NEW YORK — In less than three months, President-elect Barack Obama will take office and the Bush administration will belong to history. With the president reportedly interested in writing about his White House years, publishers have a suggestion:
Take your time.
“If I were advising President Bush, given how the public feels about him right now, I think patience would probably be something that I would encourage,” says Paul Bogaards, executive director of publicity for Alfred A. Knopf, which in 2004 released Bill Clinton's million-selling “My Life.”
“Certainly the longer he waits, the better,” says Marji Ross, president and publisher of the conservative Regnery Publishing, which is more likely to take on anti-Obama books in the next few years than any praises of Bush.
“There's a pent-up frustration among conservatives that will focus their attention on a Barack Obama presidency and lead them to buy a lot of books about Barack Obama. But that's not the kind of emotion that anyone is going to use to turn to reading a memoir by a conservative president.”
In a poor economy, it's not a great time for anyone to shop a book, and certainly not for a deeply unpopular president. Bush's approval ratings are in the 20s and Republicans are at a low moment after Tuesday night, when Obama defeated Sen. John McCain by a convincing margin and Democrats expanded majorities in Congress.
Bush has likened his fate to Harry Truman, highly disliked upon leaving office in 1953 but now virtually iconic in American politics. But it took years for him to gain such affection and Truman's two-volume memoir, published in the 1950s, is less remembered than a book about him published in the 1990s, David McCullough's million-selling “Truman.”
“Only in hindsight will history show whether Bush is deemed to be a good president who sacrificed his presidency for what he believed in or whether history judges him to be a failed president,” Ross says.
Bush's immediate predecessor, Clinton, signed up with Knopf within months of leaving office, but his approval ratings were far higher than Bush's, even though he was impeached for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. The first President Bush, defeated for re-election by Clinton, never did write a memoir. He instead worked on a foreign policy book, “A World Transformed,” with his close friend and National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft.
Anti-Bush books have been dependable hit-makers during a rough decade for the industry, but publishers are unsure of the market for a book by Bush. Few believe he has a chance to get the $15 million Clinton received for “My Life” and some question the quality of a memoir by Bush and especially Vice President Dick Cheney, who has also expressed in writing a book, but is not known for being self-critical.
“I think any success will depend to a very large extent on the book,” says Peter Osnos, founder of PublicAffairs, which released Scott McLellan's best-selling “What Happened,” a surprisingly rough take on President Bush by his former press secretary.
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“Ronald Reagan was a very popular president, but his memoir was a breathtakingly boring book. It reflected nothing of the kind of charm and intelligence and wit Reagan showed in public. If George Bush wrote a book that was in any significant way revealing, it could be very interesting.”
"I don't think Bush can get the kind of money Clinton did if only because the foreign rights interest will be considerably less," says Jonathan Karp, whose Twelve imprint at the Hachette Book Group USA published "Hard Call," the latest book by Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
“President Bush is perceived as a unilateral cowboy who didn't respect other nations. So there's a shortfall overseas. At the same time, he could still sell a lot of books. Maybe only 30 percent of the public is still behind him, but 30 percent of 300 million people is not a small number.”
Publishers say that besides Bush and Cheney interest likely will focus on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has said she wants to write a book, and on Laura Bush, who has said nothing about a memoir, but could continue a recent trend of first ladies outselling their husbands. She has already inspired a best-selling novel, Curtis Sittenfeld's "American Wife."
“When I give readings, a disproportionate number of people who buy my book are middle-aged women who say, `My mother loves Laura Bush!' So I suspect that I and a lot of 90-year-old ladies would line up for a Laura Bush memoir on the day of publication,” Sittenfeld says.
“And honestly, I have found that a lot of people in general — men and women of various ages — seem to have vaguely positive feelings about her, or just to wonder what she thinks, and feel that they know surprisingly little about her, given the visibility of her position. Because of this, I'm sure it (a memoir) would be a huge best seller.”
And a book by her husband?
“Personally, I would find a memoir by President Bush resistible.”
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