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Former Sen. Dorgan stays busy, writes thrillers

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan shares a laugh with the audience during a May 2012 "civility in public discourse" symposium at University of North Dakota's Chester Fritz Library.

GRAND FORKS -- In "Gridlock," a political thriller due out in July, one of the novel's main characters -- a genius scientist with the dark good looks of actress Lara Flynn Boyle -- drives out to the western North Dakota ranch of a friend, Ashley Borden, "brash" reporter for the Bismarck Tribune.

"Driving up, the entire western part of the state had from the beginning struck her as if it were the landscape on another planet where life was just possible but not easy. Yet just about every North Dakotan she'd met in her off and on six years here was friendly, though very often a little insular. Only the occasional rancher, especially the old bachelors, tended to be a little gnarly around the edges ..."

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., listened as the passage was read aloud, and she laughed.

"Oh, Byron wrote that part," she said. "'Gnarly' is one of his favorite words."

Also, former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., born in Dickinson raised in the little town of Regent, N.D., is certainly familiar with that "possible but not easy" landscape, and the friendly if insular and sometimes gnarly people who work it.

"Gridlock" is the second energy-themed novel written by Dorgan in collaboration with veteran mystery writer David Hagberg. Due out in mid-July, it continues the story of Dr. Whitney Lipton, brash reporter Ashley and her boyfriend, Billings County Sheriff Nate Osborne, who starred in the writers' first collaboration, "Blowout," published last year.

Novel writing is just part of what has kept the former senator busy since he retired in 2010 after 30 years in Congress. But he said in a telephone interview last week that it's been fun.

"It was really interesting to write fiction," Dorgan said. He previously had written two nonfiction works, including "Take This Job and Ship It." In both genres, he drew on his Senate experience and knowledge of economics, foreign affairs, energy policy and other issues.

With fiction, "It's so much fun to take a character and they're just putty in your hands," he said.

We're vulnerable

Both "Blowout" and "Gridlock" deal with the nation's energy grid and its vulnerability to terrorist attack.

In "Gridlock," the unbalanced leaders of Venezuela and Iran have authorized their secret services to work with a genius computer hacker operating out of Holland to bring down the grid by inserting a Russian virus. There's a hired assassin, too, a former Soviet secret agent.

In the end, all the global bad guys are foiled by the heroic North Dakota sheriff, who as a special ops guy lost a leg in Afghanistan and received a Medal of Honor, but you'd never know it because he's a low-key, self-effacing sheriff from North Dakota.

"I thought I was done writing" after the nonfiction books, Dorgan said. But with his background and interest in energy policy, he was intrigued by a Wall Street Journal story some time ago about a persistent rumor that the Russians or Chinese had planted a virus.

If activated, "it could be a pretty powerful weapon," he said.

A literary agent contacted him and asked whether he'd be interested in using his insights to co-write a thriller. Hagberg, who has written dozens of thriller novels, signed on as co-author.

"We spent a lot of time developing the architecture of the plot," Dorgan said. "He did some writing, I did some writing, and we'd exchange and go over each other's work.

"In a novel, you can provide some entertainment, yes, but you also can get people to think about the threat," he said. "Cyber-terrorism is one of the most significant threats we face. We hear almost every day about the Chinese and others trying to hack into our computer systems.

"I spent a lot of time working on transmission issues in the Senate. A lot of our transmission network is old. We didn't build a new superhighway of transmission, but just patched and pieced it together. Our system is vulnerable."

A busy life, with no regrets

Dorgan, 71, said he has "never had a second thought about deciding to end my career in Congress after 30 years."

It was a decision well thought out, he said. He and his wife, Kim, frequently walk in the evening and talk, "and for six months, that was all we talked about -- whether I should end it.

"I miss going to the Senate floor for a vote and seeing all my buddies," he said. "You work closely with people over a long time, you become close. And sometimes (in retirement) you grit your teeth when you see something going on and you wish you had a forum.

"But I've not regretted the decision for an instant."

He does, in fact, still have a forum -- or several.

Dorgan, who served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, continues to work with the Center for Native American Youth, which he founded with a donation of $1 million in leftover campaign funds. He is especially concerned about Indian youth despair and suicide, and he recently participated in a summit on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

In a new program called Champions for Change, "We're discovering young people on the reservations who are doing extraordinary things," he said. "We take them to Washington, take them to the White House, then send them back and they become mentors."

He is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, senior adviser at a Washington, D.C.-area law firm and a visiting professor at Georgetown University, where he delivers six lectures a semester on political, environmental and energy issues. He is on several boards, makes speeches and writes op-ed pieces.

"I travel when I want to travel, and I don't travel on weekends anymore," he said.

His health is good, he said, and he regularly plays tennis and runs. He also frequently sees former Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who retired in 2012 after 26 years in the Senate.

"Kent and I have been great friends for 40 years," Dorgan said. "We talk, and we go to baseball games together. He's doing great. He's got a lot of things going on, too.

"I've taken on a lot, but to me it's all fun. I really enjoy it. I'm not pinned down to one thing."