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For Editor, 1 Plus 1 Equals 435

Journeys: A combination of hobby and vocation led Reader's Digest's Michael Barone to visit all of the congressional districts in the U.S.

July 08, 1998|FRANK AHRENS | WASHINGTON POST

The jet touched down in Anchorage, and Michael Barone stepped onto the snow-covered Alaskan soil for the first time. All around him, people were behaving normally, unaware that they were part of a teeming sea of data. Barone's satisfaction was tinged by a slight sense of anticlimax.

The landing marked the end of one man's grail-like quest: Barone finally had set at least one foot in each of this nation's 435 congressional districts.

Call it the ultimate marriage of hobby and vocation.

In political circles, Barone--a senior editor at Reader's Digest in Washington--is a high priest of statistics and the lucid interpreter of those numbers. His book "The Almanac of American Politics" has been called "the bible of American politics" by columnist George Will. It is a thick compendium filled with biographies, liberal and conservative ratings, and key voting records of each state's senators and representatives.

More to the point, though, the almanac contains nonpartisan essays on all 435 congressional districts, including historic, geographic and demographic descriptions and summaries of recent elections. For political junkies, journalists and anyone who wants to know what life is like in, say, Oregon's 3rd District, the book is an indispensable desk fixture. Barone, 53, and co-author Grant Ujifusa write the descriptions based on reporting, election results, census data and the accrued experiences of Barone's many travels.

"We published the first edition in 1971," Barone said from his hotel room in Anchorage. "It wasn't clear that there would be a second edition. When it was, I decided I should try to see these places."

In 1972, armed with maps, Barone piled into a gray 1970 Monte Carlo and headed west, "never paying more than 33 cents a gallon for gasoline." He crossed the country like a sidewinder, passing through as many districts as possible, observing, talking to people. When he finished a few weeks later, "I was in the majority--I had been in 218 districts."

At that point, he was determined to see them all. He has used business trips and even family vacations to add to his total.

"A friend in Tulsa said, 'You wouldn't want to come out here and give a speech, would you? The honorarium isn't very big; there might not even be one,' " Barone recalled. "And I said, 'Would I?!!' That was in Oklahoma's 1st District, and I had never been there."

The final piece--Alaska--fit into the puzzle when a friend from the University of Alaska invited him to address a meeting of Commonwealth North, a civic group founded by the state's first two governors.

"I'm kicking myself for not getting up here sooner," he said, looking out of his hotel room window. "I can see Mt. McKinley from here, as clear as day, and it's 150 miles away," a distance Barone knew off the top of his head, of course.

Once, he took his daughter, Sarah, on a "Little House on the Prairie" vacation: They flew to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, rented a car and drove west to South Dakota, where many of Laura Ingalls Wilder's stories are set.

"It went unnoticed by her but not by her father that we were passing through several districts I'd never been through," he said. "You can get away with that with a 9-year-old."

*

When Barone was 6, he successfully charted and navigated a family trip from his home in Detroit to Florida (though he wasn't counting districts at the time). His father, a doctor, and his mother, a teacher, encouraged his love of maps and data.

"I remember how thrilled I was when we got a 1951 World Book encyclopedia," he said. "It had 1950 census data, and I'd been working with 1940 data from atlases around the house."

What is it about statistics--a course that college students routinely refer to as "sadistics"--that draws him so?

"I suppose it's about trying to impose a sense of order on the world, a way of making sense of how things fit together," he said. "Real life is the sigma of all this data," he said, using the mathematician's term for "sum."

Around the Reader's Digest office, there is an informal game of "Stump Michael."

"After I've been to some obscure town in South Dakota or little corner of Missouri, I'll come back and mention it to Michael, and he'll reel off the name of the county commissioner and the dogcatcher and the political contretemps they found themselves in one time," said Ralph Bennett, assistant managing editor in the Digest's Washington office. "And he's not just a master of stats. He has this tremendous feel for people and places."

When he was a kid, Barone religiously memorized statistics--political, population, baseball. Now, he says, he's less into remembering stats and more into trying to figure out what they mean.

"They're just clues, really, to what people care about," he said. "As I've gotten older, I have less ability to memorize statistics but hope I have a greater understanding of the reality that they describe."

*

During his week in Alaska, he gathered information for future almanacs and Reader's Digest articles. It is an "utterly fascinating, unique place," he says. He was delighted to find out, for instance, that Anchorage's airport is the United States' busiest in cargo tonnage. It is a small factoid, but it is a clue to something larger--that Anchorage is a key nexus between East and West.

Barone has finished his quest with little time to spare: The 2000 election will bring redistricting and the likely creation of districts in locations he's never visited. Indeed, some of his "been-there, done-that" journey has involved driving across a street from one district into the next, opening his car door and setting one foot on the ground. Hey--it counts.

"In redistricting," he said, laughing, "they may cut off little corners of a district, and that may be the only corner I've been in."

Then again, every crusader needs a new quest.

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