It was 1981, the first of the Reagan years.
Each Friday, on or around 5 o’clock, seven of us would gather in the House Agriculture Committee offices for an “alcohol fuels derivatives seminar.”
Which meant beer. A lot of beer.
The “seminars” were started by John Bailey, a 29-year-old former newspaperman from Kansas. John was bright, articulate and on top of the world with a good salary, a Capitol Hill bachelor pad and a seemingly-endless parade of young women rotating in and out of his bedroom.
Young, energetic staff members like John dominated the Hill in those days. Unlike the older, longtime staff members (“lifers”), we were different, a tight-knit group who would change the way things were in Washington.
At each seminar, our grand plans for the future emerged. John had his mapped out. He would spend two more years working on the Ag Committee staff for an Illinois congressman. Then he planned “no more than” five years as a Schedule C (political) appointee in the Department of Agriculture, followed by a lobbying job downtown, where the money was.
A little more than a year later, our tight-knit group had scattered. I was a chief of staff for a freshman Congressman. Five landed jobs at the Ag Department.
John was out of work.
No one really knew why John was the only one who didn’t get a job at Agriculture. He had a couple of Congressmen sponsoring him. He knew the issues and was plenty qualified.
But he didn’t get it and John was sure someone had shafted him.
Over the next six months, John interviewed with a dozen members of Congress. He felt each interview went well, but each time someone else landed the job.
“Somebody’s bad mouthing me,” he said. “I know it.”
Several freshmen members of Congress wanted to set up an Agriculture caucus. It needed a staff director. I recommended John to my boss and, this time, he got the job.
A few months later, a late night call.
“I got canned today,” John said. “Did you have anything to do with it?” It was the first I’d heard of it. When I confronted my boss the next day, he said he had no choice. John had gotten drunk one night at a reception and insulted another Congressman and his wife.
He blamed all of us and went home to Kansas for awhile. Eight months later, he was back, working for a hospital equipment association. The job lasted a little more than a year.
Next came a securities firm. John called all of us and demanded we buy stocks from him. I suggested we get together for lunch.
“Not unless you’re going to buy something,” he said.
We never had lunch.
Over the next three years, I would hear from John, usually at night, and demanding that I meet him at a bar somewhere. The first couple of times, I went, but the tirades about how we had all abandoned him got tiresome.
One day he called my office and left a message.
“I’m sorry,” the message said. There was no number.
Later that night, Jeff Jepsen, an original member of the Friday Alcohol Fuels Derivative Seminars, called.
“Did you hear from John today?”
“He called my office, but didn’t leave a number.”
“He’s in Kansas. He went up to his parents cabin and killed himself.”
I dropped the phone and pounded the wall. Then I cried. A lot.
The next day, those of us who knew John Bailey met for lunch. No one ordered a drink. No one said much. Then we went our separate ways.
That was four years ago. Last week, the chief of naval operations in Washington killed himself because questions had been raised over his right to wear combat ribbons from Vietnam. I was dialing the phone when the call came in.
“You heard the news.”
“For some reason, I thought about John.”
“So did I.”
Then we hung up. Washington had claimed another one.
— Doug Thompson