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Tomes That Tell All . . . or Just Too Much

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Newt Gingrich’s long-awaited, much-debated bible for political revolution--”To Renew America”--is now available at a bookstore near you, swaddled in a jacket that depicts the author in a most determined and visionary pose, even for him.

Not likely available in any bookstore near you is “Strangers in the Senate,” featuring on its cover Sen. Barbara Boxer, in an equally determined and visionary pose, leading a brigade of women up the Capitol steps to raise hell about the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas.

The California Democrat’s 246-page tribute to the so-called Year of the Woman that was born of the Anita Hill sexual harassment hearings has sold a mere 5,000 copies and slipped into hardcover obscurity one year after it was published.

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According to her 1994 financial disclosure statement, “Strangers” earned exactly zippo in profits. Even the Super Crown bookstores in the San Francisco suburbs of Marin County, where she got her political start, no longer carry it.

Meanwhile, Gingrich’s book heads for the New York Times bestseller list just days after its release. But it might be that Boxer’s book better reflects the fate of political autobiography today--a curious blend of ego and history that is not always true to either.

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Boxer’s book--you’ll forgive us, Senator--is not exactly a snappy writing job. (It begins with an excerpt from her 1973 unfinished novel about a young Senate candidate with “shining black hair” breathlessly addressing her troops: “I will be here tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. no matter what the results, and I will want to be with all of you. Can I count on that? A deafening ‘yes’ came back to her . . . “)

But wait, the Gingrich book is not getting rave reviews for its writing either. “Newt Gingrich’s new book,” wrote columnist Richard Cohen, “contains some of the dopiest writing to ever come out of Washington--a standard not easily dismissed.”

A more likely explanation for this performance disparity is that Boxer, unlike Gingrich, is not a national figure and is not leading a political revolution these days. Factor in that she also did not take part in the Watergate burglary and never found God while doing time, and who’s gonna read it?

“Barbara Boxer’s problem is she’s normal and ordinary. In 2 1/2 years she hasn’t done anything that has set her apart as a senator in any significant way,” said Mark Petracca, associate professor of political science at UC Irvine. “She’s not that personally interesting, has no special expertise, no necessary vision. I can’t imagine what would be in the book that would interest me.”

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And he likes her.

Actually, Boxer was leading something of a revolution when she wrote the book that attempts to chronicle the Year of the Woman, galvanized by a rather memorable moment when she and six female colleagues charged the Senate steps to demand that sexual harassment allegations against Thomas receive a full hearing. Indeed, Boxer is working overtime this week to push again for full hearings on sexual harassment charges--this time against Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon.

The women’s revolt was supplanted by a bigger one two years later, fueled by angry white men who, like furious fathers out of patience, put down their collective foot Nov. 8 and gave new life to a conservative uprising. That movement became a much bigger seller: Rush Limbaugh’s “See, I Told You So” has sold 1.6 million copies, and that’s just the paperbacks.

It turns out that Boxer’s book did about as well as most books written by elected officials. Ronald Reagan got a reported $7 million for his memoirs, which sold a comparatively paltry 200,000 copies.

“I didn’t write the book because I thought a lot of people would buy it. I wanted to get the stories down before I forgot them, for my grandchildren,” said Boxer.

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What ever happened to diaries?

It didn’t used to be like this.

“This whole book-writing craze, let me tell you, is relatively recent,” Petracca said. “There are volumes and volumes of Thomas Jefferson’s writings, but Thomas Jefferson never wrote a book.”

This penchant for kiss-and-tell tomes--like so much else--seems to have begun with Watergate. Richard Nixon was the first President to turn book writing into an industry (probably the result of a guilty conscience). Woodrow Wilson was a prolific writer, but even he never wrote his memoirs, according to Petracca.

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With new technology and a good ghostwriter, a book can be churned out in about a month. This means politicians can spend their careers dodging pesky reporters, then turn around and spill their guts on their own terms, for money. (Boxer gave her $10,000 advance to her co-author/daughter, Nicole, and promised to split all profits with the Children’s Defense Fund, unfortunately for the Children’s Defense Fund.)

All of which means, this autobiography craze will not soon end. Indeed, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Huntington Beach Republican, has used the many hours he spends commuting between Washington and his district to write his tale: “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Surfing,” a chronicle of his adventures up to the point when he gets elected to Congress. We hear it includes the time he conquered a really big wave in Hawaii.

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