CAPITAL CULTURE: New book on politics? Some DC readers flip past Page 1 to head for name index

By Nancy Benac, AP
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

CAPITAL CULTURE: DC readers detour to book index

WASHINGTON — Fire up your index finger. It’s time for another Beltway Read.

Readers elsewhere may work their way through a book about politics or government from front to back, but plenty of Washingtonians head straight for the index to look for a few select names — especially their own.

Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute who insists he really does read a lot of D.C.-related books, says the “index-lookers” may or may not also be table-stackers — those who buy serious books and stack them, unread, on their coffee tables or bookshelves to look serious themselves.

The latest contemporary history to hit D.C. is journalist Bob Woodward’s book, “Obama’s Wars.” Its 19-page index will be the first stop for plenty of D.C. readers.

The book was a slow seller at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle when it was released on Monday, but manager Jake Cumsky-Whitlock said he suspected a drizzly morning was keeping readers away.

“All of Woodward’s books do well and this is the first Obama book, so I think we will see sales pick up,” he said.

Cumsky-Whitlock said he’s seen a handful of index-lookers over the years, some of whom have even pointed themselves out to store clerks.

“It’s human nature,” he said. “You want to see yourself and show other people.”

At a Barnes and Noble not far from the White House, 52-year-old Curtis Becks stopped for the book on his way to work.

“I’m a political junkie,” Becks said. For him, the index doesn’t make much of a difference; it’s the author that makes it a must read.

The book’s portrait of White House infighting over the war in Afghanistan is chockablock full of notable names, from Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Robert Gates and Hillary Rodham Clinton on down.

And for every household name — the folks who have aides to check the index for them — there are any number of lesser-known figures hoping their own names are there, too. Any mention, positive or negative, can be read as an affirmation of importance.

Excerpts and revelations from the Woodward book started trickling out last week, so official Washington didn’t even wait for the book’s index to start sniping about its revelations and gossipy name-calling.

Tom Mann, a longtime scholar at the Brookings Institution, confessed he’s like a lot of people in Washington — suffering from information overload.

“I actually read very few of these books of contemporary history,” he e-mailed.

“By the way,” he added, “it’s not just Washingtonians who look first at the index. Academics do it all the time.”

One government official owned up to being an index-looker in testimony before the commission that investigated the 9/11 terror attacks. In March 2004, when then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was asked if he had read a book by former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, he confessed: “I’m the only honest person in Washington. I gave it the Washington read.”

“You looked in the index to see if your name was in it?” he was asked.

“And then what was said about me,” Armitage admitted.

There’s a mixed history when it comes to offering indexes for books on politics and government.

George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove’s memoir, “Courage and Consequence,” had an index. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s “The Audacity to Win” didn’t.

The index to Bill Clinton’s mammoth autobiography, “My Life,” ran 42 pages. Hillary Clinton’s “Living History” index checked in at 27 pages.

Barack Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” index is just 11 pages.

Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue” has none.

Washington veterans say there are pros and cons to having an index.

One theory is that an index crammed with names equals more sales.

A contrary theory is that if people can’t do a quick index scan at Borders, they’ll have to pony up and buy it to see who’s mentioned.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, in defending the president’s war deliberations as revelations from the book trickled out last week, worked in a pitch for people to go beyond the index this time to get the full picture.

“I hope people get the whole book and read the whole book,” Gibbs said. He’d read an advance copy in one night.

More Beltway reads are in the pipeline for release this fall: former President George W. Bush’s book “Decision Points,” and Palin’s “America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag.”

And, for all the index-lookers, David Drake, a publicist for Bush’s book, promises it will have a “robust” index. Palin’s not talking.

Associated Press writer Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report.

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