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Politics a hot read

Times Staff Writer

Former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind figured his book -- ex-Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill’s biting insider account of the Bush administration -- might get a little attention. But that was before “The Price of Loyalty” (Simon & Schuster) blow-torched its way to the top of bestseller lists.

Suddenly Suskind found himself on the new leading edge of writers whose headline-grabbing books on politics or current affairs are driving people into bookstores. And in an era of post-political bestsellers-as-rants (Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, et al.) books that have Substantive Policy Analysis written all over them -- such as Suskind’s and Richard A. Clarke’s “Against All Enemies” -- are helping define the political agenda in an already polarized race for the U.S. presidency. “It’s like spores in the air -- it’s everywhere,” Suskind said.

In the past year or so, a staggering range of political books has been released. Some are based on voluminous documentation -- O’Neill handed over 19,000 reports, letters and other papers to Suskind -- and others on partisan spin, such as conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s bestselling blast at liberals, “Deliver Us From Evil,” or Al Franken’s blast at conservatives (“Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them”).

“People are engaged,” Suskind said. “There’s an idea we learned in civic courses -- informed consent. That’s where we take ownership; we as a people.... I think because these are times of such dramatic change, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, all in two years. I think people are sort of getting their bearings after these extraordinary events to say, ‘Wait a second. What is my role? My role in an election year is to know all I can know, to exercise sound judgment.’ ”

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The latest round of political books started March 30 when Bush confidante and advisor Karen Hughes came out with “Ten Minutes From Normal” (Viking), a glowing recounting of her White House days and subsequent return home to Texas. This week, John W. Dean III, counsel to the president in the Nixon administration, jumped into the fray with his Bush administration critique “Worse Than Watergate” (Little, Brown & Co.), which hit No. 1 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list Thursday.

Other highly anticipated political books are just around the corner: On April 20, Simon & Schuster is scheduled to release Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack,” a look at Bush’s strategy in Iraq, and on April 30, bookstores will begin selling former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV’s “The Politics of Truth” (Carroll & Graf). Wilson has contended that the White House leaked the undercover identity of his wife, a CIA operative, in retaliation for his criticisms of the administration’s Iraq policy. Also, in the next couple of months, Knopf is expected to publish former President Clinton’s memoir, for which he reportedly received an advance of more than $10 million.

“People cannot remember a time when interest in political books was so intense,” said Charlotte Abbott, Publishers Weekly’s book news editor.

Consider: In Berkeley, an event featuring three authors whose bestselling books at least touch on the Bush presidency (generally critically) drew 3,600 people who paid $15 a ticket. The panel featured Al Franken, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (“The Great Unraveling”) and former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips (“American Dynasty”). Proceeds went to KPFA-FM radio and Global Exchange, an international human-rights group.

Tickets sold out immediately, said Bob Baldock, the station’s public-events producer and a former bookstore owner. “I think people are hungry for information,” he said. “They want the opinions, not just from hacks that go on television all the time. Secondly, they want to be together in large bodies because it counteracts that sense of alienation you get from television. We had trouble getting people to leave the auditorium.”

Suskind’s book still is on the New York Times’ bestseller list, which is topped by Hannity’s “Deliver Us From Evil.” Of the top 10 books on Sunday’s list, six tackle either President Bush or politics. And among the current crop of political books, the most buzzed-about was published too late to make the list: Clarke’s “Against All Enemies” (Free Press). Sales soared after Clarke appeared before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, charging that the Bush administration had failed to take the threat of terrorism seriously enough.

High interest

Voter interest in such books tends to peak in presidential election years, experts said. But in the last year or so, the demand has been striking, invoking comparisons to the Watergate days, in which books like Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men” and Dean’s “Blind Ambition” became bestsellers.

In his new book, “Worse Than Watergate,” Dean contends that the actions of the Bush-Cheney administration, particularly on terrorism issues, are far worse than anything that occurred on President Nixon’s watch. Dean, 65, now lives in Beverly Hills and considers himself an independent. The current administration is the most secretive of his lifetime, writes Dean, who served four months in prison for obstruction of justice.

“I’m speaking through the knowledge of Watergate and for a very important reason,” he said in a phone interview. “I don’t think we ought to ignore the lessons of Watergate, and that’s exactly what we’re doing when we go back to this kind of secrecy.”

In the most recent slew of political books, “The Price of Loyalty” was the first hit. O’Neill, who was fired by Bush in December 2002, portrays the president as a disengaged leader who usually sat silent and asked no questions in meetings and was eager to target Saddam Hussein well before the Sept. 11 attacks.

After White House officials were forced to respond to the allegations, Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer, found that his usual anonymity as a print reporter was gone. He flipped on the TV one day to catch his former government professor being interviewed about what kind of student he was. Another journalist had tracked down his high school English teacher. U2’s Bono, who had traveled with O’Neill on a much-publicized trip to Africa, called his house. Suskind’s standing-room-only appearances have drawn as many as 800 people, some waving copies of documents he posted on https://thepriceofloyalty.ronsuskind.com/ and asking questions like: “Can you talk about this one, document 50?”

“The Price of Loyalty,” which was released in mid-January, is in its 10th printing, with 400,000 copies in print. And booksellers still are moving Clarke’s “Against All Enemies,” which is in its ninth printing, with more than 700,000 copies in print.

In terms of sales, the political book to beat still is “Living History,” by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), published by Simon & Schuster last year. Sen. Clinton’s memoir has more than 1.5 million copies in print, which is huge for politics but hardly a jaw dropper for nonfiction. (By comparison, “The Purpose-Driven Life” by Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, has 15.8 million copies in print. The advice book on Christian living was released in October 2002 by Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins.)

Still, booksellers such as Barbara Theroux in Missoula, Mont., say they are thrilled at the surging interest in public affairs. Theroux, who runs an independent bookstore called Fact & Fiction, compared the intensity to the days of Watergate, when she was working at a college bookstore in Pullman, Wash. “I see it as good on many levels -- yes, it’s selling books, but also, we need an educated society,” Theroux said. “We need to have this discourse.”

During tumultuous times, sales of topical books go up, but “not like this,” said Anne Gusha, a bookseller for 64 years and co-owner of Williams’ Book Store in San Pedro. She can’t keep the Clarke book in stock -- there’s a waiting list -- and other political titles are moving as well. “We’re selling them all,” she said. “People are really interested in what’s happening.”

Political books began taking off noticeably after the divisive 2000 presidential election between Bush and Al Gore, noted Abbott of Publishers Weekly. But last year’s crop, particularly the bestsellers, “were a little more like rants that seemed to be written in the heat of the moment, that took topical politics and made some entertainment out of them.”

Among the most popular were two by liberal funny men: Franken’s “Lies” (Dutton) and Moore’s “Dude, Where’s My Country?” (Warner). Also in 2003, conservative commentators scored with Coulter’s “Treason” (Crown Forum) and Bill O’Reilly’s “Who’s Looking Out for You?” (Broadway Books). According to a Publishers Weekly study, the four books had combined sales of more than 3.3 million copies in 2003 and were among the year’s top 15 bestselling nonfiction books.

Political junkies love partisan books that confirm what they’re thinking and provide new fodder, said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “The electorate is very polarized, and people are looking for ammunition,” he said.

It’s not surprising that the latest political books are weighted against Bush, said Connecticut College professor Dorothy Buckton James.

“There’s a normal process in our country that when you raise somebody up so high on a pedestal, you try to start checking what the feet are like and bringing them down to scale,” she said. “President Bush, at a very early time in his presidency, was faced with a situation that would make a statesman and hero of anyone. Almost anyone, given that situation would have risen to simultaneously stand strong for the nation and speak to our pain, and he did it effectively.

“That led to a silencing by the media and opposition party and almost every kind of criticism.... I think what [the books] are doing is reflecting and highlighting the growing cynicism of Americans about government in general.”


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