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Political books thrive in election year

Writer says divided country hungry for material about candidates
/ Source: The Associated Press

For those who follow politics, especially those who oppose President Bush, books have never seemed so essential.

According to R.R. Bowker, which compiles publishing statistics, 972 books on U.S. politics and government have come out, or are scheduled to come out, this election year. That’s more than double the 400 released in 1992, when Bill Clinton defeated the first President Bush, and well above the 783 that were published in 2000.

The numbers are unprecedented; so is the impact. Insider accounts such as Ron Suskind’s “The Price of Loyalty” and Richard Clarke’s “Against All Enemies” helped shape public perception of the Bush administration’s war against terrorism. “Unfit for Command,” by John O’Neill and Jerome Corsi, proved a best-selling complement to the anti-John Kerry TV commercials sponsored by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Why so many books? And why do they matter? The Associated Press spoke recently about political books, both current and past, with Hendrik Hertzberg, a senior editor at The New Yorker who has been covering presidential campaigns since 1964 and has a recently published anthology of his work: “Politics: Observations & Arguments, 1966-2004.”

Q: Why have books been so much more important to the election this year than they have in the past?

A: I think it’s partly that this is the first time that the entire government has been under the control of conservatives, not just the presidency but both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.

There have been no tough congressional investigations. In previous presidencies — Reagan’s, Clinton’s, really going back as far back as Nixon’s and Johnson’s — there have been congressional committees willing to use subpoena powers to investigate the administration.

Another factor is because of 9/11, the mainstream press shied away from tough coverage of the administration during a crucial period. So book writers charged into the vacuum. And the kind of people writing these books, on the whole, tend to be unsympathetic to the policies of the Bush administration.

Much of these books are a part of the trivialization of American politics — everybody’s increasingly creating echo chambers where the persuaded speak to the convinced. Many of the books simply have the effect of firing up the side that they’re addressed to.

Q: Do you recall any previous election when books were so important?

A: Not that I remember. During the Vietnam War, there was a tremendous outpouring of books about the war that presumably had an indirect effect presidential elections during that period. And similarly with Watergate.

But books centered around the election and published for the election? No, this is something new.

Q: Bush is hardly the first president to be considered divisive. Similar things were said about Nixon and Reagan. Why didn’t they inspire as many books?

A: There were a lot of books about Nixon and Reagan, and at the time we might have said it was an unprecedented outpouring.

But Nixon, for example, was president during a period when there was a lot of sympathy for reform of one kind or another and Nixon was involved in that. Agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) were founded while Nixon was president.

The opposition to Bush is across the board: abortion, the environment, taxes, fiscal policy, civil liberties. The passionate opposition to Nixon was in the context of the Vietnam War, much more than domestic policy. And Vietnam was an issue that divided the Democratic Party as well.

Q: This year, we’ve had books that really affected the way people see the candidates. Have there been books in previous years that did the same?

A: In 1960, you had Arthur Schlesinger’s book, “Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make a Difference?” A lot of liberal Democrats were unenthusiastic about Kennedy ... for various reasons, including Kennedy’s failure to speak out strongly against Sen. Joseph McCarthy. And the Republican Party was dominated by moderates, Eisenhower Republicans.

So Schlesinger (a Kennedy supporter and leading liberal) felt he had to make the case that there was a real difference. The book became important among a relatively narrow segment of the public, but that election was extremely close, so close that virtually any factor could claim to be the decisive one.

Q: What about Al Gore’s “Earth in the Balance,” a best seller in the ’92 campaign (when Gore was Bill Clinton’s running mate)?

A: It probably helped get him on the ticket. And it established the environmental credentials of the Democratic ticket. It had an impact, and it was also an attack point for the Republicans. They mined that book for quotes that they could make fun of, especially during the 2000 election.

Q: There was a time when insider books like Ron Suskind’s “The Price of Loyalty” (a collaboration with former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill), would have never come out until after the president had left office. It was considered in bad taste. Why has that changed?

A: This is partly a matter of market economics, the lucrative book deal is a relatively recent phenomenon. You had a bubbling of it during the Clinton impeachment — when everybody wanted a book deal.

And I think a lot of information in the books we’ve been talking about might have come out in magazine or newspaper stories if they hadn’t been held back to add to the value of books. A lot of the stuff in Bob Woodward’s book (“Plan of Attack”) could have been front-page news if it had been dribbled out over time.