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Author posing as schoolboy writes letters to politicians and receives revealing replies

Say What

Bill Geerhart did a pretty naughty thing: pretending to be a school boy he wrote letters to people in high places. He sought advice on the big questions of life; he asked for tips on how to run his campaign for president of the third grade; he wanted to know his heroes’ favorite McDonald’s breakfast snacks.

Many of his seemingly guileless inquiries went to eminent political figures. The replies, innocently dashed off for a child pen pal, reveal the characters, preferences and, sometimes, the sweetness of the correspondents.

Geerhart’s sham is presented in “Little Billy’s Letters: An Incorrigible Inner Child’s Correspondence with the Famous, Infamous and Just Plain Bewildered,” due out next week from William Morrow.

I asked Geerhart about the book in an email Q & A. You can view Billy’s photo album, with famous autographs, on his Facebook page.

Q. How did you come to do this project?

A. It all started as a cheap way of combating boredom. Back in the mid-1990s I had moved to Los Angeles to become a writer and I quickly found myself unemployed (shocking, I know). One day I found a bunch of booklets of stamps in a vending machine at my local post office and I resolved to use them to write some prank letters. My inspiration was Don Novello’s book “The Lazlo Letters,” but I decided to write in the guise of a child to put a new spin on the genre.

While serving as attorney general, Janet Reno replied to Billy's question about who's a better crime fighter, Batman or the Terminator: "I read Batman comics when I was your age so I know of his efforts to fight crime better than I know the Terminator's work."

When right off the bat I started getting responses from former Vice President Dan Quayle and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas I knew the letter writing was destined to be a long-term hobby and perhaps someday even a book.

Q. What will surprise us?

A. That people in political life -- however remote their fame may be in relationship to a 10-year-old kid -- have no difficulty embracing the notion that they are on “Billy’s” radar. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Gerald Ford, Bob Dole, Nancy Reagan, Ralph Reed and many others sign collectible trading cards and 8 x 10 photos for their young fan like they are superheroes.

Q. What kinds of things do the politicians reveal about themselves?

A. I have been a political junkie since I was a teenager, so it is no accident that the very first letters I sent out were to former Vice President Dan Quayle and members of the Supreme Court. And what fascinates me the most about the politicians and public figures in the book is how their media personas are often reinforced in their letters.

For example, I love the fact that Dan Quayle seemingly accepts without reservation that a 10-year-old could be inspired by his memoir “Standing Firm” (not to mention that “Billy’s” mother was also supposedly reading it to him).

And Sarah Palin’s father can’t help throwing in a conspiratorial dig at the press in his response on behalf of his daughter regarding an inquiry on visiting Alaska to hunt wolves from helicopters.

Robert McNamara’s reputation for being a super-efficient multi-tasker is reflected in his quick scribble in the margin of “Billy’s” original letter. It was if the former Secretary of Defense was commenting on a Pentagon memo and not advising a child on how best to fortify a treehouse.

And while Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s dour response on the subject of his favorite McDonald’s food seems fitting, I was surprised that Clarence Thomas was so effusive in his praise of the Egg McMuffin. The self-righteous Independent Counsel Ken Starr had no trouble believing that a child thought he was “cool.”

Q. What news will this book deliver?

A. The major news from the book may be that serial killers are more thoughtful and responsive to inquiries from elementary students asking advice about dropping out of school than are celebrities. However, the major headline for C-SPAN fans may be that Brian Lamb once hosted a teen dance show in Indiana in the 1950s.

Q. Who comes in for praise or censure in the book?

A. Surprisingly, pornographer Larry Flynt gets off one of the funniest, knowing responses in the book. When asked by “Billy” if there is a Hustler for kids, Flynt responds that his young correspondent will have to wait until he’s 18 to subscribe, but then advises helpfully to read the Sears & Roebuck catalog in the meantime.

And Mister Rogers’ long, concerned letter proves he was the genuine saint he appeared to be on television.

Jack Kevorkian writing to “Billy” about careers from his prison cell was also oddly heartwarming.

Tim Russert was quick to offer “Billy” a snappy slogan for his campaign for the third grade class presidency.

Dispiriting, but hardly shocking was O.J. Simpson pocketing “Billy’s” allowance money (that he sent to the disgraced football star to aid in his search for the “real killers”) without so much as a thank you note in return.

Oral Roberts sent “Billy” a form letter and some religious tracts in response to a desperate inquiry on what to do with his demonically possessed dog, Tippy.

Q. Did you ever have any moral qualms about faking out your pen pals?

A. No, not really. Although I did feel a little guilty about not taking Michael Dukakis up on his invitation to visit him. That man has been through so much…

Q. Why is it important for this book to hit the book shelves?

A. It is important that the book hit book shelves because my friends and I have already gotten our laughs out of the material and it would be a shame to keep it an inside joke any longer. It is high time that the letters be shared with the reading pubic!

By Steven E. Levingston  |  February 28, 2010; 6:45 AM ET
Categories:  Say What  | Tags: boy's letter to politicians;  
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