Wheeling and Able: NPR’s Man in Jerusalem

When a job unexpectedly opened in the Jerusalem bureau a few weeks ago, John Hockenberry was the one National Public Radio reporter in Washington still clamoring to go overseas.

“I’d been bugging them like crazy for four years,” Hockenberry told us. “I was sort of the last person left waiting to go somewhere and they needed to do something fast. I was this single guy saying ‘I can go tomorrow! I can go tomorrow!'”

Hockenberry’s bosses at NPR didn’t doubt he had the talent to flourish on foreign soil. The reason he remained in Washington, fighting off anger, despair, frustration, and the occasional surge of paranoia, eclipsed his talent: 12 years ago a car accident left Hockenberry a paraplegic.

“I think they wanted to find the right assignment for me, and they didn’t have the right sense of what that was,” Hockenberry reflected. His bosses weren’t going to ship him overseas out of sympathy, and they couldn’t bring themselves to send him on his merits. Hockenberry felt the only way he could prove to them he could do it was by doing it; he found himself identifying with Jesse Jackson: “Liberals have this idea Jesse Jackson will be able to become president when we reach a certain utopia. And Jesse sees it very differently. He’ll be able to become president when he does it and becomes president.”

Anyway, the decision finally made itself, Hockenberry told us, and this week he flew to Israel. “They said ‘I don’t know what you’re going to be dealing with [in the Middle East]. You’re just going to have to handle it the best way you can.’

“As if I had to be told that.”

So how does he handle it?

“You need certain physical tricks,” Hockenberry explained just before he left. “You need to get up and down curbs and go down steps a little bit, and you need to know how to flag a cab, which is a skill. You need to really stick yourself out in the road and stare that cabby down. You have to learn how to coax television cameramen to let you hang out at the front of a stakeout, which requires a certain persistence and maybe a little nudging with the metal front of your chair on the Achilles tendon.

“The thing you have to do most regularly is just set people at ease. They may think you’re nuts wanting to go up a flight of stairs and you have to tell them it’s only about the five billionth time you’ve done it and when you get to the top everything will be OK. And sometimes when everything else fails, you have to be willing to make a complete spectacle of yourself–to get down off the bus or down off the stairs and into the mud and haul yourself along like a sack of melons. But you wind up getting the attention of the people you want to get the attention of.”

In other words, reporting from a wheelchair demands the trade’s usual ingenious and shameless persistence raised to a higher degree. Hockenberry thinks he’s got that. Besides, even if it is hard for him to keep up with the herd, the herd is what he intends to run with as little as possible. NPR reporters seek the candor and reflectiveness of good conversation. To find it, they generally go their own way.

“You make a heck of a lot of lasting friendships being a reporter in a wheelchair,” Hockenberry said. “I think people are more inclined to want to know what the hell’s going on with you. I think my first clue this was true was when I was doing a story in Oregon a long, long time ago on the timber industry falling apart. I was in a bar interviewing the locals in this one mill town, and I did the interview and one of them turned to me and said ‘You have a hell of a job. You go around, talk to people, and drink beer–‘”

This was said in a friendly way? we asked him.

“Completely friendly. Anyway, we became friends and the story worked out better as a result. I think they were as confused about how I got there as I was confused trying to make sense of this economic story.

“I think people are more likely to respond to you when they get the sense you have the capacity to reveal something about yourself. Not to get all cushy and mushy, but I think a basic sharing is involved in having a conversation with anyone.”

So the wheelchair can work in your favor?

“I think it’ll be an advantage over there. I think it was an advantage over here. And I don’t worry about it at all.”

Twelve years ago, Hockenberry and his roommate at the University of Chicago were hitchhiking east during spring break. The lady who picked them up in Indiana had been awake 30 hours straight. “We went to sleep in the backseat,” Hockenberry said, “she went to sleep in the front seat. Boom! She drove off the road. My roommate was fine, the driver was killed, and I had a spinal cord injury. It’s ancient history, really.”

In 1980, Hockenberry was studying music at the University of Oregon and hanging out at the local NPR affiliate. “I got a very strong impression from the informality of the affiliate, which was kind of the equivalent of a student union and a diner, that I could do this too.” When Mount Saint Helens blew, and it was up to the affiliate to handle the story, Hockenberry began free-lancing. He did well enough that NPR sent him up to Seattle to open a bureau, and a few months later invited him to Washington to try out for All Things Considered. Only then, when he showed up, did his bosses find out about the wheelchair. But they gave Hockenberry the job.

Hockenberry returned to Chicago in 1984 as a Benton Fellow at the U. of C. He was apprehensive–he didn’t know if he could cope with another Chicago winter in his chair. “I wasn’t up to the task in 1976, when I came back after the accident. And then I realized I was in a heck of a lot better shape than I’d been in nine years before. You just get a little more skilled and a little more gutsy.”

He stayed on as a reporter and learned to do whatever needed to be done, such as wheeling himself out of the NPR offices at 230 N. Michigan, into the elevator, and down the street to the “architecturally accessible” bathroom at Loop College. He began bidding for every overseas job that opened up, getting none of them.

Last May, he left Chicago. “They offered me a job in Washington and I figured I had to go to Washington if I was going to resolve this. I couldn’t fight these battles on the phone.”

We talked to John MacChesney, NPR’s foreign editor in Washington and the man who finally sent Hockenberry on his way.

“He’s a superb reporter and I think he can do a superb job,” MacChesney said. We asked him if he felt any trepidation over the wheelchair. “I don’t,” MacChesney went on. “I trust his evaluation of that. He’s familiar with life in that situation–I’m not. One has to take his word for it. I trust he’ll be prudential.”

“I understand there’s six steps up to the press center in Jerusalem,” Hockenberry said. “I guess I’ll make friends with a strong cabby, or a courier or something.”

It’s BAT Time Again

Hot Type’s seventh annual BAT Awards tell the usual wretched story. You recall that the BAT, for Baseball Accuracy Test, is this column’s traditional tribute to the uncanny knack that veteran sports scribes seem to acquire for picking winners about as well as the drunk at the next stool.

We begin this year’s ceremony with two special citations. Bernie Lincicome, hold your head up high! Even though you called all four races wrong, you stood alone in picking the world champion Minnesota Twins to finish as high as fourth in their division. After his shattering defeat last year (Lincicome lost the ’87 Golden Bat on a tiebreaker, which hinged on his prediction that Marvin Hagler would do “something sickening” to Sugar Ray Leonard), we expected nothing from his precinct this time around. Instead, we got slightly more.

And how about a nice hand for Dave van Dyck. Sports fans, if the Blue Jays hadn’t fallen apart the last week of the season, van Dyck would have picked two winners and tied for his third BAT championship in a row.

But in the end, 1987 belonged to Joe Goddard, and what an inspirational story this is! One year ago, announcing the results of the 1986 BAT competition, we had the unpleasant duty of reporting that Goddard and Terry Boers were “fixing bayonets to fight over rock bottom” and the coveted Cracked BAT. Since then, Goddard has come an incredible distance. On the strength of his call that the Cardinals would win the NL East and prevail over the Giants for the NL pennant, we proudly award Joe Goddard this year’s Golden BAT. No sportswriter but Goddard picked as many as two races right; and in the one division where Goddard humiliated himself–he had the Twins dead last–he had loads of company.

Which brings us to the ’88 Cracked BAT recipient. It was some kind of dogfight: Ray Sons, Joel Bierig, Lincicome, Bob Verdi, and Fred Mitchell all took the collar. To separate them we came up with an elegant formula: we’ve graded each competitor by adding the places in the standings in which his preseason choices actually finished, and further adding the places he projected beforehand for the eventual ’87 division winners.

High man wins. Highest possible total, if everyone you pick to win finishes last and everyone you pick to finish last wins, is 52.

The champion: Joe Bierig, 36 points. Bierig managed to roll triple sevens, picking the Texas Rangers first in the AL West and the Twins last, and the Indians on top of the AL East. His other division winners, the Phillies and the Astros, also wound up below .500.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Darrow Montgomery.