A Bibliophile’s Guide to the Oval Office

The publishing industry has just disgorged three more quickie Starr paperbacks, all devoted to last week’s document dump from the House Judiciary committee. (Click herefor an earlier appraisal of the first round of Starr books.)

Chatterbox stands by his opinion (stated before the data was released) that they serve only to make the rubble of Clinton’s reputation bounce, though he agrees with the multitudes that Clinton’s televised grand jury testimony made the president look like a witch-hunt victim. (A full text is contained in all three volumes, as is the full text of Monica Lewinsky’s grand jury testimony.) Chatterbox thinks even Flytrap obsessives can lead happy and productive lives without buying any one of these books (particularly if you’re so obsessive that you’ve already purchased the $68 unabridged Government Printing Office version). However, for the record, the three available paperbacks are: The Starr Evidence, a trade paperback prepared by the Washington Post ($12); The Starr Report: The Evidence, a large-format trade paperback from Pocket Books, edited and with an introduction by the Wall Street Journal’s Phil Kuntz ($14); and The Starr Evidence, a mass-market version of same containing less data than the Pocket Books trade version but more than the Post trade version ($6.99). Chatterbox says if you insist on buying one of these, go with the large-format Pocket Books version because it’s the most complete.

As you’ve probably caught on by now, Chatterbox did not enjoy slogging through this material. Unlike the Starr Report, these books don’t make you learn the story; they make you live it, as the more unpleasant aspects of the protagonists’ lives (especially Monica’s) ooze across the page. However, Chatterbox, a confirmed believer that what lines a man’s bookshelves is a key to his character, was interested to read (in the large-format Pocket Books version) Ken Starr’s inventory of books on the Oval Office Complex shelves.

A few caveats are in order. Office bookshelves are never as revealing as the bookshelves of one’s home, because so much lands there at random. This seems especially true of the Oval Office bookshelves (or, to be more precise: the bookshelves in the study adjoining the Oval Office), so many of whose books contain inscriptions to the president that one has to assume they arrived unsolicited as gifts. That is certainly true of Oy Vey, the now-famous Jewish humor book that Monica Lewinsky gave Bill Clinton, which the prosecutors found on the president’s office shelves. There was apparently no sign of Lewinsky’s more notorious gift, Vox. (Oct. 1 Addendum: Actually, it was never gone. Chatterbox was incorrect when he wrote in his guide to the new Starr quickie paperbacks that Starr’s prosecutors didn’t find Nicholson Baker’s seminal work on the bookshelves of the Oval Office Complex. They did, as page 645 of the large-format Pocket Books edition–and page 2919 of the Government Printing Office version–records. Chatterbox will consult with his doctor about whether he needs bifocals.)

That said: what’s on the shelves? Two books by the Clinton-hating New York Times columnist William Safire, neither of them inscribed. (The books themselves are relatively nonpartisan: Safire’s New Political Dictionary and Lend Me Your Ear: Great Speeches in History.) A lot of books about presidents, particularly Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson (including an inscribed copy of Thomas C. Reeves’ A Question of Character). Many books by, but not many about, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. Four blistering attacks on the press: Thomas Patterson’s Out of Order, Howard Kurtz’s Media Circus and Hot Air, and James Fallows’ Breaking the News. The Fallows and Kurtz books are inscribed, the Patterson is not. There is a Korean-language edition of First Mom Virginia Kelley’s memoir, Leading With My Heart, and an Italian edition of Putting People First, the 1992 campaign manifesto coauthored by Clinton and Al Gore. There’s even a little poetry: Donald Hall’s The Museum of Clear Ideas, Jane Kenyon’s Constance, and Maxine Kunin’s Nurture, all donated by a group of New Hampshire primary supporters. Also Three Poems of Solon: Patriot and Lawgiver, with an inscription to former Rep. Millicent Fenwick, a Republican. (Chatterbox is guessing this was left behind by the Bushes.) Also some magazines, including (Chatterbox’s bosom swells with pride) a 1993 issue of Vanity Fair featuring a profile of Vernon Jordan by Marjorie Williams, a.k.a. Mrs. Chatterbox.

And, inevitably, an inscribed-by-the-author copy of Richard Carleton Hacker’s The Ultimate Cigar Book. Bit-a-bump.

Timothy Noah