11.12.09

The Missing Pages in Palin's Book

The Alaska governor’s new memoir will have no index, robbing D.C. insiders of their favorite game: seeing their names in print. Samuel P. Jacobs on the death of the “Washington Read.”

Sarah Palin’s book hits stores on Tuesday. For Washington’s navel-gazing elite, particularly its Republican branch, the publishing event of the season carries with it a crucial question: Does the former vice-presidential candidate mention you?

It used to be that there was an easy way to find out. All the big names in town would do it: stop by the Georgetown Barnes & Noble or Politics and Prose, stare admiringly at the cover, then furtively flip to the index to make sure your place in the power structure was secure.

But, according to a source at the book’s publishing house, Palin has a surprise for Washington’s self-important set: Going Rogue has no index.

“I suppose we’ll actually have to read the whole book from now on,” said former Clinton adviser and CNN commentator Paul Begala. “Heaven forbid.”

She’s not alone. Two weeks earlier, the other big political book of the season, David Plouffe’s The Audacity to Win, landed on shelves. It, too, has no index. Plouffe and Palin may hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum. But they’re engaged in an unwitting conspiracy to kill one of D.C.’s favorite pastimes. We are witnessing the death of the “Washington Read.”

“I suppose we’ll actually have to read the whole book from now on,” said former Clinton adviser and CNN commentator Paul Begala. “Heaven forbid.”

What is behind this change in the world order? It’s bad enough that D.C. has to suffer through a plague of lobbyists, the monochromatic dreariness of a one-company town, subpar restaurants—and the dismal won-loss records of the Redskins and the Nationals. Why are Plouffe and Palin bent on robbing Washingtonians of their one true joy?

One answer: time. It takes two to three weeks to put together a good index, says Peter Osnos, the founder of Public Affairs, who has published Bill Clinton, Vernon Jordan, Scott McClellan, and nearly every other Washington macher over the years. Cutting an index can mean the difference between getting a book into stores well before Thanksgiving or missing the holiday sales season altogether. Speed is at an even greater premium now, in the age of e-books and instant downloads on the Kindle. And of course, skipping the index means fewer pages—and fewer dollars spent to bring the book to market. “Every penny counts,” Osnos said.

Not surprisingly, members of D.C.’s power elite are not amused.

“Books like that should have indexes,” said D.C. literary agent Raphael Sagalyn.

“If you’re writing a substantial book, and I don’t know if Ms. Palin’s book qualifies, I think there’s a moral obligation to write an index,” said Christopher Buckley, a life-long observer of D.C. etiquette (and now a columnist for The Daily Beast).

Even some of New York’s biggest boldface names express sympathy.

“When I go into a store with a book like that, I would always flip through the index to see who she says nice and not nice things about. From a book-marketing standpoint, it’s dumb,” said Kurt Andersen, celebrated journalist, novelist, and co-founder of the legendary Spy magazine. According to Andersen, it took “1,000 interns working for 1,000 hours” at Spy to create an index for the index-free Warhol Diaries in 1989.

In Washington, the index has become such an essential part of political reading that when it’s missing, people take notice. Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, a chronicle of the 1988 presidential campaign, roiled the chattering classes by leaving the index out.

“He did it just to spite the Washington narcissists,” Begala said. “I suspect that’s what was on Plouffe and Palin’s minds as well.”

Walter Shapiro of USA Today followed Cramer’s lead in his One-Car Caravan, an account of the early stages of the 2004 presidential campaign. “All of us on the fringes of the political game have stood in book stores riffling through the alphabetized final pages of a new book to see if we are mentioned,” Shapiro wrote in the introduction. “This egotistical ritual inspires either the transient joy of relevance or the lasting agonies of rejection. To spare everyone further emotional turmoil, I have dispensed with the editorial feature that has caused more heartbreak than the senior prom.”

Top 10 Palin Book Leaks Perhaps the most avid—vulgar?—display of the Washington Read came in 2004, with the publication of Bill Clinton’s memoir.

“The biggest occasion that we ever had with this was selling President Clinton’s My Life,” said Barbara Meade, co-founder of D.C.’s Politics and Prose. Shoppers lined up at her store at midnight to get a first glimpse. “There were a lot of people grabbing copies to see if they were in the index. We do have a lot of customers who were,’ Meade said. Boston Globe columnist Peter Canellos wrote an entire column analyzing which long-forgotten Southern governor made the cut and which D.C. legend was overlooked. Certainly no 38 pages of My Life were more widely read. Buckley created his own parody version of Clinton’s back pages for The New York Times Book Review (“Angelou, Maya: Reads dreadful poem at BC inaugural, 478”).

The first major ethnographic study of Washington reading behavior was undertaken by Michael Kinsley in 1985, when he was an editor at The New Republic. Kinsley had a colleague place 70 business cards deep inside the important political books of the year, giving the potential reader a phone number and offering a $5 reward for phoning. Kinsley waited six months; no one called.

“This is a slightly different kind of book, which I think people basically don’t read,” Kinsley, now with The Atlantic, told The Daily Beast. “Even the classic Washington Read wasn’t reading the book in any sense that Gutenberg would have recognized it,” Kinsley said.

Buckley recalled a heated exchange between conservative columnist George Will and news anchor Sam Donaldson—“his toupee flying off his head he was so exorcised”—during a televised discussion of former Reagan official David Stockman’s The Triumph of Politics. Finally, Will told Donaldson that he had read the book, and it didn’t say what Donaldson said it did.

Donaldson’s reply: “Well, I don’t have to read the book. I know what it says!”

Still, help is surely on the way. “Washington is very self-referential to say nothing of self-reverential,” as Buckley points out. There’s certain to be other creative ends-around to solve the problem of the missing index.

“Bloggers may dissect the books so quickly they will serve as a surrogate index,” Begala said. “Or maybe Washington power brokers will have their interns and assistants read and highlight political books.”

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.