In Defense of Soundbites

[Boston Globe]

In today’s Boston Globe, I’ve got an essay on soundbites, the media, and political coverage. Ever since 1992, when Daniel Hallin documented that the length of the average TV soundbite fell from 43 seconds in 1968 to 9 seconds in 1988, people have worried about the shrinking soundbite and what it all means. In the early 1990s, critics blamed this trend on the “Age of MTV.” Today, of course, it’s the Age of the Internet. But as I try to show in my essay, soundbites have dropped in length for a variety of reasons — economic, political, historical, and professional. What’s more, they’ve been dropping for a long time, as new research suggests that newspaper quotations began shrinking in a similar way in the 1890s.

Instead of soundbites, then, we should worry about the tone and focus of our political discourse. And there’s no doubt that this, too, has evolved. In 1968, for example, Spiro Agnew said at a press conference that “Mr. Nixon is trying to cast himself in the role of a Neville Chamberlain.” Agnew meant to say that Hubert Humphrey had done this and quickly corrected himself. As Hallin noted, though, Agnew’s gaffe aired uncorrected and in the middle of a long soundbite on how the Democratic ticket had gone “squishy soft” on Communism and crime. Nobody blanched at his slip because something like it didn’t — and doesn’t — matter.

(One other note: the same year Hallin published his research, a Harvard sociologist named Kiku Addato published a research paper that corroborated Hallin’s findings. I didn’t mention her because it seems Hallin got there first — he told me he noticed the shrinking soundbite while researching his book on the media and Vietnam — and because her analysis lacked his complexity. You can read a .pdf of Addato’s paper here.)

A Review of Edmund Morris’s Colonel Roosevelt

[Boston Globe]

In yesterday’s Boston Globe, I published a review of Edmund Morris’s Colonel Roosevelt, the third and final volume in his TR trilogy. The book’s been widely and positively reviewed, but it still seems to me that most people are failing to appreciate how fascinating and unique and just plain weird Morris is. I give one example in my review that dates back to the writing of Morris’s first book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. But there are many, many more, and I’ve got no idea why anyone was surprised — least of all the Reagans, who put Morris up to it — when Dutch turned out to be an unorthodox book. (It’s an underrated book, too.)

Another example of Morris’s eccentricity came a few weeks back, when he went on Face the Nation to promote Colonel Roosevelt. After Bob Schieffer asked Morris (for a second time) what TR would make of today’s political scene, Morris replied: “You keep asking these presentist questions, Bob. As the immortal Marisa Tomei said in My Cousin Vinny, ‘That’s a bullshit question!'” Morris gave a more precise and politic version of this answer to a Wall Street Journal reporter: “No. Absolutely not. And I don’t speculate on what he would do now if he were alive because that’s just dreamland.” And yet, just two years ago, Morris wrote a wonderful Op Ed for the New York Times in which he crafted a faux-interview with TR out of 2008 questions and historical quotations. Here’s a sample:

Q. Do you blame the House Democratic majority?
A. A goodly number of senators, even of my own party, have shown about as much backbone as so many angleworms.
Q. I hope that doesn’t include the pair running for the presidency! What do you think of Senator John McCain? He often cites you as a role model.
A. He is evidently a man who takes color from his surroundings.
Q. Weren’t you just as unpredictable in your time?
A. (laughing) They say that nothing is as independent as a hog on ice. If he doesn’t want to stand up, he can lie down.

This was surely a send up of the kind of questions Morris has had to deal with during his latest promotional cycle. But it was also further proof that he is someone who has been completely and utterly romanced by the past.

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

[Boston Globe]

In today’s Boston Globe, I’ve got a review of George W. Bush’s Decision Points. The presidential memoir has become a very odd and very unique media event — an event where the book’s release matters more than the book itself. So the question I kept returning to was this: How does Bush’s book work as a book? That is, does it offer something as a narrative, linear reading experience that the hype does not? The short answer is, yes, it does (Bush’s book is much better than most presidential memoirs); but, no, it’s not always for the best (one reason it’s better is that it captures Bush’s voice and mien, which will turn off plenty of readers).

Anyway, I’ve been making the release vs. book point a lot in the last few weeks — writing about presidential memoirs and TV and, on CBC’s Q radio show, talking about Mark Twain’s autobiography. But I did want to single out one example from Bush’s book. Other than the Kanye West kerfuffle, which I won’t even dignify with a post, the juiciest Decision Points item has been that Barbara Bush showed a young George her miscarried fetus. This story began to circulate even before Bush’s first author interview with Matt Lauer — the New York Post ran a story based on a DVD of the pre-taped interview that it had “exclusively obtained” — but Lauer’s interview really got the ball rolling. MSNBC gave the story the following headline: “Bush: Mother’s miscarriage shaped pro-life views.” The Huffington Post went with: “Bush’s Opposition to Abortion Grew After Mother Showed Him Dead Fetus in a Jar.” The Daily Beast assembled a team of psychoanalytic experts to parse the revelation. The New York Times promised Bush had “started a national conversation — both about his mother, Barbara Bush, and about the complex psychological fallout from miscarriage.”

But the Times did so in a story that was making every effort to prop up this “national conversation.” And that’s how this stuff works. The Bush headlines and absurdist post ops share a tenuous relationship with reality — and no relationship to the former president’s book. First, Lauer was the one who kept pushing the abortion angle. (Bush’s exasperated response: “The purpose of the story really wasn’t to try to show the beginning of a pro-life point of view. It was really to show how my mom and I developed a relationship.”) Second, the Decision Points version says nothing about abortion or the brandishing of a fetus. Here’s the entire (and entirely mild) episode from the book:

One day, shortly after I learned to drive and while Dad was away on a business trip, Mother called me into her bedroom. There was urgency in her voice. She told me to drive her to the hospital immediately. I asked what was wrong. She said she would tell me in the car.

As I pulled out of the driveway, she told me to drive steadily and avoid bumps. Then she said she had just had a miscarriage. I was taken aback. This was a subject I never expected to be discussing with Mother. I also never expected to see the remains of a fetus, which she had saved in a jar to bring to the hospital. I remember thinking: There was a human life, a little brother or sister. [Bush’s emphasis]

In Bush’s book, this is a genuinely affecting moment — not only on its own, but also because Bush describes the death of his younger sister Robin a few pages earlier. In our media ecosystem, however, it has become a perfect example of how the reaction to presidential memoirs plays out — very little initial substance, followed by a string of stories offering diminishing returns, often in the form of metacoverage (reaction about the interview which was about the book, etc.). Like I said, very odd, though maybe not very unique.

Reagan and/as Palin

[Los Angeles Times]

In today’s Los Angeles Times, I’ve got an Op Ed on Sarah Palin’s constant invocations of Ronald Reagan. Every Republican does this, of course, but I argue that Palin invokes Reagan in a uniquely shallow way. In fact, her use of Reagan mirrors the Tea Party’s use of the Founding Fathers, and I suspect my thinking on Palin owes a lot to Jill Lepore’s book about the Tea Party.

It doesn’t hurt that Palin connected all the dots in a recent essay for the National Review:

The Tea Party reminded us that Reaganism is still our foundation. I think the Gipper is smiling down on us today waving the Gadsden Flag.

The Drudge Report and Bush’s Decision Points

[New York]

In this week’s New York magazine, I’ve got a short little essay arguing that presidential memoirs exist not to be read so much as to be discussed. That’s clearly the case with Bush’s new Decision Points, though the full details of his TV tour didn’t surface until after my story had gone to press. Still, the history of this genre — or, more accurately, the history of the promotion of this genre — gave me more than enough to go on. Bush’s book, like all presidential memoirs, will matter less as a weighty tome than as a multimedia launching platform. While all of the media depend heavily on books — think of the forthcoming reviews, Op Eds, and blog posts digesting Decision Points’ greatest hits — the most important format will be the least bookish: television. At one point in my essay, I mention the now-forgotten TV genre of the “electronic memoir.” Well, there’s no need to sell an electronic memoir when a book will accomplish the same thing: getting you and your message on TV.

That’s what’s happening with Bush’s presidential memoir, and that’s what’s been happening since Truman’s. Still, there are a few new things about the promotion of Decision Points: a book trailer; an elaborate and viral-friendly Facebook contest; and what sounds like an amazing ebook, which will include the text of Bush’s speeches, some of his home movies, even handwritten letters and extra photos. (Decision Points won’t be the first presidential memoir ebook, surprisingly enough — there was a palmOne edition of Clinton’s My Life.) But the weirdest digital aspect of this is that the first real details from Bush’s book appeared on The Drudge Report. Media reporters got pretty sloppy here: most of them described this as a “leak,” and some even assumed Drudge had the entire book. But there’s no reason to believe any of that. After his “**Exclusive** **Must Credit**” throat clearing, Drudge wrote:

“It was a simple question, ‘Can you remember the last day you didn’t have a drink?'”

So begins President George W. Bush in the opening chapter [“Quitting”] from the most anticipated book of the season, the DRUDGE REPORT can reveal.

Drudge wouldn’t respond to my requests for comment. But that “can reveal” seems pretty telling. In fact, if I had to bet, I’d say Crown leaked him this information directly. The publisher’s employees haven’t kept especially quiet about Bush’s book (for example). And they can’t be unhappy with what Drudge wrote. Indeed, when it comes to leaks, Crown couldn’t have — I don’t even know what the right metaphor is anymore: scripted? written? — a better result.

By Committee

[New York Times]

In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review — and just in time for the release of George W. Bush’s memoirs — I’ve got an essay on the crazy (but long forgotten) protests surrounding the release of Richard Nixon’s memoirs. My cast of characters includes Tom Flanigan and Bill Boleyn (pictured above), the co-founders of the Committee to Boycott Nixon’s Memoirs, and Sid and Esther Kramer, the co-owners of Westport, CT”s Remarkable Book Shop (pictured below). Really, though, it includes just about everyone living in 1978 — because RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon came with a degree of media hype achieved by no presidential memoir before or (so far) since.

For further proof of this, check out this contemporary news broadcast (YouTube) and, below, some great caricatures of Nixon as author. I also wrote a blog post for the Times about the two “deluxe” editions of Nixon’s memoirs — this phenomenon of presidential publishing also occurred with Carter’s, Reagan’s, Clinton’s, and, now, Bush’s books — and there are some images of those editions. After that, as promised, a few old newspaper photos of the Remarkable Book Shop. Sid told me that, when the RBS closed in 1993, Paul Newman called him and said, “Don’t close — you can’t close.”

The New Republic (1974)

The New Republic (1978)

Boston Globe (1978)

*  *  *

RN‘s $50 “deluxe” edition, with slip case

RN‘s $250 “numbered presentation” (and
leather-bound and gold-detailed) edition

The “numbered presentation”
edition’s certificate of authenticity

The first volume of Warner’s paperback edition ($2.95)

*  *  *

The RBS in the 1960s (Dan Woog)

New York Times (1994)

New York Times (1987)

New York Times (1994)

Jimmy Carter’s Second, Polished Draft of History

[San Francisco Chronicle]

Two days before Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, Art Buchwald used his “Capitol Punishment” column to offer some advice to the incoming administration. “The first thing to do when you get to Washington,” Buchwald wrote, “is find a literary agent. The second thing is to buy a four-year diary and fill it every day with vignettes about the mistakes made by the people you work with in the administration. It is never too early to start writing your book.”

I can’t think of a better gloss on Jimmy Carter’s literary career — a career that now extends to White House Diary, his 26th book, which I review in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle. The book’s other reviews, as political book reviews so often do, focus on checking Carter against the historical record and drumming up his juicy details. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, except that it doesn’t really work with White House Diary because the book includes so little that’s new. The two stories whirling around the political news cycle — Carter’s belief that the Iran hostages cost him the 1980 election and that Edward Kennedy sabotaged his health care proposal — both appeared 28 years ago in Carter’s Keeping Faith, albeit in slightly milder form. That’s why, in my review, I tried to talk about White House Diary as a diary — as a specific kind of book that readers approach with specific expectations and specific standards. From this perspective, White House Diary is an almost total failure. I never thought I’d have a reason to recommend Keeping Faith (still in print, by the way, as is Carter’s much better Why Not the Best?). But I submit that it’s a more coherent and less manipulative picture of Carter’s presidency.

I do want to expand on two statements in my review. First, I talk about the the growing genre of presidential diaries. While Reagan and Carter were the only twentieth-century presidents to keep consistent diaries, just about all of them dabbled in it. (Many of them also saw their diaries subpoenaed, which explains why recent presidents have kept quiet about their diaries or opted for an alternative — Bill Clinton’s conversations with Taylor Branch, for example.) Truman kept a sporadic diary, as did Eisenhower. Nixon kept a daily diary for 20 months and quotes from it about 150 times in RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. For a while, George H. W. Bush kept a diary as vice president, and he tried (and lapsed) again as president. (Bush was more faithful as a young man in China.) There’s also the related genre of “presidential daily diaries,” the official, obscenely detailed logs of a president’s activity. Carter’s daily diaries often start with this: “5:00: The President received a wake up call from the White House signal board operator.” These documents include entries for the briefest of meetings, every single photo op, even one-minute phone calls. You can browse Carter’s here, along with Gerald Ford’s, Lyndon Johnson’s, and many more presidents on their libraries’ websites. (I won’t get into the pre-Truman diaries, but here’s one fun example: the Massachusetts Historical Society updates a Twitter account with entries from John Quincy Adams’s diaries.)

The second thing I want to touch on is my comparison of Reagan’s and Carter’s diaries. None of the afore-linked reviews make this connection, but I hope my review shows how important it is. (It’s also important to compare a president’s diary with his memoirs. In 2004, plenty of The Reagan Diaries‘ reviewers chuckled at its spelling; as Reagan explains in An American Life, though, he developed a loose and unorthodox system while delivering multiple daily speeches for General Electric. “Of course, this hasn’t done much for my spelling,” in Reagan’s example, becomes “cours ths hsnt don much my splng.”) Reagan’s diary was a huge best-seller in 2004, and I think this comparison suggests one reason Carter resurrected his diary. But the Carter reviewers’ omission of Reagan as a counter-example illustrates something else: how, despite all the noise about their value as history — and this noise normally tops out right after a leak of the president’s megamillion dollar advance — how shockingly disposable these books can be.