Friday, November 10, 2006

The Census Bureau

New data about the American family is coming out any day now accoding to an
electronic press releaese from the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

I got turned on to social demographics when I read Theodore H. White's path-breaking book The Making of the President, 1960.

Teddy told the story of politics as a story. His Making books were what is called in cliche'-land "riveting narratives"

The first five chapters 196o riveted readers like me.

Then he noted something that I had not considered before:

Only every twenty years does a Decennial Census co-incide with a Presidential Election.

The election year of 1960 was such a year.

So Teddy shoe-leathered his way out to Suitland MD, then and now home of the U.S.Census Bureau.

He broke away from the narrative and told the story of America, circa 1960. He understood that you can't understand American politics if you don't understand America and that you can't understand America without turning to the vast treasure trove of data it produces.

Using fresh Census data, he told of blacks arriving in Chicago from the American Southland on the Illinois Central, their eyes blinking at the bright lights of the big station, of young farm boys de-populating Minnesota farms, of what the switch from coal to oil and gas might mean to America and the world.

Chapter Six set my mind on fire.

I was a 28-year-old publisher at the time. I owned half of new publishing imprint with a partner. Call him Dave, his real name. I owned half the stock of the little company. Dave had put up all the dough, a situation that burned his guts out when we began making almost from the get-go.

The morning after I finished Teddy's Chapter Six I raced into Dave's office and said "Dave, I have a great idea for a book. Let's get a novelist or a poet to do a whole book Teddy-style."

Dave said: "That's the worst idea for a book I ever heard"

Soon after, Dave and Ben went splitsville.

Broke, with a wife and three children under five to support, I decided to write a book
base on Teddy's Chapter, even though I was not then nor ever would be a poet or a novelist.

I wrote a first draft chapter based on an interview of Richard Scammon, then the director of the Census Bureau based in Suitland.

My first serious editor was Sam Vaughan, who would later rise to near-legendary status as Editor-in-Chief of Doubleday, liked it. But he said "Ben, no one knows who you are. Why don't you see if Scammon would be a co-author?"

I did. He did.

The rest is, uh, a large part of my professional history.

Later I told Teddy about it. He was very pleased. There are many ways people can leave a legacy, or pieces thereof.

Ben ,


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