Life on the literary stump


Newt Gingrich and Colin Powell, candidates for president? Maybe. But right now they're hawking books.

Touring the country as a celebrity author may be the latest device for testing the waters for a presidential bid. Critics call it politicking on the publisher's tab.

"It's very comparable to a presidential campaign: two or three cities a day, speeches that become repetitive, a lot of press interest," says Anne Hathaway, a spokeswoman for former Vice President Dan Quayle, who used a book tour last year to re-enter the national spotlight after having left office in 1992.

Mr. Quayle ultimately decided not to enter the 1996 presidential race. But Ms. Hathaway said he found the book tour "a great way to get back among the people."

House Speaker Gingrich and General Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has each engaged in an elaborate tease about his presidential ambitions.

Mr. Gingrich is headed next week for a four-day visit to New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary next year, with more than 200 reporters in tow.

General Powell, who rose to national prominence during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, has never even declared what political party he belongs to. But he is being actively pursued by Democrats as well as Republicans.

Though the two men are coy about their presidential aspirations, they make no secret of their literary plans. Both are scheduled to launch promotional campaigns for their books at the American Booksellers Association convention in Chicago this weekend.

Mr. Gingrich is touting his 80,000-page political treatise, "Renewing American Civilization." The book will hit the stores June 30, and Mr. Gingrich will follow up with a 25-city tour that is expected to keep him busy -- and in the public spotlight -- during congressional recesses throughout the summer.

General Powell's soon-to-be-published memoir, "My American Journey," is an intimate tale about the son of Jamaican immigrants who works his way up the military ranks to become the first black chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. He is scheduled to embark on a four-week, 20-city blitz in September -- a tour that will offer him the opportunity to introduce himself to American voters through their local newspapers, radio-talk shows and book stores.

The general will also spend another week or so promoting his book with stops overseas.

Writing a book is a time-honored tactic for presidential hopefuls. Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and many others have outlined their political philosophies or recounted their life stories in books published to coincide with the launching of their candidacies.

Only someone who is already a celebrity, though, can generate enough interest from interviews to make a book tour of dozens of cities worthwhile.

"It's like being rich, it's an advantage to be a prominent person before you decide to write a book or you decide to run for president, and people tend to take advantage of their advantages," says Ian Stirton, a spokesman for the Federal Election Commission. "There's nothing illegal about it. Life is unfair."

Not many authors travel as extensively as Mr. Gingrich and General Powell are scheduled to do. The cost of such trips is high, perhaps $1,000 a day. The days are grueling. And there aren't as many locally produced programs or newspapers for interviews as there used to be. Much of the same audience can be reached through a few appearances on nationally syndicated radio and television programs, and interviews beamed around the country by satellite.

"The 25-city tour is not as common as it used to be 10 or 15 years ago," says Lorie Ames Stuart, of the Jane Wesman Public Relations agency, who arranges book tours. "Most tours are about six to 10 cities."

Mr. Gingrich's critics in Congress argue that his all-expense-paid whistle-stopper is part of a pay-off from Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who owns HarperCollins, publisher of the speaker's book.

The Democrats have been attacking the House Speaker since late last year when Mr. Murdoch first offered him a $4.5 million advance for a book based largely on class lectures from a course he taught in Georgia. Although Mr. Gingrich turned down the advance, the deal is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee. And Democrats have continued to hammer him for his financial relationship with Mr. Murdoch, who recently received a federal tax break on the sale of two television stations to a minority-owned corporation.

Now the book tour is under attack as an extension of the book deal.

"The American people need to know who is paying for this," says Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, the House Democratic Whip. "Rupert Murdoch just got a $38 billion tax break from Congress, after offering the speaker a $4.5 million book deal.

"Now, the speaker is thinking about running for president, and Murdoch is paying for a 25-city tour, circumventing the Federal Election Commission requirements and maybe breaking federal law," Mr. Bonior says.

Tony Blankley, a spokesman for Mr. Gingrich, contends that the complaints from "Mr. Bonior and his associates are turning government into a French farce. They know full well there's nothing improper about this book tour."

As far as the Gingrich book tour is concerned, HarperCollins is not exactly engaged in charity, said Susan Kamil, editorial director of Dial Press.

"Newt is a very provocative and talented speaker," she says. "I'm sure that they expect his appearances will galvanize the sale of books, which is what they are after."

Even so, there's no mistaking the potential value of such a mission to a politician eager to get his message out directly to the people.

"The sale of books is like a political campaign," says Peter Osnos, president of Times Books, a division of Random House, General Powell's publisher. "I did a book once with former House Speaker Tip O'Neill, and when I told him that, he understood immediately what he was supposed to do.

"It's obvious that Newt Gingrich is out to promote his political agenda, whatever that agenda is," Mr. Osnos adds. "Put the presidency aside for a moment. He has written a treatise about his political vision. That's what he's going to be talking about."

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