The Heart of the Matter

A Former Internet Pen Pal's Mixed Feelings About Russell Harding

Movies were their touchstone. In 1999, Harding bought a puppy, naming it Seabe.

"Seabe? Just like Charles Laughton's character's name in Advise and Consent?" asked Sawyers.

"Wow," responded Harding. "The only other person to get that connection was my dad . . . you do know your movies Fred."

A fan: Russell Harding's cyberspace correspondent, Fred Sawyers, in 1992 with Audrey Hepburn in Indianapolis.
A fan: Russell Harding's cyberspace correspondent, Fred Sawyers, in 1992 with Audrey Hepburn in Indianapolis.

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More Tom Robbins Stories on Russell Harding:

"The Lush Life of a Rudy Appointee: How a Politically Tied Aide Spent $250,000 on Food, Fun, and Travel"

"More Lush Life of a Rudy Appointee"

"Party Harding"

"Harding's Hustle: Bonuses, Bargains, and Strip Clubs at the Housing Development Corporation"

"Low-Class Act: Russell Harding on Blacks, the Poor, and the Clintons"

"Bonus Baby: A Hefty Something Extra in Russell Harding's Last Paycheck"

"The Private Lives of Russell Harding"

"Where Are the Whistle-Blowers?"

"Harding's Conflict of Interest: After Pledging to Steer Clear of Dad's Law Firm, Son Aided a Client"

"Scandal Repair: As Harding Probe Continues, Cleanup Costs Grow"

"Russell Harding's Vanity Fair: 'Voice' Trail Led to Charges"

"The Harding Rules: In Scandal's Wake, New Safeguards at Housing Agency"

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Sawyers glowed. Soon after, he located a $200 copy of the 1959 bestselling novel on which the movie was based, inscribed by author Allen Drury to Laughton, who plays a crusty South Carolina senator named Seabright B. "Seabe" Cooley in the film. He sent that to Harding as well.

Several times, Harding suggested that Sawyers visit New York. On New Year's Eve of 2000, Harding told him, "If you were here, I'd go out with you. I'd be more than proud to show you off." A few months later, Harding said they might meet in Chicago. "You gonna wanna spend some time with me alone?" asked Harding. "Your total devotion to me is very important," he added. "I'm hoping once we meet you will really feel it in your bones." At the last minute, however, Harding canceled, saying he was busy.

In July 2001, when Sawyers raised the prospect of his coming to New York, Harding's tune had changed dramatically. "I have to tell you Fred, I am a very busy person and it may just not be a wise idea for you to come to NYC . . . I just doubt that you would enjoy being around the people I know. They are very important in their fields and you would feel out of place I think." Sawyers was stung, but typed, "OK Russ, that is fair and I understand."

A month later, however, on his birthday, Sawyer's cancer support group took him out to dinner and surprised him with a $591 weekend trip to the city, the place he had told the group he most wanted to visit. He hesitated to tell Harding about it, but when his friend asked about the dinner, he told him about the gift. "Please don't be mad at me, I honestly didn't know they were going to do that," Sawyers wrote. Harding, however, exploded, accusing Sawyers of trying to "stalk" him and vowed never to write or speak to him again. He never did, except for an e-mail threatening Sawyers with police and lawsuits after he learned the Indianapolis man was talking to the Voice.

About a week after the indictment, Sawyers got good news and bad news. For the first time, tests showed his bone marrow to be clear of cancer cells, a sign that he is beating the disease. Then, a couple of days later, Sawyers's employer announced it was going to lay off many employees. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do now," Sawyers said by phone last week from his apartment. "Maybe this is finally the time to try to move to New York, find a job there."

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