Curious: For the past month, books about presidents (Being George Washington, Killing Lincoln and Jack Kennedy) by pundits (Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews respectively) have occupied three of the top five slots in the New York Times' nonfiction bestseller list.
As the great probability theorist Pierre de Fermat might have said, "Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but three times is a think piece."
So let's turn that fact into meaning. Perhaps a Big Idea:
The American people are yearning for real leaders.
Advantages: No need to read the books or talk to anyone; I could use the greatness cudgel to knock about Barack Obama for claiming that his legislative accomplishments rival the best presidents', perhaps deploying the You're-No-Dead-Icon diss engine; I could use the greatness cudgel to bash Newt Gingrich for evoking Lincoln in defense of exterminating judges who make Newtonally incorrect decisions, perhaps pointing out that Lincoln never left his wife even though she was bad crazy.
Disadvantage: So boring I can't even finish this sen
Alternatively, I could selectively cite the books as evidence to support my whatever-winged agenda:
Our greatest presidents were beset by critics in their time, just like Obama is now.
Advantages: Heavy quote-lifting reduces original thought workload; Obama apple-polishing pays off in cushy government job, maybe even a czarship.
Disadvantage: Would have to read books.
Our greatest presidents differed from Obama in some fundamental way, proving that he sucks.
Disadvantage: Might increase sales of books.
The sad decline of journalism today is best exemplified by comparing the eminent scribes who covered Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy in their day to these television yelling heads.
Advantage: Would most easily accommodate observation that while O'Reilly's and Matthews' books have Lincoln and Kennedy on their respective covers, the cover of Being George Washington is Glenn Beck posing several feet in front of a blurry bust of what may or may not be our first president.
Disadvantage: The thesis is, alas, false. The news business has always had its fearmongers and bloviators; I'd take any of these three over Westbrook Pegler any day.
Speaking of responsible journalism, I could also do some of that: investigate whether there is some underlying reason for this trend, if it is even that -- though it is the holidays, and NPR is replaying that David Sedaris elf piece with limited pledge breaks. I suppose I could make just one call, to some "expert" I already know. Unfortunately, when I do that:
"Books about presidents have always been popular holiday gifts," said the Gernert Company's Sarah Burnes, super-agent to such literary stars as Larry Doyle. "And obviously, these authors have a built-in audience. It's a no-brainer."
How do you get a think piece out of a no-brainer?
Originally published in a slightly different form at Time.com, Dec. 27, 2011