DC writer David Morrison's star burned bright and fast.
Published on June 20, 2013
The word, "heroic" has been tossed around so indiscriminately since 9/11 that it's long since lost its head-swiveling punch. But if we can apply it to wounded soldiers and cancer battlers, surely we can devote a small measure of respect for a brilliant journalist who fought back back from an addiction to heroin.
That would be David Morrison
, who was as much a warrior as any solider who ran over a roadside bomb.
Morrison's luck ran out on June 5, when he died alone in his sleep, age 59, in his Washington, DC apartment--"far too young," a friend said. There were no signs that the overweight, smoking writer, who had recently lost his job as a columnist at Congressional Quarterly, took his own life, the friend and others said.
"No, he would've left a note," one said, chuckling. "He liked to write so much."
My guess is he was just plumb wore out.
At the time, Morrison was looking for freelance work, the last chapter of a career that once produced some of the smartest, elegantly wrought reporting on national security issues around, even while he was reeling from heroin.
Like everybody else who cared about intelligence and military issues, I'd begun following David's work when he was a national security reporter at The National Journal in the 1980s. He had a gift for rendering complex subjects with an uncommon elan.
"The missile defense debate," he once wrote, "has been as much about faith and ideological fervor as about logic and rational calculation. If the past is any guide, Clinton's National Missile Defense will probably be stymied by the same technical, diplomatic, and financial factors that doomed Johnson's Sentinel, Nixon's Safeguard, Reagan's Star Wars, and Bush's Brilliant Pebbles."
"Morrison's reporting drew attention in policymaking circles," the media critic Howie Kurtz wrote
in The Washington Post in 1995. "He disclosed major problems with the Navy's A-12 attack plane, which the Defense Department canceled the following year. He won a New York University award for exploring the difficulties in disposing of chemical weapons."
A graduate of the the elite Columbia University School of Journalism, Morrison also did pioneering work on the Pentagon's deeply classified "black budgets," so much so that The National Journal contested the award of a Pulitzer Prize to the Philadelphia Inquirer for a later series on the same subject.
"Without question, The National Journal's article and the first article in the Inquirer series are similar," the New York Times wrote in an in-depth examination of the controversy. The magazine's protest failed, but the controversy brought deserved attention to Morrison's work beyond the Beltway.
But it was his extraordinary, anonymous account of his secret life as a middle-class heroin junkie that, ironically, would make him a shooting star in the city's evanescent media firmament.
"ME & MY MONKEY: Confessions of a White-Collar Dope Fiend
," appeared on the cover of the Washington City Paper on Jan. 13, 1995, and caused an immediate sensation.
"Sunday afternoon, June 6," it opened. "I am going to kill myself. No kidding. This time I mean it."
An 18,600-word, white-rabbit tour de force of the East Coast professional set's heroin world, the piece detailed an underground peopled by ghost-like lawyers, judges, Pentagon bureaucrats and, yes, top-performing journalists like himself.
"I'm sick. So sick. My last fix was 45 hours and, let's see, 20-odd minutes ago. Ancient history. Not a wink of sleep last night. Jumping out of my skin. No way to get comfortable. Every hour is a day. Every minute an hour," Morrison wrote.
"Marrow sucked from my bones. Ice water in there now. Aching legs flailing. Why do you think it's called kicking? Snot streams from my nose, tears from my eyes. Rancid sweat pours everywhere. Shivering. Shaking. Every hair standing on end. Goose bumps on my goose bumps. Why do you think it's called cold turkey?"
Morrison went on to describe his "bizarre double life" as a journalist and junkie.
"Scoring a brick of junk'five bundles, or 50 $10 bags'I'm up in Spanish Harlem, wading through the crack vials that litter 124th and Lex like pebbles on a beach in hell. Deal done, I fix in the john of a greasy spoon on Third Avenue. Heading back on Amtrak to D.C., I don a suit to interview a House committee chairman. One night, I'm compulsively mixing and fixing speedballs by candlelight in a roach-infested shooting gallery on Avenue C. The next afternoon, I'm gassing away on a panel discussion at one of Washington's more strait-laced think tanks."
Another day, "I'm settling in for an interview with an assistant secretary charged with prosecuting one front in George Bush's war on drugs. I start to shrug off my suit jacket."
"Idiot! My sleeves are rolled up," Morrison writes. "My arms, flecked with needle stigmata, look like week-old steak tartar. Jacket back on, I realize soon into the interview I could have cooked up and geezed a speedball into my jugular vein right there. I don't think that doughty drug warrior would have had the vaguest clue what was going on."
He began to take bigger and bigger chances to stay high, shoplifting after maxing out his credit cards.
"Now I'm also geezing dope in the stairwell at work," he writes. "Needlework is more safely done in the men's room, I know that. But I can't smoke in there. One afternoon, ripped and ragged, having filed what I imagine to be a deathless piece of prose, I storm into an editor's office: 'Who do I have to fuck around here to get on the cover?'"
Soon enough, things unraveled. Even more fascinating than Morrison's near stream-of-conscious explication of his own dual life was his persuasive insistence that his twisted existence was not all that uncommon.
"Reasonably well-raised white people with everything to lose are still getting hooked on crack, smack, you name it," he wrote. "I've met scores of people much like me. Journalists. Doctors. Lawyers. Designers. Consultants. Bureaucrats. Executives. Republicans. I have sat in my dealer's kitchen and watched the evening rush hour of civil servants picking up their $50 bags of junk or chunks of rock."
Of course, everybody wanted to know who this guy was. Howie Kurtz tracked him down at The National Journal, which--quite admirably at the time--had kept Morrison on after he cleaned up and joined a recovery program.
"Morrison, 41, who has been clean since a week-long hospitalization last June, agreed to discuss his drug problem publicly for the first time," Kurtz wrote in the Post. "He says he considered going public when writing the piece but had no desire to join the Oprah circuit."
"I didn't want to be the center of a flaming controversy," he told Kurtz. "I didn't want to be part of the electronic media mulching machine. The machine can get churning and it chews people up... I'm pretty repelled by this orgy of confessionalism. I don't feel like a victim."
Michael Wright, The National Journal's executive editor, told Kurtz that Morrison was "gradually...getting back up to speed. He's his old feisty self again."
But not long after, he left the magazine. In 2000, he would pop up prominently again in City Paper--writing about his sexuality.
In "Cruisin' for a Bruisin'
" he reflected on "what it is that I simultaneously love and hate most about male homosexuality:
"In broad and general terms, what you often get is naked male sexual energy'predatory, insistent, passionate, and superficial'unhampered and uninformed by the biological, social, and emotional factors that women typically bring to the erotic equation. By no means for everyone, stalking the nocturnal urban jungle in search of that perfect shot of anonymous sex can be a rush beyond compare. And the perils posed by police decoys, gay-bashing beastie boys, and remorseless viruses only perversely enhance the thrill."
Eight months later, he wrote yet another bare-all for City Paper, an account of his bust for shoplifting in the 17th Street NW Safeway near Dupont Circle.
"A Quick Trip to the Grocery Store
," rendered in the same near-hallucinatory yet clear-headed style he had deployed so effectively in "Me and the Monkey," made me wonder whether Morrison had wasted his talent on filleting government defense policies. He was better than Hunter Thompson, I thought, because he knew when to take his foot off the pedal.
"Safeway imposes a ruthlessly enforced smile policy on its employees," he wrote.
"The customer is always right.
"But not me. Not today. I am a wrong number. And the store manager, who is built like a massive 12-ounce beer can, is not smiling. For one mad moment, I think about bolting for the door. But freedom is at least nine aisles away, and there is this 200-pound unsmiling beer can standing in my way. Besides which, my sprinting days are effectively past me. Anyway, even middle-aged scumbag shoplifters have their dignity, however tattered."
He's handcuffed and marched out of the store through a gaggle of rubber-neckers. One of the cops who pats him down and takes away his shoelaces asks why he's shoplifting. "Are you homeless? Are you on drugs?"
If only, he writes.
"No, it was being a freelance writer that lured me back into a life of crime, something they don't warn you about on those matchbook ads that say, 'You, too, could earn money with your writing!'"
He'd long ago developed a talent for shoplifting.
"Because I was relatively skilled at it'even strolling away with a 6-pound frozen duckling once'I felt perversely entitled to do it," he wrote.
"Crime pays, that is, until you get caught. And then it stops paying in a big way. And really quickly."
David C. Morrison
David C. Morrison with President Ford in 1992 after winning the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. | Photo: Gerald Ford Foundation | Link |
"I am embarrassed to be behind bars with six years clean ... " he added. "I am not sure I have ever felt so white and so middle class in my entire life as here in the bowels of the D.C. justice system."
In 2002, he was looking for a job, and I was looking for somebody to write a column for CQ/Homeland Security, a new online daily I'd been hired to run at Congressional Quarterly. David Carr, a former Washington City Paper editor (and now New York Times media columnist) who had edited Morrison, suggested I call him.
"The heroin guy?" I asked. Yup, said Carr, who would famously recount his own coke addiction in a 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun
. Relapse is always a possibility. Then there's the shoplifting thing.
As far as he knew, though, Morrison was sober.
The job would require him to stay up half the night scanning the Internet for stories about homeland security and distilling them into a lively digest by dawn, for not a lot of money--not an easy fill.
If I remember correctly, David showed up for his interview in black khaki shorts worn to a shine, an orange-ish rock-and-roll tee shirt and black hiking boots.
I was expecting Brian Ross?
Over coffee he told me he was embarrassed about his string of City Paper confessionals--nearly an addiction in itself, he said. And he'd run out of crimes to commit, he smirked.
I hired him. He performed beautifully in the job, filing bright, snappy copy night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year, never missing a beat. "Behind the Lines" quickly became CQ/Homeland Security's most popular feature. Management eventually broke it out as a stand-alone product, which continued after I moved on to another position at CQ and then eventually left the company in a mass purge after it was bought by The Economist Group.
"David was such a wonderful guy," remembered Andy Stone, one of Morrison's former CQ copy editors. "More than a coworker--we got together a few times. He read a draft of my novel-in-progress (in about 2 days) and was so incredibly helpful and inspirational."
With his legendary grumpy exterior, Morrison sometimes wielded a caustic wit against stories he thought empty-headed or preposterous. Not everyone appreciated it.
"I just read a column in the Jan. 24, 2008, issue of Congressional Quarterly by someone named David C. Morrison, who apparently makes his living writing little snippets about what other reporters are writing," one critic railed on the conservative World Net Daily site.
Monkey on my back
The term "Monkey on my back" commonly used for an addition. | Photo: Jon Beinart | Link |
"Nothing makes me angrier than when some arm-chair pundit writing from his comfortable Washington, D.C., or fashionable New York office smears a hard-working, boots-on-the-ground journalist who wakes up every day determined to put his life on the line in the search for truth."
Morrison's slicing and diceing finally did him in at CQ, which removed him from the column in late April-early May. A former colleague said he was offered other freelance work at CQ, which also publishes "Roll Call" and a weekly glossy magazine.
A friend of Morrison's said he was "devastated" by the loss of the column, not to mention income, but there were no signs in his apartment that he took his own life.
"We have no reason to doubt natural causes," said Morrison's brother Jeremy, who added that the family hoped to organize a memorial gathering in July after his remains are released by the DC Medical Examiner.
The executive editor of CQ News did not respond to a request for comment.
"David [had been] clean for 19 years when he died and was a deeply loved and respected member of the NA [Narcotics Anonymous] community," Jeremy Morrison said.
Indeed, a fellow NA member announced Morrison's death on his FaceBook page.
"Hi friends of David," he wrote. "I found David deceased in his bed last night. He appears to have passed peacefully while sleeping. His family has been notified. His cats are well taken care of. There'll be a hole left in our community that won't be easily filled. One of the smartest, interesting & kind (under that grump exterior) person I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. rip David, I love you man."
"He was passionately curious about all facets of human life," his brother added by email. "Omnivorously devoured books about history and traveled a great deal. Animal life too. When he was younger he had an ever-shifting menagerie of small birds, reptiles and mammals in his care."
Jack Shafer, the Reuters media columnist who brought "Me & My Monkey" into print as City Paper editor in January 1995, commented yesterday that Morrison "had a fluid intelligence to his work.
"He had an literary voice that no editor could duplicate," Shafer said by email. "Readers were lucky to have him and editors who were fortunate enough to work with him will miss him until we join him."
"He was a talented and lovely soul," echoed David Carr, who succeeded Shafer as City Paper editor from mid-1995 through mid-2000.
"I loved David," Amy Austin, City Paper's publisher, said. "He was wise, funny, and grumpy, all the necessary character traits of great journalists."
R.I.P., Rest in peace, I'll add, though I can't possibly imagine him doing such a thing.