That howling infinite

A friend remembers investigative journalist Gary Webb on the 10th anniversary of his death

Gary Webb appeared on SN&R’s cover after the traditional media attacked him and his CIA-crack cocaine investigation.

Gary Webb appeared on SN&R’s cover after the traditional media attacked him and his CIA-crack cocaine investigation.

Tom Dresslar worked for 13 years as Sacramento Bureau Chief for the Daily Journal, and served with Gary Webb in 2001 as investigative staff for the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.
Read Melinda Welsh's recent cover story on Gary Webb, who worked at SN&R before his death, here:

December 14, 2004. Four days after my friend Gary Webb left his living hell. Two days after the Los Angeles Times turned carrion crow in a disgraceful obit.

The den’s black, and I’m alone with a bottle of Bombay gin and Neil Young. “Ragged Glory” at high volume. I can’t stop the tears anymore, and memories ride the saline stream.

Gary and I met when we worked in our respective newspapers’ Sacramento bureaus. The first time I saw him was at one of those annual press conferences the governor stages to unveil the state budget. At one point, Gary asked Gov. Pete Wilson why he insisted on taking the ax to programs that help the poor when tax codes that subsidize rich people and corporations contained many more-deserving targets. The question didn’t go over too well. I decided then I had to meet this guy.

In subsequent years, we occasionally sat together at the back of the Assembly or Senate chambers. We spent a fair amount of those times laughing, joking, staring at each other in disbelief. Because, let’s face it, a lot of what happens in the Legislature floats in from some alternate reality.

I had my first real conversation with Gary at a going-away party I hosted for one of our reporter colleagues. I put on Neil Young. “Ragged Glory” at high volume. One of the guests came up to me and complained the music was too loud. She said it was too hard for people to hear themselves talk, like what people say at parties has more listening value than Neil Young. I just looked at her and walked out the front door. Gary followed.

He said he never liked Neil Young that much, but that album rocked. We just walked around the neighborhood talking and getting our minds right with something legally considered medicinal now in California. It was a blast. When we got back to the party, the volume of the music didn’t matter anymore.

Then came “Dark Alliance.”

Bob Dylan wrote about “all the criminals in their coats and ties … free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise.” These are the people Gary lived to expose and bring, if not to justice, at least to accountability.

So it was with “Dark Alliance,” a 1996 investigative series about the CIA and crack cocaine he reported and wrote for the San Jose Mercury News. The suits, in this case, belonged to government spies, bureaucrats in the shadows and White House operatives. In “Dark Alliance,” Gary meticulously drew a link between the U.S. government’s funding of Nicaraguan contras’ war against the country’s Sandinista regime in the 1980s and the crack cocaine supply in Los Angeles.

Instead of winning credit for excellent work, Gary got smeared. Instead of standing up for him, his editors at the Mercury News abandoned him. Ultimately, Gary was ruthlessly cast out of the profession he loved.

What made the excommunication particularly maddening was that the media high priests who carried it out had zero credibility. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times—they fashion themselves as titans of U.S. mainstream media. But when it comes to foreign affairs, they’ve always been more like the family dog. They get fed at the White House correspondents’ dinner, or maybe over drinks at some Washington, D.C., watering hole, then regurgitate the government’s propaganda.

These were the people who appointed themselves Gary’s Star Chamber judges. Instead of tilling the ground Gary broke, they made it their mission to tear his story, and him, apart. In this effort, they quoted and served their government patrons.

In the end, after it was too late, they were proven wrong. A CIA inspector general report ultimately confirmed the substance of Gary’s work. Faced with the facts, some papers, including the Los Angeles Times, subsequently confessed the errors in their rabid criticism of “Dark Alliance.”

In 2002, long after he was banished, Gary and I worked together as investigative staff for the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. There, the major project we collaborated on was a set of hearings into a big computer contract between the state and Oracle. The contract was like a lot of large California IT projects—a disaster. This affair, though, featured some juicy stuff others didn’t.

During those hearings, we spent long hours in an office crowded with boxes of documents. We ate late dinners there. We had a lot of laughs. But, mostly, what we had was great respect for each other. I was awed by Gary’s talent and work ethic. I remember going home one weekend, and when I got to work Monday, Gary had produced a detailed timeline from the piles of documents we had amassed. His timeline formed the core of our work on the Oracle hearings.

Ultimately, the hearings forced the ouster of bureaucrats who shouldn’t have been collecting paychecks at taxpayers’ expense. Gary deserves much of the credit for making it happen.

I believe Gary was happy during the Oracle investigation. When he worked he was a fire. You could almost hear him snap and crackle. And that wry smile that sometimes exploded into a laugh? I got to enjoy it a lot.

Unfortunately, the work didn’t last long. A few years after our team was dismantled, Gary called me looking for work. In the end, I couldn’t help him. I will always feel I let him down.

Gary’s been gone for 10 years. I think about him a lot. Often, it’s when I’m trying to muster my guts. I decided about three years ago to write a 10-year memorial piece.

When I think of Gary, I remember a favorite Herman Melville passage. Gary had the courage to live and work in “that howling infinite.” The people who ruined his life didn’t. They slithered “worm-like” on the safe land.

Remembering Gary also makes me think of “Ragged Glory,” and how those words make a fitting headline for Gary’s life. Wherever you are, Gary, I hope you play the album from time to time. “Ragged Glory” at high volume.