Young David Obst owned ten percent of Watergate. As a Washington literary agent he represented Woodward & Bernstein, John & Mo Dean, David & Julie Eisenhower, Bernard Barker & Eugenio Martinez, and Sam Dash to publishers discovering the commercial potential of Washington books. Today Obst is a New York publisher himself, and in one year he's compiled a publication list that doesn't contain single Washington book.
"The Carter administration seems somewhat like Millard Fillmore's as far as excitement goes," Obst says. "I think the personal stories of the men who are in power would be interesting, but those books are a number of years away. Still, some of my best friends are Washingtonians."
Indeed, when Obst worked Washington in the early 1970s, he'd stride into restaurants frequented by jounalists, his suit rumpled, pockets stuffed with notes and contracts, as reporters harboring book ideas vied for his attention. He was the man with the pipeline to publishers, the man who wove dreams of fortunes made through a shrewd subsidiary rights sale or - the real pot of gold - a movie deal.
(In the interest of full journalistic disclosure, it should be mentioned that among those reporters were many from The Washington Post - including this writer.)
Now 32, Obst heads his own publishing company, David Obst Books, which is a partner to Random House. His wife, Lynda, is a senior editor at The New York Times Magazine. In a couple of weeks they expect to be joined in their posh 65th and Park Avenue apartment by a baby. All of which is a respectable distance from Obst's past as a scruffy radical from Berkeley, a graduate student in Chinese whose fascination with Asia brought him together with an unknown reporter named Seymour Hersh.
In 1969 Hersh, a former Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press, had an exclusive story about some military murders in a hamlet called My Lai. Obst and Hersh ran a modest news bureau called Dispatch News Service in Washington, and one day Obst spent eighteen hours phoning managing editors touting the My Lai massacre story. Hersh went on to become an investigative reporter for The New York Times; Obst never stopped selling.
Now the deals are bigger, involving names like Candice Bergen, who is writing her autobiography for Obst Books. And this fall, when the John Travolta-Lily Tomlin movie "Moment to Moment" is released by Universal, Obst Books will publish the book based on the screenplay. Obst has a similar arrangement to combine screen and literary projects with 20th Century Fox.
A baseball fanatic with a National Lampoon style of personal humor, Obst seems slightly bemused at the six-figure fortune his biggest project, All the Presidents' Men, brought him. But this month's publication of his first book, a compilation of "600 of the most interesting sights in the United States" called Amazing America, marks the beginning of his next test: Can the wunderkind of agenting score big sitting on the other side of the deal?