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Making book on politics


Chicago -- THE AMERICAN Booksellers Association's annual convention is supposedly a literary trade fair, but no one here was debating the merits of "The Unconsoled," Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel since "The Remains of the Day."

In this great city for both politics and art, politics won out this time, as the country's two most prominent fantasy candidates for president, Colin Powell and Newt Gingrich, opened their unofficial, undeclared campaigns for higher office by promoting their hardcover wares.

Under the rules of this game, of course, none dared call it "campaigning." Messrs. Powell and Gingrich were, instead, initiating "book tours." But call it what you will, the two literary lions will barnstorm the country for months to come, giving speeches and signing autographs and dominating local news until they butt into primary season.

In the kickoff here, Mr. Gingrich had to cope with the ghosts of an actual Chicago political convention, as hecklers tried to drown out his Monday address to booksellers. It turned out to be the speaker's finest hour. Rather than sputter back in the Hubert Humphrey style of Chicago '68, a poised Mr. Gingrich passionately and articulately defended his and the protesters' right to free speech. A previously indifferent audience ended up giving him a semi-standing ovation.

But if there was a winner in this first head-to-head contest between non-candidates, it was Mr. Powell -- in terms of both numbers and substance.

Mr. Powell's book, "My American Journey," will have a larger first printing than Mr. Gingrich's "To Renew America," and Mr. Powell, albeit with the help of a ringer in the form of co-speaker Hillary Rodham Clinton, drew twice the audience that Mr. Gingrich did.

More important, it was Mr. Powell's words that proved memorable. Even while fighting the dismal acoustics of the hangar-like hall, he won rousing applause when he talked about how the country "cannot lose that spirit of compassion" manifested in "taking care of those citizens most in need."

Is Mr. Powell's political profile really so mysterious? He is known to be an economic and foreign policy conservative, but not so conservative that he would support Oliver North's Senate race. He has described parts of the Contract with America as "a little too hard, a little too harsh, a little too unkind," and himself as "a New Deal kid." His positions are inconsistent with either party's orthodoxy, but who isn't looking for a true independent?

The day before he spoke to the booksellers, Mr. Powell met with a few reporters, deflecting all questions about his political ambitions with a disarming wheeze of a laugh. The biggest surprise in writing his book, he said, was the amount of time he devoted to race. Recalling that he never lost hope as a boy in the South Bronx even in the days of segregation, he has no illusions that such hope exists in inner cities now. And as much as he endorsed "free-enterprise capitalism," he didn't seem to think it alone could save those being left behind. "I have something of a social conscience that puts me to the left of center," he said.

In other words, it's hard to imagine Mr. Powell either dismantling the New Deal, as the Contract Republicans would, or defending every last piece of it, as some Democrats do. Nor would he ignore the racial subtext of the debate. He received cheers here when he called for Americans to "solve this racial problem once and for all."

While Mr. Powell speaks of compassion for others, Mr. Gingrich talks mostly about himself. In a speech at a dinner thrown by his publisher, the speaker mixed ideological boilerplate and partisan digs with repeated boasts of the number of House votes he has won since January (299) and the number of news organizations (131) covering his mischievous "non-political" trip to New Hampshire this weekend.

Contrast, too, Mr. Gingrich's scolding -- "If we don't turn this country around, it's going to collapse" -- with this vision from Mr. Powell: "We live in a great country -- with all its problems, with all its challenges, with all the noise we sometimes hear. . . . We live in a historic time of change and reconciliation, an exciting time to be alive, to be American and take advantage of it."

On which book tour would you make book?

Frank Rich is a New York Times columnist.

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