I was planning this issue to follow up on the trail of where Houghton-Mifflin's profits from fifty-something years of sales of Adolph Hitler's tome Mein Kampf have gone (see "Desperately Seeking Adolph," Plant's Review of Books, November, 1992), but little did I know last fall when I was planning my next line of investigation that I was about to be sucked into a nationwide controversy involving another story ignored by the Oregonian, a syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist whom I respected and admired, a conservative journalist, a Clinton advisor who had just become one of the most influential persons in America, and a hitherto unknown (to me) television show starring an actress I'd never heard of.
Sounds too grandiose to be true for the editor and publisher of a little book review from a podunk town in a hick state whose population just a decade ago used to be about that of a smallish suburb of LA, doesn't it? Well, the president of this fair country is from Arkansas, and don't you forget it. Now let's get this over with so I can get back to some real research.
Several years ago, when this magazine was but a twinkle in my eye (and a haphazard pile of notes and sketches), and little knowing that within a brief span of time my thoughts would be catapulted across the continent like dead cows over some mediaeval battlement, I had what my wife would call one of my "stupid" ideas.
The Eastern Oregon state penitentiary was being built and thoughts of incarcerated criminals danced through my head, along with musings on what would turn out to be the final days of the Soviet Union. As is often the case when two unlike substances are mixed together, a violent reaction occurred and the whole mess jelled, congealed--or possibly exploded. I'm still not sure which just yet.
Along with the news of the latest addition to the correctional system were added various plans around the country to privatize penal systems (along with virtually everything else). Quite apart from misgivings about how competitiveness among private prisons would affect the way sentences were pronounced ("PrisonsPlus Rehabilitates in Half the Time of Other Correctional Facilities!"), somehow the idea of turning over the criminal class to what was sure to become a deregulated industry in a few years seemed a bad idea.
On the other side of the ocean, the Soviets were beginning to go through what has since become an annual event: Winter. Used to be nobody much cared about the Russian winter except for Russians and the odd invading army. Now that the forces of the free market have liberated the people of the former union to suffer in the manner they choose for seven or eight months every year, a causal relationship has been established between privation and political instability in countries with nuclear weapons. At the time, Mikhail Gorbachev (remember him?) was pleading for massive infusions of foreign aid, both in supplies and currency. In return, the Bush administration was half-heartedly repeating the standard "don't-bother-us-for-money" mantra of human rights, releasing political prisoners, etc. Like I said, it jelled.
So I whipped off a short piece intended for the Oregonian's "In My Opinion" spot on the editorial page, knocked together a logo for the mythical "Bars Across the Waters Central Committee," and put the thing in the mail to the Oregonian and several others.
A few days later I returned home from my day's toil in the bowels of a prominent Portland bookselling operation, and a voice on my answering machine cheerily announced that it was Margie Boulé, and that she "had my article." I was scared.
"What"s Margie about to do to me?" I worried. Placed in the wrong context, say, with some of the intended humor stripped out, I could easily have ended up looking like a crazy from the wrong side of the fringe.
A few days of near total terror went by until Margie's column with excerpts from my letter showed up in the paper of Portland record on March 30, 1989. She accepted the plan in all the mock-seriousness with which it was intended, even saying that it was a "prison overcrowding problem that makes dollars and sense." Lawmakers and penal officials are probably about as ready to listen to an Oregonian columnist for advice on how to run their programs as they are to listen to me, but the sentiment was there. (So was the spelling, which is more than I can say for Oregonian book reviewer Paul Pintarich who not only misspelled my first name but also left off the rather important phrase "of Books" from this publication's title in his only mention of us to date.) I heard through friends that parts of my modest proposal had been read on a radio station in Eugene, got a call from some PSU Theater Arts prof with a heavy Russian accent claiming to be Gorbachev himself, and generally enjoyed myself with the whole thing for a few days until I moved on to something else. Thanks, Margie.
That's where the whole thing lay until last November.
It was a calm Sunday morning and I'd finished the comics, so I was ready to dig into the editorial pages. It was barely post-election and the winds of change were a-blowin'. The first issue of Plant's was out in finer bookstores and libraries. All was well with the world until page C4 of the Forum section when I saw the headline over the column by syndicated Chicago Tribune writer Mike Royko. I've read Royko regularly if not religiously for years, and while I get kind of tired of his Slats Grobnik and Professor I.M. Kookie articles, and his increasingly frequent outbursts of old-guy crotchetisms, he's still good for the occasional laugh or a bit of indignant outrage. Back when I'd written up "Bars Across the Waters" I'd sent him a copy (thinking that its simplicity and all-around practicality might appeal to him) along with an only somewhat facetious request for a signed photo.
The headline for his column that ran in the Oregonian's Sunday morning edition on November 15 of last year--fully three-and-a-half years after I'd sent out copies of my prisoners-to-the-Soviets plan--was "U.S.-Russia deal: Our criminals and your empty prisons." Admittedly, the details aren't the same. Mike, (I can call him Mike now, can't I?) starts off with mentions of the interstate shootings in Florida, suggestions that the National Guard be called out in the Cabrini-Green housing project, and statistics on how often people are shot in the cities; I made mentions of the earthquake in Soviet Armenia, homelessness in New York, and schoolyard shootings with automatic rifles, but you probably get the idea. My version of the proposal (remember: 1989) stresses releasing political prisoners, Mike's (1992) does free enterprise, but they both hit the major themes of large, already-built prisons; lots of unemployed guards; a foreign aid package that even the most conservative of congresspersons could back; and a long walk through the snow for escaped prisoners.
I sent a copy of Plant's, copies of the two newspaper articles, and my original piece to both Mike and Margie in December, thinking I might get a plug for the magazine--or at the very least that autographed picture of Royko that never showed up--but so far all that's happened is Margie's left one of her elusive calls on my answering machine, commiserating with me on how Royko ripped "us" off. Meanwhile Royko's gotten righteous about how an old colleague of his, the real, blonde, female journalist Georgie Anne Geyer is being ripped off by (producer and Clinton friend) Linda Bloodworth-Thomason's television sitcom Hearts Afire. Geyer has spent the past couple of months asserting strongly to anyone within wire-service range that she did not sleep with Fidel Castro, contrary to the unstated impression that a certain fictional, blond, female, journalist named Georgie Anne (played by Markie Post) did. Ah, if only Margie would champion my cause.
Now, I don't think that Mike meant to, uh, borrow my idea. That would, after all, be rather egotistical. Nor do I expect that there's a four-year backlog of crank letters hanging around the Tribune office, waiting to be turned into columns when Grobnik and Kookie take the day off.
No, my guess would be that somewhere along the line someone in the office must have read my letter thought it was, as my wife might say, "stupid," but once they'd read it their mind was, as I might say, "infected," and, like that cough you can't shake, it kept coming back.
So the Oregonian missed the Packwood story, pretty much struck out (except for J. Nicholas) on the release of Plant's Review of Books, and drops the ball when a nationally-syndicated columnist covers the same ground that one of their own trod an administration ago. 0-3, by my count.
I just hope that I don't see a story on Mein Kampf's copyright in the Tribune three years from now.