Somewhere there are fragments of a scroll that are the memoirs of a politician—presumably, a man—that could well be the first example of this self-justifying, aggrandizing, and occasionally illuminating genre.
The first explosive account of a political scandal by a journalist, perhaps written with a quill pen, is also doubtless somewhere in a collection yet to be found.
Political memoirs and journalists unearthing secrets are hardly novel, although some, given their dubious veracity, might as well have been fiction. The last decades have been an era in which, broadly speaking, books by and about politics in this country have been in abundance, arguably more than at any other time since even the Federalist Papers of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.
Why is that? There are many reasons. Let’s start with the most elemental, money.
In 1984, in the days after Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated to the presidential ticket of a major political party, a Random House senior editor told her publisher she wanted to acquire the inevitable book. “Great, go to $50,000,” he said. The successful offer was for more than $1 million.
A year later, now a senior Random House editor myself and emboldened by the trend, I paid $1 million for the memoirs of Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the colorful Speaker of the House of Representatives, who was about to retire. This was considered sufficiently notable to merit front-page mention in the New York Times. In today’s dollars, that would be about $2.5 million, no bargain, but still below the going rate for many, preferably controversial and usually less accomplished, political figures.
To those who complained, Tip said that he had spent his life in public service and was ready for a comfortable retirement. He also appeared in an American Express ad, posed under a beach umbrella, smiling, with his feet in the sand. The book was a major bestseller, with net sales of about 400,000 copies, I recall.
Barack and Michelle Obama, when they left the White House, received a reported $65 million advance from Crown, all the more striking because before Barack was famous, in 1994, I paid $40,000 for a memoir by a young Chicago community organizer to be called Dreams from My Father. You may have read it; millions of people the world over certainly have.
There is a venerable military adage that every second lieutenant thinks the war began when he arrived. So, my judgments on the evolution of political books begin in the mid-1980s and do not include the works of Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, the recently reissued autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, the pungent reflections of Harry S. Truman, or the investigative works of Nellie Bly and Upton Sinclair.
In the latter years of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st, I have been responsible, one way or another, for enough political books to be considered, if not an expert, at least a specialist. These included, aside from the Obama book, a number of books by Jimmy Carter (including a volume of poetry and a children’s book written with his daughter, Amy), two books of political vision by Bill Clinton, and The Art of the Deal by Donald J. Trump, a New York real estate developer at the time, who was appealing to enough Americans to get him elected president three decades later.
The list of other political figures I brought to publication is very long and surprising, I’ll concede, even to me. There were also a great many journalists—among my favorites were Molly Ivins, the progressive, and Peggy Noonan, an eloquent conservative. Early on, I had to persuade Suzanne Garment, writing a book called Scandal (1991), that a delay in the publication date would not mean that we had missed the very last scandal ever. She and I have laughed about that over lunch since.
Then there are the writers of books by and about politics, who in addition to journalists also include spouses, aides, and some people whose consequence was limited, by any measure. Among recent examples are stripper Stormy Daniels, who had a one-night stand with Trump, and Omarosa Manigault Newman, an African American woman who lost on The Apprentice, but landed in the White House.
Bob Woodward—I never published him, but we were colleagues at the Washington Post in the 1970s—is of course the master of the political exposé and has been for nearly half a century. When you consider that his first book, All the President’s Men (written with Carl Bernstein), appeared in 1974 and the most recent of his 21 books, Peril (written with Robert Costa), was a #1 bestseller in 2021, he has definitely secured his place as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) in his field.
For politicians, the appeal of “writing” a book—using the term loosely because so many are actually written by someone else—is that it enables the person to address the public directly, without the pesky filter of journalists asking questions and fact-checking. And given the common conventions of publishing, the virtues of accuracy, honesty, and cogency are not required. Reviewers may carp at inconsistencies, but the words on the page, unless demonstrably plagiarized, belong to the politicians.
To be commercially viable, political books should have at least one unexpected disclosure. Scott McClellan was the press secretary to George W. Bush after the attacks of 9/11 led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008, my colleagues and I at PublicAffairs (the imprint I founded) published his book What Happened, which described how the Bush administration misled the country about the dangers of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and how he was ordered to, in effect, lie in the press room.
The book was destined to do well. When an early copy was obtained by Mike Allen, then of Politico, he called it “scathing.” We received 80,000 orders over that weekend. McClellan was chastised in a congressional hearing and by Rush Limbaugh, among others. At PublicAffairs, we endured comparable criticism and very welcome sales momentum.
By the standards of the Trump years, McClellan’s revelation was a breeze rather than a maelstrom. “Officials” on all sides of the Trump saga, reporters, and people who were quite literally hangers-on wrote so many books that Carlos Lozada, the Washington Post’s savvy book critic, wrote an excellent book of his own assessing them. He called it What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.
In particular, the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s collusion with various Russians provided a cascade of bestsellers until the issue deflated following the release of the Mueller Report and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s disappointingly bland testimony before Congress. I would not want to have been the recipient of the returns on a great many of those books. There is no record of a chastened Mueller offering an explanation or apologia in a book or even to a sympathetic reporter.
In the years of two presidential impeachment trials and daily “Would you believe!” emissions in and around the Trump universe, so many books were released that inevitably they bumped into one another, with the result that the aggregate impact was less forceful than was probably justified given the scale of the epic melodrama.
So, what has been the impact of this plethora of political books on the nation? Investigative books of the Woodward genre always have what journalists call a “lede” that drives sales. In Peril it was the fact that Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was so concerned about the turmoil characterizing the last days of the Trump administration that he felt the need to assure the Chinese military that America would not attack their country. But news tends to fade, replaced by the next nugget. These books endorse a narrative rather than change it.
Political books of the policy variety are like the platforms at political conventions, the “eat your vegetables” menu of discourse. Obama’s campaign manifesto, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, published in 2006 as he contemplated running for president, is now essentially forgotten. Dreams from My Father, written more than a decade earlier, will be read a century from now.
Because presidential memoirs are retrospective, they are intended to focus on legacy and not revision. On the whole, the memoirs of first ladies sell as well or better than those of their husbands.
The enormous sales of “conservative,” “right wing,” or “populist” books has been a formidable marketplace phenomenon since the 1990s. Bill O’Reilly was a consistent #1 bestseller in his rewrites of history. I cannot personally attest to the effect of these books—I did not publish any of them—but I do know that the readership overlaps with Fox News, and we do know how important that has become.
When I think of a recent book that has shaped the national narrative, it is a historical work that has had a significant effect on political debate: These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore, the New Yorker writer and Harvard professor, which traced American history from 1492 until the present day by contrasting our national goals and aspirations with the realities of the past 500 years. For example, “All men are created equal” was our country’s founding doctrine, but it excluded Blacks, immigrants of certain sorts, women, and what the Declaration of Independence referred to as “savages” and are now known as indigenous people. Lepore’s version of history is now more accepted than perhaps ever before. Whether the origin of these United States of America is 1492, 1619, or 1776 has become a major topic of political debate, and Lepore certainly kicked it off.
Now back to money. Lepore’s book was a bestseller, and it is the lure of large sales that continues to open publishers’ wallets, even if it’s not always warranted. An example from my own career is revealing. In 1994, the Republican Party produced a manifesto called “The Contract with America,” under the leadership of Newt Gingrich in his successful effort to take over the House of Representatives from the Democrats in that year’s midterm election. At Random House’s Times Books, where I was the publisher, my colleagues and I recognized that as a public document, it was free for us to reissue the Contract with America as a paperback with a catchy cover. We did, and it became a substantial bestseller.
After the election and before he was sworn in as Speaker, the triumphant Gingrich signed a contract for $4 million with HarperCollins. I was baffled at why very much the same material that had been in our book was now worth millions. David Streitfeld, the Washington Post’s publishing reporter, asked that question on the front page of the paper, and the resulting furor forced Gingrich to give up the advance and agree to receive only the royalties earned on the copies sold—much less than $4 million, I suspect.
I have since actively and without much effect advocated that publishers should not be offering fortunes to politicians as a payday for what after all is work they were elected to do or because they were in the orbit of major political leaders. I also argued that politicians’ books ought to meet the same standards of verisimilitude as the work of responsible journalists and historians.
And I would pledge to the politicians only royalties, say, 15% of the list price for each copy sold, forgoing an advance, as Gingrich was forced to accept. I have made this offer a number of times over the years and can affirm that no one has ever taken me up on it.
On the other hand, I have persuaded, among others, Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader and all-around man about Washington and New York, to accept offers from PublicAffairs of no more than $100,000 and a commitment to the project that would be complete. Those books were bestsellers, too.
These recommendations are no problem for me to make now because I am no longer in the fray, acquiring books, competing in auctions, or having to please proprietors. But I very much enjoyed the fray when I was in it.
Peter Osnos founded PublicAffairs in 1997, where he was publisher and CEO until 2005 and consulting editor through 2020, and is the author of An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen.