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.''
``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.''
Regular users of the almanac note a tendency for the district profiles to become a bit dated until a seat changes hands. (Barone revises the book after every election.) Still, Robert Walters, a syndicated columnist who writes frequently on state and local matters, says the almanac hits the mark ``over and over. I read it before I travel. I love it.''
The almanac is not as strong on Congress as it is on America, however. Many journalists supplement it with a rival publication, ``Politics in America,'' published by the Congressional Quarterly. One reviewer likened the difference to that between - loosely translated - love and duty.
Barone holes up these days in the editorial wing of the Washington Post newsroom, in a cluttered den of political trivia. Late one afternoon before the election, he was playing pundit for reporters from Las Vegas and Boston. (``I think the long-term trend is Republican in Michigan.'') He pumps the reporters for insights for the almanac even as they are pumping him for quotes for their stories.
Barone is basically sanguine about US politics, and this pervades the almanac. There is something calming about the book, a sense that underneath the daily turbulence there are steady and almost geologic forces at work in our national life. Cajuns get elected in Louisiana, and old-fashioned prairie populism strikes chords in conservative North Dakota, for reasons that political consultants and big-money political action committees are unlikely to erase any time soon.
Ujifusa and Barone see a larger message here. Since the Depression, mainstream historians have viewed US politics primarily in class terms. Blue-collar workers and minorities voted Democratic, while the front office voted Republican. But in the almanac, culture counts as much as economics. ``We are much more de Tocqueville and Weber [Max, the German sociologist], and a whole lot less Marx,'' Ujifusa says. They think Democrats have let Republicans capture parts of their constituency because they keep playing to a class politics that doesn't exist.
Not everyone would agree with that, Jesse Jackson supporters, for example. But Barone is probably right that some liberals are tone deaf to cultural nuances because they don't like mainstream culture itself. ``There is a group of Democrats that tends to culturally despise the American middle class,'' he says.
At the Crimson, Ujifusa recalls, both he and Barone felt like ``outlanders,'' next to their New York and Boston colleagues. ``We thought they were pretty parochial.'' He saw the same upscale parochialism in Michael Dukakis. - for example, the way he named Jonas Salk, of polio vaccine and Nobel-Prize fame, as his hero.
``That's achievement,'' Ujifusa exclaims. ``That's not a hero.'' In places like Worland, the hero is the ``volunteer fire department guy who saves a little girl.''
Barone worries at the way America's diversity has changed. Once it had diverse localities but shared values. Now McDonald's is the same everywhere, but values diverge. Cable television and direct mail are our connections.
Barone sees people today in ``little cultural cubbyholes, not knowing or caring'' about their communities.
`The Search for Community'
THE rhetoric of political campaigning usually focuses on the negative - on problems that need solving, conditions that cannot be tolerated, crises that threaten to undermine our security. Yet a formula for governing must also appreciate what is right, the more so when the voters whose support candidates seek have showed appreciation for the way the system has been working.
Start with the first thing that future historians will probably say about our time, but which is seldom noted today: we are a nation at peace. And not only - though this is the most important reason - because we are not at war, but because we are not likely to be involved in a major war any time soon. We have a large defense establishment, but no draft, and little contact between career military and civilians; since 1940 we have never been less militarized.
We are also a nation at peace, to an extent greater than we realize, with ourselves. Beneath the turmoil and clash of everyday American politics, beneath the sometimes apocalyptic rhetoric, we have reached something like a consensus about basic values and policies, and something close to a consensus on the differences we are willing to tolerate in each other. The fashionable talk of a politics of alienation, angst, and anomie has faded, as the 1984 and 1986 elections revealed Americans to themselves as reasonably pleased with the nation they have come to be.
We are also a nation that is rich, even while so much of the political debate consists of complaints about the economy. But the fact is that the American economy, which seemed stalled in the 1970s, has grown in the 1980s. From `The Nation,' the introduction to `The Almanac of American Politics 1988,' page xxx.