to the barbed wire and tell their problems to Moore's not very good translator, who does his best in a kind of broken English to tell Moore what they're saying. Then he translates her response. It's all sorts of things. People want money.

Iraqi Man 1

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

He has a car which was looted one month ago.

Laura Moore

OK, he's going to have to take his civil complaint to the police academy.

Translator

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Iraqi Man 1

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Laura Moore

Unfortunately, there's really nothing that we can do for you right here. If the Police Academy is working your situation, hopefully they'll find your car soon, OK? Now for temporary aid, I'm going to advise you to go to the Red Crescent in Mansour, because hopefully they'll be able to help you out financially, something like that. Maybe help you get your feet back on the ground and get a new car, OK?

Adam Davidson

Moore says this is what she does pretty much every time. The Iraqis talk to her, and then she tells them she can't help them and tells them to go away. She says nobody gets past the gate. Nobody gets inside the palace to talk to whoever will decide their case. It's for safety reasons.

Adam Davidson

Is it hard sending people away like that?

Laura Moore

You get worse cases than that. And I see about anywhere between 85 and 100 people a day. So--

Adam Davidson

You're getting used to it.

Laura Moore

You get used to it.

Adam Davidson

A few times a day, someone has a complaint that the Army can actually do something about, like their car or their house was destroyed by the US military. With those people, Moore takes their information, and says someone will look it over, make a decision and get back to them in two months. She always says two months. Of course, there are no working phones in most parts of Baghdad. And there is no postal service. So it's not clear how she'll get back to anybody.

Adam Davidson

Are you learning any Arabic?

Laura Moore

A little. Just some basic greetings, and "thank you," and "two months."

Adam Davidson

Say all that stuff. Say it.

Laura Moore

Two months? [SPEAKING ARABIC], come back in two months.

Adam Davidson

After watching her for 45 minutes, my translator Amjad and I sit under a tree to get out of the sun.

Adam Davidson

Amjad, you seem very angry right now.

Amjad

When I saw these people, it immediately comes to my mind what was the Iraqi suffering during Saddam Hussein. You can find the same queues asking for jobs, asking their government to give them back their properties. The same things, no difference.

Adam Davidson

And are the Americans more helpful?

Amjad

No, they're following the same procedures. Come tomorrow, come after one month, come after two months and we'll see. We'll find out what we can do for you. And I'm sure, I'm positively sure, that they can't do anything for them.

Adam Davidson

Privately, some US officials say things didn't need to get this bad, that the gap between Iraqis and Americans didn't need to be so vast, that we should have done in Iraq what we've done after other wars. Once victory was declared, Americans needed to be out in the streets in big numbers listening to Iraqis, holding town meetings, letting Iraqis see them and get to know them, building trust. But because of security concerns-- soldiers are still shot at every day in Iraq. Over 40 have died since the war officially ended-- Americans aren't doing that.

Sheik

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Adam Davidson

Curious to see what happens when Americans try to bridge the information gap and meet directly with Iraqis, I sat in as a group of influential Iraqis met with some American representatives. It wasn't very promising. This was a group of tribal sheiks who are more powerful in Iraq then you'd probably think. Though Iraq is a modern country with a lot of educated people and a big middle class, most Iraqis belong to a tribe. And every tribe has a sheik. A sheik can call on his people to do all sorts of things, to boycott something or to march. It's the sheik who decides when a tribe will pick up arms and go to battle. Even Saddam Hussein was scared enough of these guys to meet with them and listen to them.

This is the third meeting like this for the sheiks. A few hundred of them representing most of Iraq's tribes sit in a big theater. At a table on the stage is Hume Horan, counsel to the head of the US coalition, Paul Bremer. Horan speaks Arabic quite well. And he's sitting next to five sheiks.

Sheik

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Adam Davidson

The sheiks on stage are among the few who have strongly allied themselves with the Americans. They each give a speech about how much good the Americans have done, how all the sheiks have to stay unified and work with the Americans. No sheik should start any trouble. They're interrupted all the time by sheiks in the audience screaming out questions and complaints. The sheiks on stage tell them not to interrupt, that all their questions will be answered by the speeches that are being given. Everyone will see that all their problems are already being taken care of.

Hume Horan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Adam Davidson

In his speech, Horan keeps it general and upbeat. He tells the crowd that he hopes many of them will become his close friends. He says the sheiks' concerns, electricity, security, water, are not a big problem. The Americans have done so much good, he says. Iraq is much safer now. There's plenty of electricity. And anyway, none of it is America's fault. All the problems Iraqis face these days are because of all the bad things Saddam did when he was in power. But the Americans are on the job, and everything's fine now, and we'll get better soon.

Hume Horan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Adam Davidson

Nobody interrupts him. But as soon as he's done talking and one of the onstage sheiks starts another speech, congratulating Horan for his words, the audience sheiks are standing up, screaming out that there is no security. Iraq is less safe now than ever. Electricity is completely unreliable. The sheiks onstage are telling them to be quiet. One says "Be polite. We are Arabs. We are a polite people." But the audience sheiks won't stop shouting out their complaints. One of the onstage sheiks finally says to a man in the audience who won't sit down, "Dear sir, go ahead. You're welcome to speak."

At this point, the meeting is pretty much over as an organized event. One sheik after another stands up and screams out how badly things are going under the Americans. Horan and the sheiks onstage never respond to these impromptu speeches. They just sit on the stage and watch the audience take over.

[AUDIENCE SOUNDS]

Adam Davidson

How did you think the meeting went? Did you feel the Americans were listening to you? Were they responsive to what you were saying?

Sheik Faisal Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

I don't think they are responding to these demands.

Adam Davidson

One of the angriest sheiks in the audience is Faisal [? Rakan ?] [? Nisriz ?] al-Goud, the head of a large family in the Dulaim tribe, the biggest tribe in Iraq with 5 million members. Goud says he came to the meeting completely pro-American. He loves George Bush. But because of meetings like this one, the sheiks are divided off into those who want to declare war on the Americans immediately and moderates like him, who want to give the Americans one more month to see their true intentions before declaring war.

Sheik Faisal Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

By then I think all heads of tribes and members of tribes will start attacking the coalition forces by every means, whether by grenades, clashing [? coast ?], anything to fight the coalition, the US presence in Iraq.

Sheik Faisal Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

No more than one month.

Adam Davidson

Are you ready to fight in a month?

Sheik Faisal Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

We are a united people. And we stand by each other in facing good or bad things.

Adam Davidson

It's hard to tell how serious this threat is. Things seem to get more violent each week in Iraq as people get more frustrated. Either way, it's not good. The sheiks came to a meeting that the Americans hoped would get across our message of hope, that we're in Iraq to rebuild, to help, not to stay. And Goud and the other sheiks came out of it madder than ever, talking about war.

In my last week in Baghdad, my translator, Amjad, and I had lunch with a friend of his who was telling funny stories about how, as a little boy, he actually met Saddam Hussein. Saddam used to invite kids to the palace and hand out toys in big photo ops for the newspapers to show what a great guy he was. Amjad laughed. "It's just like Bremer," he said. The head of the US operation, Paul Bremer, had just invited the press to photograph him handing out soccer balls to young people. "You know what we call Bremer?" Amjad's friend asked me. "Bremer Hussein."

Which brings me back to that weird rumor about Saddam and why it's so popular, the rumor that he worked with the Americans, arranged for the invasion, and now lives in the White House. For all the important differences between American rule and Saddam's government, Iraqis say they're seeing some of the same things. The country is still run by reclusive men who make decisions in private and issue their orders from behind the guarded walls of the Republican Palace.

Ira Glass

Adam Davidson is a regular contributor to our show and has recently been Marketplace's correspondent in Baghdad.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our shows for free or buy tapes. Or you know you can download audio of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife, where they have public radio programs, bestselling books, even the New York Times, all at audible.com.

Alex Meyer, the teenager from the beginning of our program, is at alexmeyer.tk. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who has just one request.

David Sedaris

There's a little gap down by the baseboard. Bend over and close it, will you?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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