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Publishers will hit the campaign trail

Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- It was an almost perfect media firestorm, with a literary twist: Political daggers began flying recently when rumors spread that Scott McClellan, former White House press secretary, was going to confess in a new book that he had unknowingly made false public statements about the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. And he claimed he wasn’t acting alone -- he had done so with the involvement of top officials, including the president himself.

Pundits wondered darkly who leaked the juicy tidbit, but there was no conspiracy. The brouhaha was sparked by a blurb that the publisher had posted online. Although some were amazed by the furor over a title still months from publication, they were hardly surprised that a political book could have such a dramatic impact.

As publishers get ready to unleash a flood of titles geared to the 2008 presidential election, they are mindful of the extraordinary influence a handful of books have had in recent years. Bestselling titles about the war in Iraq, political celebrities and the Bush White House have shaped the national debate. Barack Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream” helped launch his candidacy; “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" by Lawrence Wright illuminated the origins of the terrorist attacks; “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran offered a scathing portrait of the U.S. presence in Iraq.

“These books have become part of a larger national conversation, especially with regard to the Iraq war,” said Peter Osnos, founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs, which is publishing McClellan’s memoir, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and What’s Wrong With Washington.” Osnos, who wrote about the uproar over the book in Editor & Publisher, added that these titles have an impact “because they can be produced more quickly now -- and they draw on the expertise of journalists and others in the field more than ever.”

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Not all political books need be serious to have an influence. As 2007 ends, bestseller lists are topped by TV comedian Stephen Colbert’s “I Am America (and So Can You!).” And as McClellan’s experience shows, titles don’t even have to be on the shelves to generate publicity. The book biz is buzzing over news that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) recently inked a deal for his memoirs that eclipsed the $8 million given to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Former White House political advisor Karl Rove has also just signed a seven-figure book deal.

The inconvenient truth, however, is that most political titles do not experience such success. It’s hard to make a new book stand out amid new releases, unless the author is a household name. And even then, books must battle with television, the Internet, magazines and newspapers for readers’ attention.

“During the course of 2008, there will be maybe two or three new books which rise to the top and influence the campaign and maybe even how people will vote,” said Neil Nyren, publisher and editor in chief of Putnam. “But the vast majority of these other books won’t.”

This is especially true of the quickie memoirs and essays by politicians that invariably pop up at election time. (In 2007, most of the candidates in both parties had at least one book on the market). Beyond a few exceptions, such as Obama’s book or Clinton’s “Living History,” which has sold more than 3 million copies, these titles seldom catch fire. Once in a while, books by a late-blooming candidate -- such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s “From Hope to Higher Ground: My Vision for Restoring America’s Greatness” -- will gain traction. But there are no guarantees. “Too many people in the book business believe that readers are willing to pay money to hear what a politician has to say,” Marjory Ross, president of Regnery Publishing, said. “There’s really no reason to do so, if you can get all of that information for free.”

So which political books will influence the 2008 election? Here’s a sampling of new titles:

9/11 and terrorism

New York Times reporter Philip Shenon’s “The Commission” will suggest that the White House was inappropriately involved in manipulating and controlling information given to the 9/11 commission. Other books include “After 9/11: America’s War on Terror” by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon, a journalistic work written in the form of a graphic novel, and “War and Decision” by Douglas Feith, an analysis of the war on terrorism by a former high-ranking Pentagon insider. Journalist Robert Scheer has penned “The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America.”

The war in Iraq

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Two new titles with similar themes but different cost estimates include “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict” by Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes and “What We Could Have Done With the Money: 50 Ways to Spend the Trillion Dollars We’ve Spent on Iraq” by Robert Simpson. “The Culture of Torture” by Josh Phillips will probe allegations of post-Abu Ghraib torture in Afghanistan and Iraq, including interviews with U.S. soldiers. “No End in Sight: Iraq’s Descent Into Chaos” by filmmaker Charles Ferguson (PublicAffairs) will include dozens of interviews and notes culled from over 200 hours of footage that did not make it into his award-winning documentary about the origins and conduct of the Iraq war. Among the books offering a very different point of view include TV commentator Oliver North’s “American Heroes in the Fight Against Radical Islam” and “God Willing: My Wild Ride With the New Iraqi Army” by Marine Corps Reserve Capt. Eric Navarro.

The Bush White House

Bob Woodward has written the fourth in his series of behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Bush administration; Woodward’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, describes it as an exhaustive look at the president’s waning years in office. Other books include political analyst Jacob Weisberg’s “The Bush Tragedy” and TV commentator Keith Olbermann’s “Truth and Consequences: Special Comments on the Bush Administration’s War on American Values.” Reporters Lou Cannon and Carl M. Cannon have written “Reagan’s Disciple: Has George W. Bush Advanced the Reagan Revolution -- or Derailed It?”

Political celebrities

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Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich penned “Real Change,” which Regnery’s Ross described as a critique of Republicans and Democrats for losing touch with Americans. Meanwhile, Democrats are putting out a flurry of books: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has written “Open House,” Virginia Sen. Jim Webb “A Time to Fight,” and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “The Good Fight.” Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright is releasing “Memo to the President-Elect,” and former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers has written “Why Women Should Rule the World: A Memoir.” Nobel Prize winner Al Gore will publish another environmental title, “The Path to Survival,” on Earth Day.

Books on the Clintons have become a publishing niche unto themselves, and new titles include “Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary,” a collection of essays edited by Susan Morrison; “Clinton in Exile,” a look at Bill Clinton’s post-presidential years by Carol Felsenthal; and “Clintonisms: The Amusing, Confusing and Even Suspect Musing of Billary” edited by Julia Gorin.

Grass-roots activism

On the left: Pacifica radio hosts Amy Goodman and David Goodman have written “Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times.” On the right, David Frum, an American Enterprise Institute fellow, has penned “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.”

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Other books include “Grand Illusion: The Fantasy of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny” by Theresa Amato, Ralph Nader’s campaign manager; “Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It) by William Poundstone; and “How to Rig an Election: Confessions of a Republican Operative” by Allen Raymond and Ian Spiegelman. Also coming are “Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States” by Deal W. Hudson and “The Vast Rightwing Conspiracy 2008 Election Handbook,” which tracks the top 10 issues recorded at the conservative Human Events website.

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josh.getlin@latimes.com


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