One on One: Mixing books and politics

by D.G. Martin

Chapel Hill, NC – “Politics and books don’t mix well. You need to decide which one you’re going to write about and stick to it.”

That is what an editor and good friend told me recently. Maybe this friend is right about what I should do with my column, but it is not true that politics and books don’t mix.

They run together all the time.

Take for instance former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh who has pled guilty to corruption charges and is to be sentenced later this month. Part of the scheme that brought her down involved mixing books and politics.

Ms. Pugh wrote a series of self-published books aimed at children and designed to promote healthy living. With titles such as “Exercising Is Fun!,” “Vegetables Are Not Just Green,” and “Fruits Come In Colors Like The Rainbow,” these books became known as the “Healthy Holly” series. The central character, Holly, is a very nice young black girl who eats healthy foods and exercises regularly.

The quality of these books is at best questionable, according to one critic, Carlos Lozada of The Washington Post. He shared some of the dialogue:

Holly’s mother: “Exercising is fun.”

Holly replies: “I will be healthy. I like having fun.”

But the target buyers were not individual book purchasers. When Ms. Pugh was a member of the Maryland legislature and when she was mayor, she sold a lot of these books. According to The Baltimore Sun, she made more than $800,000 from book sales. This money did not come from a publisher or bookstore sales. Instead, she sold vast quantities of her books directly to institutions, such as the University of Maryland Medical System and Kaiser Permanente, that needed her help with their government relations.

Kaiser paid $114,000 for 20,000 copies of Ms. Pugh’s books while it was trying to persuade Baltimore to use its health coverage for city employees. The sale did not look like a bribe, just a nice mixture of politics and books.

But Ms. Pugh is going to jail.

Meanwhile, other political figures are joining the books-politics mix.

Late last year Donald Trump Jr’s book, “Triggered,” jumped to the top of the bestseller lists. That should not have surprised anybody because many Americans will buy anything that has the Trump name attached to it. But some anti-Trump skeptics quickly asserted that Republican groups manipulated the bestseller rankings by making large bulk purchases.

For instance, the National Republican Senatorial Committee ordered about 2,500 copies. The Republican National Committee spent $100,000 to buy copies in late October last year. Maybe their large purchases at the time of the book’s release boosted the book’s bestseller rankings, but it looks like their primary motivation was to use the book in their own fundraising efforts.

According to a November 20, 2019, article by The New York Times journalist Emily Eakin, there is a long history of politicians getting into trouble with their books. In 1988 U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright published his book “Reflections of a Public Man.” By characterizing large payments from supporters as book sales rather then political contributions, the campaign contribution limits could be avoided. The resulting scandal forced Wright to resign.

In 2009, Sarah Palin had her political action committee buy thousands of copies of “Going Rogue,” her memoir. Presumably, the books were to be sent to supporters, but the royalties on the book sale could make their way into Ms. Palin’s pockets.

Similarly, in 2011 presidential candidate Herman Cain spent $64,000 in campaign funds to a company he owned for copies of his books to send to donors. Again, the book sales provided a smooth way to transfer campaign funds into the candidate’s pocket.

There are more stories about questionable connections between books and politics. That is just one reason I am going to keep writing about both topics.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sunday 3:30 pm and Tuesday at 5:00 pm on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8:00 pm and other times.

To view prior programs: