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Behind the Scenes of Our 'Big Government'


The president decides to resign three full years into his term so that the vice president will be eligible to succeed him and still serve two terms of his own.

Clinton and Gore?

No, Hoak and Honeycutt.

Ev Ehrlich's "Big Government," a satirical first novel published last week by Warner Books, mirrors some of the real-life possibilities in crisis-charged Washington when a president steps down. But any similarities to the present day are purely serendipitous, Ehrlich says.

Serendipitous, but grounded in the ways of the capital.

For example, Ehrlich--a 47-year-old economic consultant who worked as an assistant director in the Congressional Budget Office and later as undersecretary of Commerce in the first Clinton term--propels his plot by hatching an association of utilities that goes by the acronym AEIOU. The group lobbies a Senate committee, whose chairman it has supported generously, for daylight saving time all year long, with a bonus hour of daylight between June 30 and Labor Day, so that people would have to air-condition businesses even later in the day during summer and use more heat and light on winter mornings.

Insane? Sure, Ehrlich says, but no different from other narrow, parochial interests that actually occupied a lot of his time in the Commerce Department.

How wacky did it get? There was the day when an aide walked into his office and announced, "You're being sued by the fetuses." Ehrlich, whose role at Commerce included supervision of the Census Bureau, was served with papers in a suit by someone wanting the agency to add to its count all fetuses living during the survey period.

"I thought to myself, 'I've become a character in my own novel!' " Ehrlich recalls.

In "Big Government," the central figures are low-level functionaries such as Dickie, a dull-witted geophysicist who fails his way upward on Capitol Hill, and Miriam, a Senate staffer "who gave up searching her soul for what was right and substituted searching the public for trends." They reveal the paper-shuffling and power-hungry rituals that move the bureaucracy at glacial speed.

As Ehrlich puts it, "The ratio of agenda to action in Washington is greater than any place on Earth." Or, expressed another way: "You can't be weirder than reality in Washington. As a writer, you can just take what they give you."

View From a Mountain: An unexpected title spotted on Villard Books' spring schedule is "Running to the Mountain," in which Jon Katz describes how he confronted the big five-oh and shed some of the dusty routine in his life by retreating to a mountaintop cabin in upstate New York with two dogs and the writings of Thomas Merton.

The book is unexpected because Katz has become more widely known in recent years for something else entirely, as the prolific media critic whose challenges to conventional news wisdom appear in Rolling Stone and online. He recently ended his long association as a columnist with (after Conde Nast Publications bought Wired, the print parent) and in September started writing a twice-weekly column for the news and information Web site operated by the nonprofit Freedom Forum. The site (called free!) is at

"Running to the Mountain," a highly personal odyssey that defies brief description, will be published in March.

Afterwords: Time Digital, a supplement sent to 900,000 Time subscribers, is out with its new ranking of the cyber elite. The list starts (natch) with Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and ends (at No. 50) with a newcomer to the ranking, Walter Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal's personal-technology columnist ("His no-nonsense prose won't win any style awards, but its readability earns it a gold medal"). . . .

The electronic version of Newsweek will break from America Online and move to the World Wide Web on Sunday, when the content of next week's issue will be available, starting late afternoon. Certain sections, such as the up-front "Periscope," will be updated daily. The address: . . .

It looks like a slimmer version of Martha Stewart Living, complete with her blond self on the cover, but it's Clotheskeeping, a special issue of MSL devoted entirely to clothes and sponsored entirely by Gap. The mag goes on sale Monday at $4.50 a copy, a Gap Pocket-T not included.

* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His e-mail address is His column is published Thursdays.

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