OK, maybe we shouldn’t have laughed at them so raucously. But how is it possible to repress a gut-gripping guffaw when you’re the producer of a radio talk show and an obviously amateurish PR agent calls and offers you the opportunity to interview Frank Sinatra’s cousin? Or Liberace’s niece? Or Alfred Hitchcock’s uncle? Those amateur pitchmeisters meant no harm. Like the rest of us, they were just mice trying to become rats through bodybuilding.
In retrospect it might have been interesting to interview some of those people. But maybe I can atone for my unwarranted displays of scorn in one journalistic endeavor here and now.
This column is about Roger Goodell’s father!
In 1968 Charles Goodell, from upstate New York, was a congressman rarely heard of outside his district. The assassination of Bobby Kennedy changed all that. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller appointed Goodell to take Kennedy’s place in the Senate. Meanwhile, over in West Africa a million people were starving to death as the breakaway province of Biafra tried to secede from Nigeria. You can’t compare that fight to America’s civil war. The ruler of Nigeria, Yakubu Gowon, was no Abe Lincoln. He vowed to shoot anything that moved, including the Red Cross. Gowon was accused of withholding food from Biafra, an accusation not entirely true. He allowed certain food shipments to pass through Nigerian federal territory, after his troops poisoned it!
My first boss in broadcasting, Tex McCrary, whom I think would have made a wonderful president, called me and explained the size of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in that war-torn land. He suggested we mount an effort which incoming president Richard Nixon would get behind, and save lives and win votes. “Call Senator Goodell,” Tex commanded me, “and get him on board.”
I called Sen. Goodell, and he didn’t stop with merely coming on board. You could say he almost came overboard. Goodell promised his all-out assistance and made his entire staff accessible to us and did his best to rally support for the embattled Biafrans. Then Sen. Goodell told us he intended to make a four day fact-finding and morale-boosting visit to Biafra! That was staggering. I’m sure his competent staff did their best to stop short of an actual visit. There was no way the political advantages could outweigh his personal peril on a trip to the losing side of a West African war.
“I don’t do what’s popular,” concluded Goodell. “I do what’s right.” And so the senator headed for Biafra. Upon his return he was scheduled to come to my radio studio directly after he landed and cleared customs. I was actually taping a show when I heard the rear door of the studio open. I couldn’t see who was coming in because I was facing the other way, but my producer could, and he looked as if he were watching a ghost. He was watching Goodell, in rumpled khaki fatigues and looking under-slept, under-shaved and under-fed after four days in Biafra and a very long ride home.
Actually, leaders on all sides of African wars tend to dine well until the end, and Sen. Goodell had been invited to join Biafra’s leader Odumegwu Ojukwu in the command tent for meals. Goodell politely declined, insisting that he preferred to dine with the ordinary soldiers. There’s no record of any gourmet chef having pangs of envy after feasting on Biafran soldier fare. But Goodell would have it no other way.
I subconsciously subtract about 95 percent of the credit for noble deeds committed by elected officials if media are present to document and spread word of those virtuous deeds. Sen. Charles Goodell gained 100 percent of my admiration because the nearest American media person was an ocean away and the nearest one who gave a damn was yours truly, back in New York.
If you were a resident of New York in 1970, you may have met Sen. Goodell’s wealthy and powerful son Roger without realizing it. Roger – at the age of 10 – and his four brothers were deployed throughout New York to approach all those of voting age and say, “I’m Senator Goodell’s son. Please vote for my father!” Alas, to no avail. Goodell and the Democratic candidate split the liberal vote, allowing Jim Buckley to ride to victory with only the then-fairly-new New York Conservative Party.
Roger Goodell has employed one of his father’s best lines, the one about doing what’s right and not what’s popular. Roger added a line. He said, “If you want to be popular, be a cheerleader.”
I’m taking your advice, Roger. I’ll always be a cheerleader for your late father, Sen. Charles Goodell.