Baron of U.S. Politics: Digesting Data Is Easy for Him

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PERSONALITY: Michael Barone, co-author (with Grant Ujifusa) of the "Almanac of American Politics," the biennial 1,500-page bible of political junkies everywhere.

BACKGROUND: The son of a Detroit surgeon and a teacher, Mr. Barone first demonstrated his remarkable affinity for statistics at the age of 7, when he did a comparative study of big-city populations based on 1950 census results. His fascination with political analysis continued at Harvard College and Yale Law School, finally culminating in 1972, when he researched his first almanac while clerking for a federal judge in Detroit. Thirteen succeeding editions of his massive survey have rolled off the presses since then, but even that hasn't been enough to keep a prodigious thinker busy full time. His gilt-edged resume also includes working in Washington for Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, editorial positions at The Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report and authorship of a historical study titled "Our Country: The Shaping of America From Roosevelt to Reagan." Currently he's a senior staff editor at the Washington bureau of the Reader's Digest.

Q. People say you have a photographic memory.

A. I have a good memory. It's changed a little as I've grown older. Now I'm better on trends but need to be fact-checked on exact numbers.

Q. I have a little trivia quiz.

A. Uh-oh.

Q. Who were Robert B. Chiperfield and Adolph J. Sabath?

A. Chiperfield was a 1950s Republican congressman from the 19th district of Illinois, which includes Rock Island. It's Democratic now; Sabath was one of the longest-serving members [1907-52], a Democrat, and chairman of the House Rules Committee in the 1940s and '50s. He was born in Bohemia.

Q. Edith Nourse Rogers?

A. She represented Lowell, Mass., from 1925 until she died in 1960. F. Bradford Morse was elected to replace her. In 1962, he beat Tom Lane, who had spent considerable time in a penitentiary. Later, Paul Tsongas represented the district; now it's Marty Meehan.

Q. Pretty good, since they all left Congress long before you started the almanac. How do you keep track of all those districts?

A. I try to read as much as I can, look at the research and travel around the country. I've visited 433 out of 435 districts. I haven't been to Alaska or Missouri's 7th District, which includes Springfield, the home of the Assembly of God Church.

Q. How has your passion for politics changed over the years?

A. As a kid, I was interested in politics the same way a lot of boys are interested in baseball scores. They know all the statistics but not much about the human reality underneath the game. As you grow older, one of the things you learn is that statistics are just clues to what's really going on. Now I want to spend more time doing in-depth reporting that perhaps starts off with politics but also looks at the underlying realities. My first piece for Reader's Digest is a look at Michigan's economic recovery.

Q. What's extraordinary about it?

A. From the trough of the recession in 1982 until 1997, the state gained a million jobs. It's an outstanding achievement. Political characters played a role - Gov. Jim Blanchard, a Democrat, and Gov. John Engler, a Republican - both made positive contributions to turn around the state's economy. But so did all the people employed in small manufacturing who went from jobs in failing industries to become owners of successful businesses. …