The cop beat was my first assignment as a cub reporter on a Texas newspaper. Perry, an unassuming if incredibly keen veteran editor, called me into his office and explained that the previous law-enforcement reporter had grown too close to the police and that his articles were little more than promotional rubbish. Before sending me out, Perry warned, "Son, never lose your independence as a journalist."
When I arrived at the police station, the chief—a massive, droopy-faced fellow named J.D. who always talked as if his mouth were stuffed with honey—stared at me across his immaculate, paper-free desk. On the wall hung a picture of the buzz-cut chief smiling contentedly, a dead deer at his feet. Someone had told me that he called non-Texans "Goddamn Yankees." I didn't wear boots or plaid, snap-button shirts or twang a single word. I despised the Dallas Cowboys. I wasn't a native Texan.
"You're a Goddamn Yankee, aren't you?" he finally asked. I just sat there—puzzled and, to be honest, afraid. "Well, what you've got to understand is there's my way and the wrong way. Do what I tell you and we'll get along. Don't and you'll wish you'd never set foot in the state of Texas. Things around here are pretty much black-and-white."
J.D. and I never got along, particularly after a series of articles I wrote helped prompt a grand-jury investigation into allegations of police corruption and he was forced to retire. I was reminded of J.D. recently by Orange County Register columnist Gordon Dillow, a former cop reporter who is adored by the men in blue. For the past five years, Dillow—a 49-year-old Texan who openly loathes anything progressive—has offered Register readers a tortured, folksy, ultraconservative spin on Orange County life. His favorite subjects are guns, Old Glory and anything favorable to police. He regularly weighs in with propaganda pieces such as the one titled "Cops Shouldn't Be Condemned for Mistakes."
But one theme in particular reverberates through most if not all of Dillow's work regardless of the story: the good old days.
In a 1998 column, Dillow gushed that the 1950s were a time when "there were no moral ambiguities, no situational ethics, no gray areas." The Reg columnist maintained that people lived by a "Cowboy Code . . . Never shoot first or take unfair advantage. Always tell the truth. Keep your word. Be respectful to women and parents. [Apparently, the code was just for men.] Help people in distress. . . . Don't be racially or religiously intolerant. Be a patriot."
Dillow conveniently ignores that the 1950s were also a period when, for example, black citizens were legally subject to pervasive, obvious, daily racism; were denied the right to speak their minds; and were easily condemned for drawing attention to themselves.
Perhaps the person least likely to meet Dillow's standards is professional basketball player Dennis Rodman. He lives in a massive beachfront house in Newport Beach and is a worldwide celebrity, a talented athlete, richer than God, and completely unbound by the status quo or tradition. He is also secure enough in his masculinity that he sometimes colors his hair pink.
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Not surprisingly, Dillow hates Rodman, a fellow Texan. On April 4, the columnist bitterly complained that Newport Beach police chose not to impound a Volkswagen driven improperly by an unlicensed Rodman. It was a perfectly legal move, but the cops let the star "slide," a suddenly hip Dillow wrote. He also couldn't help but point out, twice, that Rodman's car was bright-yellow. (You know how they like being flashy.)
Dillow's "Cowboy Code" is apparently situational—particularly when it comes to minorities who challenge the tidy world-view of Bubbas like him. And not just when it comes to Rodman. How else can you explain Dillow's laughable visit to a 1999 Orange County gay-pride event to prove that it is actually gays who are the bigots in the ongoing public debate over homosexuality? How else can you explain why Dillow admitted that "there was a time when I called [Vietnamese] gooks without so much as a second thought" and as late as last year urged the public to "understand" and sympathize with cops who use the slur while patrolling Little Saigon.
With those marks against him, it shouldn't be a surprise that Dillow ended his Rodman column on a blatantly condescending and racist note. He lectured the star to do the cops "a favor"; drumming up images of a dangerous ghetto boy for his overwhelmingly white audience, Dillow told the black millionaire to "turn down the boombox."
We offered the Register columnist an opportunity to explain his use of "boombox" (Rodman apparently didn't have a boombox with him at the time of the incident). However, the usually assertive Dillow had nothing to say on the subject. Perhaps he's been too busy thumbing through his trusty "Cowboy Code" for a black-and-white answer.