Wherever Gross goes, the militant 67-year-old gadfly does seem to have people rummaging for their muskets. His latest book, The Government Racket, Washington Waste from A to Z, is a best-seller. And he has become a familiar face at town halls across the country, as well as on TV shows from Larry King Live to Good Morning America to 20/20. "We didn't care if he never stopped talking," says Susan Esser, stale director for Ross Perot's Michigan chapter of United We Stand America, which heard Gross speak in Lansing. "Never has such terrible news been delivered in such a succinct, clear and gracious manner." Gross happily pleads guilty. "I am their hero," he says. "I always know what people need and why because I'm Mr. Joe Sixpack with a good brain."
Pointing to the piles of documents cluttering the office in his Greenwich, Conn., home, Gross explains how he began his latest crusade by reading the 1992 federal budget. He says the real shock was the miscellaneous expenses—under the rubric "Other Services"—amounting to more than $200 billion, or 15 percent of the budget, "with the government refusing any breakdown whatsoever." After making more than 1,000 phone calls to government agencies and occasionally threatening balky bureaucrats with the Freedom of Information Act, he was sent sheaves of documents by fax and first-class mail. "They spent thousands of dollars for me to expose them," he says. All of the specific data (see box) left him fuming.
Remarkably, no one has challenged Gross—or his annual $300 billion estimate of government waste. "Washington's silence is the best tribute to his book," says fellow rabble-rouser Ross Perot.
"I don't think he's exaggerating at all in his figures," says Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who carries Government Racket around while walking the Senate corridors. "If anything, this is the tip of the iceberg."
Gross credits his combative persistence to his "Bronx moxie" and growing up poor in New York City. The son of a laundry manager and semipro boxer, he was not bar mitzvahed at 13 because he contradicted his rabbi and got kicked out of Hebrew class. He calmed down enough to graduate from City College of New York after a stint in the Army, where he trained as a bomber navigator during World War II but never saw combat. In the early '50s he began writing articles and books, including The Brain Watchers, an exposé of psychological testing, and The Doctors, a critique of American medicine. Thanks to Book Digest, a 1-million-circulation magazine of book excerpts, which he and his partners founded in 1973 and sold five years later for $10 million, Gross and his second wife, Anita, an interior decorator, live on a five-acre estate in Greenwich.
Gross insists he knows how to trim the fat: Cut the government payroll 50 percent simply by not replacing any civil servants who quit or retire, eliminate some 20 federal agencies and elect only those who promise in writing to cut costs—or resign. Now researching a follow-up book, he admits to flirting with the notion of a Senate run next year. "I could talk on the floor for two weeks straight about government waste and never let up," he says with a devilish grin. "I'd drive them crazy."
JANE SUGDEN in Greenwich
- Jane Sugden.
MARTIN GROSS IS MAD AS HELL. ALmost two years studying the federal budget, and he still can't believe his bloodshot eyes: $19 million to examine gas emissions from cow flatulence? Some $107,000 to study the sex life of the Japanese quail? And $57,000 for gold-embossed playing cards on Air Force One? Reeling off case after case of Capitol waste that makes the infamous $640 Pentagon toilet seat cover seem a drop in the bucket—Gross isn't going to take it anymore. "The government is a giant slush fund, many politicians are pathological liars, and what they are doing is nothing less than evil." he says. "We are going to have a revolution, and I hope to be one of the leaders. You're looking at the minutemen of today."