Book Biz Hops in Bed With That Woman, Ms. Lewinsky

St. Martin’s Press publicity director John Murphy was talking on the telephone in his 15th-floor office in the Flatiron Building when he interrupted the conversation to exclaim, “Wow! There’s this B-52 over the Hudson! A huge military plane!” He paused. “Maybe Monica’s coming in to see me.”

He was referring, of course, to Monica Lewinsky, whose story St. Martin’s hopes to publish shortly after Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial comes to a close; the exact publication date is contingent upon getting the go-ahead from Kenneth Starr, who has Ms. Lewinsky in a cone of silence. Mr. Murphy said he was expecting the whole manuscript, penned by British royal biographer Andrew Morton, author of Diana: Her True Story , any day now.

“Now, in Monica’s Story ,” reads the promotional text, “Andrew Morton can reveal the real Monica Lewinsky behind the sordid headlines.” The first printing will be between 250,000 and 400,000 copies, and orders are still coming in. Harper Collins is planning an audio version.

The book, which St. Martin’s signed for $625,000 in November 1998, is mainstream publishing’s first frottage with the Lewinsky scandal. “She’s regarded as a serious figure,” said another publisher. “It has ceased being a Paula Jones book. It’s perceived as a serious book of our time.”

And it will be getting a healthy push from the TV interview Barbara Walters has yet to conduct with Ms. Lewinsky. It is likely Ms. Walters’ interview, which will happen once Mr. Starr gives the O.K., will heighten desire for more details of Ms. Lewinsky’s story. Though it could be a ways off. “We want to do it as soon as possible,” said ABC spokesman Eileen Murphy. “We’re waiting for word from Monica. It could come tomorrow, it could come six months from now.”

But TV interviews, however memorable, vanish into the ether, while serious books, as vessels of history, help people make sense of national tragedy, or judge a President. During Watergate, books written by practically every player in the scandal filled in the blanks. Storytellers emerged, whether it was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein or Judge John J. Sirica. The scandal created a bulging shelf of books and resuscitated a publishing house, as moribund Simon & Schuster rode the Woodward-Bernstein team to fame and fortune. But this time around, the scandal has all the qualities of a national farce, and one way to tell is by watching the way the publishing industry is throwing around large amounts of money to prove that Bill and Monica had a meaningful relationship.

Whether we learn anything new about that relationship from Monica’s Story will depend in large part upon who’s telling it. As The Observer reported, a New York publisher who met with Ms. Lewinsky and Mr. Morton last fall was struck by how highly Ms. Lewinsky still regarded the President, lessening the chance that her book would offer anything other than platitudes. But Mr. Morton presented Monica as an “American-style Diana” who would capture the hearts of the reading public.

In any case, if one can judge a book by its cover, then the Monica who emerges in Monica’s Story will be a far cry from the unstable misfit of the best-selling Starr report, well over a million copies of which were printed by three publishers. Certainly, the book’s jacket–which shows Ms. Lewinsky as dewy ingenue–is telegraphing a PG-rated Monica, no longer the vamp who appeared behind fuchsia feathers in Vanity Fair. Then the photographer was the erotically inclined Herb Ritts. This time, it’s Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who, as he put it, takes pictures that “tell you a lot about the person and at the same time are very elegant, and positive. Bring out the best in people.” From the looks of it, he did this to Ms. Lewinsky, whom he photographed in his East Village studio in December.

If Monica’s Story makes the best seller list, that doesn’t necessarily mean the scandal has literary coattails. One need only look at the books inspired by the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the ones that didn’t become best sellers–Paula Barbieri’s The Other Woman: My Years With O.J. Simpson and its $3 million advance from Little, Brown & Company comes to mind–to be aware of how quickly readers’ appetites for scandal can be filled. Some in the industry won’t even go on the record about the Clinton scandal. One publisher, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “There’s something embarrassing and ludicrous about Clinton’s situation. It’s not something that brings out the publisher in you. It has a bad odor. You really want to take it to the dump and burn it.”

And technology, with the Internet and cable TV, has shortened the gestation period for weighty pronouncements. “I do not think there will be a defining book here,” said Neal Gabler, author of Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality . “I think there’s been a defining media –MSNBC, CNBC, Fox News Channel. It’s not owned by publishing the way that Watergate was.”

White House: ‘Remainders’

Still, publishers are taking their chances. The next big book to hit stores after Monica’s Story will be All Too Human: A Political Education , by former White House adviser George Stephanopoulos. Little Brown paid Mr. Stephanopoulos, now a political analyst at ABC, almost $3 million to tell his tale, which will be goosed along by a Newsweek excerpt. When asked if Mr. Clinton will like or loathe the book, Mr. Stephanopoulos replied, “I’ll let the book speak for itself.”

Sarah Crichton, publisher of Little Brown, compared it to Mr. Woodward’s and Mr. Bernstein’s The Final Days , which chronicled the end of the Nixon Administration. “George Stephanopoulos doesn’t have Clinton talking to walls, but there is a rich sense of who the players were, how decisions were made, and why decisions were made.” Yet even Laurence Kirshbaum, chairman of Time Warner Trade Publishing, which owns Little Brown, admits American citizens may have already had enough. “Sixty to 90 days from now, this subject could be a big yawn,” he said. To make sure Mr. Stephanopoulos’ book comes out before all the scandal dust clears, Little Brown has pushed All Too Human ‘s first printing of 300,000 copies up to March 11 from its original publishing date in April.

Which would put the book on shelves at least several weeks before Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff’s book, Uncovering Clinton, planned for April. Last November, Mr. Isikoff said, he took an official leave from Newsweek to turn his attention to the book for which he received approximately a half-million-dollar advance from Crown. He said his book will have “new stuff that couldn’t be used for a variety of reasons that will become clear when you read the book.” Was he tempted to hold back material from Newsweek to save for the book? “No, no, no,” he said. “We were very clear about that. I had many conversations with [then-Washington bureau chief] Ann McDaniel about that.” Uncovering Clinton , claims the Crown catalogue, “is the most remarkable case of journalistic detective work to come along since the days of Woodward and Bernstein.”

So far, the only O.J. Simpson chronicler to join the Lewinsky crowd is New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin ( The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson ), whom Random House’s trade division recently signed to write A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President . And then there’s To the Point of Knives: The Triumph and Tragedy of Kenneth Starr by Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt and Time magazine correspondent Michael Weisskopf. Harper Collins executive editor David Hirshey recently gave the pair $350,000. Ms. Schmidt, who was recently nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, holds the distinction of being targeted last year by the Clinton Administration for being unfriendly to the President’s interests.

“They’re all going to end up as remainders,” said one White House official, about the forthcoming books. “We’ve known almost all the details of this story since the hearings began, so the last six months have been like chewing on the same piece of gum–the flavor’s all gone.”

But it seems unlikely that such a highly competitive media scrum won’t yield at least one or two new bits of information.

“It’s not exactly a situation that screams out for a book, at least in terms of a crass commercial calculation,” said Jonathan Schell, who wrote about Watergate for The New Yorker and who has been covering the impeachment proceedings for The Nation . “But a book that simply told this whole story and all its details–not a quickie, a slowie, the way it should be done, whether we speak of sex or books–would be an incredibly interesting thing. Because it is an astounding tale in its totality, in the sense that nobody would’ve dreamed it before it began.”

The Brits are also weighing in. In April, Verso will publish No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulation of William Jefferson Clinton, by Christopher Hitchens. Verso will also release The Joy of Sex: Bill Clinton and the Conquest of Puritanism , by Alexander Cockburn in May.

The story won’t stop there: This fall, St. Martin’s will publish The Hunting of the President: The 10-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton , by New York Observer columnist Joe Conason and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons. St. Martin’s press materials say the book “may well be the All the President’s Men of this political drama.”

And it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to imagine others peripheral to the current drama who might just call an agent when things settle down. First brother Roger Clinton would be a natural as Bill’s Boswell. Linda Tripp, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Betty Currie would seem to be likely entrants, as would any of the assorted F.O.B.’s, like Webster Hubbell and Susan McDougal. And what of Mr. Starr’s minions, or Janet Reno’s?

Then there are those deals which are already percolating. Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is reportedly negotiating with Simon & Schuster. Presidential friend and testifier Vernon Jordan is particularly fortunate: His agent, Mort Janklow, had been shopping a Jordan memoir way back in November 1997, before the scandal broke, and again last summer, but didn’t find any takers. Now Mr. Janklow will certainly have less trouble finding a buyer at a price that sources say is well over $750,000. Mr. Jordan will be working with a co-author, New York Law School professor Annette Gordon-Reed.

“I could imagine a couple of books really selling because they’re full of salacious details,” said Mark Crispin Miller, a media studies professor at New York University. “I could imagine Monica’s book selling. I could imagine Linda Tripp’s book selling.” But as for a new category, he wasn’t so sure. “This whole scandal has to do with private morality, which is a sphere that’s already fertile ground for the publishing industry. There are already countless books on sex addiction, making marriage work, adultery.”

It’s difficult to believe the Lewinsky affair will shape our view of ourselves the way Watergate did. Which is why the idea of Bill Clinton being written about several years from now is almost laughable. Richard Nixon still moves books: The past two years have seen two books by Monica Crowley, his last personal assistant, as well as Stanley Kutler’s Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes , Leonard Garment’s Crazy Rhythm: My Journey from Brooklyn, Jazz, and Wall Street to Nixon’s White House, Watergate, and Beyond… , and Ken Gormley’s Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation .

But that doesn’t mean the next two or three years won’t see a mad rush of Clintonography. A glance at the explosion of scribblers among Nixon’s crowd reminds one of how seductive hindsight can be. Practically every player in the earlier scandal wrote a book, in some cases two or three: Spiro Agnew, Charles Colson, Sam Dash, John Dean, John Ehrlichman, Sam Ervin, H.R. Haldeman, Leon Jaworski, G. Gordon Liddy, Jeb Magruder, James McCord, Elliot Richardson, John Sirica, Hugh Sloan, Maurice Stans, Peter Rodino. And then there were the books by outsiders: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Robert Sam Anson, J. Anthony Lukas, Frank Mankiewicz, Stanley Kutler, Theodore H. White, Barry Sussman.

Where the reigning mood of the Clinton scandal is nausea, Watergate’s was awe. “The difference between now and Watergate as I remember it is that this time around, there is much more fascination with the two people principally involved. With Watergate, the fascination was with what happened,” said Richard Reeves, the John Kennedy biographer who is working on one about Nixon. “There was a great mystery and curiosity, so you had one book after another. There was not interest in these people as people –there was interest in what they knew . Now people aren’t much concerned with what [Clinton adviser] Paul Begala knows.”

“In those days, there was wonderment,” said Jonathan Segal, a senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf. “The White House transcripts were a way of looking into the White House we never had–pure unalloyed wonderment. It changed forever our view of the highest office. It seems we’re in an era now where Presidents are no longer the most interesting people. Bill Clinton will certainly write his memoirs, but the most interesting story on a human level is Hillary’s.”

As if proving this theory, Knopf recently advanced some three-quarters of a million dollars to Carl Bernstein for a biography of the First Lady; Mr. Bernstein emphatically told The Observer that his book is “by no means about the scandal.”

The Next ‘Woodstein’

While the press has barely taken a breath between Bill-Monica bites, the public has shown itself to be profoundly sated.

“This is the most self-reflexive scandal that one can imagine,” said Mr. Gabler. “This scandal has been conformed along the lines of All the President’s Men , and the press had a vested interest in that confirmation, because they are challenging one another, jockeying for the position of ‘Woodstein.'”

But ‘Woodstein’ or no, the public, not the press, are the ones who frequent the superstores. “This scandal is remarkably different,” said Barnes & Noble newsletter editor Billy MacKay, who has worked at the store in various capacities since 1968. “In Watergate, we all had our favorite people: If one didn’t cotton to Martha Mitchell calling up reporters at midnight while tipsy, one might become riveted by the steely locutions of her husband and his intensely loyal staff. In Sexgate the choices are much slimmer. [The characters] seldom transcend their cubicles.” Mr. MacKay said he remembered how, during Watergate, Barnes & Noble’s flagship store at 105 Fifth Avenue would “receive requests for books that had not reach even the contract stage.”

Archibald Cox, a special prosecutor during Watergate, is one of the only major players in the Watergate affair who did not write a book. Now approaching 90, Mr. Cox said he has been approached by publishers over the years. “The only book I considered was some kind of autobiography,” he said. “I gave it a try for while, not with Watergate particularly, but I found I didn’t enjoy doing it, so I stopped. Just didn’t enjoy it.”

Alice Mayhew, the Simon & Schuster editor who edited All the President’s Men , said that the temperature in the industry on such books is decidedly tepid. “I think people are terminally bored.”

But blasé appearances could be deceiving, at least according to Mr. Kutler, author of The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon, and editor of Abuse of Power . Asked what he thinks is behind the lack of interest, Mr. Kutler said, “Well, the bottom line is the bottom line. And also, they’re afraid, politically. They’re afraid commercially. It would not be fashionable. No one wants to publish a book that says, ‘This whole process has been a joke and a fraud, designed above all to humiliate the President.’ Who’s doing the book that says Henry Hyde is a sanctimonious, driven hypocrite? Who’s going to take on the media?”

Not surprisingly, literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, who began her agenting career with the sale of Victor Lasky’s It Didn’t Start With Watergate, in 1977, has been fielding lots of calls from would-be Clinton bashers. Reached at home on a recent Friday evening, she said, “B.M.–before Monica–publishers didn’t want any Clinton books because they liked him. He was one of theirs. You couldn’t sell any anti-Clinton books to save you.” Now, Ms. Goldberg said, “I’ve been getting inundated with proposals from the far-right, whack-job kind of things.” She heard her apartment buzzer sound. “Hold on–Matt Drudge coming up.” Soon Mr. Drudge picked up the other phone. “My stuff doesn’t translate well between covers,” he said. “It molds out pretty quick. I’m talking to Hollywood.”

“He’s just taking meetings,” croaked Ms. Goldberg.

So what kind of book do American readers need now? “We need clarity and perspective,” said agent Lynn Nesbit, who is representing Gail Sheehy on a Hillary Clinton book.

“I think an enterprising publisher would wisely choose books that aren’t personality-driven–works by journalists, historians–that do reporting and interpretation and hold up for long time to come,” said agent Rafe Sagalyn, who represents David Maraniss, author of First in His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton . “It’s a situation that may call for someone to do for this what Mailer did with The Armies of the Night , a really literary historical perspective.”

But Mr. Mailer is not writing a book about the scandal. “Books are like marriages,” said Mr. Mailer. “You don’t jump every time you see a pretty face.”

“The real problem is that there aren’t any heroes in this story,” said Ashbel Green, a senior editor at Knopf. “But who knows what’s in the head of Phil Roth or Ed Doctorow? I’d be interested in hearing their take. It’s potentially more interesting than whatever the Woodward-and-Bernsteins would have to offer.”

It’s ironic that, while the books that came out of Watergate invented the notion of the crusading reporter in the American public’s mind, and added a certain gravitas to a national crisis, the first books emerging from the Clinton scandals only seem to hollow out the political moment. Indeed, with the news media strip-mining every last detail of the Clinton scandal, it’s possible the richest story to come out of the publishing industry this year will be the one it’s telling itself.

“Here’s an irony for you,” said Jonathan Schell. “The whole darn thing is a book deal. It all begins with Linda Tripp wanting a book deal with Lucianne Goldberg. After all, we had the Presidential candidacy–or pseudo-candidacy–of Colin Powell as book deal. The whole thing has been infected with book deals from the start.”

You can reach the Publishing column at emanus@observer.com.