Oct 6, 2023

I'd like to tell you a quick, remarkable story

Something happened to me last week that I keep thinking about.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

Today's Friday edition is a personal essay about something that happened to me last week. If you're a new subscriber, please note we'll be back in your inbox on Tuesday (we’re off Monday for the federal holiday) with our typical edition.

Today’s read: 4 minutes

Last week I got picked up by an Uber driver who looked far too old to be behind the wheel.

As I got into the backseat of the car he turned to take a look at me — stiffly shifting his entire upper body with his head about a quarter of the way toward the back seat so he could glance at me out of the side of his eye. "Isaac?" he asked in a raspy voice. 

“Yes,” I said, immediately a little bit uneasy at the situation. The guy was driving what seemed like a brand new Tesla, but in his old age he was hunched forward in a way that, from my perspective, made it seem like he was looking through the steering wheel — not over it — at the road ahead of him.

I was heading to Los Angeles Airport for a redeye flight back to Philly after a brief 36-hour trip to California to speak on a panel about civic engagement. It was already past 9 p.m. and dark out. I was exhausted, had just gotten out of a two-hour long networking dinner, and was now a little worried about my prospects of making it home. Once we started driving, I put my headphones in and pulled up the second Republican primary debate — which I had missed live and needed to catch up on to cover in Tangle the next day — on YouTube. For the next 30 minutes I looked up anxiously anytime the driver hit the brakes or we changed lanes, fearful of an accident on Los Angeles's infamously congested highways.

I typically strike up conversations with Uber or taxi drivers if they seem open to it, and I almost always find the stories or insights interesting and rewarding. Most people are wells of fascinating material if you ask the right questions, and for me it’s often enlightening and entertaining to steer the conversation toward politics. But in this case, I was tired and cranky and had work to do. So I let my lazy side win, and convinced myself I was better off quietly listening to the debate.

But about 15 minutes out from the airport, something came over me. I can't say what exactly. Curiosity, maybe, or something a little less tangible. My concentration on the debate slipped, and despite having just spent the entire day talking, schmoozing, and speaking publicly, I felt this overwhelming urge to converse some more and decided to learn a little bit about the elderly man behind the wheel driving Uber on a Wednesday night.

I pulled my headphones out and asked him if he liked Teslas, figuring that was as good of an entry point as any. He answered quickly, youthfully even, in a way that surprised me. He was enthusiastic, explaining that he loved the car, though he wasn't a fan of driving Uber — even though he'd been doing it for more than a decade now.

When I asked what he did for work before Uber, his response surprised me in the way that can make you believe in unseen forces at work all around us.

"I was a reporter," he said. "All over Los Angeles, all my life." I answered a little too loudly: "I'm a journalist, too!"

I saw a smile crawl across his face and watched as he shifted to attention. Then he started asking questions about Tangle and my work, the way a good reporter would. I countered with my own questions, now myself hunched forward between the two front seats to hear him clearly and not miss a word. 

When I explained what Tangle is, he told me about a newsletter he used to write on the entertainment industry in the 1990s, when email was still blossoming, and all about his career in the business covering entertainment and appearing on television. He told me he was the first anchor at KABC-TV in Los Angeles in the 1950s, a statement I had no reason to doubt but seemed so unbelievable given the circumstances that I didn't take it at face value right away. He was, as I suspected, quite old: 90 years old, to be exact, though "in good health" — good enough to drive and make ends meet — something he was quite grateful for.

Slowly, as we lobbed questions back and forth at each other, I started to get the feeling I was in the presence of a true great. It wasn't until I got out of the car and Googled him that I realized just how great. I hadn't just been picked up by some random reporter who had done a stint or two at the local newspaper; I had been driven to the airport by one of Los Angeles's truly legendary broadcast journalists. The kind of guy who, if he were selling tickets to come see him speak at an event, would probably prompt me to go.

His name is Lew Irwin (in another twist, this also made the hair on my neck stand up, as I'm currently working on a book about my long lost uncle who went by the name "Lew" for many years). 

When I got out of his car at the airport, I found his Wikipedia page. Among his many other accomplishments, Irwin's pedigree is apparent in the fact he has interviewed five presidents (Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan), The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley (whom he wrote a book on), Dick Clark, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, and many others.

As he told me in the car, he was, in fact, the original anchor and reporter at KABC-TV from 1957 to 1962. Then he was the news director at several Los Angeles radio stations, before creating The Credibility Gap in the 1960s — a satirical comedy troupe that combined music and political satire, and grew a cult following through the 1970s. He also owned a news production company and hosted a few nationally syndicated programs, including News Today and Earth News Radio.

Before we broke off our conversation, I asked Lew if he was working on anything. As it happens, there was some renewed interest in a book he had published in 2013 called Deadly Times, on the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times. The story is about labor union terrorists, and a bombing at The Los Angeles Times headquarters that is still the deadliest attack in the history of the city — a historical event that, 113 years later, has been mostly forgotten. That morning, Lew had found out the book might be optioned into a movie, a prospect he told me "might get me out of this car" for the last few years of his life. And he had extra motivation: Just a week or two before, he had been assaulted by a drunken passenger who punched him in the back of the head.

The card Lew Irwin gave me

The entire interaction was far too brief, but it moved me deeply. Of course, there was something sad about seeing this gentleman with such a storied career stuck behind the wheel and forced into gig work at the age of 90. But there was also something remarkable and uplifting about him. He was funny, light, a tad self-deprecating but exuding confidence, and as sharp as any 90-year-old I’ve ever met. He was optimistic. Looking forward to something. Still had some fire in his belly. When he referenced a character in the book who was a notorious lawyer from that era, and I asked who the person was, he said, "Oh, you should really know that if you are a reporter," and I actually felt myself well up with embarrassment.

45 minutes earlier I was having dismissive thoughts about this man and his age, and now I was caught with a deep sense of inferiority. Life comes at you fast.

I share this story not just because it was (to me) an incredible exchange, full of lessons about media, our current economic moment, and the way we all judge people, but also because I want to help Mr. Irwin. I'm writing to ask you to go get his book, as I did about five minutes after we met. It's available on Amazon here and through AbeBooks here.

Maybe if a few thousand of us buy it, we can help Lew get out of his car before the movie option comes through, even if it's just for a few weeks. And either way, the book looks fascinating, the story sounds remarkable, it's probably well worth the read, and the author is someone I think is very much worth supporting.

We're off Monday.

Tangle observes bank holidays, so we are off on Monday for Columbus Day. We'll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

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Friday editions typically only go to Tangle members. They vary widely in content: They are often deep dives or original reporting on specific topics. Sometimes, they are transcribed interviews. Other times they are emails like this — personal essays, anecdotes, or opinion pieces that have a little or nothing to do with politics. If you enjoyed this, you can subscribe here or (if you are a subscriber) drop something in our tip jar.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.