REVIEW - Liquor, Legislation and Laughter

Ray, Bill, Liquor, Legislation, and Laughter. S. O. B. Publishing, Anchorage. Softbound. 507 pages, a few black-and-white photographs. $19.95.

Bill Ray was a very powerful Alaska State Senator from Juneau for 22 years. His memoirs show a certain medieval mentality. Charlemagne would approve instantly, not to mention the early Russians in Siberia. It's very simple: never forget or forgive a slight and make sure you exact retribution. If the opponent concedes, then be friendly, but make sure the enemy knows you can crush him anytime.

On another level, the book is also very hard to read. Ray likes sentence fragments. Short sentences. They read like jumping over low hurdles. That never end. Politics was his life. He liked power. He doesn't forget every honor he ever got. And excuses every cut he inflicted. There are also no chapter headings and no index.

Just when the reader can't endure any more and has decided the whole experience is like passing the site of a terrible accident; you really don't want to look but are somehow compelled to, an honest person emerges.

Ray reveals his feelings of inferiority when he's around highly educated people, or shows a nice sense of humor. "Every time I hear the name Bill Ray Center, the narcissism in me jumps a little bit," he says. "I love the sound of it." He also happily tells of the time he was in a small private plane when the pilot put him in control, then surreptitiously made the plane dive and bank while Bill strove mightily to right it. Anyone who tells hoaxes perpetrated on himself isn't all bad. Maybe 60% however.

He began his political career as a member of the Alaska Liquor Board. Friends and enemies quickly appeared. An enemy tried to block his reappointment. Governor Egan defended him. When attacked, use powerful friends and then gloat. The pattern was set. In 1964 he was elected to the legislature on his second try, and has unkind things to say about his opponents in his first attempt.

From then on Alaska politics formed his meat and drink. Every clever ruse he pulled, every triumph, no matter how minor, is detailed. In fact, "detail" is also what he goes into. This reviewer never thought the considered impeachment of Bill Sheffield when he was governor would be boring in the telling, but it was.

On the other hand, the reader is promised the full story of the establishment of the Permanent Fund while darkly hinting that some individuals were trying to take credit when it actually took the whole legislature. By this time the reader concludes Ray personally had nothing to do with it, but we'll never know as the incident isn't mentioned again.

One aspect of the Alaska legislature that is striking today is the casual mention of lobbyists buying drinks and meals, and the legislature providing trips to interesting places. Apparently none of this bothered legislators. He writes: "Someone in Alaska's private sector put together a trade mission to Germany. I don't know how I was chosen to represent the Senate, but it was like a gift from heaven." (Or some hungry corporations, the reader can't help but think.)

Is this book worth buying? If you have a strong, long, fascination with Alaska politics: perhaps if you don't mind the partisanship and self-aggrandizing. Otherwise, get it from the library. Or read something else.

D. L.