I am the editor of the student newspaper at a prestigious northeast liberal arts college, and I want to tell the story of one of the most impressive young men I have ever met. One evening, in the middle of the fall term of my senior year, the young man in question appeared in our newspaper's small offices on the dank, otherwise deserted third floor of the student union. He had in his hand a clipping of my latest article, a profile of an eight-year-old orphan girl who suffered from a rare skin disease, and who lived in a children's hospice just a few blocks from campus.
"Do you stand by this reporting?" the man said.
I said that I did, and a devilish smile crossed his lips.
"Who are you?" I said.
"To my enemies, including big government and the liberal media, I am an agitator, a provocateur, a pest. But to all who love freedom, justice and transparency, I am a humble foot soldier."
"I meant, what's your name?" I said.
My question triggered something in him; he glanced once over each shoulder, crouched, and placed both hands in front of him in some sort of ready position, as if to fend off a threat that, alas, never materialized. Then he walked out the office door.
I did not think much more of the incident until the next morning, when, walking to class, I saw a crowd gathered around the doors of the college chapel. Sensing a story, I pushed through to the front. Nailed to the chapel's wooden door was clipping of my article about the little orphan girl. It had been marked thoroughly in red ink. I read through the edits, which seemed to scream out angrily from the margins: "TYPICAL LIBERAL BIAS"... "SLANTED TOWARD THE KID!!!" And, in response to a line about little Lizzie Bell's $1-a-week allowance, my editor had scrawled, "FOLLOW THE MONEY!!!!!!!"
Nailed to the door, beside my article, was a business card. It bore no title or contact information; only a name, engraved in gold print: james o'keefe iii.
In the week or so that followed the chapel door incident, I did not see James O'Keefe III, nor did I expect to. The drama of the moment faded, and campus life went on. Then, on the last day of classes before Thanksgiving break, I saw him again, sulking in the dining hall.
It was a dramatic sulk: O'Keefe, in a baby blue Ralph Lauren polo shirt, shoes untied, khakis wrinkled, flipping despondently through the Pottery Barn catalog.
"Tell me," he said, "would you pay $149 for a fluted glass task table lamp?"
"How about $298 for Chesapeake chaise longue and cushion?
"I might," I said. "It depends."
He tossed the catalog to the ground between us. "The hell with this place," he said. "Elitist liberal scum."
"You should get out, then," I said.
"Maybe I will."
"Good," I said, turning to leave, when above the crunch of leaves beneath my shoes I heard him emit a long, piteous sigh, and say, faintly, "But I have no place to go for Thanksgiving."
For as long as anyone in my family can remember, we have been an academic clan. No -- for just a little bit longer than anyone can remember. We are not sure where the inclination came from, or what long-dead relative first laid down the professorial roots, or when he did it, or why. It has simply always been so.
It is hard to do justice to O'Keefe's reaction when we pulled into the driveway of our home, a modest ranch in a New York suburb, on the morning of Thanksgiving Day. My parents belong to that academic genus known as "artsy types," and our home reflects their belief that every last object is an opportunity for self-expression. O'Keefe registered this and his wide eyes took in the scene hungrily: the solar panels, compost bins, and especially the little water wheel that irrigated the garden and delivered nourishment to each flower equally. But most of all, O'Keefe seemed captivated by the sight of my father, who sat on the front porch reading his morning paper.
"The New York Times," O'Keefe said knowingly as we approached. As if he had stumbled on a scene of fleeting natural beauty, O'Keefe dug into his pocket and removed a cell phone, and began shooting video of my father as he leafed through the national news.
"Dad," I said, "this is James. He'll be joining us for dinner."
"A pleasure," my father said, appropriately leery of this paparazzo guest.
"Tell me, sir," O'Keefe said, "do you read the New York Times often?"
"Nearly every day," my dad said.
"And do you find it to be a reliable and objective sources of news?"
"For the most part, yes."
O'Keefe smiled widely. He rushed past my father and let himself into the house, where he began scribbling madly into a small notebook. When he was done, I showed him to the guestroom. It's a small room, done in pastel yellows and sky blues, with a twin bed and a dresser and two windows. As he stepped inside and set his bag down on the bed, he reverted to the paranoid state I first witnessed when he confronted me in the newspaper's offices. He dropped to the floor and looked under the bed, and then removed each dresser drawer. I left him as he was inspecting the electronics and tracing every cord to its outlet, as if expecting to find... I do not know what he was expecting to find.
Downstairs, in the dining room, my family -- which includes myself, my parents, and my grandmother -- had assembled for dinner. Because my parents are university professors of multicultural studies, whose students hail from around the globe and are often without plans on Thanksgiving, the table was surrounded by representatives from half a dozen countries. My mother and grandmother had prepared a dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, cranberry sauce, and a dessert -- a family tradition known to us, affectionately, as "Grandma's Surprise."
How do I convey our disbelief when O'Keefe descended the stairs and took his seat at the table? He looked as if he had stepped out of 17th century New England, or a comic book version of it: he was dressed in a black coat, felt hat, knee-length white breeches and buckles on his shoes. He strode in nonchalantly, as if nothing was amiss, tipped his hat to the international delegation and said, "Let's eat."
"You're a Pilgrim," my mother said. O'Keefe cringed.
"I find the term Pilgrim offensive," he said. "But yes, I am descended from settlers of the Plymouth Colony."
I had by now done some research into O'Keefe's past, and was familiar with his operations -- a mix of covert journalism and self-righteous activism, perpetrated with the aid of selective editing and outlandish costumes. O'Keefe's unique methods had toppled ACORN and humiliated NPR, but they had also gotten him arrested and brought considerable humiliation upon him, though I was not sure if he knew about it. As for my family, I did not know whether to be flattered or enraged that he had deemed us worthy of one of his notorious stings.
We ate. O'Keefe had brought a hearty appetite and, to my surprise, first-rate table manners. He expertly navigated his silverware, said "please" and "thank you" and engaged our international guests in polite conversation. I was sure this was all an elaborate setup, that any moment he would unleash some polarizing tirade or attempt to back my multicultural parents into some rhetorical corner. But as time went on, I saw that O'Keefe had either called off his sinister plan or forgotten it all together. He was having a lovely time. He called out for seconds, and then thirds, with the enthusiasm of a Iditarod musher; with a charming insistence, he declared himself the keeper of the gravy boat. When he kissed my mother on the cheek I was sure the gambit was back on -- perhaps a reprise of his botched attempt last year to seduce a female CNN reporter on a boat -- but I was wrong. He lavished his affection on us all, and after hugging the quiet young Ethiopian man in the seat beside him, O'Keefe exclaimed, "these green beans -- mmmmm!" And then he removed his cell phone from his pocket, lifted the bowl of green beans to his shoulder, and snapped a picture as if posing with a friend.
The rest of us, having little else to do, looked on, inspired by the young Pilgrim's love of life. Toward the end of the meal, he pulled out a small digital voice recorder and commenced a series of short descriptions of the dishes. "Turkey," he said. "Marvelously tender, juicy, a dream." "Stuffing," he went on. "Airy, cloudlike." "Mashed potatoes," he said, and then paused bashfully, almost guiltily. "Needs salt."
Finally, O'Keefe leaned across the table, dipped a finger into the dish containing the last serving of "Grandma's Surprise" and brought it to his lips. After sitting silent with his eyes closed for an uncomfortable length of time, he backed away from his seat, rose, and walked toward my grandmother. He hovered over her for a moment and then his face broke again into that beatific smile, and he took her head in his hands, and in a whisper that blew like a soft wind through my grandmother's thinning gray hair, he said, "I must have the recipe."
The wine began to flow. A Dutch girl asked O'Keefe if he knew any traditional Pilgrim songs. He said that he did not. A Vietnamese girl asked if he knew any dances, and after a moment, to our considerable delight, he said that he did. He leapt up onto the table, and in a display of human jollity I do not expect to see equaled in my lifetime, grabbed hold of his breeches and began to kick his legs. We watched, rapt, awaiting some twist or variation, some bow or turn or pirouette. It was, however, his only move. But he went at it with such verve, and with such a sincere desire to please, that we hollered along, with O'Keefe smiling and kicking like a madman, until the wine was gone and our voices had gone hoarse, and the international guests trickled out and the rest of us, exhausted, went up to our rooms, leaving O'Keefe atop the table, cheeks flush and short of breath, still kicking.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of my buzzing phone on the bedside table, packed with voicemails. There was a reporter from Politico, and another from Fox News, from every news outlet I'd heard of and several I hadn't. The reporters all wanted to know if I had a comment on "the video."
Instinctively, I signed on to my computer. My inbox was filled with concerned messages from friends, all with links to a 30-second video on O'Keefe's web site. It was a shaky montage of footage: my father speaking highly of the New York Times, the BFF photo with the green beans, and a segment filmed in the guest bedroom late that night, showing O'Keefe in his Pilgrim costume gazing out the window and identifying constellations. Over this montage, O'Keefe's voice announced his retirement. "I am through with sting operations," he said. "I renounce my past. I believe my talents and passions can be more effectively put toward other, more positive goals. As of today, I am transitioning into the home and lifestyle market." He paused for effect as an orchestral soundtrack faded in. "I want to begin by sharing with you a recipe that has been passed down in my family for generations, a delectable dish we call "Grandma's Surprise..."
I clicked out of the video, rushed out of my room and down the hall to the guest bedroom. I don't know why I knocked on the door. Of course he was gone.
I returned to school on the last day of November. The grassy patches of the quad had hardened as if bracing for snow, and for whatever reason I went to the administration building and asked the woman on duty if she knew anything about him. She punched his name into her computer and said there was no record of a James O'Keefe III. I made the rounds of the political science department during office hours, thinking that he might have audited some class, that some professor might remember him. I found one professor who remembered a student who had sat in on his class, "The American Progressive Tradition." I asked him to describe the student, and after thinking for a moment, the professor said, "a bit of a loner." I pressed him for more. "A bright kid," he said. "A frustrated kid. I remember one thing he said," the professor went on. "He kept saying the country today wouldn't be in such a hole if only the Republicans had stopped the New Deal. And when I asked him how they might have done that, he said, 'hidden cameras.' It was the first time in my career I've been truly speechless. The other students laughed at him. And then he stood up, right in the middle of class, and said, 'The hell with this place. I'm going home for Thanksgiving.'"
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