THE BLOG

Political Celebrity and Publishing Tastes

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In most cities, a bookstore browser picks up a book and reads the back cover and the jacket flaps. In Washington, D.C., you see browsers who go straight to the index. They're looking for their own names. Biographies and histories are the life eternal for politicians.

But there's nothing eternal about most political books, even the bestsellers.

It's a general rule of publishing that books sell by knocking the sitting president or whoever controls Congress, regardless of party. Before Al Franken took his oath of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and sat quietly at his desk in the Senate chamber, where decorum is enforced like omertà, he published a book about George W. Bush titled Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them).

Somewhere, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina is muttering, How did Franken get away with that?

Angry books sell on emotion. That's why they'll always sell better than cooler, thoughtful books. It's also why they're soon forgotten.

Now that President Obama is in the White House, the bestseller list is dominated by the Obama haters like Michelle Malkin, Mark R. Levin and Bill O'Reilly. Senator Franken should be glad he found a day job.

Left or right, the popularity of these books has no relation to the political legacy of their targets. The first volume of Jacob Weisberg's long-running Bushisms series appeared in early 2001. It didn't shame President Bush into taking his intelligence briefings seriously before 9/11. It didn't dissuade Congress from giving the president his Iraq War. Historians will judge President Bush by his actions, not by his opponents' horror at his gaffes.

Emotions fade over time. When an era moves from the Current Affairs aisle to History, publishers become coldhearted about it. They like winners.

That doesn't mean the winner of a single election or two. It means the people who successfully shape our world.

When President Obama won the 2008 election, and news stories referred to a "New New Deal," editors looked back to FDR's administration and its legacy of bestsellers. If "Change" was truly going to come, profits would follow.

It remains to be seen if anyone in the Obama administration, other than President Obama himself, will match the record of FDR's secretary of the interior, Harold L. Ickes, who published three volumes of memoirs and a separate autobiography. But we already know what happened to FDR's opposition -- the dogs that barked as the parade passed by.

It's a cautionary tale for today's angry opposition.

During Roosevelt's presidency the GOP got all the attention it gets now--for the same reasons, too. It fought Roosevelt every step of the way. It became strident and hateful--maybe more hateful than it is today. Some of its senior members even managed to make race an issue. Roosevelt, from a famous Dutch family of Old New York, was privately called "Joosevelt," and the New Deal was the "Jew Deal."

That era's right wing also had its Malkins and Levins and O'Reillys, its Becks and Limbaughs. Father (Charles) Coughlin, whose pulpit was his radio show, made today's screechers sound like Miss Manners. Fulton Lewis Jr., who presented himself as a fair and balanced reporter, was another radio and newspaper alarmist. For the first few years of the FDR presidency, Fulton's column was called "The Washington Sideshow," which suited a man who was not so much a journalist as a carnival barker.

Three GOP politicians in particular became the public face of this righteous but wrongheaded opposition. Joseph W. Martin Jr. was a representative from Massachusetts and for a time was chairman of the Republican National Committee. Bruce Barton was already nationally famous as an advertising executive and author when he became a member from New York of the House of Representatives. Hamilton Fish was a longtime House member from New York.

These three hated Roosevelt. They thought the New Deal was Communism and "un-American." (Fish chaired "the Fish Committee," an early version of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.) They fought Roosevelt to allow Nazi Germany free rein in Europe.

Some people loved them. They made the mistake of listening to those fans. By the 1940 election, a larger portion of the voters had begun to tire of the hateful and isolationist rhetoric.

That's when Roosevelt delivered a well-timed punch that knocked out all three at once.

In two speeches at Madison Square Garden -- the home arena for two of them -- Roosevelt talked about them, in a singsong rhyme, as "Martin, Barton, and Fish." He made it sound as if he were saying the names from the bedtime lullaby, "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod."

It was a jingle that stuck in voters' heads. Bruce Barton, who was running for a U.S. Senate seat that year, lost the race and left politics. Hamilton Fish hung onto his seat a bit longer but was defeated in the 1944 election and also retired from public office. Roosevelt, of course, was reelected to an unprecedented third term in 1940 and a fourth in 1944. Martin survived but was discredited.

We don't read much about Martin, Barton, and Fish today. When a history professor wrote a book about Barton in 2005, his conservative Chicago publisher admitted on the flap copy, "surprisingly few people know of Bruce Barton today: he is the most celebrated twentieth-century American without a biography." We don't listen to recordings of Father Coughlin or Fulton Lewis, either.

The reason is simple: They were on the wrong side of battles that made America better. That's what matters in the long run. Angry politicians and authors may sell books today, but in time most people will forget why anyone paid attention.

Like Martin, Barton, and Fish, the celebrities of this era's angry opposition are unlikely to be in an index unless they squeak into a footnote.