“And you are? . . . . .” asked the first of what looked like many receptionists standing guard on the outer reaches of the Oval Office of President Barack Obama.
It was raining hard in Washington DC. I didn’t have a power broker raincoat, so my only good suit was soaked in all the worst possible places.
And I needed a drink of water really badly.
“I’m ah, um. . . Chicago Guy.”
“So is pretty much every one else around here now,” said the receptionist over the top of her glasses. “Unless of course they are “Chicago Gal. What we need to do is for you to tell me your name, young man.”
“Chicago Guy really is my blogging name” I answered—too scared to speak in anything but my very most earnest tones. Much less give a straight answer.
“Ah. I see. Well, perhaps we should call Mr. Emanuel. The President is extremely busy today. If you’ll have a seat I’ll. . . . oh here he is now. Mr. Emanuel sir, this gentleman says he’s here for the one hour lobbying session with the President.”
Rahm Emanuel stopped, swiveled and stared.” Do I know you?”
“Well, no sir. Not really. I mean, I do live down the street from you back in Chicago. But no, you don’t really. . .”
“Wait a minute. I remember talking to you and your wife when you walked pat my house She’s a ballet dancer right? “
“Yes sir, and..”
“Also took from Joel Hall Dance Studios, same place I did?”
“Well, she teaches there now.. “
“Yeah. Ok. So the reason for this little visit?’
“I was sent by . . . . ..
“Ah huh. Yeah well, we don’t want nobody, nobody sent.”
“Well sir, this won’t take long. See I won this contest kind of thing. “If you had one hour to lobby the President on anything, what would it be?”
“Well, I can tell you one thing, the President doesn’t have an hour to listen to anybody on anything.”
“Ok, I can do it in half an hour.”
“Hey, you are from Chicago! Ok. What’s your topic?”
Writers? You mean like education? Or NEA grants or something?”
“No, writers. I’m here to lobby for writers.”
“Ok. I’ll give you 15 minutes. Let’s go.”
And before I could draw another breath I was in front of the President. Who actually smiled at me like he knew me!”
“Cubs or Sox fan?” he asked me.
“Baseball fan sir.”
“Hah!” said the president. “Nice answer! Wrong answer, but nice one.” Now, what we got?”
“Mr. President I’m here to ask you to consider reviving the Federal Writers’ Project.—a key piece of Roosevelt’s WPA—and an ideal piece of strategy for supporting your plan to stimulate the economy.”
“Well, laughed the President. Believe me, I know most writers have it pretty tough these days. But we do have grants. But help me with the connection to economic stimulus here?”
“Well, I guess I’d start with this picture,” I began.
“Ah, the Grand Coulee Dam.”
“Yes sir. A direct historical precedent to your plan to rebuild our infrastructure. Building it put 2,000 men to work. Putting people to work just like you plan to do.”
“Impressive project,” said the President.
“Yes sir. As you know, it was one of the first times that employee health care became a factor in a job.”
And who got these jobs? Asked the President
They were mostly white males sir. But they weren’t all white males. American Indians from the Colville Reservation were also hired, as were African Americans.
Well, if you’re here to convince that it was a good idea—I already know that.”
No sir, I’m here because of the connection just ONE of those 2,000 men had with the project. Just one man.
Looking at what he did shows us a way to connect writers (and eventually all artists) with the infrastructure and economic recovery you’ve trying to build.
I continued. He was a sign painter, songwriter from Okemah, Oklahoma. The Bonneville Power Administration hired this writer to do a month’s worth of work. They paid him $270.00. He wrote 26 songs.
If I may include 2 examples of his lyrics?
“I’m listening,” said the President.
Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through
Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew
Canadian Northwest to the oceans so blue
Roll on Columbia, roll on
Other great rivers add power to you
Yakima, Snake, and the Klickitat, too
Sandy Willamette and Hood River too
So roll on, Columbia, roll on
Tom Jefferson’s vision would not let him rest
An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest
Sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest
So roll on, Columbia, roll on
At Bonneville now there are ships in the locks
The waters have risen and cleared all the rocks
Shiploads of plenty will steam past the docks
So roll on, Columbia, roll on
And on up the river is Grand Coulee Dam
The mightiest thing ever built by a man
To run the great factories and water the land
So roll on, Columbia, roll on.
“Woody Guthrie.” said the President. “Let me hear one more.”
Now the world holds seven wonders,
That the travelers always tellâ€¨
Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well.â€¨
But now the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam’s fair landâ€¨
It’s the big Columbia River and the biog Grand Coulee dam.
She heads up the Canadian Rockies where the rippling waters glideâ€¨
Comes roaring down the canyon to meet that salty tide;
From the big Pacific Ocean where the sun sets in the west
It’s the big Grand Coulee country, in the land that I love best.
In the misty crystal glitter of the wild and windward spray
I fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave,
When she tore their boats to splinters and she gave men dreams to dream
On the day the Coulee dam was crossed by the wild and wasted stream.
Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of thirty three
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me
He said, “Roll along Columbia, you can roll down to the sea
But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.
So sir, I finished,” Imagine we rebuild the infrastructure of the country
Who will tell the story? Do you really want it written down and recorded with power point?”
“I hear,” the President smiled. “That power point makes you stupid. And I understand that Woody Guthrie did really did connect the infrastructure to art. But he was just one man. That all you got for me?”
“Well sir, there were 48 guidebooks written.
One for every state. Books that were both practical–telling how to get from one town to the next. But they also spoke to the history, the stories of the state.
Here’s one that was done for California .
The detail is so rich it practically jumps up off the page.
Speaking directly to the President I said,
Imagine he story of your stewardship of our great country being told not in “spin” driven bullet points; but with the richness of true story tellers. True writers who can bring the music to the words just like Guthrie did.”
“Who wrote these books? Who were the writers of the Federal Writers Project?” asked the President.
“People like Zora Neale Huston.”
There was a lot more than state guides produced. She wrote this:
Well, Saul Bellow. He wrote for the FWP. Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Malcolm Cowley.
Ralph Ellison began writing “Invisible Man” while he was working on the project.
Studs Terkel, Rexroth, Patchen. Jim Thompson in Oklahoma.
Remember: these were NOT big name writers at the time. They were writers of immense talent who—like everyone else–needed jobs.
It was here. In the Federal Writer’s project, that Studs Terkel began what would eventually become his life long work of telling the story of our history in the voices of everyday, working Americans.
Which brings us to right now. Today. With no one writing the history of our times in the voices of ordinary Americans. No one connecting our challenges and pride through the common social themes that unite us all. No one to tell THEIR stories of what unemployment, education, hunger, health, arts, culture, innovation and growth mean in real peoples lives. No writers.
So what would something like this cost?
We could do it for very little sir. Easy.”
“Yes sir. As fate would have it—I actually have experience at running a national organization in the private sector. Managed a P/L; employed hundreds of folks.”
“What did you do?” asked the President.
Training and Customer Service.
“I like that,” said the President. “Training and Customer Service.
Kind of sums up what we do here.”
“I found it all came down to stewardship sir. Taking care of something bigger than we are. What about people? Asked the president. Who will the writers be?
That’s the easy part sir. There are a lot of writers. The creativity would amaze you.”
“I am expecting you to amaze me.” Said the President. Now how much would something like this cost?”
“”Well, that depends on how good we wanted it to be.”
And for the first time, Rahm Emanuel spoke up. “Cut the crap Chicago Guy. Will this primarily be financed by partnerships with organizations? I mean, if you publish a book for a corporation on their corporate social responsibility, shouldn’t they pay for it? And if a Food Pantry or a Youth Services Project wants a book they can use for fund raising, one that will give them a return on their investment—shouldn’t they pay for it? Hmmm???
Well yes but start up costs. . . I stammered.
He looked at the President. Two million. That’s enough. And you put it back in donations to the NEA in 5 years when you’ve got at least 3 best selling books. And we’ll let you work out of some old offices we have in Chicago.”
If we had 3 million. . .I began
If you had nothing, Emanuel smiled. But we do have an office you could use in Chicago. And you could start tomorrow.
“No, said the President.