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Political Cookbooks That Roast the Bush Administration Are Moving Off the Shelves

by Fred Maxwell

Sep 1, 2004 | Books, Politics


Editor’s note: The 9/11 Commission Report, which began with a 600,000-volume press run at $10 a copy, is now number one on the New York Times paperback best-seller list. Reviewers call the well-written and unflinching, 567-page report a “compulsively readable” collection of facts that are “devastating for the Bush administration.” And now the New York Times has brought out a cut-rate, $7 version of the report with 200 additional pages of background and analysis by Times reporters who covered the 9/11 Commission hearings.

Also on the Times best-seller list is Imperial Hubris, by an unnamed C.I.A. officer who calls himself Anonymous. It is a critical commentary on the United States and its allies for losing the war on terror.

There is more to come. Not all of it gets the attention it deserves. Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), the senior member of Capitol Hill’s “upper body,” is just out with a devastating book new on theTimes best-seller list, Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency.

Byrd accuses President Bush of “a slow unraveling of the people’s liberties” under cover of “the war on terror,” and says that since 9/11 Congress has been “unwilling to assert its power, cowed, timid, a virtual paralytic.”

And now comes Obliviously On He Sails, a hilarious collection of Calvin Trillin’s sarcastic and biting anti-Bush poetry from the Nation magazine. For those more serious—and worried about—what Democrats can do in this election year to undo the Bush regime there is the how-to combat handbook Stand Up and Fight: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps and the Politics of Revenge, by E.J. Dionne, the pragmatically liberal Washington Post columnist.

For readers who disagreed with our estimate that the Democratic convention this year was boring—and as we go to press the Republicans are making us yawn as well—we recommend a new book, Happy Days Are Here Again, by Steve Neal, on the stirring, pre-TV 1932 nominating convention, which marked the start of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four-term presidency. Those were the good old days.

The spiraling number of fast-selling books that attack the Bush administration moved us to ask our old friend Fred Maxwell, to scan this year’s pre-election pile of political cookbooks. Fred is the author of Bad Boy Ballmer, a scathing profile of Steve Ballmer, the chief executive officer of Microsoft. Its international reach has resulted in trans-lated editions published in China and Japan.

In January 1994 Fred, who has also done a great deal of magazine writing, gave theWashington Spectator a stirring feature on the opening, at the National Archives, of more than a million pages of documents on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Now he offers a report on his recent coverage of BookExpo America, an annual gathering of authors and publishers, and the political food fight launched by the scores of anti-Bush authors. They have made pre-election appeals to Americans in a way that has affected the conservative-dominated book world, shifting the emphasis to readable volumes that call a spade a spade.

American book publishers are loving the recent popularity of political books. From Senator Hillary Clinton’s Living History (1.6 million copies sold), to Bill Clinton’s My Life, the memoir of the former president (2.6 million copies in print), the country is buying, reading and talking about political books at a rate unrivaled since the post-Watergate period.

The Washington Spectator asked me to research this phenomenon. That included talking with some top authors and publishers at the booksellers’ annual convention, BookExpo America, at the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago.

WHY THEY SELL—I asked many publishing professionals why they think political books are selling so well. Using the two Clinton autobiographies as bookends is a way to think about the various titles published over the past year, illuminating some of the reasons that politics is something that Americans love to hate.

Hillary Clinton’s memoir Living History, which Simon & Schuster published in June 2003, and for which Senator Clinton received a reported $8 million advance, was a much-anticipated publishing event. Hillary, or perhaps more accurately her ghostwriters, didn’t let her readers down. They produced what the American Library Association’s influential Booklist said showed “her evolution as a wife and mother, as first lady, and as a political lightning rod.” All that biographical backdrop “is portrayed in an engaging fashion,” the journal said, “and her discussions of political policy, while occasionally dry, are well reasoned and worth reading. The book works especially well when the private and public Mrs. Clintons come together.”

The consensus was that Hillary’s book was so popular because it gave her take on her husband’s various sex scandals, her White House life, and the failed Clinton health-care reform. Yet some biographers were troubled by her tale, including Carol Felsenthal, author ofPower, Privilege, and the Post: The Katherine Graham Story, a best-selling portrait of the family that owns the Washington Post.

When asked about the explosion of political books, Felsenthal noted that “there are lots of political books because there’s no expectation anymore, as there was in previous administrations, that a fired cabinet secretary—Paul O’Neill, for example—will wait until the administration is out of office. These guys write books to make money, or to settle scores or to polish their own tarnished reputations.”

Hillary’s book set off a deluge, continuing with the book Felsenthal mentioned, The Price of Loyalty by Treasury Secretary O’Neill, fired by Bush. Paul O’Neill sat for hours with Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind to produce the first detailed, behind the scenes look at life—or the lack thereof—in Bush’s cabinet.

Suskind told me that “the Bush administration were masters at manipulating the press, yet when O’Neill’s book came out the dike started to burst. It seems people were hungering to discover what was going on at the upper reaches of our federal government.”

O’Neill painted a detailed portrait of a detached president and hands-on vice president, who told him that “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” As soon as Suskind let it be known that O’Neill had given him some 18,000 pages of memos and reports, all cleared by the administration before they were released, the administration announced that it was investigating O’Neill for the unauthorized release of classified information, a move designed to stifle criticism.

After O’Neill’s’ critique came a highly publicized insider book that managed to live up to its advance hype. It was Against All Enemies: Inside the White House’s War on Terror—What Really Happened, by Richard Clarke. His book came out just before the public hearings of the 9/11 Commission. Even after it was vetted by the administration it revealed, again, how detached President Bush was, and is, and how Iraq was the administration’s target even though there were absolutely no ties between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 bombings. TheEconomist magazine reported that “Mr. Clarke, it seems, knew all about the threat of terrorism but could not get his numbskull bosses in the White House to take his warnings seriously.”

National Public Radio reported that people are reading this book because there are so many details about terrorism that you can’t find anywhere else.

BOTH SIDES AT BAT—The publishing phenomenon by now well in motion accelerated with polemics from all points on the political spectrum, which hit the best-seller lists in their turn. These included Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country? and Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Then there was Ann Coulter’sTreason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terror and Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism.

Moore’s book details his gospel that we’ve lost track of the working-class principles that made America strong. It takes the Bush administration to task for letting Osama bin Laden slip away unnoticed in the Afghan mountains—a very tall man requiring daily dialysis for kidney failure. Al Franken assembled a group of Harvard researchers to tackle the claims made by right-wing commentators like Bill O’Reilley of Fox News and the vociferous Ann Coulter, pointing out the disingenuous nature of some of their assertions.

Clarke’s book was quickly followed by Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, generally accepted as the Washington Post reporter’s best book. When I asked a Washington Spectator contributor and Watergate expert, Professor Stanley Kutler, what he thought of Woodward’s book, he railed against Woodward’s use of unnamed sources and made up dialogue. Kutler stated: “Woodward’s key is that he gets access, because he’s Bob Woodward, and wants to keep that access. Everyone he interviews is putting their own spin on the story. And, let’s face it, Woodward doesn’t write well.” In fact, Kutler jested, English “is his second language.”

Then former Nixon aide John Dean came out with Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush. Dean’s book points out, in great detail, how Bush II resembles Nixon, yet is not as nice. And in American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, the historian Kevin Phillips, once a Republican, attacks the two Bush generations for “family corruption, the economics of privilege, war-related mismanagement, the stifling of political reform, and pandering to the religious right.”

A book I’ve found extremely enlightening on both the modus operandi of the Bush presidency and the war on terror is the recently published memoir of retired ambassador Joseph Wilson,The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies That Led to the War and Betrayed My Wife’s C.I.A. Identity.

Ambassador Wilson relays the sad and frightening tale of how he was asked by the C.I.A. to return to Niger, a country where he had spent years in the foreign service, to ascertain whether Iraq had sought to purchase uranium there, presumably to build weapons of mass destruction. After his extensive in-country study, he concluded that the rumor carried no water. Not letting truth get in the way of his plans, President Bush blatantly lied in his 2003 State of the Union speech when he said that “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa.”

Six months later Wilson, who left the State Department in 1998, wrote a New York Times op-ed piece headlined: “What I Didn’t Find In Africa.” Within two weeks, columnist Robert Novak reported that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was an undercover C.I.A. agent. Further investigation by NBC commentator Chris Matthews revealed that White House political guru Karl Rove had told him that “Wilson’s wife is fair game.” These were moves that Wilson, and many others, saw as retaliation for his Times piece. It was yet another example of the Bush administration’s retaliatory strikes against its critics.

As David Corn of the Nation first noted, the breach of security in the public outing of a covert C.I.A. agent is a criminal offense. Eventually the Justice Department was forced to open an investigation that required even President Bush to undergo an interrogation with an attorney at his side.

The most penetrating review of Bill Clinton’s autobiography came from David Maraniss, aWashington Post reporter who had earlier written an excellent Clinton biography, First in His Class. Maraniss quickly focused on the duality in President Clinton’s life. Clinton admits that “I am a living paradox—deeply religious, yet not as convinced of my exact beliefs as I ought to be; wanting responsibility, yet shirking it; loving the truth but often times giving way to falsity. . . . I detest selfishness, but see it in the mirror every day. . . . I view [people], some of whom are very dear to me, who have never learned how to live. I desire and struggle to be different from them, but often am almost an exact likeness.”

Maraniss sees this as the root cause of both Clinton’s strength and his downfall—Monica, Gennifer, Paula, et al. Still, My Life has been lauded as the best presidential autobiography since Mark Twain helped Ulysses S. Grant write his.

WHY WE READ BOOKS—So why are political books so popular right now? One obvious reason often given is that it’s a presidential election year. But the head of the Brookings Institution Press, Christopher O’Brien, told me that in addition to the issue of the election, political books are popular because “9/11 and the Iraq War make people think that they have to be more aware of what’s going on in the political world.”

The president of the Association of American Publishers, former congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, confided that “political books are as important this year as they were in 1776. This suddenly gives me terrific confidence. Electronic media took a pass—their critical thinking skills took a pass—on reporting the full story of 9/11 and the war on terror. Many people thought: ‘There’s more to the story than we’re getting.’ And books are the only place where people can develop a thought. If you do see someone on the news, you know there’s more to the story and people want to know more, so they read books.”

The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who is now out with her own book, Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk, put it succinctly when she said that the “neo-cons controlled much of the media, but then their war started going badly and people wanted to find out why, so they turned to books.” Another Times columnist, Paul Krugman, is now out with a paperback edition of his The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century, a collection of his razor-sharp critiques of the Bush administration.

In November, Verso Press is releasing The Record of the Paper: Fifty Years of the New York Times on U.S. Foreign Policy, by Howard Friel and Richard Falk. The study contends that over the last half-century the paper of record has misreported facts relating to the wars waged by the United States, from Vietnam in the 1960s, to Nicaragua in the 1980s, to Iraq today.

Off the radar of all pundits is a little-known, least-selling 2002 study that may very well best describe what the 2004 presidential electorate is thinking—or isn’t. In The U.S. and the Wealth of Nations authors Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen conclude that, for complex reasons, the average brainpower of a nation ultimately determines its economic strength. The citizens of China, Japan and Korea have been shown to have a higher average IQ than Americans. The analysts’ breakdown of our various states reveals the status of American minds in 2000.

With an IQ of 100 being the average, the top seven states were: Connecticut (113), Massachusetts and New Jersey (111), New York (109), Rhode Island (107), Hawaii (106), and Maryland (105). All voted for Gore. The bottom seven states were: Mississippi (85), Utah and Idaho (87), South Carolina and Wyoming (89), South Dakota (90), and Oklahoma (90). They all voted for Bush.

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