HERE ARE the latest standings in the Prolific Author League for fall 1985: Richard D. Lamm, 3 books; Isaac Asimov, 2 books; Joyce Carol Oates, 1. Some fans have objected that because two of Lamm's three books have co-authors, his name, like Roger Maris', should have an asterisk next to it. Others retort that because Lamm writes with a handicap -- the necessity to serve as governor of a large Rocky Mountain state in his spare time -- he should be allowed a special co-authorial dispensation.
Richard Lamm is a true American eccentric. Still only 50, he has been the chief executive of Colorado for nearly 11 years. He has the respect of his fellow governors, who regard him as something of an intellectual. He is conventional enough to be a CPA and a lawyer, but as a student he did romantic odd jobs of the sort tousled novelists like to list on their jacket flaps: lumberjack in Oregon, stock runner in New York, deckhand on an oreboat. He is a Democrat and a "neoliberal." He likes to make deliberately heretical points, such as his famous contention that terminally ill old folks should be unhooked from life-sustaining machines. He jogs. And, strangest of all in Reagan's America of MTV and mini-memos, he writes books.
What kinds of books? All kinds. Let's take up the current crop in order of ascending strangeness.
The Immigration Time Bomb, written with Gary Imhoff, is a reasonably straightforward argument for closing the Golden Door part-way. Lamm is surely right that immigration issues -- especially the wave of illegal immigration sweeping up and across the United States from the Southwest -- deserve more attention. The strains on this country's resources and on its very fabric of law are severe. Lamm showers us with relevant detail about the financial and human costs of the problem, from busted welfare budgets to exploitation of illegals by unscrupulous employers. (He also gives us details that aren't so relevant, such as his account of the crime-ridden aftermath of the Mariel boatlift, a fascinating but probably unique event.)
But Lamm's need to fill up a whole book with arguments against immigration leads him dangerously close to nativism (or is it "neo-nativism"?). He worries that "American culture" is at risk. "Probably everyone will accept that it is proper for Belize and Barbados to attempt to preserve their cultures, and that their attempts are not racist but are laudable expressions of their cultural identities," he writes. "And I believe it is just as proper for the United States to emulate Belize and Barbados and France and England and every other country in the world, and for us to preserve our culture." But the United States isn't like "every other country." Part of the essence of American culture is that it gets changed and enriched by each new wave of immigrants. Trying to "preserve" it is the surest way to kill it off.
Still, something needs to be done; and for reasons Lamm cogently analyzes, Washington's will to act seems paralyzed. So Lamm has a five-point program. He would beef up the Border Patrol and computerize the Immigration and Naturalization Service, both of which seem unexceptionable. He would make it unlawful to hire illegals, as the ill-fated Simpson-Mazzoli bill would have done. This is only slightly more controversial. Fourth and fifth, he would limit "family preferences" to spouses and children of citizens and resident aliens, cutting off brothers, sisters and grandparents, and he would set an overall immigration ceiling of about 400,000 a year -- the yearly average of legal immigration in this century, but considerably less than half the actual total. Lamm doesn't mind slamming the door, but he seems reluctant to ask his fellow citizens to be more generous. His "realism" is profoundly hard-hearted.
LAMM is no softie in Megatraumas, either, but the book is more original than its megatrendy title. It's the half- monstrous offspring of two wildly disparate genres, the science-fiction epic and the government memorandum.
The first three quarters of Megatraumas is a collection of imaginary documents submitted to an imaginary president of the United States, Susan J. Hesperus, in the year 2000, as she prepares "what was to be perhaps the most gloomy -- and yet the most candid -- State of the Union message in the history of the Republic." We never see President Hesperus' speech, but we do get plenty of memos, reports and speeches by members of her cabinet. The device of looking backwards from the future allows Lamm to dramatize his views on what's wrong with the present: too many entitlements, not enough thrift and reinvestment, too much immigration (again), too much topsoil erosion and fossil fuel waste, a lousy education system, and more. Every politician is supposed to have a "vision of the future," but not this kind. You have to give Lamm credit for going against the reigning happyface orthodoxy. Not for him the view that everything will be fine if we just keep lowering taxes and building lasers. The future according to Lamm is one disaster after another. Inflation riots prompt martial law. A Mexican revolution in 1991 creates 10 million refugees. The Sunbelt is in flames over demands for a Hispanic homeland in five southwestern states. The cities are Mad Max free-fire zones. Toxic wastes, disastrous unemployment, catastrophic droughts . . . And the international situation? Don't ask.
The real pleasure of this kind of speculation is in the details. Lamm promotes Les Aspin and Henry Cisneros (who leads a March on Washington for Brown Power) to the Senate and Bill Clinton to the vice presidency, but on the whole he doesn't have much fun. Only once does he fully bring off the sly satire his premise makes possible. In a "memo" recommending Draconian measures to rehabilitate the cities, he has the secretary of housing and urban development write: "Cleveland, it is possible, might undergo years of salvaging for all usable materials and then be bulldozed and its site finally reforested as a national park." There's not enough in this vein. Lamm is bright but not Swift.
Lamm gets the most mileage out of the hobbyhorse he rode to fame: medical care, especially for the dying. He has his year- 2000 secretary of health and human services recommend health-care rationing, including a ban on extraordinary measures for people over 65. This device gives Lamm a good way of dramatizing the future consequences of such present follies as insurance inefficiencies and overbuying of redundant technologies.
He also makes the point, repeatedly, that it is more cruel than kind to hook people up to machines for a few weeks of technical life that is experienced as torture. And he's right. But he confuses a spiritual issue with an economic one when he protests that too many health care dollars "are being spent on patients who have no chance of recovery." In the long run, after all, that's all of us. Torture aside, if life of some reasonable quality can be extended even for a few months, is that such a terrible way to expend our national treasure? More generally, much ink has been spilled, in this book and elsewhere, lamenting the growing percentage of the gross national product that is spent on health care. But might this trend not be at least partly a reflection of a commendable shift in public values?
Obviously we want to be sure that health care dollars buy health, and some of Lamm's proposals would help, especially his emphasis on prevention. But he stops short of questioning such basic premises of the American health care system as the idea of fee-for-service medicine and the supposed necessity for turning doctors into millionaires.
The last quarter of Megatraumas presents a different alternative future -- the one we can have if we listen to Lamm. In 1992, after "the aimless drift of the second Reagan administration and the near-disaster of the Bush administration," we get "the unexpected rise to national prominence of a little-known Maine senator named Martin Morgenstern." President Morgenstern enacts tough immigration laws and other Lamm-like programs, thus earning a place in history next to George Washington. Hesperus -- the name of the president in the first part of the book -- means "evening star"; Morgenstern, of course, means "morning star." It's morning in America.
MORGENSTERN was born in 1935. So was Richard Lamm. Malthus, one suspects, is beginning to shade into Walter Mitty. And Mitty really struts his stuff in 1988.
I've read worse political potboilers, though not many. 1988 has most of the usual stuff: murder, blackmail, discreet sex ("they moved together toward a climax," etc.), glamorous airports, luxurious hotel suites, tension-filled corridors of power. Still, Irving Wallace has nothing to worry about. Neither does that other pol-turned-novelist, John Ehrlichman. For that matter, neither do William Cohen and Gary Hart. Well, maybe Hart does. But more of that in a moment.
1988 has two heroes and two authors. Hero No. 1 is a silver- haired western governor, a Democrat of maverick views. So is Author No. 1. Hero No. 2 is a Jewish political consultant who has graduated from '60s-style protest to masterminding bang- up media campaigns for liberal politicians. So is Author No. 2.
In 1988 Hero No. 2 gets to save the world from a diabolical P.L.O.-Big Oil plot. But Hero No. 1's exploits are even more pointed. Having made a name for himself harping on the immigration issue, he gets to run for president -- as an independent, since the major parties have turned elsewhere. "In both parties the extremes have won out, while moderation has been shut out," a Cronkite-like TV commentator intones. The Republicans have turned to Jack Kemp and Elizabeth Dole. (In Megatraumas, it will be recalled, Bush got the GOP nod. Equal time.) As for the Democrats, the commentator continues, they "have become a party of special pleaders." And then the kicker: "Gary Hart won the nomination not because he waged the best campaign, but because he endorsed the largest number of extreme positions." Take that, fellow pillar of the Colorado Democracy! Both Kemp and Hart are confident of election -- but of course they haven't reckoned with that immigration-obsessed western governor.
Isn't fiction fun? The best part is, you can make things turn out the way you want them.