Mary Matalin, Publisher
When political hacks edit books.
Jerome R. Corsi has written a book about Barack Obama cleverly titled The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality. The book is published by Threshold Editions, Mary Matalin's imprint at Simon & Schuster. It "was not designed to be, and does not set out to be, a political book," Matalin sniffed to Jim Rutenberg and Julie Bosman of the New York Times. Rather, it is "a piece of scholarship, and a good one at that." Corsi holds a doctorate in government from Harvard University, and the book's cover highlights Corsi's academic credential with the byline "Jerome R. Corsi, Ph.d."
But Corsi, a staff reporter for the hard-right World Net Daily and co-author of Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, a 2004 hit job published by the hard-right Regnery, maintains his scholarly posture with some difficulty. In his off-hours, Corsi calls Arabs "ragheads" and Bill Clinton an "anti-American communist" on Internet message boards. Susan Estrich is "Susan Estrogen" and Katie Couric is "Little Katie Communist." In the past, Corsi's fellow conservative, Debbie Schlussel, has even accused Corsi of plagiarism (though, to be fair, this looks to me more like garden-variety theft, i.e., taking an idea and some facts from another columnist without extending the usual courtesy of a citation; a minor offense in journalism, if not in academia).
Why did Corsi write The Obama Nation? Was it in disinterested pursuit of scholarly truth? Er, not exactly. "The goal is to defeat Obama," he told the Times. "I don't want Obama to be in office."
I haven't read The Obama Nation. But both the Times and Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog Web site (and the source of my above links to "ragheads," etc.), cite multiple errors in the book. Ordinarily, when an author or an editor discovers errors in a book's text, he or she arranges to correct them in the next printing. I've done this myself. But neither Corsi nor Matalin responded to e-mails from me asking whether they intended to correct any errors in The Obama Nation—it would be a miracle if there were none. In the Times, Corsi brushed aside the Media Matters critique because of its politics. Now, I yield to no one in my skepticism regarding the veracity of Media Matters' chief executive officer, the former right-wing hit man David Brock. But Media Matters operates on the principle of transparency, providing links and video clips necessary to assess its claims of falsehood. Sometimes the claims hold up; sometimes they seem like a reach. Most of its findings concerning The Obama Nation are unassailable. For instance, Obama either has or hasn't stated publicly when he stopped using marijuana and cocaine. According to Corsi, he hasn't. According to Obama's memoir Dreams From My Father he has. "I stopped getting high" when he was an undergraduate at Columbia, Obama writes. The Times further notes that in 2003, Obama told the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill., in response to a question about drug use, "I haven't done anything since I was 20 years old." When the Times confronted Corsi with this information, he changed the subject from his book's obvious error to what he deems the unreliability of self-reporting on matters of drug use. Which, of course, was entirely beside the point.
All this raises the question of whether the world of "conservative" publishing, which includes not only Matalin's imprint at Simon & Schuster but also Random House's Crown Forum and Penguin Group USA's Sentinel, aspires even to the standards of the nonideological (or what conservatives call the "liberal") publishing establishment, which are nothing to write home about. What I've learned about The Obama Nation suggests it does not. What the hell is Mary Matalin doing running a publishing imprint in the first place? She is a professional propagandist, a political operative who learned her craft at the feet not of Maxwell Perkins but of Lee Atwater. Truth is not what she's about; campaigns are, and for Matalin, The Obama Nation would appear to be just another campaign. This isn't to say that, through her Threshold imprint, Matalin is subverting Simon & Schuster's pursuit of profit to partisan ends. Quite the contrary. Simon & Schuster and the other big publishing houses have started conservative imprints, at arms' length and with noses held, because they recognize them to be a gold mine. The Obama Nation, the Times reports, will debut on its best-seller list this Sunday at No. 1. But part of the deal, clearly, is that conservative imprints aren't required to adhere to the same standards of truth as the grown-up divisions. If an Erwin Glikes or even an Adam Bellow is available to edit your conservative fall list, fine. But in a pinch, a Mary Matalin will do. It's what George W. Bush memorably dubbed the soft bigotry of low expectations. The conservative movement has won the publishing houses' attention but not their respect. Does it even care?
[Update, Aug. 15: This just in from Mary Matalin:
Appreciate your taking the time to talk about Obama Nation in your column. I sent your inquiry regarding future printings to Simon & Schuster because such issues are not mine to decide. I am sorry you did not receive a response. My title is somewhat misleading, but it is the one the publishing industry uses. I do not deal with any mechanics (like print runs, reprints, financial relationship with authors), or for that matter, editing of the Threshold books. I am more akin to a consultant relative to the issue of potential interest among political readers.
Though you did not ask me about my role in your email, and again I am sorry you did not get the answer to the query you posed, had you asked me about the essence of your article, I would have been happy to elaborate on the above, which goes to your question of what your piece was actually about.
Appreciate your passion for Maxwell Perkins, who, by the way, was a favorite of Lee Atwater who was a prolific reader.
The first paragraph underscores my point, which is that Simon & Schuster doesn't pay conservatives the courtesy of giving a damn what the books published under the Threshold imprint actually say. All Threshold's chief gets paid to do is say, "Yup, that'll sell" or "No, that won't sell." Sweet!
I'm not sure I understand the second paragraph, but I think she's saying it was unfair for me to assume that the head of Threshold would take any personal responsibilty for the accuracy or quality of Threshold's books.
Lee Atwater was indeed a prolific reader, but I don't see how Maxwell Perkins could have been a "favorite" because Perkins didn't write books. He edited them.
I'm still waiting to hear from Corsi.
In other news, on the Aug. 13 Larry King Live, Corsi told Media Matters' Paul Waldman that he long ago apologized publicly for the toxic comments quoted above ("ragheads," etc.), which he posted online way back in 2002 and 2003. But, as recently as July 20, Corsi consented to appear on a Memphis-based white-supremacist radio show called the Political Cesspool, and he's scheduled for a repeat engagement on Aug. 17. I am grateful to Media Matters for uncovering all this and also for alerting me that the host, James Edwards, last week referred to me as "Jew Timothy Noah." This is both anti-Semitic and wrong. I am Jewish on my father's side, a Protestant on my mother's side, and an atheist.]
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Mary Matlin by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press.