A review of Mark Leibovich’s This Town

[Boston Globe]

This week in the Boston Globe I’ve got a review of Mark Leibovich’s This Town. The book’s been reviewed everywhere, of course, but one of my favorite anecdotes hasn’t appeared in any of them. (To be fair, it didn’t appear in my review either.)

Anyway, Leibovich spends a few pages profiling the late Richard Holbrooke. Whenever the ambassador arrived somewhere, aides would whisper, “The ego has landed.” So it makes sense that, one day, Holbrooke decided to single-handedly heal the rift between Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton. Power, you may recall, called Hillary a “monster” during the 2008 primary, leaving everyone unfathomably angry for six or seven minutes. Later that same year, Power was getting married, and Holbrooke pulled her aside and offered her a truly special wedding gift: he would use his diplomatic skills to defuse the Power-Clinton contretemps. 

A lot of reviewers (including me) have read This Town as the story of the Obama administration lapsing into the ways of Washington. But the president himself comes off pretty well in the book. When he hears about Holbrooke’s matrimonial grandstanding, Obama shakes his head. “Some people,” he tells Power, “just get toasters.”

Wouldn’t it be great if the book industry had its own Oscars?

[The New York Times]

In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, I’ve got an essay on the short and inglorious history of the American Book Awards. Actually, it’s also a history of the short and inglorious rebranding of the National Book Awards, for the two were one in the same: in the 1980s, the publishing industry tried to turn its awards into a media-friendly Oscars for books, with predictably disastrous results. My essay details many of those disasters. But I came out of this pretty sympathetic to the publishers’ goals — or at least more sympathetic to them than to the way the National Book Awards are currently handled.

Since authors (and especially literary authors) were the ones who fouled things up for the American Book Awards (or the TABAs, as they were called), it seems only fair to spend some time quoting the authors who did make it to the first ceremony. TABA winners didn’t give speeches — this was one of several admittedly baffling choices by the event’s organizers — but co-hosts William F. Buckley and John Chancellor, along with a number of celebrity presenters, indulged in some painfully scripted banter. And thanks to the Hoover Institution’s archive of Buckley’s Firing Line (the only TV coverage the Awards got was a rebroadcast on this show), you can read the Awards’ full transcript here.

  • Erica Jong, presenting the first novel award: “It was said by some 19th century wag that a publisher would rather see a burglar in his office than a poet. This istrue, alas, of first novelists. The world never needs another first novelist. Every first novel is the triumph of hope over despair, a desperate leap in the dark.”
  • John Towland, presenting the history (hardcover) award: “And the TABA award goes to Henry Kissinger. (applause) And now the nominees for History Paperback.” (Actually, Kissinger got lustily booed by the 1600 or so in attendance.)
  • Lauren Baccall, presenting the biography award: “I think I might die right here, I’m so nervous. I have really no jokes at all to tell, except that I can only say that the fact that I’m even included in the evening is quite sufficient for me, and that anyone should call me an author is more than I ever thought would happen to me in my life.” (Bacall won the autobiography [hardcover] award — the closest the TABAs got to the rampant commercialism predicted by the literary community.)
  • Buckley, presenting presenter Isaac Asimov: “The award for science will be given by Issac Asimov, whose own achievements make him a legitimate object of scientific curiosity.”

Asimov, who appeared to be more comfortable with the award show format than the other author-presenters, shared a good-natured account of his first publication. (“It was on October 21st, 1938 — 41years, six months and 10 days ago, which will probably strike you dumb with amazement in view of the incredibly youthful appearanceI present.”) But Buckley got the best line of the night — an ad lib after his Stained Glass won best mystery (paperback). “I’m pleased,” he quipped, “by this documentary evidence of the incorruptibility of the [Awards].”

The Non-Controversy over Barack Obama’s Of Thee I Sing

Earlier this week, we put to rest one of the right wing’s more durable political myths. To celebrate the occasion — and to remind us that these myths can be big or small and can originate on the right or the left — I’d like to return to a idiotic mini-scandal from last year. Let me say upfront that everyone has moved on and no real harm was done. Still, the procedures and incentives that created this kind of nonsense still hold, and we’ll see many more stories following this template in the next 18 months.

Anyway: in November of 2010, Barack Obama published a children’s book, Of Thee I Sing. It was the latest in a long line of presidential children’s books — see other entries by Theodore Roosevelt, JFK, Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, and Laura and Jenna Bush — and an even longer line of celebrity-written children’s books. (Whether celebrity book vs. presidential book remains a useful distinction is a topic for another post.)

Nevertheless, in the days surrounding its release, Of Thee I Sing set off a series of controversies. The first  — doesn’t Obama have something better to do than write a children’s book? — was quickly defused by his publisher and his agent: he wrote the book after the election but before the inauguration, and the illustrations caused the delay. The second controversy — is Obama cashing in on his presidency? — was never more than notional. Of Thee I Sing sold 50,000 copies in its first week, but, as the AP reported, Obama donated “his proceeds to a scholarship fund for children of disabled and fallen soldiers.”[1]

The book’s third controversy, however, could not be so easily dismissed. When Fox Nation linked to a USA Today story about Of Thee I Sing, it added its own headline: “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General.” (Sitting Bull is one of the 13 figures Obama profiles in the book.) Over the next 48 hours, the online world’s usual suspects — media criticsaggregators, pundits, Gawker — came together to criticize Fox News for its hyper-partisan behavior. AOL’s Politics Daily commissioned a 1,000 word feature, complete with expert interviews and a larger import.

But here’s the thing: the only glimmer of conservative outrage came in that first headline, which Fox Nation quickly changed “for historical accuracy.” (The afore-linked stories also included a few online comments, sure, but the journalistic habit of quoting online commenters is its own sick joke.) This story lived and died on the left; the right never even noticed. The whole mess underlines the fact that attacking everything Fox News does is now as ingrained as Fox News attacking everything Obama does. Another way to say this is that Fox News wasn’t the only media outlet willing the Of Thee I Sing controversy into being. I’m not sure who won the day, but we all lost it.

———————

[1] This probably isn’t the full truth. Of Thee I Sing was the last in a three-book, $1.9 million deal Obama signed with Knopf in 2004 — the publisher had originally promised this book would be the childhood autobiography of a “skinny young kid with big ears and the funny name” — but I never saw anyone ask if the “proceeds” include part of his advance.

Everybody Loves Anonymous

[Los Angeles Times]

In today’s Los Angeles Times, I’ve got an Op Ed on the media furor over O: A Presidential Novel. While the anonymous title doesn’t drop ’til next week, there’s already been tons of speculation about its author. (My guess? If the person “has been in the room with Barack Obama,” why not Tareq and Machael Salahi?) But there’s something telling about this speculation. As I write in my Op Ed,

It’s a good example of the insularity and superficiality that defines the Washington media. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on why anyone would bother writing or reading a novel in the first place.

The O uproar, of course, is also reminiscent of the one surrounding Joe Klein’s Primary Colors. In an August 1995 essay on the decline of the Washington novel, Terry Teachout noted that “addicts with an eye on 1996 have to look forward, among other things, to a Clinton ’92 roman a clef by an allegedly anonymous author said to be a big-time political reporter.” Already, then, Primary Colors was in the air — and the authorial speculation increased as the galley copies went out. In 1996, though, the media waited until the book was out (and until they knew it was decent) before they started wasting other people’s time with this speculation. And that’s the difference.

Now, this isn’t to say that the Primary Colors affair was a positive one, and I’ll expand on a few of the more fascinating low points below. It might not be clear from my Op Ed, but Klein was responsible for plenty of those low points. His excuse for taking five months to fess up was that he owed the silence to his publisher. But several contemporary reports suggest that, by April, Random House wanted Klein to come out because it would create another round of publicity. (The publisher even entered negotiations with People and the Today show.) There’s also the fact that Klein continued reporting on Clinton — and that they had long enjoyed an on-again, off-again relationship. (In 1994, Esquire published a two-year old memo addressed to Clinton: “Joe Klein: He is disappointed in you. As always. He thinks you’re not being tough enough on the real problems. Of course, much of this is a result of Joe’s obvious belief that you are the last best hope of the planet Earth.”)

In both instances, Klein tried to have it both ways. And this,  along with some sanctimony — the picture above comes from his confessional press conference, where he invoked Henry Adams several times — seems to have been his main error. Even here, though, Klein was easily outdone by the rest of the media, and more on them in a second. But first, a few more examples of Primary Colors‘ popularity. Klein got $1.5 million for the book’s paperback rights, another million plus for international rights (19 countries!), and another million for film rights. A very conservative estimate of his total take would run to $6 or $7 million. It’s no surprise that, almost immediately, phrases like “the Russian version of Primary Colors” started cropping up (here, in the NYT), or that politicians started saying things like “Now the biggest parlor game in Washington, besides trying to figure out who wrote Primary Colors, is trying to decide whether or not President Clinton wants a real balanced-budget agreement” (here, Bob Dole).

Two more tangents. First, remember that Shakespeare scholar with the computer? Turns out it was Donald Foster. Foster correctly fingered Klein, but, a few years later, saw his name-making claim — that Shakespeare had written 1612 poem, A Funerall Elegyedebunked. Also a few years later, the Primary Colors lawsuit finally wrapped up. In 2005, a New York judge ruled against a woman seeking $100 million because she claimed to be the basis for a librarian who sleeps with Klein’s Clinton stand-in early in the novel. One can understand her frustrations, but one can also wonder why, if they were genuine, she continued to associate her name with the novel through a lawsuit, then an appeal. Either way, the decision itself contains some fascinating stuff like: “Plaintiff argues that Primary Colors was not a work of fiction because it is considered a roman a clef.”

This post is now longer than my Op Ed, so let’s close with the media — and with the Washington Post investigation that finally proved Klein’s authorship. The story, which ran on the paper’s front page on July 17, 1996, was penned by David Streitfeld. Now, I’ve praised Streitfeld on this blog before, but this story was and is nonsense. First, and most obvious, the novel had been out for five months by this point. Second, the paper sank some serious resources into the story. Streitfeld or someone else at the Post (according to Primary Colors‘ paperback afterword) stole Klein’s notebook. This gave them — or rather, the expert they hired — something to compare to the ten words of Klein’s handwriting contained in an early manuscript of Primary Colors, a manuscript the Post purchased from a Washington rare books dealer for several hundred dollars. Third, Streitfeld corroborated the handwriting match with reporting like this:

Klein has been living well, if not exactly lavishly, in the past year. In July 1995, a few months after Random House bought Primary Colors, he bought a $630,000 house in Pelham, a New York suburb, real estate records show.

He took on a $ 310,000 mortgage, suggesting that he plunked down $ 320,000 in cash. Three cars are registered in his name in New York — an Acura and two Fords. The newest is two years old. The gossip at Pelham dinner parties this spring was that Klein’s daughter was boasting at school, “My daddy is rich.”

This strikes me, frankly, as disgusting. It also underscores what must have been a major motivation throughout this whole mess: jealousy.

The Selling of The President, reconsidered

[Salon]

At Salon today, I’ve got a story on Joe McGinniss’s classic of campaign journalism, The Selling of The President. The occasion? Tom Junod’s epic profile of Roger Ailes. Because before Ailes graced the pages of Esquire, he played a key part in Richard Nixon’s campaign — and thus in The Selling of The President. McGinniss’s access to Nixon’s ad men was unbelievable. One reviewer assumed McGinniss had told Nixon’s campaign he was a graduate student; others figured he must have worked for the campaign. As you can see in the book’s advertising (click the image above for a larger view of an ad that ran in the Times Book Review), that access played a key part in the selling of The Selling of The President.

One great tidbit I couldn’t work in: This book made McGinniss into an instant star, and he received a flood of book proposals, potential TV gigs, and so many lecture offers that he had to hire an agent just to deal with them. What McGinniss didn’t do was sell the film rights. Plenty of studios inquired, but he chose instead to allow a theater producer to create a rock musical version (!!!) of The Selling of The President. McGinniss wasn’t involved with the adaptation and ended up souring on it when he found out the script included a couple of egregious plugs for Terminix. It seems the musical got financial backing from an executive with the company. No word on what his department was.

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.)

More Mark Twain

[On the Media]

Well, now Mark Twain’s Autobiography has really arrived. On this week’s Saturday Night Live, Bill Hader trotted out his terrific Julian Assange impression. “If I am falsely imprisioned for one more day,” Hader-slash-Assange says, “anyone purchasing Mark Twain’s new autobiography on Amazon as a Christmas present for their father will instead send him the book Everyone Poops.”

The joke makes sense, as enough people are buying the book to keep it on the New York Times best-seller list, hovering between second and third. But Twain’s success started long before the holiday shopping season. This summer, the media came together and anointed the Autobiography’s forthcoming edition as a major literary event. The Times didn’t get there first, but it did put Twain on the front page. And its story is wholly representative: coming this fall, after a century-long embargo, readers will finally meet a realer, darker Mark Twain. A few weeks later, Newsweek devoted its entire cover to Twain and his upcoming book (“Now we must get reacquainted all over again”). Thanks to the coverage in the Times and Newsweek and elsewhere, Twain went viral.

But there’s success, and then there’s success. And Twain’s book has exceeded everyone’s expectations. Plenty of bookstores have run out of copies and had to create wait lists, as the Times noted in another lengthy story. In fact, Twain’s autobiography has become a holiday success story with a full roster of heroes: the author (a serious literary figure), the publisher (an ideas-driven university press), and the printer (a small, employee-owned press based in Michigan). The book got an initial print run of 7,500, but there are now more than 500,000 copies in print — still only a third of the initial print run for authors like George W. Bush and John Grisham, but enough to turn heads even in publishing’s blockbuster age. To keep up with the demand, Twain’s Michigan printer has kept three shifts going — it even rehired some of the people laid off during the recession — and taken to shipping the book off in semi trucks packed with 10,000 copies each.

So, again, it’s a holiday success story, and I don’t want to sound like a literary grinch.  But it’s worth examing how, exactly, the book became such a hit. The media continues to commission tons of reviews, but here, at least, reviews never seemed to matter since the book debuted on the best-seller lists at a time when only one or two had been published. Instead, the book seemed (and seems) to benefit from its pre-release hype — the kind of embargo-powered nonsense that led Saturday Night Live to describe it as a “new” book. A few weeks back, I wrote a story for Slate outlining why the embargo was nonsense, and some of the better reviews — the New Yorker‘s, the Washington Post’s —have also pushed back against the hype. In this week’s Times Book Review, Garrison Keillor goes a step further, in a review that might be best described as affably brutal: Twain’s Autobiography is “a wonderful fraud on the order of the Duke and the Dauphin” and, later, “a powerful argument for writers’ burning their papers.”

I also don’t want to sound like I’m taking credit for this; if you review a 736-page “autobiography” that, thanks to various scholarly apparatuses, amounts to only 264 pages of text, you damn well better point it out. But the bigger point is that nothing the media has done can stop the media’s snowballing hype. Let’s remember that, this summer, the editors from the Mark Twain Project, which handles Twain’s literary estate and receives his royalties, gave the Times a few juicy quotations and some “exclusive” online excerpts of Twain “speaking from the grave.” As recently as 2009, the Project was in deep financial trouble. Clearly, that’s no longer the case — and all it took was the Project sacrificing its scholarly integrity. I’ve had chances to follow up on my Slate story with interviews on CBC’s Q show and on NPR’s On the Media, both of which you can find on my handy new media appearances page.

And speaking of financial trouble: it doesn’t bode well for Tina Brown and Newsweek that I completely missed that cover story while researching my original story.