Political Books Give Readers Something to Ponder
NEW YORK – This season, political tomes are practically overflowing off bookstore shelves.
The books, mostly written by Washington insiders, are often full of juicy details and a strong point of view. The popular works capitalize on a highly charged political season and can even shape the discussion of issues in the media. But can they affect voters or candidates' game plans on the campaign trail?
"There's so many things that are going to affect this year's elections. [Books are] part of the mix," said Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (search).
Former president Bill Clinton, counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, ex-Bush staffer Karen Hughes, former diplomat Joseph Wilson and journalist Ron Suskind are just a handful of the high-profile authors using the presidential election and hot-button issues like the war in Iraq to sell their literary efforts.
Releasing a political book these days is good business for publishers and authors — many of the insider tomes are best sellers — but they aren't the only ones affected by the political book boon. Political strategists often pick out tidbits to help influence debate.
Democrats, for instance, seized on Woodward's "Plan of Attack," which details Bush's run-up to the war in Iraq, highlighting some unflattering details that suggested the president wanted to go to war shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. However, the book overall paints a positive picture of Bush and how he handled the Iraq war.
Asked on Fox News' "Hannity and Colmes" whether parts of his book have been misconstrued by people and/or the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, regarding Saudi oil prices, for example, Woodward said: "Well, it's a political year ... There are a lot of counter-charges. It's a toxic atmosphere to a certain extent."
Similarly, Clarke's "Against All Enemies" blasted the current administration's handling of pre-Sept. 11 terrorism. But just as Clarke was making the talk show rounds, Hughes, a former Bush strategist, was giving the administration a positive spin in her book, "Ten Minutes From Normal."
Although these books often contain hot bits of information, many political observers say it's not likely that the allegations in them will be used extensively on the campaign trail from now until November.
"The arguments are not specific enough and the facts are not specific enough — it's more gossipy than anything," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University (search). "I think some of them are quite inflammatory and designed to be so to really get coverage but it's fairly early for people to say, 'OK, this is going to cause me to vote one way or the other.'"
According to a March survey by the Pew Research Center (search), for example, Clarke's criticisms of President Bush's anti-terrorism policies and the televised hearings of the commission probing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks didn't then undermine impressions of Bush's leadership abilities. Clarke's book hit shelves in March.
In the survey, half of voters said the phrase "a strong leader" better describes Bush, while a third said that about Kerry.
O'Connor said the books' release dates have more to do with the bottom-line than political debate.
"The timing is such so that [authors] get the best possible play on the talk shows," she said. "They know that this is the best time people are buying books and you, the press, are interested in talking to them more than ever."
Publishers say of course this is the perfect time to talk politics in the book biz.
"Because there's a war and because we're looking at terrorism now in this country, people are paying more attention to politics," said Kathryn Blough, spokeswoman for the Association of American Publishers. "I do think there are more titles in this category than we've seen in the past and they're doing well."
According to the New York Times Best Seller list (search), Woodward's "Plan of Attack" is No. 3, "Battle Ready" by author Tom Clancy, former U.S. Central Command Chief Anthony Zinni and Tony Koltz is No. 4, "Against All Enemies" by Clarke is No. 11, and Wilson's "The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity" is No. 14.
Former President Clinton's "My Life" is being released June 22 and is expected to be a best seller.
It's not clear that any of these literary works will have a long-term impact on voters. However, some readers say that the books do help fire up public discourse.
"The books present another dimension to the debate ... Did Bush reallocate funds from the War on Terror to detail Iraq war plans? What did he inadvertently or overtly do to force us into Iraq?" said Bryan Gross, a 22-year-old research analyst with the Bond Market Association in Washington, D.C., who recently heard Wilson — a retired diplomat who claims that the Bush administration cooked intelligence to justify the Iraq war — address a packed bookstore.
Gross said no matter what the political experts say about books' influence, he thinks the works could carry weight with the public, particularly when it comes to the subject of Iraq.
"It is such a contentious issue because of how close the election was last time," Gross said. "People think bringing divisive and potentially decisive issues to the forefront can tip the election."