It never fails. Every few years, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward produces a new book, and within days official Washington has analyzed and argued about it. It becomes part of the conversation, its anecdotes shared at parties, its methods and revelations debated. But has anyone actually read it?
Woodward’s books aren’t the only ones to get this treatment, though he may be the only author whose books are all treated this way. And most writers don’t have the guarantee, as he does, of extensive excerpts in the city’s paper of record. (Whether the excerpts are fully read is uncertain, too.)
Woodward’s books are subject to what can be called the Washington Read—not to be confused with the Index Scan: a glance over the credits to see if you’re mentioned. Washington social doyenne Juleanna Glover, host of countless book parties, says she has often seen guests do Index Scans immediately up on picking up the featured book.
The Washington Read is the phenomenon by which, through a form of intellectual osmosis, a book is absorbed into the Washington atmosphere.
It’s an old story here. In the 1970s, Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism influenced one of the most famous speeches in presidential history, Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” address—so called even though the word “malaise” wasn’t in the speech. According to Kevin Mattson’s “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?”: Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country, Carter aide Pat Caddell “hadn’t read Lasch’s book closely, if at all,” as he was beginning to make the argument for some kind of game-changing speech.
In the spring of 1979, Mattson writes, the Lasch book rode “a wave, becoming the most discussed, if not necessarily read, work of serious nonfiction.” It’s not clear whether Carter read the book, either. Mattson writes that, after meeting with Caddell to discuss the lengthy memo Caddell had written on the subject, “Carter told Caddell that he’d do some speed reading, books by Christopher Lasch and James MacGregor Burns (and even Alexis de Tocqueville’s old classic, Democracy in America).”
Lasch’s book inspired a speech that became the best-remembered one Carter gave. In other words, Carter may be most known for a word he didn’t say in a speech based on a book the speech’s main proponent may not have read.
Another presidential initiative that resulted from a possibly unread book was the War on Poverty. In 1963, White House economic aide Walter Heller gave President John F. Kennedy a copy of Dwight MacDonald’s New Yorker essay about Michael Harrington’s The Other America. That spurred JFK to order his staff to come up with plans for an “attack on poverty.” He never had a chance to act on the plans, but his successor, Lyndon Johnson, ran with the idea and initiated the War on Poverty.
Harrington’s book was later reprinted with the tag line “the book that sparked the War on Poverty,” even though the spark came from a magazine review rather than the book itself. That Kennedy made policy based on a possibly unread book might seem only fair when his own Pulitzer Prize winner, Profiles in Courage, not only often goes unread but may also have been unwritten by its author. Some historians think JFK aide Ted Sorensen penned Profiles.
Around 300,000 books are published annually in the US, but only a few are worthy of unread-bestseller status, such as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which sold 10 million copies. A similar fate is likely to meet Mark Twain’s bestselling 736-page autobiography. In a New York Times interview following his trashing of the memoir in that paper, Garrison Keillor said, “This is going to be one of the great unread classics.”
But neither the Hawking nor the Twain volume was subject to the classic Washington Read, which is usually applied to works of nonfiction that are relevant to current political debate and can be summarized in a pithy way.
According to former White House speechwriter Dan McGroarty, to qualify as a Washington Read, a book not only has to be ambitious; it also needs “to be a book one would feel pressure to have read, and read early.” This need to be ahead of the curve, coupled with demanding jobs that leave little time for reading, pushes people toward the Washington Read.
Here are brief summaries of some of the most famous Washington Reads:
• The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama: Liberal democracy has triumphed. End of story.
• Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Dissension in an administration can make the sum greater than the parts.
• Bush at War by Bob Woodward: Bush more involved than you’d think.
• Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward: Sure takes the new guy a long time to make a decision.
• Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam:The title says it all.
• The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy: Japan is about to eat our lunch. (Oops.)
Of these, Goodwin’s Team of Rivals may be the quintessential book for receiving the Washington Read. The book, which argues Abraham Lincoln outmaneuvered his rivals by placing them in his Cabinet, made the case for creative disagreement in an administration as an antidote to the groupthink David Halberstam lamented in his own much-discussed but often unread The Best and the Brightest.
Goodwin’s book benefited from having two Presidents publicly acknowledge it. George W. Bush read it in his annual reading contest with adviser Karl Rove, but it attained must-discuss status after Barack Obama revealed his fondness for it, at which point anyone looking for a job in the new administration felt the need to be able to discuss it even if he or she hadn’t read it.
While a presidential nod helps, a book doesn’t need it to gain Washington Read status. Sometimes it just catches on in the intellectual community. That was the case with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which criticized the intolerance of professors and students who were taught to be open to all ideas and were therefore closed to any non-relativistic notions. Bloom’s book benefited from the number of well-placed Washingtonians who were onetime students of his, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Frank Fukuyama. Former Bloom student and University of Dallas professor Thomas West noted that Closing was “bought, if not exactly read, by millions.”
A few decades ago, columnist Michael Kinsley conducted an experiment to see whether Washingtonians actually were reading the books they were discussing at parties. He had notes placed in 70 nonfiction books selling well at a DC bookstore, including Deadly Gambits: The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in Nuclear Arms Control by Strobe Talbott and Ben Wattenberg’s The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong.
“The notes had my phone number and offered $5 to anyone who saw them and called me up,” Kinsley wrote. The result? Not a single call. Kinsley’s conclusion: “This tended to confirm my suspicion that people like buying books more than they like reading them.”
When Obama’s Wars, Woodward’s latest book, came out, the frenzy to discuss it was great. The Washington Post’s Al Kamen revealed that even Fidel Castro pushed aides for a translation. But not everyone shared Castro’s need to be in the know. According to Kamen, Woodward sent a signed copy to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who comes off poorly in Woodward’s account. As Kamen described it: “On Friday, Mullen dispatched ‘a senior aide to my house to return the signed copy,’ Woodward told us Tuesday. The aide offered ‘no explanation of why the book was being sent back,’ Woodward said, nor did he ‘claim there were any inaccuracies. The chairman just plans not to read it.’”
Unlike most Washington Readers, at least Mullen was honest.
Former White House aide Tevi Troy is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. This article appears in the July 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.