The Almanac Man. Barone's focus is politics, but he keeps an eye on local culture, too. PROFILE
MICHAEL BARONE is thinking about a vacation in northern Ohio. But then, Oklahoma would be interesting, too. When he's in New York, he will head out to duplex territory in Queens. Last year, he and his daughter retraced the journey taken in the book ``Little House on the Prairie.''Skip to next paragraph
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``What's interesting is to try to get a sense of where ordinary people live,'' he says.
Mr. Barone is a man whose hobby has become his living. By day, he is an editorial writer and sometime columnist for the Washington Post. But his real passion is ``The Almanac of American Politics.'' A fixture next to the Rolodex on many a Washington desk, ``the Almanac'' is one treasure of the nation's capital that tourists rarely see.
It is much more than a reference book for journalists and political insiders. Barone is a political junkie with the back-roads sensibility of a Charles Kuralt or a Calvin Trillin. At the heart of the book are essays on each and every state and congressional district. (He has visited 414 of the 435 districts.) He blends history, geography, and popular culture in a style that borders on the novelistic. Barone says he gets letters from teen-agers and old folks who use the book as a travel guide.
``To an extent, it's a novel about America in which America is the hero,'' says co-author Grant Ujifusa, an editor at Reader's Digest who dreamed up ``the Almanac'' but now mainly edits Barone's copy.
It was 1969 and President Nixon had just ordered the bombing of Cambodia. Mr. Ujifusa, then a graduate student, thought students needed a guide to lobby Congress. He called Barone, whom he had known at Harvard's student newspaper, the Crimson. Barone had astonished Ujifusa by identifying the latter's hometown - Worland, Wyo. - as the Western terminus of Route 16. A map freak like that might know something about congressional districts, Ujifusa thought.
A good thought, it turned out. Barone was the kind of youngster who fixed on election returns with the kind of passion most bring to baseball statistics. He was raised in Detroit when that city was still a yeasty cultural m'elange. His parents would pass on lore such as that Roman Catholics generally vote Democratic. ``I said to myself, `Why should that be so?' I've been trying to answer questions like that ever since.''
The first editions of the almanac were squat little books on cheap paper that looked like the Information Please Almanac. They reflected the authors' McGovernish outlook at the time.
But the almanac has matured along with its authors. Published now on high-quality paper by the prestigious National Journal, it is sold in bookstores nationwide. Barone shows remarkable dispassion, moreover, on the ideological front. Republicans such as Henry Hyde of Illinois, the anti-abortion leader, get high marks, along with Democrats such as Henry Waxman of Los Angeles and John Dingell of Detroit.
``I like people who believe in something and I like people who are good at getting things done,'' Barone says.
Lee Hamilton, the much-respected Democrat of Indiana, is an example. ``Other members rise and talk and sway one or two votes,'' Barone writes. ``When Hamilton comes down on one side, he often persuades dozens of members.''
But the almanac is less about politicians than about the country that produces them. The 12th District of Illinois, consisting of suburbs northwest of Chicago, is an example. Its congressman is Philip Crane, a conservative Republican who, Barone notes, ``looks and sounds like a vibrant leader, but isn't.'' But if Mr. Crane doesn't amount to much in Barone's eyes, his district inspires Barone's demographic muse.
``Somewhere in the Chicago metropolitan area there is an invisible line,'' Barone writes, ``between the two different Chicagos. One is the Chicago dominated by blacks and the products of the vast immigration of 1840-1924. ... This Chicago is a gritty city, where occasional acts of cheerfulness and courtesy lighten up days otherwise as cold and behavior as impersonal as the Chicago sky is gray during most of the winter....
``The other Chicago is the Chicago of the Great Plains, a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Chicago, a place whose residents are products of the first great wave of immigration to America. The tone of this Chicago is cheerier, its streets and highways cleaner and neater, its daily life somehow free of evidence of unpleasantness and deprivation.... It is an optimistic world that knows personal, not social tragedy; a world in which all things are possible and most things are for the best. Ronald Reagan grew up in downstate Illinois within the orbit of this kind of Chicago, and it can be seen in his optimism today.''