Millard Grimes loves newspapers, politics and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He grew up in LaGrange and Columbus during the Depression, beginning his newspaper career as a summer proofreader for the Columbus paper when he was a junior in high school. He came to college at UGA just after World War II. He worked on the Red & Black, graduated from the Grady College, and went back to the paper in Columbus. After some years as an editor, he convinced some wealthy associates to back him in the purchase of the Opelika-Auburn (AL) Daily News, and by the time they sold it, Millard had his grubstake to begin a career of buying and selling Georgia newspapers during the boom times. (He bought my interest in the Athens Observer.)
Millard was a hands-on owner, heavily involved in day-to-day management, tweaking headlines and regularly writing editorial columns that generally reflected his belief in the principles and accomplishments of Roosevelt’s New Deal. His newspapers covered local, state and national politics and profited from political advertising during election seasons.
Millard compiled a book about Georgia newspapers, The Last Linotype, but as a lifelong editorialist, he wanted to write a book that would express all he had been saying through his editorial columns through all those years at all those newspapers.
Finally, three years ago, at the age of 87 and being more or less forcibly retired by the precipitous decline of the newspaper industry, Millard sat down to write his book, using pen and yellow pads. (He can’t type!) Millard firmly believed that nobody would read a book of his musings, so he determined to write a novel that would be more interesting than essays but would still embody his ideas. And that is exactly what he did: day after day, month after month, writing it out in longhand and handing it to a typist. When he had finally finished, he couldn’t find an agent to sell it, thus he couldn’t find a publisher and finally had to self-publish, and very soon, The Last New Dealer will be actually out.
This is an amazing book. Millard reimagines the1992 Democratic Primary race among Bill Clinton, Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey and Thomas Alexander Franklin. Wait a minute: Who? Yep. Franklin is actually, just between us, a mild-mannered Georgia newspaper magnate who has taken all his assets and snuck into the primary just as it got to New Hampshire. Besides Franklin and his staff, everybody else in the book is real, ripped from the headlines, as they say.
Franklin, like another ex-magnate I know, loves to dissect the minutiae of politics, framing the discussion in his encyclopedic knowledge of history and his fervent belief that the New Deal can still be the panacea for the ills of our benighted country.
Millard knows our history, and he conjures a story filled with lessons from the past and present that point the way out of our national morass. He cleverly weaves his story into events that were transpiring during 1992, and the man can’t even google. (He doesn’t use a computer!)
This is not only a novel; it is a history book and a treatise on political philosophy. When you get over the shock of what Millard is doing, you enjoy the concoction of an added narrative wherein Thomas Alexander Franklin, Zelig-like, is inserted into the actual events. And not just Franklin, but his whole crew of campaign workers whom he (and we) come to care about and rely on.
Franklin just can’t quit standing in for his creator, reminding us at every turn where our country has been and where it is headed. We could have used him during the last primary season, and one can wish that Joe Bidenj could enjoy his sage counsel now. Maybe Millard ought to send him a copy.
The Last New Dealer is a good read, if you like fantasy politics. A good example of Millard’s method is his account of a political rally here in Athens, in the stadium, where Kenny Rogers provides the music, and speakers include Lewis Grizzard, Michael Stipe, Michael Thurmond, Gwen O’Looney, Herschel Walker and a surprise appearance by Jesse Jackson. I mean, hey, as long as you’re rewriting history, why not go all out?
I don’t know how Millard marshaled the stamina to produce this 630-page book, but it’s a crowning achievement for a 90-year-old man who has filled it with a lifetime of thought and experience.
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