Scott Meredith, instigator of big book deals, lost no time: He called President Carter the day after the election.
"I told him, 'I voted for you and I know that was the right vote, but what has happened has happened.'" said Meredith, literary agent for Norman Mailer and Carl Sagan, among others. "Then I asked him if he'd like to write about the presidency."
Not the usual apologia, Meredith told him. "A book about the loneliness of the presidency -- how does it feel to wake up every morning and go into that Oval Office?"
If Carter wrote it that way, Meredith said, he could practically guarantee $1 million in total advances from American and foreign publishers. "A clear and easy minimum," Meredith said yesterday. "Maybe $2 to $3 million."
Carter said he'd get back with Meredith. (He hasn't yet -- but Meredith says it's still a little early.)
Likewise, presidential speechwriter Hendrick Hertzberg, fatigued from the campaign, trudged back to his White House office a couple of days after the election to find phone messages from publishers and agents. He didn't answer them. "They're not calling me. They're calling my job," he said with a hint of disgust. They're probably calling everyone in the government manual."
A few weeks later, one publishing-circuit Wunderkind flew into town to encourage presidential press secretary Jody Powell to write his book.
"I'll probably end up talking to anyone who wants to talk to me if I can find the time," said Powell, who is mulling over options including academia, fpeaking and writing. "Mostly I've listened. I don't know much about the publishing business." There are many who would be happy to enlighten him -- and Hamilton Jordan as well.
These are a few of the opening steps in the Memoir Minuet, a post-election tradition danced by publishers and the soon-to-be unemployed government officials. Each step is deftly taken, and both partners are initially coy.
"It's too soon at the moment to discern who will write," said super-agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar -- who nonetheless is working on discerning just who would like to write for him.
The choosing of partners is a well-rehearsed ritual. "The publishing people are the ambulance-chasers of public events," said Hertzberg.
Almost every president since Lincoln has wanted to sell his memoirs; and in recent years the White House staff has been much in demand, often for kiss-and-tell volumnes of inside lore. But this year, the stakes are a little lower.
These are not the heady days of the post-Watergate rush to publish. "I think some publishers got stung on a lot of the Watergate books," said local agent Ann Buchwald. "They were rash, and if you were on the scene at all they offered you perhaps $100,000. A lot of the books didn't make back their advances."
It's not just post-Watergate financial prudence, either. Publishers do not regard the Carter administration as one of the more potentially salable. "There's nobody really towering in this administration -- like a Kissinger," said Meredith.
And finally, there is less enthusiasm generally. "Presidential memoirs are snores," said one publisher.
"They're so stuffy," said Meredith. "Ex-presidents write them like they were carved in marble." Nixon's memoirs sold well, as did Gerald Ford's "A Time to Heal" in hardcover. But the paperback rights to Ford's book reportedly sold for only about $10,000, and sales of Lyndon Johnson's memoirs were considered disappointing.
Nonetheless, various admiministration officials -- despite the standard disclaimer: "I have no definite plans at this point" -- will their notes soon. Among those with the most notes to review may be Stuart Eizenstat, Carter's domestic affairs adviser, whose meticulous note-taking during four years of meetings is legendary. "He has hundreds of legal pads of notes," said one White House staffer. "He's got an invaluable record."
"Let's just say I have a good impression of what went on in the Carter administration," said Eizenstat. "I might do a series of articles process of government. I was a political science major. But doing a book is something that should await the passage of time." But he has not ruled out the project."
One story circulating this week said that Jordan was headed for New York and a tour of publishing houses. But Jordan's office tersely commented, "He is not going to New York and if any book publishers are interested, they'll be coming here."
Patricia Harris, secretary of health and human services, is thinking about writing a book. "At one point, she said she might do a memoirs book/. At another point, she said she might do a management-in-government book," said Bill Wise, assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS. She has a phenomenal memory."
Secretary of State Edmund Muskie is keeping his options open. "He doesn't consider a book in his immediate plans," said one State Department source. "But he has taken careful notes and kept a diary, so that when the time arises, he'll be poised." Muskie could not be reached for comment.
Patricia Derian, assistant secretary of state for human rights and refugee affairs, has thought about writing a book. "Maybe," she said. "I think it might n ot be a bad idea. I'd probably write about human rights and the future. I wouldn't be talking to people until after I'm not doing this job."
Of course, Zbigniew Brzezinski, assistant to the president for National Security Affairs, has been approached by several agents, but has not signed up. "He said he'd do some writing and continue to speak out on public policy matters," said Alfred Friendly Jr., associate press secretary for the National Security Council. "He said, 'I've written books before and i may writer again.'"
And Ann Buckwald has talked to Mary Hoyt, Rosalynn Carter's press secretary, about writing a book. "I have two book ideas [for Hoyt] that publishers in New York are instigating," Buckwald said. "She's a very good writer." But Hoyt said, "I don't plan at this point to write about my last four years in the White House. That would be very boring. White House books get remaindered very quickly."
Meanwhile, the Memoir Minuet goes on. Some agents prefer not to dance. "We don't go out and pursue people," said New York agent Morton Janklow. "It's not our style."
"That means he hasn't gotten anyone," said another agent.