Rewriting Bob Dole

Novelist Mark Helprin talks about his fascination with war and death, his exile from the liberal literary establishment, and his greatest writing challenge -- making flatlander Bob into a figure of mythical stature.

Published July 15, 1996 12:18PM (EDT)

Mark Helprin is more than just an accomplished novelist and sometime conservative commentator. He's also a would-be kingmaker. The novelist has been besieged by the press ever since it was revealed that he authored Bob Dole's Senate retirement speech -- an unusually lyrical oration by the Kansas solon's dry standards. Helprin's soaring words were widely credited with at least temporarily recharging Dole's languishing presidential campaign.

After laboring unsuccessfully for an interview with the feted speechwriter, one recent afternoon I received a mysterious phone call. The caller challenged me to guess his identity, providing me with a series of obscure clues: he was calling from "the state with the second largest park service, after Alaska;" he lived in "the north of that state;" he was sitting at a "polished wooden desk with a clutter of papers in an office with rosewood panels;" he was "looking out the window
onto a farm field of alfalfa." I finally realized that I was talking to none other than the elusive Mark Helprin himself. My acumen was rewarded with a nearly hour-long interview, as the novelist sat in his rosewood-paneled office in the farmhouse in upstate New York where he lives with his wife and two children.

Helprin's participation in the Dole campaign did not come as a political shock. He has been a conservative contributor to the Wall Street Journal's opinion page for more than a decade. It was one such column published in February -- in which he argued that Dole's leadership in the Senate was hampered by the Republican bomb-throwers in the House -- that brought him to Dole's attention.

As a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, a right-wing think tank based in Indianapolis, Helprin promotes an almost aesthetic ideal of rugged individualism and a high-minded aversion to the sloppy realities of the welfare state. He will continue to sound these themes in a new online conservative magazine being launched by former Delaware Governor Pierre ("Pete") du Pont.

Helprin is also the author of what some critics regard as among the most magical works in contemporary fiction -- which he acknowledges Dole has not read ("Elizabeth maybe, but not
Dole"). "Ellis Island and other Stories" was nominated for a National Book Award. His three subsequent novels, "A Winter's Tale," "A Soldier of the Great War" and "Memoir from Antproof Case," are books of ambitious sweep and complicated entanglements worthy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His outsized characters retain a bizarrely mystical, purist perspective, willing to throw everything overboard in pursuit of their beliefs. Sound familiar?

Helprin hankers for the rough-and-tumble of political campaigning; he suggested that I consult "A Winter's Tale" for the type of "campaign that I would love to run." That book conjures up a mayoral campaign in New York City in which an eccentric Praeger de Pinto wages a challenge against the machine candidate, referred to simply as the Ermine Mayor. Helprin writes: "Where most politicians, including the Ermine Mayor, were quick to promise things
they would never deliver, such as clean streets or the absence of crime, Praeger's approach was different... He never talked about garbage, electricity or police. He only talked about winter, horses and the countryside. He spoke almost hypnotically about love, loyalty and esthetics... He promised them love affairs and sleigh races, cross-country skiiing on the main thoroughfares, and the transfixing blizzards that howled outside and made the heart dance."

Helprin concludes the passage with an observation as applicable to current American politics as it was to his literary invention: "They thought, or so it was generally stated at the time, that if they were going to be lied to, they might as well pick the liar who did it best."

Though in real life Helprin's preferred candidate, not unlike his opponent, already sounds more like the promise-a minute Ermine Mayor than the quixotic Praeger, Helprin has every intention of continuing his unpaid work for the Dole campaign. In fact, he revealed that he has already sent a draft acceptance speech for Dole to deliver at his Republican coronation next month -- perhaps the candidate's last chance to narrow the double-digit gap between himself and President Clinton. Helprin refused to provide any details of the speech, saying that it could be changed, or rejected altogether -- an unlikely prospect given the success of his previous foray into speechwriting.

In our conversation, Helprin was alternately playful and resentful of being "misunderstood" -- and at times reviled -- by the "liberal" literary establishment. Claiming that his phone has been ringing 12 hours a day since Dole let slip who authored his resignation opus, Helprin insisted that I would be permitted only five questions, which he ticked off one by one as we spoke.

In "Memoir from Antproof Case" and "A Soldier of
the Great War," your protagonists undergo dramatic
wartime experiences that shape the course of their lives. In the speech you wrote for Dole, you elevated his wartime experience into an almost religious metaphor of transcendence and redemption. Why does war have such literary and political resonance for you?

I write about war heroes because they are ever at risk
of their lives. The interest of the group comes ahead of your own personal experience. This is important to politics, as well as in literature. If you think too much of yourself, and about preserving yourself, you don't have the spark of life. It is the same thing from a literary point of view. The liveliness of character and personality comes from one's commitment to the world. Something that puts you at the door of death can do that.

I once had that experience. I was cross-country skiing down a glacier on Mt. Rainier, jumping crevasses. I was sailing over those crevasses one after another. I was perhaps a little out of it, maybe there was not enough oxygen in my blood cells. I sailed over one patch of snow and fell into a deep crevasse. I tumbled in, and was showered with snow and ice crystals. I can still feel the taste of them as they touched my lips. It looked to be 600 feet down. I thought I was going to die. I was in ecstasy. It was a wonderful feeling. Fortunately I caught myself on my ski poles, and I didn't
die. It was also a wonderful feeling to survive. That is the stuff of life. Everyone faces death. In literature, you just shorten the time. When we exaggerate that, in literature as in politics, we make a metaphor of it, it has great power.

Is this idea of facing down death the root of your support for Dole?

The best way to encapsulate my attraction to Dole is that I admire the man's courage, his fortitude, though I may not agree with all his political positions. When we vote for president, we're not just voting on his political positions. Something could happen you cannot foresee to change those. The only way to judge is on the character of the man. We must know what the man is.

There's a far stronger tradition of literary engagement in politics in Latin America and Europe than there is in the United States. Where do you see yourself in that tradition?

There is a long and honorable tradition of writers' involvement in politics and political speechwriting. Look at history: Melville was awarded with a position as Customs House inspector; Hawthorne was American consul to Liverpool; Washington Irving was U.S. ambassador to Spain. They did political scutwork, and were rewarded. Walt Whitman -- do you know why he wrote "Leaves of
Grass"? He was working as an editor at the Brooklyn Eagle and was fired for writing an editorial in support of Martin van Buren for President. He wrote "Leaves of Grass" because he was out of a job and had to earn some money.

Many people over the past few months have accused me of stooping to politics. But their objection is that it is the the "wrong" politics.
They lionize Vaclav Havel, Mario Vargas Llosa -- they're okay as long as their politics are okay.

You're suggesting that you've suffered in this regard because you are a conservative. Has it had any effect on how people now perceive your fiction?

Though I can't prove them, I hear anecdotal reports. I spoke to someone in a reading group who told me that someone said they wouldn't stay in the group if they read me. She allegedly called me a "right-wing twerp." I don't mind the "right-wing," but "twerp," I don't like that. I've heard reports of bookstores that won't sell my books. Look at the history of my books. I wrote "Ellis Island" in the early 1980s. It received the Penn-Faulkner Award, was awarded a Guggenheim, the Prix de Rome, nominated for a National Book Award. Then Christopher Buckley wrote a piece in the Sunday New York Times saying that the Right now has its own reputable writer of belle lettres. There's not been a single nomination since. I'm not saying that's the reason, but it may have something to do with it. Whatever happens, I don't give a damn.

According to your official biography, you served in the Israeli Air
Force; you did a stint in the British merchant marine; you grew up in
Jamaica. But you've been accused, in the New York Times Magazine and most recently in The New Republic, of blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction in describing your own life.

I cannot tell a lie. Except once or twice in my life. There was a
character assassination piece about me in the New York Times Magazine (by the novelist Paul Alexander), in which they tried to show I wasn't straight with interviewers. This guy, he came to my house, I spent hours with him. He didn't believe I was in the
British merchant marine; that I was almost killed in Jamaica by a Pakistani immigrant. He was such an idiot. I was in the British merchant Navy in 1967. Because I couldn't show him crew records, he said I was making it up. Later I found the crew records in a warehouse in Newfoundland, and published them in the Paris Review.

And the truth is that I was in the Israeli Air Force in the late 1970s. I became an Israeli citizen, served in a combat unit, I went on dozens of patrols at the Lebanese border. Counter-infiltration it was called. But I never ran into anybody, I never said I did. I was never in combat, but I was at the risk of it. One of the stories in "Ellis Island"
came out of that experience: 'The Jew of Persia," based on a guy I met when we were stuck on the top of a mountain in a snowstorm.

I'll admit to making up two stories. On a college radio station I made up a story that I was a millionaire, an assistant to an African dictator who stole diamonds. But it was a good story. And I made up a story once about my family, growing up. I said we'd all sit around the dinner table, and my father would command us to tell him a good story. My father saw that and got angry.

I keep a foot in both boats, truth and fiction. And you know what they say about keeping a foot in both boats...

By Mark Schapiro

Mark Schapiro is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, Harper's Bazaar and the Utne Reader.

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