Kick ass carl Hiaasen

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For years I resisted the idea of compiling my newspaper columns into a book, because it would have required re-reading each one myself—a columnist's worst nightmare. Most of us can't bear to look at something we wrote last week, much less a decade ago. That's because the nature of daily journalism is fleeting, today's words made instantly stale by tomorrow's headlines. There is simply no time to look back.

This collection would have been impossible without the keen eye, unflagging enthusiasm, and heroic stamina of Diane Stevenson. She pored through many hundreds of columns to find those that best stood the test of time, and also presented a vivid panorama of a confoundingly diverse state. They reflect my own bent view of the place, so whatever wrath these pieces provoke should be directed at me alone. For her brave job of culling and organizing them, Diane deserves nothing less than a medal.

I am also indebted to the many talented reporters and editors at the Miami Herald, past and present. Their guts, ingenuity, and pit-bull persistence produced the news stories that inspired these columns. I feel fortunate, and proud, to be employed by a newspaper that knows what newspapers are supposed to do: Turn over rocks. Dig out the truth. Kick ass.

—Carl Hiaasen

Islamorada, Florida


In 1953, Carl Hiaasen was born in Plantation, Florida, a tiny suburb of Ft. Lauderdale at the westernmost edge of then-rural Broward County. By 1960, around the time he got his first typewriter, Plantation's population of 4,800 was roughly that of Ft. Lauderdale in 1922, when Hiaasen's grandfather moved down from North Dakota to eventually found the area's first law firm.

While Plantation remained safely fringed by Everglades and swamp, providing the perfect environment for an idyllic boyhood, Broward County's population of 84,000 had almost quadrupled by 1960. By 1960 as well, almost one-third of the state's entire population was concentrated in southeast Florida, which had grown in that same decade by over 113 percent.

In the years since, Florida has absorbed into its population approximately 300,000 people a year, for a relative growth rate almost triple that of the rest of the country. To accommodate the 700-1,000 new residents arriving daily, a minimum of 300 acres of green space must be paved, also daily, for subdivisions, streets, schools, and shopping malls. Added to that has been the considerable development required to house and entertain tourists, 41 million of them in 1990, the year before Native Tongue, Hiaasen's satirical novel about theme parks, was published.

During the same years that 75 percent of all currently existing developments were being built, at least five animal species disappeared completely, and a significant number of others were greatly reduced as their habitats either vanished or were poisoned by agricultural runoff or toxins like mercury. Today, the Everglades is half its original size, Florida Bay is endangered, and Broward County (with a population of 1.5 million and recently ranked ninth in the nation for destroyed wetlands and forests) has drawn Plantation into its geographical center. The dirt bike-path Hiaasen and his friends rode into the swamp, where they camped and caught water moccasins, is now University Drive, nine shopping malls lining the same route they once took.

These are the sources of Carl Hiaasen's outrage and satire, the losses beginning even in childhood, when he and his friends would pull up or relocate surveyor's stakes, feeling that such small, futile acts were nevertheless their moral duty. "We were kids," he says. "We didn't know what else to do. We were little and the bulldozers were big." Their memorable roar Hiaasen often compares to "the sound of money," because greed, he says, is "the engine that has run Florida ever since there was a Florida."

Greed and its accompanying corruption, in fact, occupy one side of Hiaasen's clearly articulated system of right and wrong, while unspoiled wilderness lies on the other. The two are separated by what Skink, in Double Whammy, perceives to be "the moral seam of the universe" as he gazes at the dike separating a contaminated development from pristine swampland. Against this backdrop, events play out in Hiaasen's novels and columns, the moral landscape making almost tangible certain basic and universal values: we should be loyal to our friends, behave with civility and decency, earn our paychecks honestly, experience shame if we steal, preserve the world for our children, and never surrender—either our belief in these values, or to anyone who would violate them for personal gain. As Hiaasen says, "You try to be a good citizen wherever you live. Plant mangroves and don't piss in the water."

Hiaasen traces his strong sense of right and wrong back to the losses of the 1960s—the "complete end of innocence" caused by the Kennedy assassinations, two tragic events creating the historical circumstances that placed Richard Nixon in the White House, accelerated the war in Vietnam, and ultimately led to Watergate. "It was a poisonous time to be coming of age," Hiaasen says. "It seemed to me there was so much wrong in the world. I felt such outrage for so many years over those things happening that it wasn't a hard thing to carry into journalism."

When Hiaasen began his Miami Herald column in 1985, however, after having first been a general assignment reporter and then a member of the Herald's prize-winning investigation team, the newspaper hadn't yet established a tradition of commentary written with "ferocity and passion, mordant wit, and moral outrage," as Doug Clifton, former executive editor of the Miami Herald, describes Hiaasen's bi-weekly column. Miami was still a young city, Hiaasen explains, with no voice, even on the editorial page, that expressed strongly held opinions likely to inspire an equally strong response from readers. So when Hiaasen ridiculed the first Cuban American county manager, whose indictment for grand theft was dismissed because of a 1951 ruling on cattle rustling ("a standard of conduct against which all public officials should be tested," Hiaasen dryly observed), Herald editors initially cringed. Interestingly, however, the following year that same county manager forgot to disclose, as required by law, a large profit he made on a land deal, prompting Hiaasen to write that such memory lapses by someone controlling the county budget suggested the need for a brain scan in addition to a lawyer: "If I thought [he] deserved to be fired for lying to the IRS and buying stolen suits and lying about it, I would say that in the column. Gotta get rid of the guy. And it was unheard of at the time."

From the start, it was also clear Hiaasen would not allow himself to be bullied. In 1987, when a city commissioner objected to funding the Sister Cities convention because representatives from communist countries might attend, Hiaasen called his antics "boneheaded." By certified mail, the commission sent a formal, albeit unintelligible, resolution demanding that the Herald retract or clarify Hiaasen's "false and misleading statement," to which Hiaasen replied that since his original column was neither false nor misleading, he couldn't add even "a cheerfully instructive footnote." He did, however, formulate a resolution of his own, which reads, in part:

"Be it resolved: It is hereby demanded that the Miami City Commission quit wasting time on dumb, self-serving resolutions when there are so many more important issues facing the community.

"Regarding the Sister Cities International convention and the alleged Communist menace therein, it is hereby demanded that city commissioners halt such reactionary nonsense immediately, since it exposes all South Florida to national scorn and ridicule. It is further demanded that if the commissioners choose to make fools of themselves, that they do so in the privacy of their homes and not in a public forum."

Now, much of Miami has come to expect a no-holds-barred Hiaasen column that synthesizes news stories and corruption scandals, and makes sense of issues in its own "brilliant fashion, with humor that skewers," according to Jim Savage, head of the Herald's investigations team, who worked with Hiaasen in the mid-1980s on uncovering and ultimately stopping Port Bougainville, one of several illegally sited developments that would have added altogether some 60,000 people to North Key Largo. On this project, and on the Smuggler's Island investigation, which began with a memo about a water main and ended with a series on dope running in Key West, Savage observed firsthand Hiaasen's legendary insight. It was Hiaasen, Savage notes, who quickly recognized the heart of the story—how drug dealing dramatically altered people's lives, especially in Key West, but with implications for the rest of the country. Savage now uses Hiaasen's story-assembling techniques, as well as his accuracy, fairness, and skillful interviewing, as a model of excellence in investigative reporting when he teaches seminars in project writing. "Carl is the most talented journalist I've worked with because he's an outstanding researcher and a world-class writer," Savage says. "It would be great if we could clone Carl Hiaasen, so one could still be working with me."

At age four, Carl Hiaasen learned to read using the Miami Herald sports page and maps of Florida. Two years later, when he got his first typewriter as a present from his father, he taught himself to hunt and peck well enough to write his own sports page, reporting on neighborhood kickball and softball games in newsletters he handed out to friends. Even then, he knew he wanted to be a journalist, because getting paid to learn about the world and report on it in stories bearing his name seemed the perfect occupation.

Continuing to write for pleasure in high school, Hiaasen again had his own publication, More Trash, an underground newsletter in which he experimented with irreverent commentary by poking fun at the traditions of mainstream adolescent culture, as well as satirizing the teachers and administrators of Plantation High. At Emory University, he ghostwrote a doctor's memoirs, and within the next two years, had married his high school sweetheart, Connie, become a father, and moved to Gainesville to major in journalism at the University of Florida.

When he graduated in 1974, having just turned twenty-one, Hiaasen was hired by Cocoa Today as a general assignment reporter, and soon after became a feature writer for their Sunday magazine, Sunrise. Two years later, in 1976, he was invited to join the Herald's Broward Bureau, where he remained for about six months before being moved to the newspaper's city desk in Miami as a general assignment reporter. He quickly became a feature writer for the Herald's Sunday magazine, Tropic, and in 1979 joined two-time Pulitzer prize winner Gene Miller, associate editor for reporting, in investigating and writing "Dangerous Doctors," an eight-part series remembered today for its excellence and impact.

During the early 1980s, while still a member of the investigations team, Hiaasen began to write fiction, spending evenings and weekends co-authoring, with the late William Montalbano, three novels—the recently reprinted Powder Burn, Trap Line, and A Death in China. In 1985—as he was about halfway through his first solo novel, Tourist Season, one of seven (Double Whammy, Skin Tight, Native Tongue, Strip Tease, Stormy Weather, and Lucky You) that established his national reputation as one of America's best satirists—the Herald asked Hiaasen if he wanted to write a column.

Those at the Herald who knew him during these early years say that even in his twenties Hiaasen was clearly one of a kind, his gifts being distinctly extraordinary. Doug Clifton remembers Hiaasen as "a young man with talents that far surpassed those that you would expect from someone of that age and experience." Immediately evident, Clifton says, were Hiaasen's wit, probing mind, remarkable energy and the "incredible ability to handle himself in tough situations, to write with clarity, and to peer into things and catch their essence."

Since working as an investigative reporter with Jim Savage and Gene Miller, Hiaasen has written some 1,300 columns. A very few recount personal anecdotes—about bonefishing, or blowing up frogs as a child, or trying to find his young son's lost snake, Lefty. Others tackle national issues and political candidates or officeholders. Most columns, however, focus on the overdevelopment of crowded South Florida, its immigration inequities, gun- and drug-related violence, its image and scandals and tourists, and its misuse of taxpayers' money by venal or inept public servants.

The most passionate of Hiaasen's columns often concern politics, corruption, and the environment—in Florida, three closely related topics. Many of his colleagues believe, in fact, that Hiaasen's deep-rooted attachment to South Florida enables him to write with genuine lyricism about the Everglades, and with uniquely venomous, wickedly funny satire about those "greedheads," as Hiaasen calls them, whose make-a-buck morality has led to widespread environmental destruction.

Sometimes Hiaasen is brutally direct, calling one well-known Miami politician "a pernicious little ferret," another, a "worthless blowhard," and a third, "an affable, back-slapping, ribbon-snipping blob." Sometimes he chooses images to emphasize venality—certain legislators are, for example, the "favorite slobbering lapdogs" of canegrowers, and Hialeah's government is an "oozing sludge bucket of corruption," where "the air of graft and deception comes from deep in the soil, like radon gas." He skewers local- and state-level candidates as well, during one election referring to them as "a veritable slag heap of mediocrity" and wondering, "What is it about South Florida that compels people barely fit to function in society to go out and run for office?" However, because Hiaasen doesn't play favorites, he also attacks the "rich tradition of voter apathy, rotten judgment and shallow values" allowing corrupt or unqualified candidates to gain office in the first place, so close to taxpayers' money and so indifferent to their interests.

Although Hiaasen never hesitates to use what Clifton refers to as "a cauterizing light," his satire can also be clearly fun-loving and equally effective in its various other forms—spoofs, invented conversations, lists of rules, questionnaires and surveys, predictions for the new year, diary entries, multiple-choice tests, and song lyrics, like these from February 1990, commemorating Governor Martinez's condemnation of the rap group 2 Live Crew. (The group was busted four months later by Broward Sheriff Nick Navarro, who sent a dozen county cars to "capture" the rappers, inspiring Hiaasen to comment, "Liberal wimps have chastised Navarro for using so many deputies on the 2 Live Crew raid. [But] it's not as if crime is a problem in Broward. Last year the county reported a measly 115 murders, 830 sexual assaults, 5,212 robberies, 6,202 aggravated assaults, 25,478 burglaries, 11,190 auto thefts and 59,541 larcenies … No wonder Navarro could spare a fleet of squad cars to pursue an unarmed musician!")

"Let's Do It Till November," by DJ Jazzy Bob

Yo, I'm Governor Bad
And I'm happy to say
Finally got an issue
That breaks my way.
Found some dirty words
In a jive rap song
So I'm takin' the position
That smut is wrong.

Now I ain't heard the music,
And I ain't read the law,
But I read my campaign polls
And I know what I saw.
I'm in real deep doo-doo
So I better act fast,
Gotta get me some headlines,
Gotta save my a—.
Hey, I don't wanna rap
about the D.O.T.
I know it's outta money,
but don't blame me.
And I don't wanna talk
about the H.R.S.
Yo, enough already!
I know it's a mess.

Don't know what's dirty?
Say, leave it to me,
For the final definition
Of obscenity.
Don't need no Constitution
To tell me what to do.
Gonna confiscate some albums,
Maybe videos, too.

Be a music censor,
Just to see how it looks.
If the polls jump up,
Then I'm goin' after books!

At his funniest and most playful, Hiaasen still remains dedicated to what he considers his responsibility to the public—being straightforward and up-front. "A columnist is paid to take a stand. If a reader can't figure out how I feel about something, then I don't deserve to take my paycheck home that week, because I copped out," Hiaasen says. "I feel strongly about the advocacy role of the columnist."

Certainly, he has never shied away from directly tackling issues in the public interest, even when doing so cost the Herald money, as in 1994 when the Lennar Corporation, implicated in the construction scandals following Hurricane Andrew, withdrew advertising because Hiaasen lambasted his own newspaper for promoting Lennar's new home giveaway contest. "According to an exciting full-page advertisement," he wrote, "a lucky reader will win Lennar's 'Home of the Future.' This is not to be confused with Lennar's 'homes of the past,' many of which splintered like Popsicle sticks during Hurricane Andrew." Particularly scathing, this column suggests that, as a "marvel of modern engineering," the home of the future might be made of shingles "actually nailed to the roofs," gables "actually anchored to the walls," real plywood in place of "pressed fiber-board," and might therefore remain "vertical, even in 100-mile per hour winds." (Interestingly, two years later, Hiaasen again had occasion to write about Lennar Homes, when sinkholes full of trash opened up behind houses in a Miramar subdivision the company had built. After 250 truckloads of "tires, rotting tree limbs, rusty appliances and construction debris" were hauled away, the remaining pit filled with brown water and had to be fenced.)

Despite its loss of a major advertiser, the Herald never told Hiaasen to stop writing about Lennar, even though "at many, many other newspapers there would have been a heel on the back of my neck to lay off," he says. The Herald also printed Hiaasen's criticism of the newspaper's then-publisher, Dave Lawrence, when he contemplated running for governor in 1998. While praising Lawrence as a "smart, decent, compassionate fellow who cares about Florida and believes fervently in the innate goodness of mankind," Hiaasen also vigorously objected to the "untenable and queasy position" his candidacy would have created for "this newspaper, the reporters, columnists and editors who produce it." Anything Herald staffers wrote about Lawrence or his opponent, Hiaasen pointed out, could have been perceived as coming from "Lawrence's personal campaign machine," and not from the independent voices the public was entitled to hear.

"What would our readers have thought if I stayed silent? I couldn't. The only way I knew to let our readers know it's business as usual was to do the same kind of tough column on Dave I would do on anyone," Hiaasen says. "It put us in a helluva position." The column in which he takes on his own boss (who was less surprised perhaps than others at the Herald, Hiaasen says, and who remains to this day a friend) begins with that customary punch:

It's definitely something in the water. First there was Mayor Loco, now we've got Publisher Loco.

David Lawrence, Jr., the head honcho of this newspaper, is considering a run for the governorship of Florida. Seriously.

Lawrence has never held public office. He has no fund-raising organization, and thus no funds. Most voters in Florida don't have a clue who he is. And the primaries are only five months away.

But that's our Mr. Lawrence, optimist to a fault. Since he's the Big Cheese around the newsroom, I ought to be circumspect about this bizarre situation. So here goes:

Dave, have you completely lost your marbles?

Although Hiaasen claims he took no real risks in criticizing his own publisher, such columns illustrate why former city editor Dave Satterfield likens their impact to "a baseball bat to the forehead." Calling him "one of the strongest voices in Miami," Satterfield says that because Hiaasen looks at issues in terms of right and wrong rather than according to some narrower agenda, he appeals to a wide readership. "He's looked up to throughout the community not only to be the voice of reason, but to deliver," Satterfield says. "You can cross any of those racial, ethnic divides in Miami and everyone agrees, 'Boy, Carl hit the nail on the head.' He has a very good sense of what's right."

Instead of being the voice of conscience, however, Hiaasen believes he articulates the common-sense view of an already existing but previously unrepresented constituency that has grown over the years. "People were fed up with corruption and overdevelopment," he observes, "but nobody said what everybody was thinking." Now, if an elected official is exposed by the Herald as having taken checks from taxpayers and bribes from special interests, Hiaasen weighs in. "Does that person deserve to be ridiculed and shamed? You bet," Hiaasen says. "He deserves to be miserable and wretched and go right off to jail and think about what he's done."

Doug Clifton, who believes Hiaasen's greatest gift is using an "incredible command of the language to translate his raw passion into something that ignites passion in others," maintains that people read Hiaasen to be outraged, to experience the same emotion he directs toward those who have violated the public trust. Such a response in readers, Hiaasen thinks, can help prevent corruption from becoming acceptable. Such passion in Hiaasen himself—outrage composed of disappointment, anger, incredulity, and scorn, always freshly felt—argues that his reputation as a cynic might be based more on his choice of words than on his view of human nature. That he can still be disappointed at all, after having seen and commented on the worst of Miami's graft, suggests in fact an abiding or renewable belief in the possibility of human decency. While his outrage might express a deep sense of betrayal and loss, he refuses, as Jim Savage says, "to be silenced by anybody or anything."

"When you quit trying and you accept it, that's when you're the ultimate cynic," Hiaasen says. "When you don't speak up and when you don't fight back and when you don't raise hell, that's the ultimate act of cynicism, and it's effectively surrender. It's saying, 'Things are so bad that it's now acceptable.' [But] it's not acceptable, it can't be acceptable."

While a true cynic would maintain that nothing will or even can change, over the years Hiaasen has seen what he terms "small victories" brought about by the cumulative effort of many people. Fifteen years ago, for example, candidates ran for office without even mentioning the Everglades, because "they didn't think anybody cared, but the truth is, millions of people cared," Hiaasen says, and now environmentalism and water quality are big agenda items in Florida because writers, journalists, concerned citizens and activist groups spoke as one voice. Ten years ago, the buddy system allowed graft to be punished by a slap on the wrist, but now, Hiaasen says, "You have judges and prosecutors talking very, very tough about corruption."

Some of Hiaasen's colleagues at the Herald, however, would assess his impact and influence as being more individually direct, enough to determine elections in some cases, according to Jim Savage, and enough to make "government officials hold their breath every Thursday and Sunday," according to Bob Radziewicz, assistant city editor. About the quality of his work, his colleagues are in accord: Hiaasen has few, if any, peers but can, according to Gene Miller, be considered "as good as the dead ones. H. L. Mencken, A. J. Liebling, and Izzy Stone."

Always modest, Hiaasen hopes his column will be remembered as sincere, passionate, and consistent. While certainly embodying those qualities, his work over the last thirteen years has contributed to the history and future direction of Florida in a unique way, perhaps best understood in the context of his move to the Keys when others were fleeing. Why, after all, he asks, does one sit with a dying relative?

For Hiaasen, Florida does seem a form of flesh and blood, and his kinship to it as elemental and profound a relationship as there can be, based on love, time, gratitude, and a devotion that tells us something about the meaning of home. Hiaasen wants for us, I think, what he described John D. MacDonald as wanting for his readers: to care about Florida as deeply as he does, to celebrate it, marvel at it, laugh about it, grieve for it, and even fight for it.
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