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A Predictable Chapter in the Scramble to Capitalize on the Election Hoo-Ha

November 30, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The questions began in the wee hours of morning following Election Day, rising in volume and urgency as the day after turned into the day after that. Across the country, millions suddenly learned how to spell Tallahassee. Phone calls were made, deadlines set, figures agreed upon, press statements issued, and an industry cranked into high gear--Election 2000: The Book Deal.

Even as events in Florida continue to unfold like an overhandled origami swan, at least four books are in the works--with many more likely to follow. Random House has Jeffrey Toobin, author of "A Vast Conspiracy" and "The Run of His Life," on board; Little, Brown has Salon's political analyst Jake Tapper; Basic Books is in the midst of printing Washington Post writer Dana Milbank's campaign chronicle even as he continues to write, and rewrite, his ending; and Putnam announced Tuesday that it had signed novelist and CNN political analyst Jeff Greenfield for its version.

Bookstores had better get shelf space ready for this oeuvre-in-the-making--and fast. Tapper and Milbank's books are due out as close to Inauguration Day as is humanly possible; Greenfield's is planned for May, with Toobin's following in the fall.

The authors and their editors seem unconcerned with media mutterings that the public is nearing saturation with the machinations of the Sunshine State. While people may be sick of the pundits and the lawsuits, the publishing types argue, they are eager for someone to tell them exactly what happened.

"I've done three books about events that people said were overcovered," says Toobin. "And this is the best opportunity yet--everyone I know is so befuddled."

A story of this scope can seem so overwhelming, he says, that writers can get trapped in the details, unable to rise above the minute-by-minute events to see the larger picture. It's important to approach the story as a book, he adds, rather than a magazine article or a series of columns.

"You need to see the general sweep of the story and the effect on characters. I think the most important thing is to tell the story through interesting characters," he says. "You don't have to be the world's greatest journalist to know that, say, Katherine Harris is going to be a pretty interesting character."

If journalism, he says, is the first rough draft of history, then he wants to write the second, more considered, version. "I hope to write the leading contemporary account," he says.

All the players thus far--agents, editors and writers--are keenly aware of the competition. For one thing, as Milbank notes, they're all tripping over each other. "Tallahassee is a cozy little town," he says, "and there we all are, at the same four restaurants."

Given such close quarters, it's not surprising that everyone involved rushes to distinguish his or her project from the rest.

Milbank's editor, Vanessa Mobley, points out that "Smashmouth" has been in the works for more than a year, piggybacking on Milbank's work as a political writer for the Washington Post. (The title refers to the campaign's vitriolic tenor.) "Smashmouth" will be an irreverent campaign book, she says, albeit with a surprise ending--the deadline for the final chapter is Dec. 11. Milbank is lucky that he was "clued into the antics of both campaigns," she says, "because they really prefaced the rancor we're seeing in Florida. . . . This will provide the whole back story."

Although he is not surprised by the acrimony between the two camps, Milbank says there is no way anyone could have foreseen what has happened. "I did predict it would be close," he says. "And while it's gratifying to be right, I had no idea I would be so right."

Tapper, who has also been reporting on the campaign for almost a year, is faced with a deadline similar to that of Milbank, who is a friend. Only Tapper hasn't started writing his book yet, because he's filing every day for Salon.

"But there's a lot more going on down here than you could write about on a daily basis. And there's so much that's been missed," he adds. "The claims that African Americans were kept from voting--that's a story no one has really looked into."

Tapper's Little, Brown editor, Geoff Shandler, says the two had talked about a campaign book earlier this year but decided against it. On Nov. 8, however, Shandler knew the election had entered tome territory. He left a meeting to call Tapper, only to find a message from Tapper's agent.

"It became clear quickly that whoever won, the other side would be furious," Shandler says. "And these feelings will be even stronger several months from now."

Hoping to translate fury into sales, Shandler is giving Tapper until mid-January, after which the production and legal teams will all work overtime to get the book out.

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