A Further Perspective

The Michael Steele/Haley Barbour Book Flap

A dust-up over a common Washington practice.

By 1.14.10

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You can't make this stuff up.

It seems my post on the Michael Steele book kerfuffle has now become involved in a spat over at the RNC. The Washington Times has a story filed by the legendarily plugged-in Timesman Ralph Hallow.

The blog post noted -- correctly - that Mr. Steele is not the first GOP chairman to write a book while serving as chairman of the RNC. Then-RNC chair Haley Barbour wrote Agenda for America during his tenure, the book published in 1996.

This fact -- and it is a fact -- has been correctly cited by Michigan RNC member Holly Hughes in a defense of Mr. Steele. She has been challenged by New Jersey's longtime RNC member Dave Norcross who says this:

"National Committeewoman Hughes closes her e-mail to the membership by writing, 'I think [Mr. Lord] has got it right.' Unfortunately 'this guy' most assuredly does not have it right," Mr. Norcross said. "I was general counsel to the RNC during Gov. Barbour's chairmanship. The book in question was written for the National Policy Forum and all sales proceeds went to the National Policy Forum."

Norcross adds:

"This controversy over book tours and speeches has now led to the spreading of disinformation about one of our great chairmen, a very successful governor and current outstanding chairman of the RGA."

With all due respect to Dave Norcross (whom I met years ago as a young aide to Pennsylvania's RNC member and ex-Reagan Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis), I got it exactly right. I was a member of the National Policy Forum which he cites, and Haley Barbour, a former White House colleague, boss and friend is not in the least being disparaged here.

The entire premise of the "National Policy Forum" would have gone exactly nowhere were it not pinned to then Chairman Barbour. Indeed, the jacket of the book proclaims proudly that the entire existence of the NPF was "masterminded by Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour." In typical Barbour style this book was an energetic reach out to those "outside the beltway" (as the book puts it.) It also, not coincidentally, publicized Haley Barbour. To which the appropriate answer is: so what?

Anyone who has spent a nano-second in Washington understands that writing books has long been used by office-holding politicians of both parties to make a point, elevate their profile and, yes indeed, earn money. As someone who has worked in Washington on Capitol Hill as well as in the Reagan White House -- and is now a writer/author living outside the Beltway -- I can say the attack here on Mr. Steele (of whom, as noted, I have been a critic on occasion) is indeed "bogus." The argument is not only disingenuous, how could it possibly be anything else than bogus considering the history of Washington and political book writing -- beginning with Republicans?

Let's start with the book issue. Here are a few titles by sitting Republican officeholders Mr. Norcross may have forgotten.

The Rough Riders -- by Governor Theodore Roosevelt, 1899.
The Conscience of a Conservative
-- by Senator Barry Goldwater, 1960.
An American Renaissance
-- by Congressman Jack Kemp, 1979.
Believing in America
-- by Congressman Bud Shuster, 1983.
The American Idea
-- by Congressman Jack Kemp, 1984.
Window of Opportunity
-- by Congressman Newt Gingrich, 1984.
Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation
-- by President Ronald Reagan,1984.
Looking Forward
-- by Vice President George Bush, 1987.
Republican Almanac
-- Republican National Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf, 1987.
To Renew America
-- by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich,1994.
A Matter of Interpretation
-- by Justice Antonin Scalia, 1998.
A Charge to Keep
-- Governor George W. Bush, 1999.
Faith of Our Fathers
-- by Senator John McCain, 1999.
The Supreme Court
-- by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 2001
Square Peg
-- by Senator Orrin Hatch, 2002.
We Will Prevail
-- President George W. Bush, 2003.
It Takes a Family
-- by Senator Rick Santorum, 2005.
My Grandfather's Son -- by Justice Clarence Thomas, 2007.

One could go on here -- and on and on -- with books by sitting Republican officeholders. Many of these are listed on Amazon.com. Let's not forget that world beater, Journey to the Far Pacific, by New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey back there in 1952.

This doesn't even touch the books pushed out by office-holding Democrats or Republicans-turned-Democrats over the years. The briefest of lists would include:

Profiles in Courage -- by Senator John F. Kennedy, 1955.
The Strategy of Peace
-- Senator John F. Kennedy,1960.
To Turn the Tide
-- President John F. Kennedy, 1962.
The Job of the Congressman
-- by Congressman Morris K. Udall, 1966.
To Seek a Newer World
-- by Senator Robert F. Kennedy, 1967.
Thirteen Days
-- by Senator Robert F. Kennedy, 1968.
O Congress
-- by Congressman Donald Riegle, 1972.
A New Democracy
-- by Senator Gary Hart, 1983.
Passion for Truth
-- by Senator Arlen Specter, 2000.
The Audacity of Hope
-- by Senator Barack Obama, 2006.
Promises to Keep --
by Senator Joseph Biden, 2007.
Never Give In
-- by Senator Arlen Specter, 2008.
True Compass
-- by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, 2009.

Book writing by sitting politicians in the modern era -- and yes, earning money from them while in office -- was effectively kicked off by a Democrat, then-Senator John F. Kennedy. Profiles in Courage, written in 1955, won the Pulitzer Prize. (It also generated an endless controversy over a charge of whether JFK or aide Ted Sorensen wrote the book, although the charge was later retracted by columnist Drew Pearson. Which is separate from the gossip of the day about how father Ambassador Joe Kennedy campaigned for his son to get the prize.) But for better or worse, JFK introduced the modern notion of the office-holder as author on a new scale that went far beyond the days when genuine writers like Theodore Roosevelt or, in England, Member of Parliament Winston Churchill routinely wrote stunning histories and biographies while simultaneously holding public office. And again -- profiting from them.

It would seem, under the circumstances, that throwing a flag of some kind on Michael Steele when all manner of Republican office-holding stars past and present have done precisely the same thing is, to put it mildly, dubious.

But there is something else afloat here in the Steele controversy, a something else that no one seems to want to verbalize. 

Mr. Steele is being charged with somehow promoting himself for his personal gain by writing his book and accepting speaking engagements. In other words, capitalizing on his role as RNC chairman.

This is a can of worms -- a real can of worms -- for Steele opponents to be opening. Why? It raises the obvious question of how all of Washington operates across the board. To accuse Steele, or anyone else, of "profiting" from his position is preposterous in a city in which -- quite aside from office-holding book-writing politicians -- entire law practices, lobbying and public relations firms not to mention media companies are filled to bulging with people profiting from their government service.

The hard truth here is that there is no one who holds these positions who does not benefit or profit in some sense by their very participation. Which is why Washington is one very competitive town. Those who hold these jobs may get money, they may get influence or they may get publicity -- but most assuredly profit they do. On the job. It is no slur on my old friend Haley Barbour to say that he benefited enormously by being Chairman of the RNC, paid up front in television and other media coverage, a book with his name on it and expense paid tours around America to campaign for Republicans. This contributed to a successful lobbying firm and later election as governor of Mississippi -- where he has done such an unsurprisingly good job he is on a lot of short lists for 2012. And should be.

Senator Obama's book, written as Senator from Illinois, has helped make him both president and rich.

And, since Dave Norcross brought the subject of profiting from service as Republican National Chairman, it would be interesting to hear an explanation of the advertising for his services at the Philadelphia law and lobbying firm of Blank Rome. Mr. Norcross is the proverbial nice guy. He surely doesn't remember meeting me years ago, but I remember him. And since he chose to raise the subject he himself is a perfect example of the point at hand. Click on his bio at Blank Rome and you find this sentence that explains his qualifications:

He currently serves as a member of the Executive Committee of the Republican National Committee and is the chairman of the RNC's Standing Committee on Rules.

Which is to say, that Mr. Norcross uses his position as a member of the RNC's Executive Committee and his membership on the RNC to help sell his legal and/or lobbying wares -- for, one presumes, a profit. Michael has his book and speaking engagements, Mr. Norcross has his practice. The point?

Again. Let's be clear. No one here -- not Barbour nor Steele nor Norcross nor any of the other gazillion denizens of the American political scene -- has done the slightest thing wrong. This is in fact the way American politics works, for better or worse. It is trite to say "everybody does it" but in fact everybody in Washington does do it. This is what the city does. One could make the point here that "everybody does it" because when the political object is to keep expanding the size of government to the point that it overwhelms the average American, lobbyists and lawyers with connections in Washington are needed out of sheer self-defense. And there are always those with a writing bent who wish to write a book about the whole circus. There is a reason there is no recession in the nation's capital. "Reform" politicians will come and go, but, since this kind of activity is an exercise of constitutional rights (free speech, petitioning the government etc.), this will never change.

Which is why beating Mr. Steele over the head about books and speeches is not only hypocritical but futile. What purest of souls would replace Mr. Steele? Someone who would instantly be benefiting from enormous publicity -- with the inevitable dollars to come into anything he or she touches in their private life, be it a book, a law firm, a lobby firm, a private business.

Is there room here for Mr. Steele to get his act together a bit better? Sure. He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who rejects good, well-intended and constructive advice. The job of party chairman has been held by real stars -- including but not limited to Haley Barbour, Lee Atwater, Bill Brock, Ray Bliss (1965-1969) and Mark Hanna (1896-1904). Others have vanished into the ether. The job is challenging and requires some variation on a specific mix of skills that range from fundraising to candidate recruitment to the technicals of getting out the vote and performing well on television.

But with the 2010 election underway -- a critical election if ever there were one to be had -- the last thing party operatives should be doing is shooting arrows in the lead man's back over a book. To do so is to effectively say that every Republican office-holder who wrote a book while in office and made money from it is somehow corrupt. This is little short of crazy, particularly in a society where books are a now standard fare of communication in political life. Not even the Democrats will make this charge against Steele because, of course, they do the same thing.

Is Michael Steele a problem because he wrote a book that earns him money while serving as RNC chairman? Not by any rational standard.

Why?

Because when it comes to sitting office holders in Washington and American politics writing books and earning money from them while still on the job, you might say:

It Takes a Village. By First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, 1996.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.