Category Archives: The Writing Life

Speech at the University of Michigan

Last fall, I spoke at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan as part of the University of Michigan Press’s Author Series. If you’re interested in the video of that presentation, click here.



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Talking for Cash

Mitt Romney generated a bit of a flap back in January when he said he got “speaker’s fees from time to time, but not very much.”

According to his financial disclosure statements, from February 2010 to February 2011, that “not very much” added up to $374,327.62 in the 12 months before February 2011.

Words, like so many other things, have become a commodity that can go up or down in value, based on who’s uttering them and why. Celebrities, whether political, journalistic, sports or entertainment, can often command big fees for the star power they can bring to an event. Others, like a struggling author hoping to generate some attention for a book or a candidate trying to break into the headlines, may be more willing to make an investment of time and energy, without regard to whether they will actually get paid.

Back in 1965, when she was chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, Elly Peterson helped organize 10 dinners around the state on the same night, each featuring a prominent Republican. The goal was to help the party reduce its campaign debts. Ten Republicans, including New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, accepted the invitations. But Ronald Reagan, who was then making speeches as a warm-up to runinng for governor in California, did not. “He would come only if he got a big percentage of the take or $20,000 flat,” Peterson recalled. “He didn’t come. We didn’t want him. Overnight we paid off a big sum.”

Reagan apparently continued this practice until the mid-1970s, when, the late Lyn Nofziger recalled, aides advised him that this was the way to build political loyalty. Thus, I found it interesting that in the year before he was planning to mount a campaign for the presidency, Mitt Romney apparently decided to charge a substantial amount for making speeches of his own.

Now Romney’s not the only one, of course. Newt Gingrich said his going rate is $60,000 a speech, and former presidents like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton can command even more. Setting a high fee is also, arguably, a way to keep every small-town Chamber of Commerce or second-string trade association from bugging, It’s like the old adage, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

Call me old-fashioned or call me merely jealous, but I’m troubled by the idea of politicians making money this way. Certainly, Mitt Romney is  now talking for free to whomever will take the time to listen to him. But one wonders whether there might be a bit more enthusiasm for him today, if he had given a bit more time a few years ago to share his passion for free, rather than to line his pockets.

Especially when he wasn’t exactly going hungry.

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Filed under Presidential Campaigns, Republican Politics, The Writing Life

Michigan Notable Books of 2012

The Library of Michigan has just announced the 20 books on its list of Michigan Notable Books for 2012, and I’m thrilled that my biography of Elly Peterson made this year’s list. Here’s a link to a story with the complete list.

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Video of My Appearance on C-SPAN’s Book TV

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Filed under In Peterson's Words, Politics and Journalism, Republican Politics, The Writing Life, Women in Politics

Faces in the Crowd

I’m nearing the end of a round of appearances associated with my book. (That presumably will leave me a bit more time for blogging. ) The crowds have not always been large, but it has been gratifying nonetheless. In some cases, people have driven at least an hour, often at night, and in one case, very cold, rainy, windy weather. I recalled a time, a year before, when I decided not to venture out when it involved an hour’s drive in that kind of weather to hear another author who I did not personally know.

One of the nice things about these experiences was getting to meet more people who had known Elly Peterson: the daughter of her best friend in Charlotte, Michigan, the woman who urged her to interview for a job at the state Republican Party headquarters back in 1957; the daughter of the housekeeper who helped keep her home ship-shape when she was living and working in another city; men who had called her “Mother”; men who had worked on the staff of Gov. George Romney. And, in some cases, I got to see persons who I had interviewed for my book, and in the case of some phone interviews, meet them face-to-face.

One special case occured on a cold, rainy night in Ann Arbor, when an elderly gentleman arrived early at the Graduate Library for my talk. I recognized him as Lawrence Lindemer, the former University of Michigan regent and former Michigan State Supreme Court justice. He was the man who first hired Elly Peterson to work for the state Republican Party and the person responsible for her nickname of “Mother.” He had lived in Florida when I interviewed him by phone for my book, but had returned to Michigan following the death of his second wife. He had spotted a little blurb about my appearance and come out to listen. I think he was surprised when I recognized him, but it made the evening special for both of us. The Michigan Daily was on hand to capture the occasion, with a good story and a nice photograph.

Those are the moments that make it all worthwhile.

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Word of Mouth

I’m headed back to Michigan this week for two more appearances in connection with my book. This is what is euphemistically called a “book tour.”‘  Most of my friends think this is the glamorous part of a being a published author, but for most authors it is not. It is all part of the process of trying to get someone to buy your book, and the costs associated with doing so should provide a nice offset against any royalties that I will receive this year on my sales.

It could be worse. In the past I have done “book-signings,” where a bookstore tried to “deliver” an audience, and you sat in a chair for an hour or so and hoped that someone would wander by and want to purchase a signed copy. This time, I was grateful to be able to work with about a half-dozen organizations to plan events that produced audiences that were large enough to make it, in my mind if not my pocketbook, worth the effort.

In the end, however, it falls back on “word of mouth”–when someone reads your book, and is enthusiastic enough that they tell someone else, be it a friend, library, independent bookstore, or the rest of the population of by posting an online review.  That they recommend it to their book club. That they purchase it as a present for their grandchild.

I’ve often read articles about what NOT to say to persons who have just lost a close family member. Over the past few months, I’ve had some experience with comments from well-meaning friends, some of which caused a little twinge of pain. So herewith  are some thoughts about useful comments, and some not so useful comments.

First in the Not-So-Useful Category:

“Joan has told me such good things about your book, and she’s going to pass on her copy to me when she is done.”

Glad that “Joan” was enthusiastic, but I would be happier if this person was purchasing her own copy. Certainly two readers are better than one,  but sales are what will drive the ultimate print run.

“I just checked your book out of the library!”

Sure, I’m glad that the library has stocked it, but I would rather that it was discovered there by someone who wasn’t already a friend of mine.

At the same time, I recognize that $29.95 is a lot of money, particularly in these tough economic times.

As for the “useful” comnments, I’ve most appreciated those from people who admitted they were surprised to discover they actually liked my book. The aforementioned “Joan” wrote: “Who’d have thought I’d find someone so far from my usual circle of folks so fascinating?” 

As I’ve said before, an author’s book is like a child, and no one will ever love it as much as she does.

P.S. Hit Number 63, 249 on the Amazon best-seller list today. Pleased to see that that’s about 40,000 slots ahead of Christine O’Donnell.

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Conspiracy Theories

A number of years ago, when I was an editor on the national desk of The Washington Post, I had the privilege of spending a month as the journalist-in-residence at Duke University’s public policy institute. I remember an occasion when a professor asked me to sit in on his seminar, and respond to students’ questions, many of which were related to how The Post had covered–or not covered–important stories of that time. I remember fielding a question from a student who argued that our failure to cover a particular story adequately obviously revealed the existence of a conspiracy (whether it was a liberal media conspiracy or a fascist media conspiracy, I can no longer remember.) But I remember laughing and saying something to the effect of, “No, actually, we just screwed up.”

Two weeks ago I delivered a speech about my book that was recorded by a professional video crew at a venue where they had filmed before. If all went well, the speech was to be broadcast on a national cable channel. Last weekend, the speech was slotted on the network’s schedule on its Website. Two days later, when I prepared to share this happy news with family and friends around the country, I double-checked the listing. It had disappeared. Further inquiry brought back the word that when checked, the video turned out to be unusable.

Now, looking at the list of authors whose videos weren’t messed up, it would be easy to develop a conspiracy theory to explain this episode. I could allow myself to imagine that an over-zealous producer with a particular point of view didn’t like my message, and pulled the plug. Or that a recently divorced audio technician just decided to flip a switch in the wrong direction because on that particular night he was mad at all women. But that presumes that someone thinks I’m important enough that the plug is worth pulling.

No, I don’t think that’s the case. I think somebody screwed up. Simple as that.

But it’s easy to fall back on conspiracy theories when we are mad or frustrated or can’t understand why the world isn’t turning out the way we want it to. At her most cynical moments, Elly Peterson believed that conservative operatives in President Gerald Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign deliberately tried to throw his race because they really wanted Ronald Reagan to be elected president four years later. She saw conspiracies where the reality was more likely simply campaign chaos and incompetence. And considering that Ford came back from a 33-percentage-point deficit before the Republican National Convention to lose one of the tightest races of the 20th century, I’d argue that the “conspirators”  failed pretty miserably.

So I’m prepared to accept that my lost video was a screw-up. And I hope I will get another chance to record a speech.

But if it happens a second time. . . .

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