Who Will Be Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture? Who cares?

It is 4:50 in the morning. At least twice a day now for weeks I have been checking the web to see whom President-elect Trump will choose to be the least important member of the Cabinet. Yesterday, I had an argument with the opinion editor of a major international newspaper. He said, "Wait, Joel, before writing until we know who will be chosen.'


Senator Heidi Heitkamp's Facebook photograph. If I were a betting man, I would bet that Donald J. Trump will pick Senator Heitkamp for a cabinet position. Doing so would fulfill the transition team's desire to select a Democrat for the Trump cabinet. Since she is from North Dakota, Heitkamp's nomination would result in a vacancy. Probably, she would be replaced by a Republican--increasing a Republican majority in the Senate. Will it be Agriculture or Energy? I would not bet on either as a certainty.
Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s Facebook photograph. If I were a betting man, I would bet that Donald J. Trump will pick Senator Heitkamp for a cabinet position. Doing so would fulfill the transition team’s desire to select a Democrat for the Trump cabinet. Since she is from North Dakota, Heitkamp’s nomination would result in a vacancy. Probably, she would be replaced by a Republican–increasing a Republican majority in the Senate. Will it be Agriculture or Energy? I would not bet on either as a certainty.


I do not want to wait. Daily the list of likely individuals to USDA keep expanding. Seemingly from nowhere (although as it turns out from North Dakota) a new name has appeared: Democratic U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Politico has done the best job of reporting on the cabinet selection process. Yesterday, Politico reported that Senator Heitkamp spent over an hour at Trump Tower talking to the President-elect about one of two cabinet positions–Agriculture and Energy.

Fortunately, the transition team led by Vice President-elect Mike Pence has not made an announcement at least until a civilized hour (say 10 AM) today.  Perhaps the selection will not take place until next week.



I will be blogging all weekend. Yes, I have other chores–taking a shower, cleaning my oven, writing on disability issues. However, this cabinet selection and its consequences appears as an obsession I am unwilling to check.

When I return I will:

  • Surprise you by revealing issues of substance on global and domestic food policy related to the selection of an agriculture secretary.
  • Discuss the unexpected shake up in the Trump agriculture transition team.
  • Include in the list of likely and unlikely USDA candidates, an obscene comment by one who earns for this posting a not fit for minors rating.
  • An offbeat superstition that writing about agriculture policy will keep me alive and well.


Variation of “What’s My Line”

You know he is Secretary of Agriculture. What is his name? He has been Secretary of Agriculture for eight years longer than any member of President Obama's cabinet.
You know he is Secretary of Agriculture. What is his name? He has been Secretary of Agriculture for eight years longer than any member of President Obama’s cabinet.



Aaron Sorkin’s “West Wing ” Demonstrates the Secretary of Agriculture is the Least Important Member of the Cabinet

Let me set the scene.

Aaron Sorkin’s fictional President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet is about to deliver the State of the Union Address. For any of you baseball fans, the State of the Union Address is my moral equivalent of the seventh game of the World Series. My fascination here with the selection process during a Presidential transition stems from the experience my friend Walter Shapiro (currently completing coverage of his tenth Presidential campaign for Roll Call) afforded me.

I had been sidelined from working for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 Presidential campaign because at 28 I was diagnosed with a cancer of the lymphatic system called Hodgkin’s disease. The relationship between my first bout with cancer and U.S. agriculture policy is forthcoming. The focus here (remember?) is on the insignificance of the Secretary of Agriculture demonstrated in a brilliantly written fictional television series. (Still with me?)

The West Wing episode is on the State of the Union address, as I said a World Series event for speechwriters such as myself. At the State of the Union address the President of the United States addresses a joint session of Congress. All 535 members of Congress are there. Behind the President (visible on camera) are the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, and the President Pro Temp of the Senate.

Before the President enters the chamber (more or less as royalty)  the Cabinet walks down the aisle with great fanfare. The Secretary of State. The Secretary of Treasury and so on in order of the line of succession. Yet, there always is concern that a hydrogen bomb might drop on the Capitol of the United States. Who will run the country then?

Left behind in the Oval Office is Bartlet’s Secretary of Agriculture.Sorkin’s fictional president is at times a pompous windbag showing off his knowledge of Latin. The Secretary of Agriculture knows that. The scene begins with the head of USDA handing Bartlet a copy of the Constitution in Latin.

The relevance of the scene then follows. The President gives advice to the Secretary of Agriculture on how to run the country in the event of a nuclear holocaust.


Sampling The New York Times Short List

This is the list.

The New York Times short list to be President-elect Trump's Secretary of Agriculture
The New York Times short list to be President-elect Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture



Let us start with Kansas Governor Sam Brownback before discussing serious agriculture policy issues

Published on May 4, 2015

Thom Hartmann shares a story about a Kansas waitress who told Governor Sam Brownback to “tip the schools” instead of her.

If you liked this clip of The Thom Hartmann Program, please do us a big favor and share it with your friends… and hit that “like” button!




Samuel DaleSamBrownback (born September 12, 1956) is an American politician currently serving as Governor of Kansas. A member of the Republican Party, Brownback was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives during the Republican Revolution of 1994, representing Kansas’s 2nd congressional district for a single term, before running in a 1996 special election for the Senate seat previously held by Bob Dole. He won that election, and two regular elections following, serving until 2011. He ran for president in 2008, but withdrew before the primaries began and endorsed eventual Republican nominee John McCain.[1][2][3] He was elected Governor of Kansas in 2010 and took office in January 2011.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback

Brownback supported the 2007 Iraq War troop surge and has also voiced his support for Israel.[4] He opposes same-sex marriage and has described himself as pro-life.[5] As Governor, Brownback signed into law one of the largest income tax cuts in Kansas’ history.[6] Brownback turned down a $31.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to set up an insurance exchange as part of the federal health care reform law,[7] signed a bill that blocked tax breaks for abortion providers, banned sex-selection abortions, and declared that life begins at fertilization.[8] The income tax cut generated a substantial budget deficit and led some former and current Republican officials to criticize his leadership in the run-up to the 2014 gubernatorial election by endorsing his opponent, Paul Davis.[9] Brownback was reelected in a close race with Davis.



The above interview ends with Governor Brownback responding to a study that found him to be the most unpopular governor in the United States.






Now for something completely different: SUBSTANCE

The big story–bizarrely–is the impact the selection of Secretary of Agriculture will have on the deplorable infant mortality rate in the U.S. The head of USDA (for reasons I can explain) has more funding to reduce infant mortality than any other government department including HHS.

The Secretary of Agriculture is not qualified to reduce informant mortality. The Surgeon General is qualified. Moving the Women Infants and Children program to HHS would have two beneficial effects.

1. Pregnant women with anemia would be treated with medication rather than Total or other iron-fortified cereal.

2. The head of USDA would be free to focus on farming. Currently two-thirds of the USDA budget is spent on food stamps and other income support programs.




Clearly, the most qualified person to be Secretary of Agriculture is Chuck Conner Chief Executive Officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives based in Indiana

Briefly, Conner served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Administration of George W. Bush. Conner is second on The New York Times short list. The fact that he is from Indiana is a great help. Vice President-Elect Pence, who runs the Transition Team,  has been successful in securing the Medicare position for a friend from Indiana. Several prosperous Indiana farmers appear on the longer lists compiled from the agriculture press.

In 2005, Connor appeared before the Senate Agriculture Committee in nomination hearings for his position as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. This is the statement of the Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.



Good morning. We are here today regarding the nomination of Chuck Conner to be Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. Mr. Conner is no stranger to this committee. From 1980 to 1985, he served as Senator Lugar’s agricultural aide. From 1985 to 1987, he was a professional staff member with the Senate Agriculture Committee.

From 1987 to 1997, he served first as Minority Staff Director, then as Majority Staff Director of this committee. I will have to say, just from a personal perspective, having served in Congress for 10 years, I have known Chuck for basically all of those 10 years, and Senator Lugar, you made an excellent choice when you chose Chuck Conner to join your staff.

He is certainly someone who has extensive knowledge of agriculture and of our programs and has been a very good person to work with over the years. Mr. Conner was President of the Corn Refiners Association from 1997 to 2001. Since 2001, he has been the Special Assistant to the President for Agricultural Trade and Food Assistance. Mr. Conner is accompanied today by his wife, Dru, and their four children, Katie, Ben, Andrew, and Emily. We are pleased to have all of you with us.

Also in attendance today are Chuck’s brother, Mike Conner, and his sister-in-law, Sally Lindsey. Welcome to each of you. Senator Harkin is not here yet, but we will give him an opportunity to make any comment he wishes to when he comes in. I want to let you all know what we are going to do this morning. Because of the Joint Session later this morning, I will ask my colleagues either to submit their opening statements for the record or present them during the first round of questioning.

We have the session at—I believe we need to be on the floor at 10:30, so we are going to try to move this along, and that is our reason for bumping up the time-table. With that, I would like to turn to Senator Lugar for an introduction of Mr. Conner. Senator Lugar.”


Of two of the remaining front runners on The Times’ four man list, Governor Brownback has the disadvantage of being regarded as the worst governor in the United States. Texas Agriculture Secretary Sid Miller who retweeted a tweet using an obscene word to describe Hillary Clinton. Sid Miller is up next on my batting order.

Chuck Conner is Chief Executive Officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC).  “The majority of America’s 2 million farmers and ranchers belong to one or more farmer cooperatives. NCFC members also include 22 state and regional councils of cooperatives.

“Farmer cooperatives handle, process and market almost every type of agricultural commodity; furnish farm supplies; and provide credit and related financial services, including export financing. Earnings from these activities are returned to their farmer members on a patronage basis, helping improve their income from the marketplace.”




Sonny Perdue first came to my consciousness when the press reported he wore a tie with tractors on it when President-Elect Trump interviewed him at Trump Tower

As with another former governor of Georgia, Sonny Perdue has a silly first name and an odd way of dealing with it. Born in 1946 son of a farmer, Sonny’s parents named him George Ervin Perdue III. When he became governor he formally changed the name with which he signed documents to his childhood nickname.

There is some special quality former governors of Georgia have that border on the spiritual. Either they are condemned to a lifetime of obscurity or they become President. Take Jimmy Carter, for example who changed his first name formally so he could sign Presidential Proclamations using his nickname. What did he do as Governor of Georgia that suited him for the Oval Office. Yes, he unveiled a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a sign that Georgia recognized its greatest Twentieth Century leader. What else did he do?

My mother explained it. “People tell me he is worth watching.” Similarly (although there is no chance of Sonny becoming President), he has a watchable quality. Currently, Perdue is watchable.

In 2008 The New York Times regarded Perdue as sufficiently watchable to include him on a list for potential running mates for Vice President. How does one get to become a member of the cabinet? It helps to be a name on the right list.

This is how the Times eased Perdue into a slow rise from obscurity. “Republican governors said that Mr. Pawlenty and Mr. Sanford were in the top-tier of potential running mates, but that Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida and Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia were also contenders.” Note: the online version of the Times hotlink Purdue’s name and gave him the opportunity for a quote.

“Mr. Perdue said he had not asked anyone to include his name on a list of potential running mates. But he said, ‘People include my name because we’re the capital of the South, a fast-growing region, and we’ve had wonderful success with a conservative fiscal policy.’”

The paragraph above indicates that when the spotlight was upon him (albeit briefly), he performed well. How well did he perform as Georgia. He was elected with two campaign pledges 1. Administer the state more efficiently. 2. Improve education; specifically raise SAT scores.


See Wikipedia:

“Two primary objectives in Perdue’s administration was on reforming state government and on improving education. Perdue advocated reforms designed to cut waste in government, most notably the sale of surplus vehicles and real estate. Prior to Perdue’s becoming governor, no state agency had even compiled an inventory of what assets the state-owned, much less managed them.

“In education, Perdue promoted the return of most decision-making to the local level. After Perdue took office, Georgia moved out of last place in SAT scores in 2003 and 2004. Although it returned to last place in 2005, Georgia rose to 49th place in 2006 in the combined math and reading mean score, including the writing portion (new that year).[8] The high school class of 2006 recorded the sharpest drop in SAT scores in 31 years.[“


Perdue’s Helpful Family Tie

Last night (December 4), breathless, my Ear on the Ground in Georgia (EOGG) left a voice message at 9. “You know, Perdue’s cousin sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee.”

Perdue’s cousin is Senator David Perdue Republican of Georgia. On Friday, Senator David Perdue (a staunch Trump supporter) met with the President-elect at Trump Tower. They discussed farm legislation. The current farm bill expires in two years. The Administration will have a difficult time renewing the legislation. What is most significant about farm legislation these days is that it is not  significant. Until the 1970s, farm legislation determined how much a farmer could or could not plant. No more.

Current legislation deals with technical issues of little concern to consumers. The Farm Bureau and other farm groups are working overtime to prepare because (to repeat) it might not pass. Job One for Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture is to make sure it passes.

No other cabinet agency has the intimate relationship required  between the Senate and indeed House Agriculture Committees in whose hearing rooms I have spent ten years of my life. In these Committee rooms it is helpful to have cousins (kissing and otherwise) who are members of the Committee. Sonny Perdue’s selection could very well be determined by blood as well as qualification.
























Copyright © 2016 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.

My personal experience with cancer—Cancer III, II, I

New York, New York, Saturday, April 13, 2013: My third cancer is new. It did not present itself as a suspicious sign the way the lump (tumor) did under my right arm leading to a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease followed by major surgery and two rounds of radiation treatment when I was 28 years old. I am now 65.

My first cancer

The radiation did not prevent me from fathering a daughter Joanna (who graduates from nursing school next month and marries in October).

My second cancer

Then, 13 years later, an unpleasant surprise. A lump (tumor) appeared in my groin. My orthodox Jewish oncologist said, “It is a sheylah [a Talmudic term meaning a question which does not have an answer] whether this is a new case of Hodgkin’s disease or the return of the old one.”

Out of hubris, I had published an article in The New York Times under the title Learning to Live Again boasting of my cure, a boast to be repeated on ABC’s Good Morning America after an impressive limousine ride to the studio followed by a book with the same title (available on this site https://joelsolkoff.com/book-store/books/learning-to-live-again-my-triumph-over-cancer/) with the subtitle, My Triumph Over Cancer.

Now, with the arrival of my third cancer, Joanna expresses a familiar refrain over the phone from North Carolina, “Everyone knows nothing can kill you, Dad.” Then, she says, “Learning to live again and again and again.”

Amelia (whom I fathered after my cancer at age 42), who is teaching English in rural Spain, continues the theme calling on Skype (revealing her hair is growing long): “And again and again.”

As directed, finding an expert on Cancer III

So, here I am in New York City, a week and a day after I was diagnosed with renal cancer. My urologist had opened her laptop with the CAT-scan showing a very large tumor surrounding my right kidney.

The vividness of the image is startling—large tumor, large large tumor.

Will it kill me?

Can I avoid death?

The answer appears with an insistence:

I am told that I must find a surgeon better than any surgeon in town [i.e. State College]—the kind of skilled surgeon available at Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, only Pennsylvania has a limited number of surgeons of that caliber and finding one able to operate in April is unlikely.

I must go out of state—have an operation in 30 days or else the cancer from the large tumor wilI spread and kill me.

Run don’t walk to the best surgeon who can operate.

That’s the advice I follow.

Diagnosis on Friday at 4 pm.

I am on the phone on Monday to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Yesterday (yesterday) I consulted at my urologist’s suggestion (yesterday) with Paul Russo a surgeon specializing in kidneys and cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). As he puts it, “I am a kidney surgeon warlord.”

A digression on traveling to NY by bus

It is worth pointing out—before getting to what the Kidney Warlord said—that getting from State College, PA to New York City is not easy for me. I cannot walk. The cumulative radiation from Cancers I and II burned a hole in my spine making me a paraplegic.

I can stand but I have to hold onto something. I get around on a scooter—a power operated vehicle (POV) scooter invented by Al Thieme (CEO of Amigo Mobility) to help his wife who had multiple sclerosis.

The scooter I used for the trip is a lightweight travel scooter which means that it folds apart easily, has remarkable power—climbing easily Manhattan’s hills and steep (sometimes very steep with deep cracks in the payment) curb cuts– is relatively light weight and is narrow (the place at which I slept last night had narrow hallways).

My friend PH came by my State College apartment shortly before 9 AM Thursday to take me to the bus. Megabus runs a double-decker (reminiscent of the buses I used to ride as a child down Fifth Avenue).  One problem with being disabled and riding Megabus is that to secure officially sanctioned accommodations one has to call the special disability number which in my experience takes as long as an hour for a simple bus ride plus the information does not reach the bus driver and on and on.

This time I decided to follow the rules that if I am willing to store my wheelchair (or other vehicle) in the luggage compartment of the bus, then I do not have to call the Disability Office.

I brief PH on what to tell the driver (who fortunately does not freak out as others have done). He removes the lift from the closet next to the bathroom, hooks it on the bus floor (so it does not slip when a scooter or wheelchair goes up or down).

I drive up the lift, move from scooter to chair, and PH, who knows how to take the scooter apart does so after leaving me on the bus chair and going down the lift to the luggage area. PH explains how Frank will have to put the scooter together when we arrive in New York.

This detail should make it clear (repetition is bad writing but good pedagogy) that traveling is not easy for me. The desire to save my life (as I saw it) overcame obstacles including the reality that I could not walk to the bus’ bathroom and had to tax my bladder to the limit. Enough said.

Background on Kidney Warlord consultation

So, there we are at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) having arrived through a cold rain early for a 10 AM appointment. Since its founding in 1884 as a New York hospital devoted to treating cancer patients, MSKCC has established itself as a world-famous research and treatment center benefiting from the funding cycle created by President Richard Nixon and Congress. Nixon (of whom I cannot resist making disparaging remarks)–in what the White House press office described as “a Christmas gift to the nation”– began the War on Cancer by signing the National Cancer Act in December of 1971.  [Expect a return to this subject.]

I keep mentioning Sloan Kettering (as if it were a mantra) because it is regarded as one of the most distinguished cancer centers in the world (which also means it has its critics [and I have the opportunity to repeat myself again]). The surgeon I was scheduled to see is a hot-shot by any standards and (sadly) I have experience with cancer hot shots (remind me to tell you about the time…).

Paul Russo is on the staff of Cornell’s College of Medicine as well as Sloan Kettering and is widely published—see PubMed [an online index of biomedical articles maintained by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health] for a full listing of his journal articles. One article is entitled, “The Role of Surgery in the Management of Early-Stage Renal Cancer.”

The first sentence reads: “There were an estimated 58,240 new cases and 13,040 deaths from kidney cancer in the United States in 2010.”

Here is how Dr. Russo describes his work: “I am a urologic oncological surgeon known for my academic work in kidney tumor surgery. My expertise includes partial nephrectomy, removing only the tumor using small ‘miniflank’ incisions while preserving maximal kidney function, and cytoreductive radical nephrectomy for patients with advanced kidney cancers. I also lead a kidney tumor surgical research team at Memorial Sloan-Kettering that has created nomograms predicting survival and renal functional outcomes.”

If you want to see a YouTube on cancer surgery for kidneys, go to Dr. Russo’s link: http://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/doctor/paul-russo

The Consultation

Dr. Russo’s office suggested that I invite someone to the appointment which is an excellent idea because there were moments when I did not really hear what the doctor said. My friend Kathy graciously agreed to attend and Dr. Russo spent a surprising amount of time talking to her, which made sense because I was annoyed by how the appointment began.

“Are you irritated at me?” he eventually asked. “Yes,” I answered.

This is what I want: I want you to operate on me immediately, confirm that losing a kidney does not matter, that recovery from the operation (as I have been led to believe) is minor, and a swift operation will cure me of renal cancer by eliminating the tumor before the cancer has a chance to spread.

Dr. Russo said that I may not be suitable candidate for surgery—especially since the surgery he would perform is MAJOR surgery. I may not be suitable because I had a heart attack and have a pacemaker and am a diabetic.

Dr. Russo said that there is increased evidence that individuals such as myself who have multiple health problems do not follow the preconceived view that one kidney is enough. Losing a kidney might cause me significant problems.

Dr. Russo said that he orders his patients to walk a mile on the first day of surgery and two miles on the second. Since I am a paraplegic, I cannot walk at all. Not being able to walk could lead to significant complications.

Dr. Russo said that there is no rush. The tumor surrounding my right kidney is very large and could have been growing for 20 years. It is a good sign that the tumor was found by chance rather than as a consequence of symptoms. Perhaps, the tumor will continue to grow slowly and without causing cancerous damage. The thing to do is proceed slowly, and cautiously.

On Monday morning [remember, today is Saturday], Dr. Russo scheduled me for cardiac tests. In a month I return to New York to see him.

My reaction

I have been staring off in the distance looking at nothing thinking no thoughts. This was true a week ago when I was diagnosed with renal cancer and urged to rush to cut it out and it is true today after being told to proceed slowly and perhaps not have the operation at all.

The advice to rush and cut out the cancer immediately was comforting in its way. Once again I would be doing something to save my life. Doing something is better, in my book, than doing nothing—than waiting and seeing.

As it turns out, I believe Dr. Russo. He has performed more kidney operations than are performed by most countries. He is rewarded by the hospital when he performs an operation—discouraging operations is not good for business or reputation (at least, in the conventional sense).

Dr. Russo has convinced me to rewrite my figurative book and acknowledge that doing nothing may be better than doing something. As I type this, I have difficulty believing what I am writing in large part because I really do not see myself as a 65 year-old man with health problems. I see myself on many days as 16 and on most good days as capable of doing anything. Anything.

I am not 28 anymore as when I was treated for Cancer I. The decisions I make for the future ought to be made carefully because a well-lived life (the kind of life I want to live) causes joy and adds to the productivity of the gross domestic product. [This ongoing story will continue.]


Copyright © 2013 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.

This posting is the second part of the ongoing story of my third cancer–kidney cancer, a story that follows this expanding outline:

1. https://joelsolkoff.com/who-i-used-to-be/

2. https://joelsolkoff.com/my-personal-experience-with-cancer-cancer-iii-ii-i/  [You are here.]

3. https://joelsolkoff.com/my-fear-of-the-future/

4. https://joelsolkoff.com/my-man-mozart/


A Nearly-Successful Attempt to Write the Perfect Role for Jacqueline Bisset—An Appreciation of “Mystery” Writer Ross Thomas

 “Kissing her, Stallings decided, was like kissing your first older woman—the one with all the wicked experience. He then decided not to decide anything else and simply go along with whatever happened except that what happened was far from simple. Instead, it was intricate, a trifle wild, totally sensual and innovative even to Stallings who thought, until now, that he long ago had crossed his last sexual frontier. At one point he experienced a miser’s glow when he realized that this night in this bed in suite 542 of the Manila Hotel would turn into his main account at the Bank of Fantasy—and that he could draw on it without limit for as long as he lived.”

I like the fact that Ross Thomas, often described as a “mystery” author, capitalized Bank of Fantasy in the previous paragraph. Yes, many of Thomas’ 25 books were published by The Mysterious Press and Thomas twice received the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award. [See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ross_Thomas_(author).] Yet, when I think of the term mystery, I think of the 12 novels of S.S. Van Dine, published in the 1920’s and 30’s, whose main character is the rich and disarmingly pretentious Philo Vance. Vance’s name became a synonym with the murder mystery sleuth who gathers the suspects in one room and points to the killer. In a murder mystery, the plot centers on a dead body and the action revolves around solving who committed the murder.
The erotic excerpt in the first paragraph of this blog posting is from Out on the Rim, published in 1987, a year after Ferdinand Marcos went into exile and Corazon Aquino took power in the Philippines. Out on the Rim is the story of a plot to bribe a left-wing Philippine guerilla leader with $5 million to stop fighting. If Alejandro Espiritu (whom everyone not speaking Tagalog calls Al) retires, it will add to the stability of the new Aquino regime which needs all the stability it can get. As with Thomas’ other work, there may be a gratuitous dead body here or there, but the focus is not on solving a murder, but on stealing the money or getting involved in some other nefarious scheme.
When Thomas died in December, 1995, The New York Times obituary headline described him as an “Author of Stylish Political Thrillers.” The Times said, “The writer Stephen King, noting Mr. Ross’s gift for character and witty dialogue, once called him ‘the Jane Austen of the political espionage story.’ Other critics place him in the hard-boiled tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett.”
This is an appreciation of Ross Thomas whose fictional characters befriended me in times of personal disasters, such as radiation treatment for cancer and divorce, in a way that the heavy hitters in fiction could not do. The importance of light fiction was pressed home to me after my first divorce when I tried to ameliorate the pain by reading Henry James’ stylistically brilliant, low-on-action Wings of a Dove. It didn’t work.
Recovering from my second divorce, I read Ross Thomas, most notably; The Fools in Town Are On Our Side (1970). The main character Lucifer C. Dye has just been fired from a boutique intelligence agency known only as Section Two (definitely not the CIA). Dye is hired by Victor Orcutt Associates, a small company profiting from urban corruption. Orcutt hires Dye “to corrupt me a city.” When their city is sufficiently corrupted, the company’s reputedly reform-minded clients plan to take over after the fast-approaching municipal election.
Specifically, this posting is an appreciation of Thomas’ minor characters. The lovers who begin this article are good examples. Booth Stallings is the author of a book on terrorism and a Washington consultant. Georgia Blue is a cashiered Secret Service Agent clandestinely in touch with Imelda Marcos.
At the beginning of the novel Stallings first admires Georgia Blue from afar at D.C.’s stuffy Hotel Madison where he is waiting for power broker Harry Crites:
 “Harry Crites was twenty-two minutes late when the muscle walked into the Madison and read the lobby with the standard quick not quite bored glance that flitted over Booth Stallings, lingered for a moment on the two Saudis, counted the help and marked the spare exists. After that the muscle gave her left earlobe a slight tug, as if checking the small gold earring.
“Booth Stallings immediately nominated her for one of the three most striking women he had ever seen. Her immense poise made him peg her age at thirty-two or thirty-three. But he knew he could be five years off either way because of the way she moved, which was like a young athlete with eight prime years still ahead of her.”
 My use of the term minor character might be better understood if we use the concept of fifth business employed by the late Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. Davies quotes Thomas Overskou: “’Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the dénouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies…’” Davies observed that fifth business characters did not necessarily have glamorous roles; they had steady work because the plot could not continue without them.
So, well-defined are Thomas’ minor/fifth business characters that it is possible to describe the plot of Out on the Rim without ever mentioning the book’s complex main characters. Crites hires Stallings because during World War II Stallings fought against the Japanese side-by-side with Al. Crites says that because Al knows Stallings and trusts him, Stallings is in an excellent position to bribe Al. Stallings negotiates a $250,000 fee for doing so. Later that evening, instead of settling for the fee, Stallings decides to steal the entire $5 million and realizes that doing so will require help. He then begins to employ a group of shady characters, one of whom is Georgia Blue.
Jacqueline Bisset plays her own shady Ross Thomas minor character in the 1976 film St. Ives. As an aside, Bisset, who Newsweek Magazine once called, “the most beautiful actress of all times,” is a primary and unexpected motivating factor in my writing this appreciation, not only of Ross Thomas but also of Bisset. Her role in Rich and Famous (1981) came to mind one bleak 5 degree day here at State College, PA. For distraction, I ordered a stack of Jacqueline Bisset DVDs by mail.
When I began watching St. Ives, a name that seemed familiar, but not immediately recognizable, the realization that Charles Bronson was the star vexed me. Bronson is an actor who performs every role as if he were a character from a one-dimensional Mickey Spillane novel, playing the private detective who orders bar whiskey and calls women broads.
Then I read the following screen credit: “Based on the novel The Procane Chronicle by Oliver Bleeck.” This startled me. Oliver Bleeck is Ross Thomas’ pseudonym for a series of five novels about Philip St. Ives, who wrote a column about crooks, lowlifes, and unsavory characters until his newspaper folded. By chance, a loyal reader, a thief, asks his lawyer to hire St. Ives as a middleman to sell back stolen jewelry to its owners. The fee from the first effort as a go-between is so profitable that St. Ives is able to survive by performing his brief services 4 times a year.
The inept casting of Bronson, an incompetent screenplay, and rotten directing destroyed forever the chances of Jacqueline Bisset to play a great role in a great Ross Thomas-based film. The roles I had in mind for Bisset were comparable to Myrna Loy playing Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934) and Mary Astor playing Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Both movies were based on novels by Dashiell Hammett, a writer to whom Ross Thomas has been compared. The movies gave Hammett’s characters a magical power best illustrated by the fact that after seeing, for example, The Thin Man I have never again been able to reread the book without envisioning William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. That is a good thing.
Seeking to torture myself by cataloging just how brutally Bronson had destroyed my dream for Ross Thomas and Jacqueline Bisset, I sought to obtain a copy of The Procane Chronicle. Following Thomas’ death all but one of his novels went out of print. Recently, there has been a small Thomas revival. St. Martin’s Press has been reissuing his novels, and scattershot appreciations continue to appear in print and on the web. However, The Procane Chronicle is still out of print and my used copy from a reader in Oregon arrived slowly in time for spring.
In The Procane Chronicle, St. Ives is hired to retrieve the detailed diaries of master thief Abner Procane. Procane’s diaries, referred to as leather-bound ledgers, detail each of his crimes and also serve as planning documentation for future jobs. After someone steals the ledgers from Procane’s safe, Procane fears that their disclosure could result in the police arresting him for his crimes or result in the necessity to abort a million dollar heist he has been planning for months.
Procane introduces St. Ives to Procane’s apprentice Janet Whistler. In the novel Thomas says about Whistler: “She was attractive enough if you liked tall, rangy girls with slender figures and easy, natural movements. I didn’t mind them.” The New York Times, reviewing Bisset’s performance in the role, says, “Finally, there is what must be the least explicit sex scene of the year, Miss Bisset sits down on [St. Ives’] bed smoldering. She puts one hand to her zipper and, believe it or not, the scene ends. Miss Bisset, who does wonderful things for silly roles and once in a while is allowed to do wonderful things for good ones, makes that unpulled zipper seem like an X-rating all by itself.”
St. Ives’ talented supporting cast, who sadly are unable to save this movie, also includes John Houseman, who plays Abner Procane, and Maximilian Schell, who plays a psychiatrist whom Procane consults with obsessively to make sure that Procane has not become the kind of criminal who likes to be caught.           
Early in the film Charles Bronson tells Jacqueline Bisset, in what is intended to be a flirtatious remark, “You have a lot of great looking bits and pieces.” As a 60 year-old I have special license to complain that part of the problem is the disparity in age between Bronson, then 55, and Bisset, then 32. There is no romantic chemistry between them (despite the fact the Bisset just can not help being sexy).   
Thomas’ St. Ives is in his late 30s, lives in a seedy New York hotel, and has a cynical, wise cracking manner that is engaging and appealing to a variety of fascinating women. New York characters often do not travel well when transported by directorial fiat to Los Angeles, thus making St. Ives’ quirkiness incomprehensible. Bronson lives in seedy Los Angeles hotel, but he also drives a new Jaguar.
Especially revealing is Bronson incomprehensible ambition. Thomas’ St. Ives proclaimed that his lack of ambition dominates his life. When Thomas’ St. Ives loses his job as a columnist, he does not write a novel. Writing novel is work. St. Ives prefers being a go-between because it lets him do nothing for most of the year.
By comparison, Bronson is portrayed as a columnist who quits his job (he does not lose it) to write a novel. When the movie begins, Bronson has already written three chapters. Throughout the film people ask Bronson how the book is going, something I would never do for fear that Bronson would shoot me and because I find it impossible to believe that Bronson could even start a novel. As for what a go-between actually does, the fundamental glue that holds the story together, Bronson is clueless. Sometimes he holds an airline bag filled with money; sometimes he doesn’t.
Still, I remain hopeful that additional movies will be made from Thomas’s work and Thomas’ characters will receive the respect they deserve. I am especially eager to see Georgia Blue on film, but have resigned myself to the likelihood that Bisset, now 63, will not be playing her.
In Rich and Famous, Bisset plays a fictionalized Susan Sontag standing by the fireplace in a California beach house passionately appreciating Marcel Proust, saying Proust was a genius with a brain full of nitroglycerine. My instant desire was to turn off the DVD, trudge through the snow, and obtain a copy of Remembrance of Things Past.
But that would be wrong. I have aches and pains I have not told you about. Meals on Wheels does not deliver madeleine. I have my loyalty to the characters of the mystery-espionage genre to protect, authors who have already demonstrated that I can rely upon them to see me through tough times, especially Ross Thomas, S.S. Van Dine, Rex Stout, Eric Ambler, and John le Carré.
–Joel Solkoff [written before the Presidential election of 2008, revived while reading Ross Thomas’  Missionary Stew to distract me from the way President Obama is destroying the ability of people who cannot walk to obtain power chairs and scooters from Medicare]
Copyright © 2012 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.