“Conservatives in general aren’t readers.”
So says an old friend of mine, and without a hint of dismissiveness or presumption. He’s no liberal. Far from it: For many years he worked for William F. Buckley at the old-canon conservative National Review, and he continues to write and edit books and magazine pieces that are very firmly on the political right.
It may be that Americans of whatever political stripe aren’t readers these days, but the numbers speak to my friend’s point in at least one respect: Books by politicians from the left outsell those from the right by a comfortable margin. Before the current presidential campaign began to heat up, Barack Obama held the enviable position of being the bestselling American politician/writer of the present century, having sold more than 4.5 million copies of his memoir Dreams from My Father; the royalties from it and lesser-selling sequel The Audacity of Hope earned the president some $5 million during his first year in office, while, reports the conservative Washington Times with a puzzling lack of specificity, “The president earned between $1 million and $5 million in royalties in 2010 from the book, ‘Dreams from My Father’…He also pulled in between $100,000 and $1,000,000 from ‘Audacity of Hope.’ ” Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton’s respective memoirs accounted for nearly 3.5 million copies sold, while books by liberal politicians Jimmy Carter and Al Franken have also sold in the millions.
Meanwhile, on the right, Sarah Palin has reportedly sold more than 2.6 million copies of her memoir Going Rogue, though it’s hard to say whether Palin should be counted as a politician in this reckoning. No such inexactitude with George W. Bush, whose memoir Decision Points came out of the gate fast, selling 775,000 copies in its first week on sale late in 2010, slowing down after but still selling very well into 2011.
But Dick Cheney’s long-awaited memoir In My Time came and went. And none of the current slate of Republican presidential candidates has cracked the bestseller lists, at least not with books directly about their politics.
Almost all of them, however, have written at least one book; to do so is very nearly a job requirement. Some of those books have attracted more attention than others. Rick Perry’s Fed Up, for instance, drew considerable notice this summer for his repudiation of later constitutional amendments in favor of the Tenth (“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”). Though conservatives in general are not fans of constitutional tinkering, Perry risks inconsistency by propounding amendments to do such things as allow the Congress to override the Supreme Court, set term limits on judges and mandate spending limits—to say nothing, outside the pages of his book, of demanding that the federal government step in to get him on the primary ballot in Virginia, Tenth Amendment or no.
For his part, Newt Gingrich has written (or co-written) a heap of books—almost as many, in fact, as prolific fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter. Many are historical novels, touching so far on World War II, the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. Others are treatises to do a technocrat proud on how to modernize American and American government for the 21st century (without, one presumes, raising taxes to do it). Perhaps the best of his books is his frank 1998 memoir Lessons Learned the Hard Way, in which he catalogues his successes and failures during his years in Congress, where he memorably served as Speaker of the House in the first flowering of Tea Party–style politicking. Perhaps surprisingly, or perhaps not, one of the takeaway points is this complaint: “The difference between the well-thought-out, unending and no-holds-barred hostility of the left and the acquiescent, friendship-seeking nature of many of my Republican colleagues never ceases to amaze me.” Ironically, of course, liberals have been criticizing President Obama in identical terms for being too collegial with the folks across the aisle.
Though Ron Paul has lately been disavowing words by the thousands that have appeared under his byline, he has also written books with such portentous titles as End the Fed, Liberty Defined and The Revolution: A Manifesto. None has set the charts on fire, but it is almost certainly due to Paul, at least in some measure, that Ayn Rand’s juvenile novels have been selling so well lately. Michelle Bachmann’s Core of Conviction dropped onto the shelves just before Thanksgiving, making a noise largely among those who share her suspicion that sharia law is soon to be imposed on America. Mitt Romney’s No Apology hasn’t been flying off the shelves either, arguing as it does for an American exceptionalism that Gingrich has already covered in his stump-speechifying To Save America. For a time, This Is Herman Cain! moved along briskly, until, that is, Cain decided that indiscretion is most certainly not the better part of valor and exited stage right.
The sales of any and all of these books may pick up, of course, as the race plays out in primaries over the next few months. In the meantime, though bookstore sales were generally up at the end of 2011, the winners were such books as a biography of that well-known liberal Steve Jobs and Haruki Murakami’s reality-bending, subversive novel 1Q84. Admittedly, conservative pundits Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck were on the bestseller lists with historical novels that historians found more fictional than their authors might have intended. But to judge by those lists, the real political winner in 2011 was liberal icon John F. Kennedy, the subject of Stephen King’s top-spot novel 11/22/63, Chris Matthews’s portrait Jack Kennedy and the late Arthur Schlesinger’s Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy.
And where were the conservatives during the JFK revival? To all appearances, doing something other than reading.
All book sales data as of press time may vary.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to and longtime reviewer for Kirkus. His latest book is Aelian's On the Nature of Animals (Trinity University Press).