The pattern has become familiar: Allegations emerge that the Bush administration was too preoccupied with Iraq or not concerned enough about al-Qaida; White House officials deny the charges, while opponents talk them up.
But what makes the pattern unusual are the sources of those allegations. They’re not coming from news reports or leaks from campaign workers, but from books.
From the January release of Ron Suskind’s “The Price of Loyalty” to Richard Clarke’s “Against All Enemies” to Bob Woodward’s newly published “Plan of Attack,” a series of best sellers has played an unprecedented role in election year politics.
In the past, influential books have been written (or co-written) by the candidates, including John McCain’s “Faith of My Fathers” and John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage.” Analysts say they can’t remember another race when books by others have proved so timely.
“This is a pretty unusual time because you have an ongoing national security crisis and you have the inner workings of that crisis being revealed,” Dave Rohde, a professor of political science at Michigan State University, says.
“This is also an administration that likes to control and to limit access, so that certainly heightens interest when things come out.”
Anti-Bush books by Al Franken, Molly Ivins and other liberal pundits were best sellers in the fall, but the current accounts are coming from people who actually worked for the president.
Suskind’s book, relying extensively on government documents and interviews with former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, claimed that President Bush was determined early on to overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Clarke, a former counterterrorism adviser, said that
Bush was so preoccupied with Iraq both before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that he failed to effectively confront threats from al-Qaida.
Bush defectors?“Plan of Attack,” which came out this week and quickly topped the best seller list on Amazon.com, again portrayed the Bush administration as obsessed with Iraq. Woodward, best known as the reporter for The Washington Post who helped break the Watergate scandal, interviewed dozens of officials, including the president.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is portrayed as privately skeptical of the Iraq war, is widely considered a key source for Woodward.
“It’s unusual to have books like these coming out during a president’s first term,” says William Kristol, editor of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard.
“The irony,” he says, “is that the ‘disciplined’ Bush team has had two real defections (O’Neill and Clarke) and one quasi defection (Powell).”
The books may not have damaged Bush’s standing in the polls — some think they’ve helped Bush by keeping the focus on the war against terrorism, a political strength of the president’s.
But the charges have proved serious enough to draw rebuttals from the highest levels.
Bush was in Mexico when the Suskind book came out and the president defended his decision to invade Iraq. Numerous White House officials condemned the Clarke book, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who said Clarke “wasn’t in the loop.”
Woodward’s book has been in the news for days, with officials denying allegations that Powell and Cheney were barely on speaking terms and that the White House had an agreement with Saudi Arabia to keep oil prices down before the election.
Meanwhile, “Plan of Attack” has become an unofficial manifesto for the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, Sen. John Kerry. He has referred to it frequently over the past few days, including a weekend speech at the University of Miami, when he praised “Plan of Attack” as a book by a “reputable writer.”
More books will likely make news. Former President Clinton’s memoirs are expected at some point this summer. In the fall, a biography of the Bush family is due from Kitty Kelley, author of gossipy best sellers on Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan and others.
Former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson’s “The Politics of Truth” will be released next week. Wilson has said that he will reveal the name of the person he thinks leaked the identity of his wife, Valerie Plame, as an undercover CIA officer to syndicated columnist Robert Novak. A federal grand jury is investigating the leak.
Wilson, now a foreign policy adviser to Kerry, has accused the Bush administration of exaggerating Iraq’s nuclear capabilities to build support for war.
“I don’t remember anything like this when Reagan was running for president,” says Lyn Nofziger, a former aide to President Reagan.
“Then again, the timing is different. We were lucky. All the bad books about Reagan came out after he had left office.”