A bureau chief's own perfect storm

It was a dark and stormy night when Charlie Hurt, Capitol Hill bureau chief of the Washington Times, was first swept up by journalism.

He was an intern at the Danville Register & Bee, and his editors assigned him a weather story. In the wilds of southern Virginia, that meant taking stock of collapsed trees, car wrecks and lost electricity.

The electrical storm was at once spectacularly beautiful and shockingly damaging.

Much to his surprise, Hurt’s story made the front page.

After filing, he walked into the sticky-hot summer night, where he could smell the town’s cured tobacco. He recalled the “thudding of the printing presses,” and his “own heart just pounding.”

He was thrilled. And he was hooked.

Hurt, 35, was named Capitol Hill bureau chief earlier this year. He downplays the promotion and compares it to being a “traffic cop.” He has covered Capitol Hill for the Times since 2003. With wild, curly rich brown hair that makes him look like a character from another century, his attire gives him the air of a Ralph Lauren model crossed with a thrift store vagabond.

Today’s getup is a distressed brown leather vest, a red-and-white gingham button-down shirt and a brown wool blazer, reminiscent of those worn by horse aficionados. He’s wearing stone-colored trousers and shoes equally suitable for cleaning out a barn or treading the marble floors of the Capitol — worn, brown, leather lace-ups.

Much like his attire, Hurt is complex. He’s restless and fidgety yet charming. He’s elegant yet confused. He’s fuzzy on numbers — such as his age and the year of his college graduation. He promises to forward his r�sum�.

He graduated from Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville, Va., where he studied English and political philosophy. “Which meant I was uniquely unemployable, except possibly for newspapers,” he said.

Hurt grew up in Chadham, Va., a one-stoplight tobacco town of 1,400 residents. Among his writing influences are his father, a novelist who wrote for Reader’s Digest for a quarter of a century, and grandmother, a magazine writer. Tobacco-chewing started at a young age.

Growing up in a small Southern town, Hurt’s life goal was to work at a big-city daily “covering the worst part of crime and corruption.”

Before he could get there, he spent summers interning at Virginia dailies, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, where editors fixated on the newsroom spelling bee. In one instance, Hurt amused himself — though perhaps not his audience —by filling a story with such unusual spelling-bee vocabulary that he called the end result virtually unreadable.

He moved on to the Detroit News, where he was a scab. Hurt crossed picket lines at the paper to cover cops, fires, murders and Detroit public schools.

“It was an absolutely stupid strike,” he said. “The reporters would sit out there and eat prosciutto around the burn barrels — and I’m not making that up.” Reporters wanted automatic pay increases, rather than a merit-based pay system. “It was a good lesson about being the skunk at the party, which is a crucial lesson to being a reporter,” Hurt said. 

In 2001 Hurt came to Washington to cover former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) for the Charlotte Observer. Two years later he moved to the Times to cover Congress and presidential campaigns.

Asked if there are lawmakers who won’t speak to him, he laughs: “There’s some who don’t particularly like me. Who am I to brag?”

Even New York Times scribe Carl Hulse seems to regard him fondly, so how bad could he be? “While we do not always agree on what makes a news story, Charlie and I do agree that reporting on Capitol Hill should be fun at least some of the time,” Hulse said.

Once while interviewing Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Hurt tried out his fake sports talk — “I’m a moron about sports talk,” he admitted. The Super Bowl was set for the following weekend, and the Philadelphia Eagles were to play the New England Patriots in Jacksonville, Fla. Hurt asked if Specter would watch here in Washington or from home in Philadelphia. Specter said he’d be in Jacksonville, to which Hurt replied: “Jacksonville? What’s going on in Jacksonville?” There was a long, disastrous pause followed by a horrified look from Specter’s press secretary.

Hurt didn’t stop there. If he was going to mess up, he was going the extra mile. He asked Specter if he still “throws the old pigskin around.” The senator didn’t answer and another long, tense silence ensued. Back in his office, Specter picked up a football and threw it at him. Miraculously, Hurt caught it.

Two weeks ago the bureau chief quit his 20-year daily chewing-tobacco habit, but claims it hasn’t been hard to kick: “You just wake up and decide not to do it.”

Hurt never had any trouble deciding what to do with his life. “I’m one of the lucky people who never had any sort of doubt,” he said. Being a reporter, he said, is so much fun that it’s “not really a job. There’s a reason newspaper companies have gotten away with paying poverty wages for years. You can’t really blame them for that.”

The bureau chief lives on Capitol Hill with his wife, Stephanie, a nurse, and three children: Lily, 5, Henry, 2, and Sam, 1.

Hurt loves to fish. “It’s a little bit of a mystery,” he said, “a little like reporting. You throw something out there and you don’t know what you’re going to bring back.”