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White House Confidential

June 04, 2003|Peter Osnos | Peter Osnos is publisher and chief executive of PublicAffairs, a book company in New York.

Haven't heard much from Hillary Rodham Clinton lately? That's about to change. Next week we will be inundated with the former first lady as 1 million copies of her memoir, "Living History," land in stores.

The book probably will be a huge bestseller. The memoirs of Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush all outsold their husbands' presidential reports, because they were juicier.

Readers can choose to buy these books or not. That's the American way. What I wonder about is whether the whole enterprise is getting out of control, equating political experiences with Hollywood-style stardom.

Mrs. Clinton has always been controversial. But the coming blitz is a truly amazing intersection of celebrity and commerce. She'll get an hour with Barbara Walters on Sunday night and the cover of Time magazine and People, all on top of, we're told, an $8-million advance.

President Clinton, whose book comes out in 2005, is getting about $12 million. For Bill and Hillary together, that works out to about $20 million -- about $2.5 million a year for time served in the White House.

Political memoirs are not new. One of the biggest hits of the 19th century was the memoir of Ulysses S. Grant, written with Mark Twain. President Grant was very candid at the time: He needed the money.

So, they say, did the Clintons. They had legal fees to pay and after a career in public service were eager to get, let's be blunt, rich.

They have succeeded, especially when you add in the huge speaking fees for the former president, which are said to be in the range of $100,000 per speech. They do have expenses. Clinton is raising money for his library, and his wife is, after all, a politician with both aspirations and campaign costs.

Publishers know what they are doing when they pay these huge advances to politicians, calculating as best they can how the books will sell. Having published Mrs. Reagan, President Carter and President Clinton (a 1996 campaign essay) myself, I can say the enterprise is thrilling and can be lucrative, if you make the right call. On the other hand, President Reagan's $7-million book was a dud; despite his immense popularity, his book just wasn't interesting because it was strikingly impersonal.

For the books to succeed, presidents and their wives have to deliver. And there is the issue: Does it make sense to turn our presidents (and other major politicians and their families) into commodities? The answer, of course, is that the freedom to sell yourself is part of democracy.

But there are consequences to this kind of self-revelation for hire. We place a price on dignity. One of the most spectacular cases of greed was actually preemptive. Days after Newt Gingrich's triumph in 1994, seizing the House of Representatives for his "contract with America" agenda, he circulated a book proposal. The winning bid was $4 million, before Gingrich was even speaker! As word of the payday spread, so did resistance. Finally Gingrich gave in and settled for receiving only his earnings on the book. But his grasping for gold, I think, was the beginning of his eventual downfall.

Mrs. Clinton is getting paid for services rendered. I thought after she was elected to the Senate that she would choose not to relive the tumult of the White House years, to again go through the Monica Lewinsky ordeal for the titillation of the American public. I expected Hillary Rodham Clinton, like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to turn silence into a huge political and personal asset, more valuable than money. But $8 million is a lot of cash, plainly more useful to Mrs. Clinton than dignity.

Memoirs like Mrs. Ford's, Mrs. Carter's, Mrs. Reagan's and Mrs. Bush's and presumably now Mrs. Clinton's are wonderful to read when they are revealing. But in many more ways than one, there is a price to pay for them.

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