There are these stories about him. That in college he memorized the boundaries of every congressional district in the United States. That he can give you results to six significant figures of most presidential elections in this century. That he knows the population of, say Cleveland in 1950.
"That would be 914,808," says Michael Barone.
How about St. Louis in 1960? "Uh, 750,026," he says, a runner hitting stride. "I get these by instinct."
He's crazy for road maps too. Say "Worland, Wyo.," and Barone is apt to shoot back: "Terminus of old U.S. 16. Begins in Detroit, corner of Grand River and Woodward. I grew up in Detroit, so of course I wanted to know where that road went."
Lately there's a new pastime - the "OAG," short for the Official Airline Guide. One of the great documents of our time, thinks Barone. A kind of graph of 20th-century commerce. You want to go to Dallas from National Airport? "Braniff or American," announces Barone, "probably make a stop in Memphis." He says he's not really memorizing the book (which is roughly the size of Washington's yellow pages), just "learning" it.
Maybe you get the idea. Michael Barone is an information junkie; a fact freak about America. Though he inhales practically any kind of information (a history of 300 batters; the year the Ford Fairlane went off the assembly line), it is numbers and statistics relating to politics - especially the U.S. Congress - that drive him goofy. So who better to write "The Almanac of American Politics"?
The "Almanac" is in its fourth edition now, having been published first in 1972 as a quick-money scheme of three mostly broke Harvard graduates, one of whom was Barone. Though all three names remain on the current edition, Barone, everyone admits, is the project's soul. The latest volume has sold approximately 50,000 copies. Almost all of that has been in Washington. (The manager of the Trover book shop on Capitol Hill says he generally keeps five copies by the cash register.) The book has been sung by William Buckley, Ralph Nader, Tip O'Neill. Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R.-N.J.) says she can hardly do without it. "But they have a cruel photographer: They shot me lighting my pipe."
Like any almanac, this one has thousands of esoteric statistics - voting records, census data, electoral patterns, demographic breakdowns. But there is also a forest of prose; often it is barbed.
Here is the opening to the 27-page section on New Jersey: "After eight years of obscurity, the state of New Jersey in the early 1970s finally found a political identity: as the nation's most corrupt state."
Here is Barone on downstate Illinois: "The 23rd congressional district is the area across from St. Louis' Gateway Arch, where one can see East St. Louis, Belleville and Granite City through the smog across the Mississippi River."
There is almost no end to what this tome tells: That if Davy Crockett, a Tennessee congressman and hero at the Alamo, had "not lost the 1834 election, he would never have left Tennessee for Texas." That California Gov. Jerry Brown's critics "would say he was a student more of McLuhan than Zen." That Alaska "is a land where a penniless immigrant like Walter Hickel can make millions in the construction business, and where Eskimos and Aleuts live in grinding poverty."
Some would say the "Almanac" is the quintessential Washington book, the perfect machete for hacking through the jungles of politics.
"What we were looking for from the start was a unique relationship between the numbers and the politics," says coauthor Grant Ujifusa, who originally had the idea to do the book. "I think there are only two people in this country who can really read political numbers: Richard Scammon and Michael Barone. We had Barone."
He is seated this morning in his spare, modern second-floor offices at Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc., off Dupont Circle. He looks like a Washington lawyer - dark flannels, demi-blond glasses, soft loafers with gold buckles. Which is what he is.
As he talks, Barone keeps swiveling in his seat to look across the room toward the door - almost a tic in his conversation. When the phone rings, as it does a dozen times in two hours, he bolts up to answer. "How many punches in the nine column? Call me right back, please."
Says a longtime Barone friend: "Mike has a case of terminal nervousness. It's part of his charm."
Peter D. Hart Research Associates is a political consulting firm, specializing in poll-taking. Its clients have included Lloyd Bentsen, Morris Udall, Robert Drinan, Tom Hayden. Barone is vice president. He has been here since 1974. These days the "Almanac" is an avocation (if a handsomely paying one. Barone says he made "between $5,000 and $10,000" on the last edition. He takes two to three months off to write the book).
"I was always interested in political numbers," he says in rapid-fire bursts. "I don't know why. My mother would say it's because I'm part Irish. I think I started working on census data when was about 8 or 9. I remember getting this map of the 1940 decennial census and being fascinated."
He used to take books with indexes of cities and rank-order them according to population, he says. Not just U. S. cities: "I still have some idea of Cologne, Dortmund, Dusseldorf." He shrugs. "It was a way of understanding the world."
He grins. "I think it's a neurotic disorder."
Michael Barone has a disarming way of laughing at his own gifts; others seem more amazed than amused. Joan Barone is the associate producer of CBS-TV's "Face the Nation." She has been married to Michael Barone three years. Some days her husband still knocks her cold with what he knows.
"It's any stastistic , you can see," she says. "We went to Africa on our honeymoon. We traveled something like 2,200 miles by surface transportation. It was too bumpy to read, so Michael would entertain me. One day it was a history of winners of the vice presidency, the next day losers of the vice presidency. And the thing is, he just had it all there in his head."
She brightens. "I almost forgot the best story. We were coming back from Tanzania and I got very sick. I didn't think I'd be able to get on the plane. So Michael is trying to talk me into it. He says, 'Oh, please, Joan, if you won't throw up I'll tell you the whole history of the English monarchy.' He thought of it as a little gift."
Joan Barone says she and her husband play a lot of games. "Scrabble, I beat him, by the way."
Michael Barone has given lots of little gifts. He has been known to startle first acquaintances by laying on them - like valentines - the population of their home town for the last 50 years. Or maybe telling them which way their county went in Truman-versus-Dewey in 1948.
"I don't know, they just stick," he explains.
Grant Ujifusa, now an editor at Random House in New York (his chief contribution to the "Almanac" these days is direction), thinks Barone gets a metaphysical satisfaction out of being able to order the world politically. "It gives him a real felt connection to things. Mike's obsessed the way a rabbis's obsessed. He doesn't want to run for office. He's a Talmudic scholar."
Barone himself insists he doesn't want to run for office, that this is all not just subliminal ego compensation. Politics is a game, a hobby.
"Look, there are 1,200 players in the National Football League. There are 535 members of Congress. Loads of people out there can startle you every Sunday afternoon in a bar during football season with what they know about those 1,200 players. I'm just a different kind of fan."
Another grin. "When I was a kid the Sunday Detroit Free Press used to give the batting averages of every player in the American League. I was always wishing they'd give senators' voting records."
Barone grew up in metropolitan Detroit. The east side of the street was Jewish, the west mostly Catholic.His dad was a doctor, but the neighborhood had a lot of blue collar. It was a good spawning ground for an obsessional interest in politics.
He attended a private secondary school, then Harvard, then Yale law. On graduation in 1969 he clerked for a Michigan judge. On weekends he'd drive to Cincinnati, a city he particularly likes. "I'd always come home a different way. I think I've been in every county within a 100-mile radius of Cincinnati. I'd drive back roads just to get a feel for where people lived, how the county was laid out. I wouldn't really talk to people, just drive around and study them. I guess I was subconsciously trying to put a visual impact alongside the numbers I already knew."
Eventually he got started on the "Almanac," along with Ujifusa and Douglas Matthews, a Boston lawyer whose involvement is now limited. Barone took his one-third royalities (a couple thousand, he says) and went bumming in Europe. Then he came home and toured the Southwest in a beat-up 1970 Chevy. "That was important to subsequent editions," he says. He can now tell you off the top of his head that San Antonio's airport is in the northern sector of the city, in the 21st congressional district, the bulk of Bexar County's heavily Anglo conservative and Republican population.
"Course, the other population center of the district is Sam Angelo. Before the 1965 redistricting, San Angelo's was the district's largest city. It's conservative and Decromatic. Fredericksburg is in the 21st. LBJ used to go to church there. It's German."
He says this, not all haughty, as if were elementary; to him, it is.
But lately something funny has been happening. Michael Barone has started forgetting things - Toledo's 1940 population shift, the key votes Rep. Wiliam Ford (D-Mich.) was in on last year. It alrams him.
"I think my memory's beginning to atrophy," he says, turning up his palms. A sheepish grin has come on.He looks like a kid. "Or maybe I have more reference books. But in any case, I've been going home and reading novels. I don't know why."
Michael Barone, 33, born Sept. 19, 1944, is 6'2", weighs 172 pounds, has blue eyes, sandy hear, wears a 13 shoe. When he was 6, he knew the kigs and queens of England. When he was 7, he taught his sister the Greek alphabet. When he was 12, he had Osgood-Schlatter's disease, a bone pathology. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. He gains weight easily. He likes to crack his knuckles . . . .