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Jack Smith

Um, Clarke and, uh, um, Zilm dialogue tends to be, um, a bit, uh, well . . . unfinished

February 12, 1986|JACK SMITH

I am neither politically nor emotionally involved in the conflict between state Sen. Ed Davis and U.S. Rep. Bobbi Fiedler over the allegation that she offered him $100,000 to withdraw from the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.

But I am fascinated by the language used at high levels of American politics as revealed by the taped conversations between Fiedler's fiance and chief political aide, Paul Clarke, and Davis' campaign manager, Martha Zilm, who was wearing a bug.

Not since the famous Nixon tapes were made public have we been treated to such generous bursts of top-flight political dialogue. But whereas the language of Nixon and his henchman was occasionally vulgar, not to say obscene, Clarke and Zilm appear to be guilty of nothing worse than an utter inability to start, carry on, and finish a sentence.

It is to the credit of the Los Angeles County grand jury that it was able to make enough sense of the inarticulate bumblings of these two to indict Clarke on a charge of violating the state Elections Code.

The first conversation between them was surreptitiously taped by Zilm in a San Fernando Valley restaurant.

It began promisingly with a full sentence, as follows:

Clarke: "How was your Christmas?"

Zilm's remarkably taciturn and indecisive style is revealed at once in her answer:

Zilm: "Oh, it was fine. Um, mm, just get right down to this, because we've been going around and round and--um--you know, when--I--I presume--

Clarke: "Yes."

In the following dialogue Zilm's complete response--17 times!--is the noncommittal "um-hmm."

Toward the end, for some reason--perhaps the transcriber got tired of typing "um-hmm"--Zilm switches to "uh-huh," which she says three times in a row.

Otherwise, she says "Well" twice, "Um-hmm. Well" once, "Um-hmm. Um-hmm" twice, and "Um-hmm. Well, but that's--" once.

She ends the taped conversation with a perfectly good complete sentence, "Yes, I read that in the paper."

Of course we have to consider that Clarke is a facile talker, even though he talks in fragments of sentences, and Zilm is merely responding to him, encouraging him to go on, not intruding on his monologue. After all, she's trying to get the goods on him for the district attorney.

But what I can't understand is how an experienced politician could engage in a one-sided conversation like that and not suspect that he was being bugged.

Zilm did make one rather long speech, which, we can see in retrospect, was probably designed to get Clarke talking about offering Davis $100,000 to get out of the race.

She says: "In any case, you know, George (George E. Moss, a Davis supporter) had said that if Ed would get out of the race, you guys would take care of $100,000. And, um, so I had a couple meetings with Arnie (Arnie Steinberg, Fiedler consultant), as you know, and I told Arnie I would talk to Ed, and I did. And the only way he will do that is if that's going to be taken care of."

At one point Clarke says: "It's just--you know--I can't tell you that on April 1st it's gonna--it's gonna magically be there. Or, uh, that on July 1st it's gonna magically be there."

Zilm prods him with an "Um-hmm" here and he goes on:

Clarke: "So--but--but I can all--all I can do is--is say to you what--what, uh, I've said all along, and that is if we give our word, we're gonna keep it."


Clarke: "Uh--because uh, uh, they're--you know, those type of people--they're--you think--if they can give a thousand, they can give ten thousand. I mean, a thousand bucks is lunch money for most of 'em."

Zilm: "Uh-hmm."

Clarke: "So, uh, you know, I would say--I would say to you that--that--I mean, A, we'll keep our word, and, B, we'll do our damndest. And that's--I mean, that's all that anybody can say."

Zilm: "Um-hmm. Well--"

And so it goes. There is also a tape of a phone call between Zilm and Fiedler in which, it seems to me, Fiedler's most damning slip is using the subjective pronoun in a sentence that calls for the objective:

Fiedler: "I think that maybe it would be a good time for he and I to meet with one another."

But that's a common solecism she might have picked up from one of her colleagues on the school board.

As I say, I don't especially care how this turns out. It has the proportions of a tempest in a teapot, although it appears that both parties have been hurt.

Of greater importance, it seems to me, is the implication that our affairs, in this democracy, are conducted on the highest levels by elected officials, and their assistants, who can't complete a sentence.

Surely we can't blame this kind of illiteracy on the movies. In the movies the dialogue might be in the vernacular, but at least it's to the point. Like this:

Joe: "Fred, the boss wants to give you one hundred big ones to get out."

Fred: "Tell the boss to stick it in his ear."

End of conversation. It has been conducted in perfect English, with no fragmentary sentences. Neither party could possibly misunderstand the other.

I myself rather doubt that Bobbi Fiedler is any more dishonest than our election process requires candidates to be.

As for this silly confrontation with Ed Davis, whom I know to be a very sophisticated man, and quite capable of finishing a sentence, maybe it could all be worked out amicably if her and him would just have lunch together.

Without tape recorders.

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