Years ago, the radio comedy troupe called Firesign Theatre envisioned a Utopian future in which bombers would carry books rather than explosives. An imaginary bombardier in the skit shouts "Books away!" and then reports: "The literature is in a tight pattern."
President Bush might be forgiven for feeling he is living out that fantasy from the receiving end this spring. One potentially damaging book after another has hit the stores and — more importantly — the airwaves.
This week brings the publication of Plan of Attack, the latest product of Bob Woodward's extraordinary personal journalism. With access unlike that of any other journalist in America, Woodward talked with 75 administration officials involved in the decision to make war on Saddam Hussein.
Woodward says these interviews, many of them reported without attribution, convinced him that the president had decided on invading Iraq in January 2003, not in March, as publicly announced. Moreover, Woodward maintains that the president first ordered up a plan of attack on Iraq just 10 weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks (and while U.S. forces were fighting in Afghanistan).
He also alleges that the president improperly used $700 million appropriated for the Afghan war to build landing strips and pipelines in Kuwait for the war on Iraq. And, in a sidebar story that has struck a responsive cord on its own, Woodward tells us the Saudis have promised Bush they will boost their oil production in the fall to lower gasoline prices before the election.
Woodward's book is being excerpted this week in his newspaper, The Washington Post, but it is likely the greatest audience for the book came via a generous segment on CBS 60 Minutes.
This is Woodward's twelfth book and the first in a while to make a crater this wide. Critics will say he stretched his material to make sure he had a hit, a criticism already directed at Richard A. Clarke's blockbuster Against All Enemies, which is still topping the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction.
Clarke is the former chief of counterterrorism for the National Security Agency whose book and testimony dramatically raised the profile of the commission investigating the 9/11 terror attacks. Clarke's essential point was that the Bush team was not interested in Osama bin Laden's threats before 9/11 and, even after the tragedy of the attacks, saw al Qaeda principally as a means to justify invading Iraq.
In some bookstores this weekend, you could find Clarke's book featured alongside Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, written with the help of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, the first member of the Bush cabinet to hit the exit. O'Neill said the president was obsessed with Iraq practically from the outset of his administration. O'Neill had far less impact than Clarke, partly because he sounded cranky and self-serving after being shown the door.
Still, Suskind's O'Neill book ended last week ninth on the Times bestseller list, where it's been for a dozen weeks. That put it right behind two other sympatico works: Craig Unger's House of Bush, House of Saud and John Dean's Worse than Watergate and a few slots ahead of American Dynasty by Kevin Phillips (a onetime White House staffer who has now bashed the Bushes in three different decades). We should also mention that humorist Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them is still at No. 6 after 33 weeks on the list.
Against this array we also find a number of conservatives' books that defend the president and tell a far different story. Karen Hughes' Ten Minutes from Normal, is an autobiography by the president's longtime communications adviser on the Times top 10 list — just one step down from Clarke. And right behind her comes Sean Hannity's "Deliver Us From Evil." Hannity, a talk show host and commentator on Fox News, says defeating liberalism at home is part and parcel of defeating terrorism abroad. A far milder riposte to perceived liberalism in the media comes from John Stossel of ABC, whose book Give Me A Break clocked in at No. 13 this week.
It is as if the campaign has suddenly moved from the hustings to the bookstores.
And the sales rung up by a few of these hot titles suggest the buyers are numerous enough to affect the electoral dynamic this fall.
Most political observers tend to discount book readers as an atypical elite, and it's hard to point to a book that torpedoed a president. Surely writers and publishers have tried, finding dirt to dish or charges to level in every incumbent's re-election year. But most of these books have been sold to the pre-sold: the people who already know they despise the man in the White House and can't wait for him to be gone.
Many books of this kind sprang up in the re-election years of Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. A true bumper crop burst forth in the re-election year of Bill Clinton, including one especially lurid tale by a former member of the White House Secret Service detail. Yet all these incumbents won easily. Will 2004 be any different?
"Books can make a huge difference, and not just as a leading indicator of discontent and searching," says Samuel Popkin, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego whose own books include one called the The Reasoning Voter.
"Books matter even if only the press reads them," Popkin says, adding that non-readers will know a book is out there and look for the administration to respond, as it did to Clarke's assault. Those who don't find the rebuttal convincing will accept at least some of the critique as legitimate.
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice got on TV on Sunday to say Woodward's early-decision charge was "not, not true." Secretary of State Colin Powell, depicted by Woodward as often out of the loop, denied that description Monday. But Woodward's key source for his core report seems to be the president himself, who granted him several hours of face time over two days last December — on the record.
Will the president now take up the cudgels in his own defense?