Through rough reporting, Clark insisted on issues

Friday, April 6, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:32 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Conor McCann

When I was assigned to cover John G. Clark’s mayoral campaign, I was told I might need to save four or five hours out of my day for my first interview. Hogwash, I thought. There’s no way a man would be able to chat away about city politics off the cuff for that long. I figured 6:30 p.m. on a Sunday night ought to be a good starting point.

So there I stood, on a bitter cold Sunday night, standing and waiting impatiently for my first interview with Clark in front of a coffee shop on Broadway. He pulled up in his mid-1980s Volvo jalopy with the once-hip indie-rock band Sleater-Kinney playing on the radio. I hopped in, and we circled the block to another coffee shop he preferred. I thought at the moment that this guy could easily be a friend of mine.

Four hours later I had consumed enough coffee to stay awake until July, gotten Clark’s life story down on paper and through it all, managed to ask him only a few questions. He really talked that much. I didn’t even need to ask any more questions because he gave me everything I needed. He sliced up and served a large piece of personality pie.

When I began covering Clark, I was eager to ask him hard-nosed questions. I knew that he was a knowledgeable man, but I’d been warned that he could react bitingly with reporters. I wanted to see that side of him as well as the brighter spots. The colder side certainly came out. He even told me once in an e-mail that “we won’t be speaking further” unless I brought along two other Missourian reporters and two recorders taping what he said.

But we’re both mature. We made up –— without the tape recorder. That’s all water under the bridge now.

When I told Clark I’d be focusing more on his personality than his politics, a wave of paranoia came over his face. That might be a bad thing, he said, because people might find him narcissistic.

Clark is completely eccentric. His house is filled with stacks of aging documents. He joked that a good photo would depict him walking his two cats down the street in contrast to Darwin Hindman going for a bike ride.

My experience with Clark is one I won’t likely forget. I started out with great enthusiasm about the coverage but quickly found myself filled with self-doubt. It even took a little resolve at times.

But the exhilaration I felt when Clark told me he actually liked the personality profile I wrote about him — that it presented him in a genuine and accurate manner — wrapped it all up. I even learned to laugh at myself in the process, which you really must do with Clark.

Clark also prompted interesting interactions with my editor. We’d have to sit down and figure out ways to approach praise for him and also to tactfully expose his character flaws, not to mention how to engage with him when he felt what I wrote was “gobbledygook.”

Now that my pen is down and the elections have concluded, I feel I’ve gained perspective, a higher vantage point. Covering Clark was a wake-up call in a sense. Probably more than anything, a wake-up call just to run out and buy a voice recorder the next time I’m covering someone who talks so much. But through the deluge of information that Clark spews, a reporter can learn a lot. Be it information, skills, or simple patience, it’s there.

Two months after the initial assignment to cover Clark, I sat in his living room on Ninth Street along with a few other reporters and with some of Clark’s friends, who were enjoying sparkling grape juice and cheese. We frequently refreshed the county clerk’s Web page to check election returns.

Clark was upbeat. He was happy to be on the ballot, even though as the night wore on it became clear that his goal of 6,000 votes, illustrated on the big chart he had placed on an easel in his living room, would be out of reach. It made me cringe to sit there with a candidate who saw his opponent running down the street with his votes.

But Clark didn’t whine. He didn’t hide from the outcome. He just wanted to see some positive change in the city. That’s the quality in Clark that you can unmask if you watch and listen closely.

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