The Mix Is the Message 

Why are two books portraying President Bush as a buffoon selling so well?

There are two fast-selling books in the marketplace that are remarkable in their repudiation of the general feeling, often reinforced by the media, that George Bush enjoys enormous popularity and stands invincible in the wake of 9/11.

Both Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and Mark Crispin Miller's Bush's Dyslexicon are powerful, damning, and even scornful of the president's standing and behavior. And surprise: These books are successful -- in Moore's case, unbelievably so. But you wouldn't know it from media appearances, book reviews, and bookstore readings.

Moore's book has astonished virtually all observers of politics and the publishing industry by dominating The New York Times bestseller list week after week (13 weeks at last look). Miller's book at this stage lacks the public recognition that Moore's has but is still selling modestly well. Yet neither of these two critics gets any respect from the media establishment.

Miller catalogs in humorous detail Bush's incredible gift for gaffes. It analyzes in an astute and comprehensive way the efforts by Bush's handlers to manage and minimize this president's obvious language shortfalls.

But this is no joke book. It's a hair-raising look at the man at the nation's helm by one of the country's most acute media analysts. As Miller notes, post-9/11, the Bush presidency was reinvented: "From the very timely spectacle of his rock-hard demeanor, many viewers -- and especially the press -- now extrapolated other inner qualities, despite the lack of any evidence that he possessed them. Thus, our president ... was, as if by magic, also eloquent, farsighted, well informed, and wise -- a testament to the eternal power of wishful thinking."

You would think a close examination of Bush's behavior under duress is a relevant topic in this media moment. But Miller couldn't get a review to save his life for the hardcover edition, except for a pan in The Washington Post and a brief positive mention in The New Yorker. And now that the paperback is out, with an added 100 pages evaluating Bush's behavior post-9/11, things are even worse.

Miller is unsurprised by reviewer hostility but says he is "more mystified" by the ongoing press blackout and virtual bookstore boycott of the paperback. Miller observes that while Bush's numbers are falling and the post-9/11 fit of anxious national conformity is long behind us, the edifice of corporate media and bookstore chains remains a giant temple of Bush-worship.

According to Miller, Barnes & Noble told his publisher, W.W. Norton, that a book signing for him "wouldn't draw a crowd -- this despite the fact that the paperback is selling like crazy. Norton sold out its first printing three weeks before the publication date. That's unusual for an unadvertised title, to put it mildly."

Meanwhile, Moore's experience, given the success of Stupid White Men, is truly remarkable.

For the first three months of the book's release, Moore says, "I did not appear on a single broadcast network show other than one appearance on Politically Incorrect -- which on that particular night did not air until 1:05 a.m. Since then, I have appeared only on Today -- and only if I agreed to appear with a right-wing author (as they did not want to put me on alone, even though by then my book had been number one for four weeks). The book has been completely ignored by every single show on NPR and PBS, and 95 percent of the daily papers in the country, including The New York Times, have refused to review it."

So what does this mean? It appears that consumers, who are craving more authenticity, are increasingly disregarding corporate media hype. In many cases, traditional media exposure may even mean less success as buyers get their signals through e-mail, word of mouth, and independent media of all sorts.

A case in point is Sylvia Ann Hewlett's recent book Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest For Children. This book about the supposed unhappiness of women who sacrifice babies for careers sold a miniscule number of copies despite what Nation columnist Katha Pollitt called "a publicity campaign from heaven: Time cover story, 60 Minutes, Oprah, Today, wall-to-wall radio."

Michael Moore concludes: "I am grateful for the near-complete blackout of coverage regarding my book. The more the mainstream press has ignored it, the more copies it has sold. Editors are stuck now and don't know what to do. They have been reporting for nine months that all of America is in love with Bush -- and now how do they explain that gross misrepresentation when a book called Stupid White Men that stars George W. Bush is still at number one in The New York Times, the most-read nonfiction book in the country in 2002? How does that paper simply ignore its own bestseller list? I mean, you gotta have a good laugh over this one!"

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet, where this column first appeared.

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