I find myself a first-time author, having produced a memoir of the first half of my life. (To buy the book, and then leave a glowing review, please click here). In my introduction to the book, printed below, I explain the why, how, when, and what of the whole thing.
Fortunate One: From Nantucket to the White House — A Memoir
I’ve been a little hesitant to tell people I was writing this memoir because whenever I did, they’d inevitably ask why, as in, who are you to write an autobiography? Trust me, it’s a question I’ve posed to myself. I’m not famous, don’t have a tragic childhood to resolve therapeutically through the written word, and have no commercial venture to advance through the promotion of a “personal brand.”
I could fall back on the cliché that everybody has a story to tell, but if you’ve ever listened to a golfer recount his most recent round, you know that not every story is equally compelling. It will be up to you, Dear Reader, to determine whether my story was worth telling, but here are my goals: to recapture a world that no longer exists and to evoke what it was like to be born in the ‘50s, grow up in the ‘60s, attend college in the ‘70s, and start a career in the ‘80s. I know this isn’t exactly the same as Laura Ingalls Wilder recounting her experiences in that little house on the prairie, but the social and technological changes that have occurred since the 1950s are almost as dramatic as the ones she lived through.
To some extent, my story parallels that of millions of other baby boomers born in the mid-1950s. I’m probably not the only seven year old who ate orange-flavored aspirin when he couldn’t find candy in the house or walked unescorted to school while dodging potentially pedophilic kidnappers and speeding 18-wheelers. I want readers my age to nod in recognition and say, “Yeah, that happened to me too,” and I hope that later generations will marvel that we ever survived childhood or managed to launch ourselves into adulthood.
But just as every index finger is fundamentally the same while every fingerprint is different, the story that follows is undeniably, uniquely my own. I entered the world on Nantucket Island, grew up in a declining industrial city, almost failed college, worked as a small-town reporter, and eventually landed in the White House. Along the way, I lived in a haunted house; had not one, but two lesbian girlfriends in high school; wrote newspaper stories about a Manhattan scientist who disappeared one morning from a remote, iced-in island; sparred with the owner of the Washington Post; chatted up a couple of U.S. Presidents; and helped prepare the debate remarks that almost torpedoed the re-election campaign for one of them.
It’s taken me two years to write this book, but in truth, it’s been 60 years in the making. As long as I can remember, I’ve felt the autobiographical impulse. In the second grade, at the tender age of eight, I made my first attempt at a memoir, scribbling out three paragraphs before abandoning the effort to do my arithmetic assignment instead. Ever since, I’ve been cataloguing my life—a project that sometimes verged on hoarding. I kept every letter and postcard that arrived in my mailbox, stored many important school papers, and maintained boxes of junior and senior high school yearbooks, datebooks, calendars, and relevant newspaper clippings. My mother saved my report cards and my correspondence from vacations and college. Starting in my mid-20s, I religiously kept a daily diary. Holding onto memories, both through physical materials and, more mystically, in the inscrutable regions of the hippocampus, neocortex, and amygdala, has been a life-long obsession.
I reviewed all this documentation before I started writing, reading every letter and diary entry through November 1988. The experience mostly confirmed my existing memories, although in some cases I had been wrong about chronology or had remembered events out of sequence. In other cases, I was reminded of people who had completely vanished from my active memory. Who exactly was that college classmate who sent me those three letters in the summer of 1975? Had I really shared so many cocktails and dinners with those former colleagues in Washington, D.C.? Some of these rediscoveries I folded into this narrative; the rest I just re-deposited into my already overstuffed memory bank.
Excavating these memories was sometimes a delight, sometimes painful, and often just plain embarrassing, curing me of a misconception that life was better then than it is now. I wish I could send a message back in time and advise the earlier version of myself to lighten up, not fret about the future so much, and not get aggravated so easily. I would tell the younger Gary: You can’t control your destiny, but don’t worry, you’re lucky. You won’t win the lottery, but you will win the lottery of life.
In some respects, it was easier to write 100,000 words of memories than it was to come up with the two words that formed the title. My college friend, Jim Robinson, who plays such a crucial role in this story, initially suggested “Fortune Son,” which would have been perfect, except I didn’t want people thinking they were getting John Fogarty’s life story. In the end, he helped me settle on “Fortunate One.”
A political progressive might take one look at my life and dismiss it as “privileged.” A person of faith might look at the same set of facts and say I was “blessed.” Whatever term you want to use, I certainly concede that good fortune smiled on me from the day I was born. Being white, male, and straight provided me with advantages, but to be born in America to nurturing, hard-working, married parents was the biggest break of all. As if that wasn’t enough, I grew up free from financial anxiety because the small business my parents created prospered during a prosperous era. Although I skirted close to physical injury many times, I always escaped with mere scars or skinned knees. I had robust health, access to good education, and exposure to friends who stimulated me intellectually and socially. Importantly, the women I dated were perceptive enough to see that I was ultimately not right for them, so I was available when the right one did enter my life.
I can make the case that the children of 1950s America were the luckiest generation in history. The advances in medicine alone—the vaccines, antibiotics, and new surgical procedures—made sure that a record number of us reached adulthood. I had pneumonia in the fourth grade, something that merits a mere half sentence in this story; if I’d been born 20 years earlier, I might not have lived long enough to write anything. We were lucky to be born into the richest, most dominant national economy the world had ever seen, which created huge opportunities for us to leap ahead of our parents economically, a gift that has not always been available to our own children.
More specifically, I’d argue that the boys born in 1954 were the luckiest of a lucky generation: old enough to experience the Beatles but just young enough to avoid getting drafted; old enough to benefit from the sexual revolution and co-ed dorms, but young enough not to come to maturity worrying about AIDS and STDs; old enough to feel safe and secure at school or walking down the street, but young enough to avoid the social conformities of the 1950s; old enough to assume college was a given for any smart kid, but young enough to miss the crippling anxiety of getting into the “right” school or assuming massive debt.
Even with all this happy talk about good fortune, I’m no Pollyanna about the bumps along the way, and I’ve tried to be as truthful as possible without going out of my way to settle scores. My goal is not to embarrass people, so in a few cases I have changed names, particularly those of some former bosses and colleagues in Washington. I haven’t said anything libelous or even unfair; they were nice enough to hire me, so I don’t want to make them feel betrayed, even 35 years later. To avoid cumbersome circumlocutions like “my new boss, who I’ll call John,” readers can assume that if I provide a given name and surname, it’s real. If I only mention a first name, it’s been changed.
Some “real” names I’d like to thank for being early readers and editors are three of my oldest school friends, Jim Robinson, Philip Tasho, and Liz Prevett, who confirmed many of my memories, called out awkward writing, and generally kept me from making self-inflicted mistakes. I also had close editing help from a former colleague, Tim Clifford, who tragically died of ALS before I finished the drafting. My wife, Meg Ricci, also read an early draft. Finally, I had the assistance of a professional editor, Chloë Siennah. I didn’t always take their advice, so they are blameless for any offenses made against the historical record or prevailing political and social orthodoxies.
This volume ends when I’m 34 years old, which is chronologically the midpoint of my life—so far at least. It also marks the conclusion of my searching period. During these first three decades, I was trying to figure out who I wanted to be. By the time I reach the last pages of the final chapter, I am more or less fully formed. And upon reflection I’ve realized that most of the major lucky breaks of my life—the moments when my path could have veered significantly in another direction—occurred during this first half of my life. Good fortune has continued to bless me since then, but the only remaining “hinge” moment of almost unbelievably good luck left to describe is the birth of my son. He truly has been a “fortunate son,” but that’s for another book.