I cannot be bought. Not for less than 20 bucks.
So there's no need to worry that my judgment has been tainted by the fact that a publisher sent me a free review copy of a $16.95 book. Trust me when I say that you should consider giving What Do We Do Now? (A Workbook for the President-Elect) to anyone on your holiday shopping list who's spent huge chunks of 2008 obsessed with politics. Or don't trust me. Trust yourself. Read some excerpts.
For me, What Do We Do Now? is about timing. As wise and accessible as the book is, it would have held no interest for me during the presidential transitions of 2000 or 1992 or 1988 or 1980. Nor would it have shaken me out of my despondency if we were living through a McCain/Palin transition right now. No, this book is all about this moment, this unprecedented time when I feel fiercely protective of the change so many millions of us voted for and acutely aware that the choices in this transition will help decide whether the Obama Administration dazzles or fizzles.
So I was heartened this week when I interviewed the book's author. Stephen Hess, whose experience with presidential transitions dates back to his time as an aide to President Eisenhower, was emphatic when I asked him what, if anything, he likes about Obama's approach to the transition.
"I like a lot," Hess said Monday. "It's been a superb transition to date. ... If (Obama) was reading my book, which I don't have any reason to believe he was, he would be doing things exactly in the order he is doing them."
If Hess's praise for the transition stemmed exclusively from some smug sense that Obama is marching in lockstep with his book's advice, the author wouldn't be nearly so fun to talk to and his book probably wouldn't be worth a damn. Good things invariably grow out of curiosity and a love of surprise. On the day we spoke, Hess was reveling in a cabinet pick that took him completely by surprise: Obama's choice of retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki to be secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department.
"I'm fascinated by that on a number of levels," Hess told me. "First of all, because it surprised me. And I like that."
All in one, Shinseki gives Obama an Asian-American, a military man, the most prominent skeptic of Donald Rumsfeld's disastrous plans to occupy Iraq with a relatively small force, and "somone who is totally qualified," Hess said.
It "showed how much shrewder (Obama) is as a political strategist than I am," Hess said, chuckling. "We're not even in the same league."
Different readers will get different insights from Hess's work. For me, there was an especially valuable portion of the book that caused me to re-examine some of the assumptions I took away from reading Team of Rivals. I still love that book and the story it tells of President Lincoln's extraordinary cabinet. Hess does, too: "I love that book. It's a wonderful book. I don't think it's a terribly useful recommendation for this administration."
In the section Hess titled "Why Can't We All Just Get Along?," he provides some useful sketches of destructive cabinet rivalries: Shultz v. Weinberger under Reagan; Vance v. Brzezinski under Carter; Kissinger v. Rogers under Nixon.
As Hess writes, "whatever irritants exist initially within the inner circle are sure to rub raw after staff and media get hold of them."
With this in mind, I'm still keeping my fingers tightly crossed about Obama's pick of Senator Clinton for secretary of state. But Hess assured me that almost anything can be made to work.
"It can work almost regardless if the president is not merely self-confident but knows exactly what he wants" and what he wants from his cabinet members, Hess said.
A few sections of What Do We Do Now? didn't do much for me. For my own eccentric reasons, I'm not especially fascinated by the various historic desks that a president has to choose from. To me, it's trivia. But it's trivia I've never heard of, at least. Some people might love this stuff.
My anti-desk bigotry aside, copies of Hess's book really do deserve to end up in wrapping paper this month. So if your plans to buy Barack's old Senate seat for your kid have hit a snag, consider What Do We Do Now? as a thoughtful, cheaper, non-felonious Plan B.