It’s the Upcoming Best-Seller That Frightens Democrats

Originally posted: April 16, 2004

By Ken Bode, Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Professor of Journalism at DePauw University and former CNN Senior Political Analyst

Carla Cohen says she has never seen a best-seller list like the one coming out each week in the Sunday New York Times.

Carla should know. She runs the best political bookstore in Washington, D.C., an emporium called Politics and Prose, on upper Connecticut Avenue, a neighborhood populated by lawyers, journalists and civil servants. Politics and Prose is walking distance for Chris Matthews and George Will.

Among the famous authors Carla has hosted for book signings are Kevin Phillips, Michael Moore, Molly Ivins and Al Franken. At the moment, two-thirds of the top-selling nonfiction books are about politics, government and war. “It’s amazing,” she says. “It’s never happened before.”

There are polemics, from the right and the left, like talk-show host Sean Hannity’s “Deliver Us From Evil” and Al Franken’s “Lies (And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them).” But there are also two excellent examinations of the Bush family dynasty and its connections in the Middle East.

Three best sellers about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the state of American intelligence are powered by the public hearings of the 9/11 commission. Cohen says that Richard Clarke’s “Against All Enemies” was the biggest-selling political book Politics and Prose ever had.

That record might not stand long. Bob Woodward’s book about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, “Plan of Attack,” is due on Monday and rising fast on Amazon.com.

Is this just because 2004 is an election year? To test that proposition, I checked the best-seller lists for April of the past three election cycles.

Nothing like it was going on in 1992, where best sellers included books on the Chicago mob and plunder on Wall Street. The only serious political book on the list was Al Gore’s “Earth in the Balance.”

In April 1996, there were two best sellers about the O.J. Simpson trial. The only political entry was Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes A Village.”

Four years ago there was a best seller by Princess Di’s bodyguard, one on happiness by the Dalai Lama and a memoir by the Rock. The one political entry, Peggy Noonan’s “The Case Against Hillary Clinton,” was an effort to derail the first lady’s election to the Senate.

Cohen has an idea how it all began. “Conservatives in the media, starting with Rush Limbaugh, realized they could talk to their congregations with books. And make a killing.”

They were right. For a long time the best-seller lists looked like the cast of commentators and hosts from cable news: Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingram, Bernard Goldberg, Joe Scarborough.

Then the liberals caught on. Moore was the liberal breakthrough. “He developed a following among people who don’t ordinarily read books,” Cohen says.

Then came the Bush presidency. Cohen again: “George W. ran as a unifier. Well he’s done a wonderful job of unifying the Democrats.”

Which brings us to the next book, the one that is giving Democrats the willies.

Bill Clinton’s memoir is due. Actually, it is past due, and the closer we get to the Democratic convention in July the more John Kerry’s strategists worry that a Clinton best seller will draw attention away from the Democratic nominee. It might also remind Republicans why they want to vote for Bush.

Unquestionably, there will be strong interest in Clinton’s book. No one, with the possible exception of Hillary, stirs more emotions, positive and negative, than Bill Clinton. He is the Elvis of the Democratic Party, and coasting on a $10 million advance, this memoir of his life could be a blockbuster. So many adventures, so many victories, so many scandals.

I await this book because I want to hear some things from Clinton. For example, why did your administration build the intelligence “wall” between the CIA and the FBI that we learned about in the 9/11 commission hearings? This wall kept the two agencies from sharing information and probably cost us dearly on 9/11. Was it a product of the scandal called “Filegate?”

And why, with the strongest economic tailwinds in modern memory and a burgeoning surplus, did you never get around to tackling the problems of Social Security and Medicare?

Oh, I remember. He was bedeviled by Ken Starr who was preoccupied with Monica Lewinsky who was obsessed with her “Big Creep Bill,” who got himself impeached.

The Democrats have reason to worry.

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