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Personalities

Tom Ridge, You Could be the New Oprah!

Major contributors to the Republican party may be getting pay-offs in the most unexpected ways. Philip Graham considers opening his checkbook with an idea that could save the free world and literature.

I suppose it should come as no surprise to any of us that, as reported by the Washington Post, the founder of a company that sells nearly half the duct tape in America is a major donor to the Republican Party, to the tune, apparently, of $100,000 in the 2000 election. Of course. Hasn’t the Bush administration since Day One been rewarding campaign contributors from the logging, oil, and financial-service industries, to name just a few?

So just how much return did this duct-tape magnate get for his donation? Well, there’s anecdotal evidence that of the roughly 100 million households in America, nearly 10 percent bought duct tape in a rush of orange-coded anxiety. That’s 10 million purchases of duct tape. Now, you can get a FEMA-recommended 30-yard roll of duct tape at your local hardware store for about five bucks. Ten million times five comes to a whopping $50 million. But let’s be as fair as possible. Because we’re always hearing businesses and corporations whine about what narrow profit margins they have, we’ll take their complaints seriously for the moment and imagine that Mr. Duct Tape gets only a dime’s worth of profit on every dollar. That adds up to five million bucks. Starting with a modest patriotic expression of $100,000, our duct-tape donor should see something like an impressive fifty-fold increase on his initial investment.

Why is it that I can’t help remembering all that partisan carping a few years back when the Clinton White House rewarded Democratic donors with sleepovers in the Lincoln bedroom. Sleepovers? I ask you, where’s the profit in that? When it comes to generosity, the Bush White House beats them all: they come through, big time, again and again, and they never, never forget a friend.

Yet why, I ask, should all that largesse be limited to a clubby, privileged few? The circle of cronies could easily be widened, to the mutual benefit of all. That’s why I’ve decided to take out a bank loan and contribute $50,000 to the Republican Party, so Tom Ridge can recommend my latest books.

Who cares if the Bush administration daily drives me to despair with its dismantling of civil liberties, evisceration of the environment, its rush toward an ill-advised war while racking up record deficits and dividing what’s left of the Treasury among a handful of rich buddies? What are a few principles compared to raw, naked literary ambition?

Once I send in that big fat check, I expect the usual callback, the usual access accorded to such patriotic generosity, and then I’ll make my request. I want Tom Ridge to get on television and claim with a straight face before an anxious nation that my most recent novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, is the official guide to what the Department of Homeland Security actually means when we’re told to be extra mindful during a heightened terror alert. But why stop there? I want him to continue and represent my latest short-story collection, Interior Design, as a compendium of helpful hints about what to do with all that damn duct tape everyone now has too much of.

But, you might say to me, your works of fiction have nothing whatsoever to do with homeland security. Well, no. But duct tape doesn’t do one lick of good protecting us either, so what’s your point? And don’t forget the helpful secondary use to which my books can be put: as Homeland Security Approved Anti-Terror Projectiles, in case of an imminent Al Qaeda intrusion in the foyer or breakfast nook. Each Projectile would come with an attractive official gold sticker stuck on the corner of the cover, just like those stickers National Book Award winners get. But the Homeland Security sticker could have an additional feature: a super-shiny surface that can refract enough light to temporarily blind any jihad-besotted attacker.

Now of course I don’t expect my $50,000 to get as much return as that duct-tape founder’s $100,000. I’d be more than happy if Tom Ridge merely asked only half of the households in America to buy my books. I mean, fair is fair. Even if only a measly five percent of my fellow Americans follow through, I’m looking at a summer home in Vermont—minimum. With a nice study overlooking the mountains. Where I would write even more books of fiction that Tom Ridge could pretend have something to do with protecting frightened citizens against terror.

Yet (while waiting for my bank loan to be approved) I’ve been thinking: Why be greedy? Other writers should get in on the deal too, especially the underclass of mid-list writers. It’s not like the publishing world is ever going to help out, what with advances shrinking by the day, book publicity being out-sourced, and dumber and dumber self-help, diet, and cat books filling the space that should be ours in bookstores. Really, though, any writer—mid-list or not—should be able to sidle up to the trough. We’re pretty much all liberals, and thus, pretty much all Democrats anyway: egalitarian, skeptical of the private sector, and, most of all, firm in our belief that government can indeed solve our problems.

So let’s organize, take out those loans, contribute, and wait for payback. Since Oprah has abandoned us and is now only recommending the classics (how will that help us pay a mortgage, or rent a beach house in the Hamptons?), we’ll just have to start our own book club. We can call it ‘Ridge’s Readers.’

Week by week, Tom can announce that Richard Power’s Prisoner’s Dilemma is the inside job on Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay; or he can announce a new, super-duper terror-alert level that leaves the others behind: The Color Purple. He can assure the American people that the new, huge Homeland Security bureaucracy is being cobbled together with the utmost care, by referring them to Ben Marcus’s The Days of Wire and String; or Tom and John Ashcroft can declare their plan for what they think most needs to be added to the Bill of Rights: A Box of Matches, by Nicholson Baker.

Other members of the administration besides the Attorney General could get in on Tom’s act, at least if the cash-flow situation were taken care of through the proper channels. Environment czar Christine Whitman could tell us that the Bush administration’s pollution-sharing proposals for corporations are best described by Richard Burgin’s story collection Fear of Blue Skies. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld could proclaim that Randall Kenan’s story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead is the blueprint for the post-Iraq war reconstruction. Alan Greenspan could testify before Congress and confide that the key to understanding the Bush tax cuts lies in Ellen Gilchrist’s In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s memoir Ruined by Reading could be recommended by none other than the Chief Executive hisself, claiming it’s the inspiration behind his decision to clip all those classes at Andover, Yale, and Harvard. And finally, even Karl Rove could try his hand at a recommendation, a book that would sum up his political career: Infinite Jest.

So my fellow writers, call the loan officer at your local bank today. With one bold stroke you can participate in the political process, increase the visibility of American literature, and nail down that Key West retreat you’ve been eyeing for so long.

Philip Graham is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, his latest being The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches From Lisbon. He is a co-founder of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter and currently serves as the nonfiction editor. He teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois and the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he can also play every musical instrument in the world extremely well in his mind. His seres of short essays on the craft of writing can be read at philipgraham.net. More by Philip Graham