One greets the launch of a new publication with an open heart and extended palm. Such is certainly the case regarding the long-awaited Prowler. Here in Virginia, we have always welcomed those who will pay for the written word, be it fact or fabrication. That the Prowler is edited by a man whose name no one can spell — this includes his own children — adds a certain joviality to the proceedings.
As it happens, the Prowler comes into being at a time when editors and writers are in a state of deep self-examination. The cause is the revelation that some of the more highly accomplished members of the tribe were on the take from the Enron Corporation. Enron, as most readers know, was a Texas-based house of ill repute, much like the Mustang Ranch in nearby Nevada but without meaningful state oversight or lasting financial stability. From initial indications, a large number of people were grievously injured due to the greed and stupidity of management. That is to say, they were screwed.
The writers and editors in question, however, hugely benefited from their Enron relationships. Despite the finger-shaking going on in some editorial offices, this is good news. And rare news as well. Writers, after all, are often taken for suckers and are paid at that level. That Peggy Noonan, to name one example, made a bundle for a speech and a letter in the firm’s annual report is no cause for shame. Instead, this is a cause for joy, even if she cannot remember exactly how much she billed Enron, saying the figure was between $25,000 and $50,000. That’s a wide range, and we assume it was construed for two different audiences — the lower figure for the tax man, the higher for Enron’s payroll department.
In either case, Ms. Noonan’s accomplishment should not be understated. She has parlayed a speechwriting job with former president Ronald Reagan into truly high commerce — $250 an hour, to be exact. That is not so easy as it might first appear. Anyone who looks closely at the speechwriting game, after all, quickly learns that in most cases a speechwriter merely pieces together various quotes, ideas, and statistics rounded up by the research department. Not surprisingly, a speech’s most memorable lines are often pilfered. Mr. Reagan’s speeches were compendiums of theft. After the Challenger disaster, he stated that the victims had shaken the mortal coil of earth “and touched the face of God.” In another, he dared his opponents to “Go ahead, make my day.” Both lines were stolen, the latter from a cop, no less (Dirty Harry). That a speechwriter is able to parlay brazen theft into financial security while being praised for literary genius is nothing to sneeze at.
It should also be pointed out that a writer’s ability to charge by the hour instead of the word is also a welcome development — one we hope will be widely embraced. Ms. Noonan, it should be pointed out, had already developed the per-word concept to a high science. In one of her newspaper columns she used the personal pronoun 76 times, and at her rate those I’s alone must have run upwards of $300.
The genius of charging by the hour it that it allows billing not only for the time actually spent tapping the keyboard, but for all the time spent thinking about the subject at hand. Accordingly, a writer can bill for contemplating, re-contemplating, thinking it through one more time, checking it out from hindsight, reading it aloud to the dog, and perhaps sleeping on it as well. For those of us who do our best work in the hammock, hourly billing cannot come soon enough.
So hats off to Ms. Noonan — but not to William Kristol, who made $100,000 for sitting on an Enron board for two years. It is assumed by knowledgeable parties that the actual services rendered may have eaten up a couple of hours per annum, though there is no doubt that Bill had Enron on his mind most of his waking moments and thus gave the firm a first-rate bargain. Besides that, there’s no law that says right-wingers have to be hostile to the concept of Soaking the Rich.
The problem is that Bill, an editor, can be pretty tight when it comes to paying writers. Freelancers will attest that the per-word rate at his Weekly Standard is a criminal 25 cents. One doesn’t know whether to cash such a check or hang it on the wall as a conversation piece. Those of us in the hack community can only thank goodness there are still magazines around such as the Reader’s Digest, which continues to pay $3-$4 a word, the only shortcoming being that they still check facts up in Pleasantville. The Digest understands, as some editors apparently don’t, that it is okay to soak the rich but you shouldn’t screw the lowly.
Which brings us back to Mr. Wlady Plesz….whatever the hell his last name is. He assures Prowler writers that while he doesn’t quite have the Digest’s resources he will nonetheless pay us well, in the fullness of time. That’s a good start. As we say here in Virginia, he’ll be given ample time to make good on his promise. If he fails, we’ll be happy to hang him.
(Dave Shiflett is a writer in Midlothian, Virginia.)
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