News & Politics

Cork Boat

A former White House speechwriter’s story of building a boat from wine corks is filled with “breezy writing and witty asides.”

 After former Bill Clinton speechwriter John Pollack was featured with his cork boat in the Washington Post’s gossip column in September 2001, a friend chided him: “Right now, there’s some third-term congressman berating his poor press secretary, saying, ‘I’ve been in Congress for five years, and you still haven’t gotten me into the “Reliable Source.” A boat! A boat! Why didn’t you think of a lousy cork boat?’ ”

 Such is the brilliance of Pollack’s childhood dream, which—more than 25 years, 165,000 corks, and 15,000 rubber bands later—he parlayed into reality. This memoir, like the boat, is built on whimsy—a word Pollack uses repeatedly, lest you think building a ship out of corks is normal. There’s a hodgepodge of amusing anecdotes: Pollack’s attempts to solicit corks from bars and restaurants, including the St. Regis hotel, where he resists telling the snooty bartender to “reach back and . . . pull out the cork that was, apparently, stuck sideways deep up his ass”; the numerous boat launches—in the swimming pool, on the Potomac, and finally, on Portugal’s Duoro River; and the boat itself, which, viewed from the front, “appeared slightly asymmetrical. In fact, it looked strikingly like the knuckles and finger of an enormous hand, flipping us the bird.”

 Better still are Pollack’s stories unrelated to his boat, including his White House experiences, his journey to Antarctica, and his victory at the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships. Folded in is fascinating trivia about rubber and cork, such as the origins of the biological term “cell”: Seventeenth-century English scientist Robert Hooker peered through a microscope and “discovered that cork was composed of millions of tiny air pockets separated by thin walls. This microscopic matrix reminded him of cells in a monastery, and a new biological concept—the cell—was born.”

 Unfortunately, Pollack occasionally imbues his boat with a moral seriousness that made me want to jump overboard: “In the wake of 9/11, the Cork Boat didn’t matter less, it mattered more. In a world riven by hatred and suffused with danger, nurturing a sense of play and whimsy seemed all the more important.” Equally bad are repeated thank-yous to his parents, which read like a nauseating award-acceptance speech.

 Although Pollack doesn’t aways take the best tack, his breezy writing and witty asides go well with a comfy armchair and a bottle of wine. And save that cork—who knows what you might build?

John Pollack