To judge by last week's issue of Time, we have a full-blown national scandal on our hands
"Ollie North Tells His Story," the cover shouts. "Reagan knew everything." Headlines like this have sent journalists scurrying to the fine print of North's new book like Talmudic scholars. But what they have found there is disappointingly tame.
North has no doubt that Ronald Reagan "was told about the use of residuals (from arms sales to Iran) for the Contras, and that he approved it. Enthusiastically." In subsequent comments to the press, North has added his rather convoluted thoughts on the matter of George Bush, who is virtually invisible in the book: "I don't believe anybody ever said that he wasn't aware of at least a good measure of what was going on."
The scholars have concluded, rightly, that all this adds up to something less than a smoking gun--and since Watergate, as Clarence Thomas, Robert Gates and many others have discovered to their profit, nothing but a smoking gun will do.
But what makes North's words interesting is less their substance than their selling. The state of our political culture is illuminated less by the search for a smoking gun than by the way in which books, and lives, like North's are manufactured by the culture and "infotainment" industry.
Celebrity life stories--Ollie, Nancy, the Donald--flit across our field of vision like so many episodes in a TV miniseries. They are events, designed to orchestrate public lives for our entertainment. The old-style political memoir is all but dead, with Henry Kissinger perhaps its last exponent.
Once upon a time, memoirs were an opportunity to reflect on a lifetime in government and provide citizens with a glimpse of how power worked. This is not to deny that they were often ego-driven and self-serving--Kissinger's being a prime example. The new kind aims instead to titillate the public appetite, and to settle old scores along the way.
North ghostwriter William Novak is a past master of the genre, having done not only Lee Iacocca and Nancy Reagan, but also Tip O'Neill and Sydney Biddle Barrows, the "Mayflower Madam." All the trademarks are here--the flatulent ghostwritten prose, the relentless wash of cliche ("Never in my darkest nightmares did I imagine . . . "), the folksy self-pity, the formulaic title (Ronald Reagan's book was "An American Life"; North's is "An American Story"--can one look forward to Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's being "An American Hero"?). Such books are not just an American disease, although American publishers have been the carrier. Boris Yeltsin has rushed his life into print (twice). So has Mikhail Gorbachev, hot on Raisa's heels, with an insider quickie on the failed Soviet coup for Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins--which also published the North book.
"Had Ollie North not existed," says Time, "Tom Clancy would surely have invented him." I think this misses the point. Oliver North has been perfectly capable of inventing his own public persona--the cloak-and-dagger man, the wounded patriot, the scapegoat.
To this Murdoch's people have added their own entrepreneurial skills. All advance news of the book was rigorously suppressed. Known only as "Project Smith," it was cooked up clandestinely by North and Novak in a room at the Dulles Airport Marriott Hotel. This pastiche of CIA methods was a clever marketing strategy--and it is the marketing types, not the editors, who hold the whip hand in American publishing today.
The need to sell first serial rights and win a spot on the talk-show circuit increasingly reflects the vast sums paid out for these celebrity lives. Random House recouped only a fraction of the $3 million it shelled out for Nancy Reagan's "My Turn," and Bantam Books must already have cold feet about throwing close to $5 million at Schwarzkopf for his forthcoming opus. Will the Gulf War still sell in a year?
The reliance on a "Good Morning America" appearance or a Time cover also guarantees that even the heftiest hardback will be judged mainly by its strongest sound bite--"Reagan Knew Everything." This makes the smoking gun a matter of prurience as much as of politics. What really goes on behind those closed doors, whether they are in the Oval Office or Madonna's bedroom?
The Ollie North story is typical of how public political lives are sold to us as commodities, and as entertainment. Like more and more of the political process, such memoirs cheapen us, for they treat us not as citizens with a conscience, but as an audience with an applause meter.