It is axiomatic in the publishing industry that books on contemporary politics don't sell. Other than the occasional presidential autobiography -- such as Ulysses S. Grant's "Personal Memoirs," which appeared in 1885 and earned a stunning $500,000, or Richard Nixon's memoir "RN," which became a brief bestseller in 1978 -- the genre is a lackluster one. But in the supercharged atmosphere of this year's bitter election campaign, with American soldiers fighting a controversial war in a faraway country, the remarkable happened. Books about politics jumped to the top of the bestseller lists in staggering numbers.
On the face of it, this was a positive development -- except that most were not written by authors with much claim to expertise. Many of the biggest sellers were from outraged entertainers and professional screamers. Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Michael Moore, Jon Stewart. Each had a few good one-liners or a compelling rant, but none offered much in the way of literary merit or political sophistication.
Then there was the to-be-expected rush of quickies from presidential candidates. These, of course, will be soon, and rightly, forgotten. This year's "You Have the Power," (Simon & Schuster: 208 pp., $19.95) by Howard Dean -- remember him? -- will end up remaindered along with 2003's "An Amazing Adventure," co-written by Sen. Joe Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah Lieberman (Simon & Schuster: 288 pp., $25). As for "Our Plan for America," by Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards (PublicAffairs: 304 pp., $12.95 paper), it is already being offered on EBay for $4.99.
Pundits and prognosticators sought to cash in on the election as well, collecting substantial advances for books that seem strangely interchangeable. I like Jack Germond as much as the next guy, but I can't see shelling out $24.95 for his memoir, "Fat Man Fed Up" (Random House: 240 pp., $24.95).
So what were the significant political books this year?
Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas" (Metropolitan Books: 320 pp., $24) goes beyond the tired red state / blue state thing in an effort to understand how conservatives "won the heart of America." Frank, a native of Kansas, contends that "the people in Wichita and Shawnee and Garden City should today be flocking to the party of Roosevelt, not deserting it." Why, he wants to know, does Middle America vote against its own economic interests? What happened to the progressivism that once ruled Kansas? The issue facing the Democrats, he argues, is not moral values but how to use old-fashioned economic issues to take the country back from the Christian right.
Ron Suskind's "The Price of Loyalty" (Simon & Schuster: 348 pp., $26) remains with you not so much for any particularly damning revelations as for its disturbing portrait, based mostly on the recollections of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, of a president who is isolated, doesn't read, lives in an echo chamber and is utterly without curiosity.
Bill Clinton's memoir, "My Life," (Alfred A. Knopf: 1,008 pp., $35) is, well, the Clinton memoir. More than you want to hear on some subjects, less than enough on some juicy ones. But rarely in recent memory has there been a politician with a story like his, and it comes through on the page.
A handful of books this year were important but, in one way or another, disappointing. Bob Woodward's portrait of the administration in "Plan of Attack" (Simon & Schuster: 480 pp., $28) was instructive and, for the most part, informative -- but ultimately offered too much gossip, too little sourcing. Richard Clarke's "Against All Enemies" (The Free Press: 320 pp., $27) was a bombshell -- offering critically important revelations for the campaign about President Bush's response to Osama Bin Laden -- but is anyone going to want to read it next year? I don't think so. Seymour Hersh may have done the best reporting of the year when he broke the Abu Ghraib story, but frankly, I'd rather read it in the New Yorker than in the dense book form of "Chain of Command" (HarperCollins: 416 pp., $25.95).
For the best political writing, unmuddied by spin, by ideology, by anger, by self-aggrandizement, your best bet is to go back to a 200-year-old subject. "Alexander Hamilton," by Ron Chernow (Penguin: 600 pp., $35), offers a deep, textured look at a man best known today for the duel that killed him and for the fact that his picture is on the $10 bill. Chernow makes an elegant case that although Hamilton never became president and his story was manipulated after his death by his enemies (including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe), his role was as significant as theirs in the early years of the country and his legacy every bit as important. *