POUND SAND: It’s been six whole days now since Travis Armstrong abruptly resigned as the News-Press‘s potentate of the poison pen after nearly eight years on the job. In his wake, I figured I might a get a phone call or two. At least a nibble. Good help, after all, is hard to find. Besides, I already live here. I don’t have to be taught how to misspell and mispronounce most of the street names. I already know how to get them wrong. Yet my phone ringeth not. It mocketh me with its silence.
Aside from the astonishing upset of Measure B -the building height restriction for which we were repeatedly told that victory was inevitable and that no right-thinking candidate would dare oppose it-the biggest news of the political season has been Travis’s sudden departure. For many in town, Travis personified the unhappy hornet’s nest the News-Press has become. A few lines from Armstrong’s rant du jour could induce otherwise sane and sentient beings into sputtering seizures of outrage and indignation. Others regarded Travis as a slow-moving train wreck, and religiously picked up the News-Press only to see whom he’d cudgeled that day. As for me, Armstrong’s writing was a taste I never acquired. I did marvel at the guy’s sheer stamina, however. Even under the best of circumstances-which the News-Press hasn’t seen in many years-it’s hard to crank out that stuff. But to be held in such low regard by so many for so long must have been radioactive on one’s nervous system. Having only seen Travis in action at forums or hearing him on the radio, he never seemed equipped with sufficient body armor to take such slings and arrows. But then, he never seemed like the sort to dish it out so venomously either. There’s always been a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde disconnect between the ingratiating public face writers put forward and the true nasty selves only their keyboards witness firsthand. With Travis, the gap between these two encompasses time zones.
Because of this, many in town celebrated news of Travis’s departure like it was the end of World War II. While misguided in the extreme, the sentiment remains understandable. Travis took the old adage, “The personal is the political,” and turned it upside-down and banged its head until brain juice poured out the ear holes. You never could tell if Travis cared about his positions beyond the extent to which they offered him a handy excuse to excoriate public figures he just didn’t like. People who found themselves on the dark side of Travis’s moon discovered that the sun would never shine on their back door, at least where the News-Press was concerned. For example, Travis came to despise former councilmember Brian Barnwell. I never got it. I found Barnwell passionate, opinionated, and hilariously off-color. But Barnwell also had a genius for infuriating all sides of a given controversy. In journalism, that’s what passes for fairness; in politics, it’s called suicide. Hence Councilmember Dale Francisco’s upset victory over Barnwell two years ago. If Travis wanted to go after Barnwell as an elected official, however, that was certainly his business. But when he decided to drag in members of Barnwell’s immediate family, well, that was nobody’s business. Stunts like that revealed Travis to be more thug than ideologue. But, sadly for News-Press management, not scary enough to intimidate anyone effectively. It was only after Travis briefly was named interim editor three years ago that the News-Press mutiny achieved true critical mass. My pet peeve was how Travis insinuated some grave scandal without ever explaining what the scandal actually was. He’d frequently mention some traffic accident that some highly placed person at The Independent allegedly was involved in. Based on his columns, I never learned such trifling details as who, what, when, how, or so what. But whatever it was, I know it was bad.
Travis’s true genius, however, was in constructing mountains out of molehills. Mayor-Elect Helene Schneider’s husband-not Schneider herself -applied for a city permit to remodel the garage of the couple’s Westside home and thus became the subject of countless editorials. Ultimately, the project went nowhere due to cost issues. I never got it. I still don’t. But give Travis credit. By tagging the suffix “-Gate” to the prefix “Helene,” he manufactured the entirely imaginary scandal known to his readers as “Helene-Gate.”
As bad as Travis was, he never was anything more than the political id monster for News-Press owner Wendy McCaw. He was her voice, but she was always calling the shots. Well before Travis was a gleam in McCaw’s eye, the News-Press editorialized against the living wage, the minimum wage, and tenant protections. It already was vilifying Susan Rose and the rest of the county supervisors for ratifying a public easement- agreed to by one of the property’s previous owners -allowing people the right to walk along the beach at the base of McCaw’s Hope Ranch estate. It was well before Travis that the News-Press issued the now infamous “let them eat beans and rice” animal rights-inspired editorial, suggesting that, for Thanksgiving, Santa Barbara’s poor could forgo the donated turkeys offered by the FoodBank-then desperately trying to secure more birds-and sit down to a steaming plate of rice and beans instead.
Even with so many qualified journalists unemployed, I’m betting McCaw can’t find anyone willing to fill Travis’s shoes. Since Wendy has not yet seen fit to call me, I’ve decided to pursue Plan B. Maybe The Independent will hire Travis. Why not? After all, we hired former News-Press columnists Barney Brantingham and Starshine Roshell. Both of these writers, I should point out, kicked my ass in The Indy‘s annual Best Of Readers’ Poll as favorite S.B. columnist. In my own paper, I can’t do better than third place. If we hired Travis, there might be someone I could hope to beat. In the meantime, maybe I’ll hire attorney Barry Cappello to demand a recount.