This past Saturday, I woke at 6 AM and drove six hours through dense fog to reach Sacramento to attend the memorial service for Gary Webb.
I can’t put into words what Gary meant to me. In my lifetime, there have been only a few people I have truly admired and loved with all my heart. Gary was one of those people. But I knew what was important about him. He was a truth teller in the best tradition. He spent his life writing major exposes of government corruption long before his famous and, if I can say it, fatal Dark Alliance series.
I won’t rehash here the details of his research and the forces he challenged with that story. As most of you know, when I heard he had committed suicide, like so many, I found that nearly impossible to believe. I had met the guy twice, and he struck me as a lion of a man, with a huge, fighting spirit. I knew I had to attend the memorial, to hear from those closest to him what happened. I knew I’d have doubts if I didn’t. I had to see for myself.
I arrived about an hour early and headed for the room where the service was to be held. I did a double-take as I passed the elevator. A man who conveyed the essence of Gary Webb stood there, casually dressed. I kept moving so I wouldn’t stand and stare. I would see him again.
When I got to the door of the room where the service was to be held, I paused, not sure if I should enter yet or not. A few people were just starting to set up tables. I wasn’t even 100% sure I was in the right place. But then I saw Mike Ruppert, who had gotten there just ahead of me, and said hello. A lovely, delightful woman approached me and said she was Gary’s sister-in-law Diana Webb. I started to say something - who knows what, and even as I opened my mouth I started to cry. I apologized, saying I had promised myself I wouldn’t lose it, and Diana instantly made me at ease saying something like, don’t worry - everyone will be losing it today.
Diana asked for my name. When I told her, she said, “Lisa Pease! I loved your Emperor’s New Clothes piece!” I was both shocked and thrilled that she knew who I was. I had sent the family a condolence the night before, with a link to my blog, and Diana and Gary’s ex-wife Susan Bell had both read and loved my little satire. They felt it captured in a nutshell all that happened in that story. People who didn’t follow the unfolding attack on Gary won’t understand the piece. But they had lived through it, and recognized every nuance and reference. Diana told me excitedly that they had put memorial binders together of articles about Gary, and mine was the top piece, right in the front. I can’t tell you how moved I was by that. Other pieces in the binder were from Mike Ruppert, Peter Dale Scott, and several others.
I offered to help set up. I wanted to do what I could. His children had put together a couple of folding board displays of pictures of Gary from all parts of his life, including his book cover and their favorite magazine article, “The Pariah,” by Charles Bowden in Esquire. There were lovely arrangements of flowers that people had sent. And the awards. Gary had won so many awards over his career, from various organizations at various different newspapers. The biggest prize was a Pulitzer he shared with the rest of the San Jose Mercury News team for their coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake.
As I stood there, surrounded by reminders of his greatness, I felt all the more sad. It wasn’t just a fluke. It wasn’t my imagination. He had spent his whole journalistic career doing what all journalists should do, and so few EVER do, seeking out and telling not just truth, but really important truths, the kind of truths that could change people’s lives for the better. That’s who he was.
Along with the pictures and article references, there were some cartoons and other humorous pieces too. There was this little propaganda poster from a Kentucky paper he had once worked for, saying how they’d NEVER kill a story. There were Tom Tomorrow cartoons. But front and center, everywhere you looked, were the references to the Dark Alliance series. That was the key moment in his life. The moment after which everything he held dear slowly slipped away from him.
As I helped set up, I used that as my little personal time to honor the man, soaking up every last image, reading each award, conducting my own silent prayer for the soul of this lost man.
Suddenly, Susan Bell, Gary’s ex-wife, entered. She was a beautiful woman, remarkably pulled-together under the circumstances. She exuded calm at the moment. When Diana said “This is Lisa Pease,” Susan also recognized my name immediately. She thanked me for a condolence message I had e-mailed the night before, which she had read and appreciated so much she forwarded it to others. She asked me if I would read the Emperor’s New Clothes piece at the ceremony because she thought it told the story and might add a little levity to the ceremony. All his family at some point mentioned something about Gary’s great sense of humor. I remember when I first wrote it, I had sent a copy to Gary, and he had very much appreciated it. Of course I said yes.
The next person I met was the man I had passed at the elevator: Kurt Webb, Gary’s younger brother. They were only 13 months apart in age hence the resemblance. They don’t look that much alike, but the essence is there.
As each new person entered, Mike Ruppert quietly and quite delicately, I’ll add, asked all the appropriate questions, and pointed out the rumors that had been floating on the Internet. Each family member in turn confirmed yes, suicide, no question. Yes, there were two gunshots, but the first one so missed the brain that Gary had to shoot again. Yes, Gary had left a suicide note. When Ruppert mentioned some suggested the suicide note was a forgery, Susan’s eyes flew wide with shock, as she said there’s NO way that was a forgery. She said he had written each of his children a personal note. He had sent boxes to his Mother’s house, but she thought that was just temporary because he was moving. But he sent her things like his baby shoes, and so forth. He knew he wasn’t moving. He had had his motorcycle stolen, something he really loved, just prior. Sadly, the motorcycle was recovered, but Gary was not around to see it.
Kurt said early on and more than once, there’s nothing we can do or say now to bring him back. I’m sure the family all wonders why they didn’t see the signs, why they didn’t do more. But as Kurt described it to me, it was as if Gary was sinking into a vortex; there was nothing any of them could do to bring him back. From what I heard, Gary was seriously, perhaps even clinically depressed, but he never wanted to burden his family with that and would always put on a good show for them. He was a proud man who didn’t want to ask for help. But, as Diana said when she spoke about him, he was always there for others. When she had a cancer scare in her family, she had asked Gary to help her find out whatever he could. And like the true journalist he was, he went to the library and gave them the best information he could find.
I wish so much I had known he was hurting. I would have tried to help. I’m sure all of us who knew him or cared about him would have tried to help. And maybe all our help wouldn’t have been enough. We’ll never know.
Many people started arriving. Diana came in with a fax from Robert Parry. She said they had asked him to come and he said of course, but he had not allowed enough time to clear security and missed his flight. Instead, Parry sent a moving statement, which I had a copy of but may have left at work. He said that Gary Webb’s story was a tragic reminder that information is not a birthright. It has to be fought for, and sometimes even died for. It was incredibly powerful and eloquent and short, a miraculous combination. I’ll try to get another copy and will post on my blog for all to see.
One man came in who had never met Gary Webb or any of his family. He was one of the many who came solely because he wanted to honor the memory of the journalist who stood up and told the truth. I talked to him for a while, and when he asked my name, again it was, “Lisa Pease!” Turns out he had read the book Jim DiEugenio and I had put together, The Assassinations. The man had talked to his children about how unreliable the press was, and told me he had put together a list for them of “truthworthies” - those who could be trusted to tell the truth. He told me Gary and I were both on that list, which I took as a tremendous honor. I told his story to another man, a friend of Gary Webb’s that I talked to afterwards at the reception downstairs. That man asked, how can you tell who is reliable and who isn’t? I told him, learn any one really big and important news story in depth. Find out who is telling the truth and who is not. Then follow those people. People who tell the truth about the important stories tell the truth about other stories. People who lie about one important story will lie on another, and so on. He said, so it’s really about the people doing the reporting? Yes, I said. Another person standing by said, that’s really a good way to go about it. I hope people start paying attention to bylines. There are good people out there working to tell the truth, and then there are the others who are working to gain and preserve their position, which usually means not telling the truth.
The room could only hold about 300 people. It was packed - I’m sure we represented a fire hazard. People were lining the walls and sitting in the aisles, with more gathered in a herd just outside the side doors at the front and back of the room. As the crowd was gathering, I was off in a side hallway with a copy of the Emperor’s piece, reviewing it since I hadn’t read it in years. I noticed Gary’s brother standing nearby, looking so completely sad, so completely alone. I went over to him and said, I think you could use a hug. He answered, I think I could and I threw my arms around him and just held him. I felt his energy rush out of him like water running up the beach, but I kept holding him and his energy regathered, like water flowing back to the sea, and we broke and he regained his composure. He even was able to make a wry comment when I asked if he was the older or younger brother. He’s younger, by 13 months.
Kurt opened the ceremony. He talked of his brother as first, foremost, and always, a writer. He talked about how as kids they had gotten a play mimeograph machine, with rubber type blocks you could put in it to print out pages. Kurt wasn’t that into it, but Gary loved it, and put together little pages of print that he’d then proudly show to his parents. Gary knew his calling from the start. He wanted to be a reporter. In High School, he wrote up an editorial for his school paper criticizing the drill team for putting women in military uniforms and changing their batons to guns and flags. The cheerleaders were outraged, and Gary’s newspaper advisor suggested he apologize. Why should I apologize for expressing an opinion, Gary had asked. He never did apologize.
He was nearly through school when he had to drop out, but managed to get a mentor at a local paper and learned the ropes from the inside. He threw himself into his work, not content to just be a stenographer, but to seek out the story behind the story. All he ever wanted to be was a writer. And above all, Kurt said, Gary always wanted to seek out and tell the truth.
When Gary worked on the Dark Alliance story, he spent months working nights and weekends, staring at pages deep into the night, going to libraries, talking to people. He was tenacious and persistent. He knew this was an important story. He never gave a second thought to whether this was a good use of his time. This was what he was born to do, and he did it.
As Kurt wrapped up, he asked that people refrain from any political statements, that people could talk about that below. But in a few minutes, he found himself lashing out at the Los Angeles Times for their horrible obituary of Gary Webb. The whole family, at various points while I was there, expressed their pain at that story. It was as if the LA Times just had to try to prove themselves right again by proving Webb wrong. But they aren’t, and they can’t. Never could.
Susan Bell spoke next. She spoke very briefly, and was clearly overcome with emotion. I had seen her at the start of the day where she was remarkably calm. But not long before the ceremony began, she told me she had just seen Gary’s parents for the first time since his death, and all the emotion just came flooding back.
The children spoke next. Ian, the oldest at 21, spoke first. I don’t remember his comments because I was so caught up in the pain I felt for his loss. Eric, the second one, spoke next. In Gary’s note to Eric, he said he hoped he would be the one to follow in his footsteps. I do remember a part of 16 year-old Eric’s statement. Eric said he had never realized what an important man his father was, what he had meant to so many people. Christine, the youngest of his children, read a poem she had written to her father. I remember something from the last line, something like, you were right there in the car, in the seat next to me a moment ago. I can’t believe you’re gone. It was utterly heartbreaking.
Diana Webb spoke next, talking about Gary the brother-in-law, the friend who was always there for others. Diana also read Parry’s moving statement which I simply must find again.
Mike Ruppert was next, with statements from Peter Dale Scott, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, and others. He movingly spoke of how Gary Webb’s stories had essentially saved his own life, how he had at one point stuck a gun in his own mouth, but had felt so vindicated and revived by Gary’s outing of the whole CIA-drugs connection that it gave him renewed vigor. “It was as if Gary took the gun out of my mouth and put it in his.” At the end of his presentation, he talked of how, in Central America revolutionary movements, when a comrade falls, and roll is called, all who remain call out “presente” when the dead man’s name is called to signify his presence and to scare the oppressors. He asked the crowd to join him. He called Gary’s name, and the crowd yelled back, loudly and firmly, “PRESENTE.”
I spoke next. I opened by saying when I go to fill out forms, there’s always that spot where they ask for religious affiliation. I always want to check the box that isn’t there, the one marked simply, “truth.” The truth is my religion, and I said Gary Webb had just become a saint in my church. I then went on to read the Emperor’s New Clothes story. It got a few chuckles and a few people came up to me afterwards to say they enjoyed that.
After I spoke, a Chinese FBI-CIA man spoke in a rambling way about having done things he wasn’t proud of, but how Gary Webb had saved his life. Others spoke beautifully of various aspects of Gary. One woman, a fellow reporter, said, what we haven’t talked much about here yet was Gary the man. He was the smartest person I knew. He could do ANYTHING. He could take a $500 computer and upgrade it to a $3000 one. He could take a car apart and put it back together again. He could do ANYTHING.
Another woman introduced herself as a screenwriter from Los Angeles who had been working on a script for Dark Alliance. She, as were most of the speakers, was barely able to talk through her tears, saying he was her hero and she was devastated by his loss, and that his story needs to be told. I had thought the same thing on my long drive up from Los Angeles - his is truly a moving, compelling story of a genuine hero. The story needs to be told.
One young man got up to say, Webb was the first reporter to get up and speak for his community (he was African American), and how grateful he was, and how surprised and thrilled he had been to see a big-time reporter take up the fight on his behalf.
Another man was a hockey friend of his, and said that Gary didn’t know how to put on the brakes when skating, or in life. Whatever he did, he did it full out. He never could put on the brakes.
The ceremony ended with a video presentation the children had put together on the computer, projected onto a screen. It had music and pictures and headlines, summing up the too short, amazing, sweet and sorrowful life of their father.
At that, the ceremony adjourned, and everyone moved to a reception hall on the floor below. I met up there with fellow Kennedy researcher Doug DeSalles, who lives in Sacramento and who had interviewed Gary Webb for his radio show in years past. Doug had planned to interview him again the following week until he found out the shocking news of Gary’s death.
A woman in a lovely hat came up and introduced herself. It was Virginia McCullough, keeper of the Mae Brussell files! I told her the Walter Pincus “How I Traveled Abroad On CIA Subsidy” article I gave Gary in the early days after Pincus’ attack came from Mae’s files. I had never met Virginia in person, although we knew of each other, had many friends in common, and had talked on the phone once. She became the recipient of the files shortly after my visit to them. She’s still trying to find a home for the amazing collection but most places want to break it up and she wants someone to take it all as one big piece. It was really nice to finally meet her. She was there with her husband and a friend who I think was a publicist - all nice people. By then I felt literally faint and realized it had been about six hours since I had eaten anything, so I grabbed some food. But I still felt just horrible. I’d been crying for hours and my face just hurt. Diana Webb had invited me to join the family in the bar, but I just needed to lie down and let the swelling from the tears subside for a bit. (Decongestants help, I discovered.) I had told Doug it was my birthday and he offered to buy me dinner on the occasion. That was nice. I needed a break from all the sorrow and Doug is always interesting.
So that was it. I returned to my hotel room (I stayed at the Doubletree, where the ceremony was held) and then rose and drove the six hours home the next day.
I hear there’s going to be another memorial service right here in Los Angeles. I hope anyone who can possibly make it here will show up for that. He was one of a nearly extinct breed - a true journalist. He deserves all the honor we can shower upon him.