The most recent additions to the Washington literary scene are Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., who have signed book contracts for advances in the vicinity of $1 million apiece. This no doubt is wonderful news for Kirkpatrick and O'Neill, who have acquired comfortable insulation against the terrors of life away from political office, and for their publishers, who have acquired an excuse for coming to Washington and rubbing shoulders with the mighty. It is most unlikely, though, to be good news for anyone else.
These two fat contracts -- along with the rather more modest $250,000 hauled in by Sam Donaldson of ABC television -- are the latest bouquets handed out by the publishing industry in its continuing romance with official and quasi-official Washington. The publishers kiss and the politicos tell, though as a rule they do not tell very much. But this does not seem to matter to the publishers, who are so infatuated with big-time Washington that their pulses throb and their eyes mist at the mere prospect of adding political notables to their lists, even if those notables have nothing at all to say.
It doesn't matter because when it comes to political books, substance interests publishers about as much as it interests politicians. The book industry doesn't publish these books to contribute to political debate or the historical record; it publishes them to cozy up with people of power and influence, people whose names are thought to carry prestige so as to reflect favorably on the firms that issue their memoirs, policy papers and apologias. Furthermore, it doesn't necessarily publish these books in hopes of making money; when it comes to the ghost-assisted utterances of the political- ly eminent, profit often means less than publicity.
Every once in a while, to be sure, a political memoir actually does accumulate both publicity and profit. Richard Nixon's books have always sold well, because the devotion of his loyalists knows no bounds and because his penchant for public self-psychoanalysis provides a lurid fascination that even his enemies cannot resist. Henry Kissinger's memoirs were also best sellers, presumably because his own constituency is intensely loyal and because readers hoped for juicy tidbits about the Nixon-Kissinger relationship.
They may have hoped for them, but few are likely to have read all the way through the endless pages of bloated Kissingerian prose in order to find them. To the best of my knowledge I am acquainted with only one person who has actually read the Kissinger memoirs all the way through, and that person was paid to review them; many of my friends are ardent readers and many are strongly interested in politics, but not a one of them has confessed to slogging through from first page of Kissinger to last.
This is not merely because Kissinger's memoirs are inexpressibly boring but because it is a cardinal rule of these books that almost nobody reads them. Remember "The Vantage Point," "A Time to Heal" and "Keeping Faith"? Unless you are a political groupie in the terminal stages of bliss-out you most certainly do not. Well, those doorstoppers were the memoirs of Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, respectively, books for which large sums of money were paid, to which small armies of researchers, gofers and factotums applied their most diligent efforts, for which statesmanlike reviews were commissioned and written -- and about which nobody now remembers anything because nobody was foolish enough to read them.
Nor can anyone possibly imagine that anyone except the reviewers ever will read the volumes eventually to be produced, or presided over, by Jeane Kirkpatrick and Tip O'Neill. The Kirkpatrick volume, it can be predicted with considerable assurance, will be a statesmanlike expression of its redoubtable author's many statesmanlike views on high statesmanlike business. It will have a statesmanlike title -- "The Obligations of Power," perhaps, or "In the Center of the Storm," or "Policy and Purpose" -- that will put you to sleep before you make it to the title page, but who cares? Kirkpatrick's book will be a campaign document, designed not to be read but to demonstrate, by the sheer bulk of its existence, its author's fitness for the vice presidency of the United States.
Which makes it easy enough to see why Simon and Schuster threw a fat bundle of money at Kirkpatrick; the prospect of cozying up to a future veep -- a heartbeat away, and all that -- is quite enough to give any publisher the cold sweats. But the Tip O'Neill book is another matter altogether. By the time it appears O'Neill will have long since departed the corridors of power (Hmmm: "The Corridors of Power." Good Washington title, that); outside the Beltway he will be but a mere memory, and not an especially interesting one. As for inside the Beltway, O'Neill will pack about as much clout as a lobbyist for the whale oil industry; maybe they'll let him have a nice room in a House office building for his publication party, but that's about as much as a retired speaker can hope for.
Yet Random House is shelling out more than $1 million for the privilege of publishing O'Neill's memoirs. Does it expect O'Neill to spill the beans, to reveal the hitherto-suppressed secrets about what really goes on in the House of Representatives or about what O'Neill really thinks about Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and other dubious characters he has met? If that's what it expects it is almost certainly deluding itself, for a genuine tell-all book has yet to be written by a Washington politico; O'Neill, who if nothing else knows the laws of politics inside and out, is most unlikely to write the first.
That being the case, it is difficult to imagine precisely what audience is expected to clamor for the memoirs of the most fascinating speaker since Carl Albert. What is easier is to imagine that Random House simply got caught up in the same kind of competitive insanity that inspires baseball owners to heave millions after anything that comes along in spikes. There are only so many ballplayers to go around, and there are only so many politicos. With Kirkpatrick at S & S, Kissinger at Little, Brown, Carter at Houghton Mifflin and Nixon at Warner Books, Random House had to settle for whatever it could get. It got Tip O'Neill; it also got taken for a ride.
But that's Random House's business; it went into the deal with its eyes wide open, and since it's a highly professional publisher it may be able to make a silk purse out of the sow's ear it's just purchased. History, though, suggests otherwise. O'Neill's book -- "Man About the House"? "Inside Tip"? "As I Was Speaking . . . "? -- is bound to go the way of all those other memoirs by marginal political figures whose stories are scarcely as interesting to anyone else as they and their publishers imagine them to be. That way is down, and out to the remainder tables.