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    Political books accentuate the negative

    By MARGO HAMMOND

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000


    Polls say that Americans don't like negative politics, but book buyers sure do.

    According to a top 10 list compiled from sales at independent bookstores, most of the top-selling political books sold last month make those television attack ads we've been seeing look like valentines. Some are downright nasty.

    But at least readers -- even those who shop in independent bookstores, places that many consider bastions of liberalism -- are equal opportunity bashers. Their list, distributed by Book Sense, a marketing program organized by the American Booksellers Association for 1,192 independent bookstores, includes polemics from both sides of the political spectrum.

    Heading the field is a book decidedly in the liberal camp: Molly Ivins' scathing assessment of the Governor of Texas and now Republican candidate for President. Talk about castrating. Even her title -- Shrub -- cuts George W. Bush down to size.

    From the conservative side comes an even more obviously partisan title, though: Peggy Noonan's The Case Against Hillary Clinton. No "on the other hand" operating in this vitriolic attack on the First Lady and her philandering husband. The Clintons have made "the American political landscape a lower and lesser thing," concludes the former Reagan speechwriter.

    The nastiest jabs, though, can be found in Joe Eszterhas' American Rhapsody, described on these pages as a "lascivious part-memoir, part-dramatized history on the Monica Lewinsky scandal." Squirting poison ink at both Washington types (he calls Linda Tripp and Lucianna Goldberg the Ratwoman and the Bag Lady of Sleaze) and the Hollywood crowd, screenwriter Eszterhas (he wrote the screenplay for Basic Instinct) suggests that Clinton really belongs among the latter.

    Even the list's purportedly more investigative books on the Clinton sex scandal -- Jeffrey Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President and David B. Schippers' Sell Out: The Inside Story of President Clinton's Impeachment -- are not above character assassination. Linda Tripp must have really hated Clinton to put up with Monica Lewinsky's "inane chatter," opines Toobin. "Lies, cowardice, hypocrisy, cynicism, amorality, butt-covering -- these were the squalid political body parts that, squeezed through the political processor, combined to make a mockery of the impeachment process," concludes Schippers, who isn't afraid to name names. Very few politicians -- Joseph Lieberman is an exception -- come off as anything near reasonable.

    And for just good old-fashioned political carping, there's John Hightower's If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates on the left and The O'Reilly Factor: The Good, Bad and Completely Ridiculous in American Life by Bill O'Reilly on the right. Fox's talk show host calls Clinton a "total waste," while Hightower, a liberal populist, denounces each mainstream campaign as a "money-soaked, corporate-driven, issue-avoiding, made-for-television snoozer, completely unconnected to real life."

    Book Sense's top 10 list of political books does include a serious treatise on globalism (The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman) and a playful look at bourgeois bohemians (Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How It Got There by David Brooks), but the only book directly about politicians that doesn't wallow in negativity is David Gergen's meditation on the nature of the presidency, Eyewitness to Power.

    Gergen, in fact, is the real odd man out here. In his book, he refuses to take potshots at any of the presidents -- Republicans and Democrat alike -- for whom he has worked. He even has nice things to say about Nixon.

    I don't think Gergen will be starting a trend. If anyone thinks the general public's appetite for negativity is sated, just look at whose book has climbed to No. 8 on this week's New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction.

    So much for those polls.

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