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The Columbia Letters

In 2001, the book My First Presidentiary came out, authored by KEVIN GUILFOILE and John Warner, and quickly became a best seller. A college student contacted the authors with a simple question. They responded with glee.

In March 2001, Three Rivers Press published the Modern Humorist book, My First Presidentiary. In a simpler, more innocent era of political humor, this satirical look at the nascent Bush administration received wide critical acclaim and by May had reached no. 1 on the Washington Post Bestseller List. That summer, a college student contacted the authors, John Warner and Kevin Guilfoile, and asked them for help with a class project. Although eager to lend a hand, Mr. Warner and Mr. Guilfoile were confused about the service they were being asked to provide and instead used this very kind young woman’s email inbox as an instrument of their escalating, personal feud. The following exchange was the sad result.

Because she no longer returns Mr. Warner and Mr. Guilfoile’s emails, the name of the student has been changed.



From: Marcia Williams
Date: Wed, 11 Jul 2001 17:23:18—0400
To: Kevin Guilfoile
Subject: Re: My First Presidentiary

Dear Mr. Guilfoile,

As part of a book production workshop at the Columbia Publishing Program, a group of students and I are completing an assignment in which we pretend to launch a list of books at an imaginary publishing house. One of the six titles we came up with is a humor book about Jenna and Barbara Bush and their recent underage drinking digressions. It’s entitled ‘Jenna and Barbara’s Ultimate Party Guide’ and features wacky things like ‘How to Make a Foolproof Fake ID,’ among other things. As part of this book launching assignment, the ‘editors’ are supposed to contact people who could author these potential books to see if they think the idea is viable, etc. Would you be interested in doing a book like this, perhaps with your co-author from My First Presidentiary, John Warner? We thought your book was hilarious and thought you would do a good job with our ‘pretend book.’ What do you think?

Many thanks,

Marcia Williams


* * *


To: Marcia Williams
From: Kevin Guilfoile
Date: 7/12/01

Hi Marcia,

I’m sorry, but I’m not 100% sure what you’re asking. Do you just want to know if this is the kind of book John and I would, in theory, like to write? Are you asking us for an opinion about whether or not that book would be saleable? Those are sort of different things, of course. I wouldn’t want to write ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ but I think I can say with certainty that it was a good deal for the writer who wrote it, the publisher who published it, and the Oregon logging company that destroyed the owl habitat to print it.

Could you be a little more specific? We want to help. Helping’s what we do.

Thanks.

Kevin


* * *


To: Kevin Guilfoile
From: Marcia Williams
Date: 7/12/01

Hi Kevin,

Yes, strictly in theory only! I realize this project is very confusing… sometimes it asks those of us working on it to blur the line between fact and fiction. Producing the book is strict fiction. We are simply asked, by our program director, to pitch ideas to real authors to see if they would consider doing a project like it, if it weren’t all fiction—you see where this gets tricky. If you want to give a call, I can see if I can explain it any further.

Many thanks,

Marcia


* * *


To: Marcia Williams and John Warner
From: Kevin Guilfoile
Date: 7/13/01

Marcia,

(That person I’m cc-ing up there is John Warner, by the way, and he’ll pipe in once he sobers up.) My first impression is that a book like ‘Jenna and Barbara’s Ultimate Party Guide’ could be funny and maybe even successful, but I’m not 100% sure, based on your brief description, that John and I would be likely to write it (unless of course you were talking about ‘Jenna Jameson and Barbra Streisand’s Ultimate Party Guide,’ in which case we’re all on board!). The first reason is that we sort of made a decision with My First Presidentiary to steer clear of the daughters. There was a lot of talk at the time (it turned out to be false) that That’s My Bush! was going to turn Jenna and Barbara into lesbian crime fighters and we thought the kids should be considered out of bounds for our purposes.

Since then they’ve put themselves back in-bounds to a degree, but (and maybe this is my old age talking: I’m 32 and John will be 79 in September) I actually feel a little sorry for Jenna and Barbara. When we were their age (1987 for me and 1939 for John) fake IDs were so accepted that you didn’t even have to have them printed and laminated. You could just carry around the giant cardboard template and when you got to the bouncer you’d stick your head in the huge rectangular hole. If anyone questioned me, my name was John Quincy Adams, I was born in 1767, and I was a Cancer.

So you see, there’s the hypocrisy issue where we’re concerned.

Does that mean we’d say no? Of course not. You’ve talked about a pretend book, but you haven’t mentioned pretend money. Our fake principles are for sale in exchange for an unprecedented fake advance.

If I were writing such a book, however (and John, feel free to tell me I’m full of beans, using the vernacular of that ‘greatest generation’ of yours), I might make it ‘Barbara and Jenna’s Ultimate College Guide.’ Then the humor wouldn’t hinge entirely on one night when some cranky Chi-Chi’s manager decided to narc them out to the local 5-0 (Those are policemen, John. You would call them ‘flatfeet’ or ‘bobbies’). And you’d also have the state school vs. Ivy League thing which is always fun (I attended Notre Dame, incidentally, and John graduated from the Missouri College of Osteopaths).

I would also make them lesbian crime fighters since Parker and Stone decided to pass on that idea. That’s gold!

Anyway, those are my thoughts. John has to take his glycerin pills in about 15 minutes so when his nurse wakes him up I’m sure he’ll have something to say.

Best,

Kevin


* * *


To: Marcia Williams and Kevin Guilfoile
From: John Warner
Date: 7-14-01

Dear Marcia,

Frankly, I’m surprised that Kevin was able to get Internet access inside the ‘facility’ and doubly surprised that he could type so fluidly with his hands straightjacketed behind his back.

In any event, ignore his mindless jibber-jabber as the hopeless ramblings of a desperate crank addict because that’s exactly what he is, a desperate crank addict. I’ve essentially given up trying to correct Kevin’s willful misrepresentations about me that he somehow manages to post all over the web (most recently on the West Wing listserve of all places). Most of his time is usually spent ‘explaining’ to his handlers how Times New Roman should give way to Wingdings as the font of choice (‘because it’s pretty’), instead of slandering me, but let me just clear up a couple of his most egregious trespasses into Kookyville.

One, my birthday is in April, and two, my alma mater is the College of Osteopathy at the University of Missouri at Cape Girardeau, the Battling Barnstormers as our intercollegiate sports organizations are known.

Kevin should also be ignored as to your question about whether or not ‘we’ would be interested in writing your hypothetical ‘Jenna and Barbara’s Ultimate Party Guide’ because I am the one who does all the writing. Kevin does the drawing, which doubles as part of his state mandated therapy. That Kevin is involved at all relates to a promise I made to his father during the war as he was taking his last breaths and asked me to ‘look after the goofy one.’

I believe your project holds some hypothetical commercial promise, because, lets face it, that the President’s daughters are a couple of teenage boozehounds is chuckleworthy in and of itself. Not that it is so wrong for a couple of carefree young lasses to imbibe the demon alcohol in their carefree college years. Even in my day, at the weekend football set-to, we would let the attractive females (I believe your generation calls them ‘Bettys’) nip from flasks of cognac we kept secreted in our furs.

Just for craps and titters, though, how much pretend money (‘Benjamins’ in your vernacular) are we talking about, and since it is hypothetical, is it possible that the money could be remunerated in the form of one of those oversized checks? (I have a collection, which includes the very first winner’s check received by Babe Didrickson Zaharias in the early days of the women’s professional golf tour. We dated, you see.)

Best,

John Warner


* * *


To: Marcia Williams and John Warner
From: Kevin Guilfoile
Date: 7/14/01

Marcia,

My co-author’s claims regarding the scope of his contributions to My First Presidentiary are not just hyperbole, they are slander. Hyperslanboldery.

What John describes as ‘doing all the writing’ consisted mostly of crying out from his wheelchair in the middle of some lesion-induced hallucination with an idea like, ‘Suppose the President is riding in a motor-car rumble seat with Lindbergh and Three-Finger Brown…’ and in the middle of the half-finished non-sequitur-to-be he’d drift off to sleep, letting his not-quite-empty glass of Bordeaux bleed onto the crease of his Sans-a-belts.

But let’s get back to the real issue here, which is the viability of your Jenna and Barbara party concept. Valerie Harper’s ‘Today I Am a Ma’am’ aside, the purpose of publishing a humor book is to get as many people as possible to want to buy it. The Jenna and Barbara party book would likely be targeted to a pretty narrow audience: hip kids who know all the ‘lingo’ and who wear their pants at Festus-on-Gunsmoke holster height.

This is usually the point in the conversation, by the way, where John lurches to his feet and yells ‘Jam banana time munster skip DIDDLE-FEE (gurgle-gargle) zhoooo-WIIIIING !!’

Also, there are the remaining issues of whether Jenna and Barbara’s legal indiscretions are appropriate targets for the humor writer and how we will be paid. To question one I still say ‘definitely not,’ and to question two I suggest ‘wire transfer.’

Best,

Kevin


* * *


To: Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner
From: Marcia Williams
Date: 7-15-01

Hi Kevin and John,

Thanks so much for your invaluable opinions on our book idea for what might seem, a very vague assignment. I agree with your sentiments that perhaps the Bush girls are not the fairest of targets, but since we are strictly dealing in the hypothetical world of book production, we don’t have to worry about real boundaries. Which brings me to the topic of the ‘advance negotiations.’ Since you are the brilliant authors (or artists, as the case may be) of My First Presidentiary, you could probably name your sum. Any fictional amount can be wired anywhere. Swiss bank accounts, you name it.

Best,
Marcia


* * *


To: Marcia Williams and Kevin Guilfoile
From: John Warner
Date: 7-17-01

Marcia:

Regarding our hypothetical payment, I have dispatched my best carrier pigeon to your location with the details of my compensation demands in return for my services in pretending to write ‘Jenna and Barbara’s Ultimate Party Guide.’ While my monetary needs are large (trust that you have not seen this many zeros since Noodles Hahn first signed with the Cincinnati Red Stockings), you may have more difficulty acquiring the ‘extras,’ but fret not, they are illegal only in Hawaii and Alabama (and only then if they are transported in improperly labeled containers).

Kevin’s payment, as per the standing court order, will be kept in a blind trust, with 85 cents released weekly for his personal use at the ‘facility’ commissary. If he saves wisely, in nine short weeks, he will be able to purchase the ‘naked lady’ playing cards he seems to treasure so greatly. Of course, it’s more likely that Kevin will trade the money for some fuzzy bits of colored lint that his cellmate, err, roommate, Milt, has convinced him contain ‘magicanificant powers.’

Considering the colorful nature of Kevin’s rap sheet, it’s most surprising that he’s blanching at the thought of making fun of the Bush offspring. Oh, how I remember the yellowsheets used to ruthlessly mock President Cleveland’s avoirdupois! And ask yourself, is it worse to have Jay Leno imply that you are merely stupid on national television, or have the editorial cartoonist of the Philadelphia Star-Register portray you as a tiny baby, replete with diaper and pacifier, pounding a rattle against the Capitol dome when you make one, small complaint about the intransigence of a particularly surly congress, as happened to Theo Roosevelt?

I trust the answer is obvious. Besides, as Kevin and I (meaning me) created a kind of George W. Bush ‘character’ in My First Presidentiary, so may we do the same thing with Jenna and Barbara. I picture them as sassy, yet smart. Jenna carries one of those Pufferfuff Girls backpacks to class, while Barbara is highly skilled at cribbage.

When you have a chance, we should discuss the theoretical direction of our hypothetical project.

Best,

John


* * *


To: Marcia Williams and John Warner
From: Kevin Guilfoile
Date: 7-17-01

Marcia,

John may tell you that his eagerness to embark on this fantasy project is somehow knotted up in the satirist’s civic duty, or his desire to be heard on the historical record, but there are only two things on this Earth that motivate my partner: The first is a bitter rivalry with H.L. Mencken which he refuses to let die (although he had no problem letting Mencken himself expire 45 years ago when John wordlessly fled a Baltimore hotel room as the famed columnist spun and lurched about the parlor, pointing frantically at a peach pit lodged in his esophagus). The other is John’s recent marriage to a freakishly-bosomed Penthouse Pet, some 60 years his junior, who would leave him in an instant for a wealthier, funnier man (and one even nearer to death), if she had any clue how much of his once-vast fortune John has piddled away on ever-more-elaborate systems of morphine delivery.

Myself, I remain committed to the idea that the Bush girls should be off-limits to the humorist. I guess you could say that I agree with the words of Pink Floyd who, on their classic album ‘The Wall,’ implore us to ‘Leave those kids alone!’ Of course, I also agree with Pink Floyd on the ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ disc when they sing, ‘Winding, finding places to go/And then one day—hooray!/Another way for gnomes to say/Hoooooooooray!/Hooooooooooooooray!’

That said, John’s greed is such that I am certain the sum he has demanded will be adequate to buy my participation. I will require 51 percent of that figure in unmarked pesos (along with a small firearm and a bag of peanut M&M’s) to be concealed inside a concrete projectile of your own design, but exceeding 75 pounds. I will, by other means, be forwarding you a date and time at which this object is to be catapulted through the layered Plexiglas of our fourth story exercise room. Following this, you are to leave the grounds immediately, throwing the hounds off your scent with liberal applications of Clamato to your hair, skin, and clothes. I WILL HAVE ARRANGED MY OWN TRANSPORTATION. You will receive no further communication from me other than the completed pages of ‘Jenna and Barbara’s Ultimate Party Guide,’ the last of which you will not see until months past our deadline. You will agree to fake-publish our work exactly as you come to possess it, even if you find it to be illegible, nonsensical, or etched onto a pine board the size of a medieval drawbridge.

I look forward to pretend working with you.

Best,

Kevin

TMN Contributing Writer John Warner is the author of the preeminent guide to winning the race for the Oval Office, So You Want to Be President?, and is Chief Creative Czar of TOW Books. He teaches at the College of Charleston.

TMN Contributing Writer Kevin Guilfoile’s debut thriller, Cast of Shadows, was named one of the Best Books of 2005 by the Chicago Tribune and the Kansas City Star. His humor has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Maxim, and The New Republic. More by Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner