Gathered cheek to jowl and crab cake to scotch and soda inside the National Press Club’s main ballroom, once referred to by newsman ERic Severied as like being trapped inside a roll-top desk (it has a seemingly pleated and unudulating wooden ceiling), a crowd of former sources–FCC officials, former FCC officials, association executives, broadcasters, cable execs, lawyers, lawyers, more lawyers, and fellow scribes celebrated the life of the late “Tack” Nail Thursday night.Nail, the former B&C and TV Digest/Communications Daily reporter who died last week from a fall, was raised up by speakers and sources and friends and family for his humor and humanity and Rolodex, all of which were outsized.
Don West, former editor of B&C and now President of the Library of American Broadcasting, a colleague of Nail’s since Nail first hit town from Oklahoma in 1954, captured the man and the moment in his remarks. He pointed out that if half Tack’s sources had left the room, it would be half empty.
But nobody left, and the room was filled with stories and laughs–Tack’s penchant for picking up stray parking tickets and putting them on his colleague’s windshield, for example–and a few, well-earned, tears.
But why don’t I stop and let the better man take the electronic rostrum:
By Don West at a Memorial Service
For Dawson B. (Tack) Nail
at the Washington National Press Club
on March 31, 2011
This is a solumn occasion, which means that if Tack were here, he would rise from the crowd and call out something outrageous. The irony tonight is that this is a solumn occasion because of Tack, not in spite of him. We are bereft. We have all been deprived of someone dear to us.
Actually, dear to thousands. The second irony is that a man remembered in life for his antics in public is remembered now by so many who realize they loved him all along.
Tack and I were brothers, once removed. I arrived in Washington from New Mexico and Korean service in 1953. Tack showed up from Oklahoma and Korea a year later. We both ended up at Broadcasting magazine, he destined for the reportorial ranks, I for the editor’s desk. Tack still wore cowboy boots. I was to become one of the suits.
It wasn’t long before the broadcasting industry knew it had something new on its hands, and if you weren’t the president of ABC, CBS, NBC or the National Association of Broadcasters you might have welcomed this new reportorial protocol. There was no longer safety in a press conference nor deference to rank. Tack treated the high and the mighty like everyone else - which is to say, without mercy — and rarely took no for an answer, He could spot pomposity a block away and puncture it with a quip.
Worst still, broadcasters and lobbyists and congressmen began to read their innermost secrets in the trade press - Broadcasting, for the first 10 years, and Television Digest and Communications Daily after that. That’s when our brotherhood began to be strained. For a while - before we caught up - there was war between the newsrooms. Monday mornings - when we both published - were hell for me. Sol Taishoff would meet his editors with a copy of Television Digest on which he had marked all of Tack’s exclusives with a green grease pencil. Some of them belonged to Al Warren, but no matter.
It was a less polite kind of journalism but it taught us all some new tricks. Broadcasting had owned the field in Washington before Tack came along and it took a while to get back on top. Tack, of course, would disagree that we did. But in the meantime the overall quality of broadcast journalism in Washington went up by quantum leaps, even though Sol’s blood pressure went even higher.
Tack never made it easy on friend or foe. Or family, too, it’s my guess. Being friends with Tack wasn’t for sissies. But it was a sentence for life.
That’s what we’re up against now. The loss of a friend who insinuated himself into all our lives. He didn’t just cover your business, he covered your husband, or your wife and girl friends, and he knew all your kids. He had more home phone numbers than any other reporter in town, and attended more weddings and funerals. I was with him one day when he was taking off to drive 500 miles to visit the ailing wife of an old friend.
Tack’s secret, of course, was his sources, and his secret with sources were his friendships, as Shaun Sheehan’s remarks testify. Tack was a fierce friend who, literally, would give you the nightshirt off his back, as he did for me on several of our trips to New York. I never quite gave him the keys to the house or the grandkids, nor did I break a story to him in advance. But others did, and I never found out who they were. If half of them left the room right now this place would be half empty.
Tack gave no quarter as a competitor and none as a friend. If it took guts to be his friend so too did it take courage to be Tack Nail. Life never met him half way. He spent 10 years in an orphanage, survived live combat in Korea, lost his first child and her mother, triumphed over cancer and battled every sling and arrow his career and his subjects threw at him. He made it look like fun but there was far more to Tack than that. At our Library of American Broadcasting, which finally claimed him, a fellow director - Jim Duffy, the former president of ABC - said this of him:
“He was an unusual, straight-shooting fellow in a business of minefields. Behind Tack’s backcountry exterior was a very aware, intelligent, excellent reporter and caring human being. We will miss him, but we sure won’t forget him.”
To me, the operative word in that tribute is “caring.” In Tack’s world, it worked both ways.