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John Paul Vann and his staff at Pleiku (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The great writer Neil Sheehan has died at 84. In 1971 as a reporter for The New York Times, he obtained the Pentagon papers, which uncovered secrets and blunders of the U.S. engagement in Vietnam. He was also the author of the definitive book about America’s involvement in the war, A Bright Shining Lie.

The book, published in 1988, was broad in scope but narrow in its focus on one man: John Paul Vann, a career Army officer who became a senior civilian in the U.S. effort in Vietnam. …


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Walter Mondale, Dick Gephardt, and Wes Clark (Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The end of Donald Trump’s term as president is, finally, at hand. And with it, the incessant assessments, revelations, speechifying, expressions of horror and mockery are, if nothing else, entering a new phase. One question in the aftermath: What is it that makes anyone believe they have presidential potential?

As it happens, I have observed and/or worked with seven men who thought they could or should be president of the United States. And four of them actually got the job — Donald Trump, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The other three were Walter Mondale, Richard Gephardt and Wesley Clark, all of whom were considered serious contenders for the presidency until, for one reason or another, they were not. …


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Credit: Pete Souza

The history of lead reviewers over the past half century or so at The Washington Post Book World is illustrious: Geoffrey Wolff, William McPherson and Jonathan Yardley with editors of the stature of Brigitte Weeks, Nina King and Marie Arana.

The incumbent, Carlos Lozada, is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of the acclaimed What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era which involved reading 150 books by or about Donald Trump. For that alone, Lozada deserves our appreciation and maybe to have his head examined.

So, when Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land was published last month, I was surprised to see this tweet from Carlos: “I get the feeling that no matter how many books he writes, Barack Obama’s best book will always be the one that came first.” …


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On the morning after Penguin Random House/Bertelsmann acquired Simon & Schuster from ViacomCBS for $2.175 billion, I tested my recollection of previous benchmarks in the history of all these great names in the publishing of books.

In 1965, RCA bought Random House from its founder Bennett Cerf, adding Alfred A. Knopf, Pantheon and Ballantine before unloading it in 1980 for $70 million around the same time, I am pretty sure, as the unraveling conglomerate sold Hertz Rent-A-Car. The buyer of Random House was Advance Publications, a multi-media company owned by the Newhouse family.

In 1998, the Newhouse’s sold Random House and its imprints to Bertelsmann, the large privately-owned German publisher (with a miserable record in Hitler’s Germany) for about $1.4 …


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Peter Mark Sanford was still twelve when he told his mother Katherine, my daughter, that he wanted to study for a Bar Mitzvah. Being one-quarter Jewish and living in a secular home in Woodacre, California, Pete’s determination surprised his mother because, as the saying goes, it seemed so random.

His encounters with organized religion were virtually nil. His experience with Judaism, I would joke, was having seen “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway, playing Tevye in a family summer take-off and Seders with local family and friends.

So a Bar Mitzvah? Why? How?

Preparation would be from a standing start. Katherine, with her husband Colin’s support, said she would locate an appropriate instructor in Torah somewhere nearby on the condition that if Pete embarked, he had to commit to finishing, absolutely. …


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Last week an item appeared on Axios, a much read Washington website (link) and in major publishing industry newsletters (link) reporting the launch of an imprint called Platform Books LLC, with its first book to be An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen by, well, me.

Medium is not the place for “sponsored” content. So, this is not that. Instead, it is an effort to explain how this approach to book publishing fits into the arc of the book world now.

What is the book? It is a reported memoir of my lengthy-enough life from its origins in India during World War II, later covering war and autocracy for The Washington Post and as an editor and publisher working with four presidents and scores of luminaries. It is, if I may be so bold, a colorful set of experiences with, I hope, some life lessons as well. …


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Katherine Osnos Sanford, my daughter, imagines this scenario:

At the Pearly Gates, the greeter observes, “It says here that in the 1980s, you were responsible for Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.”

“Yes,” I reply, “but I was also the publisher of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father.”

“Ok,” says the greeter, “Purgatory.”

As we approach this especially fateful election day, I want to update something that I wrote for NewYorker.com a year ago. …


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Rep. Fred Upton and Rep. Jon Hoadley

This account of a congressional race in Michigan was reported before and then written on the eve of President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis. The events since then could conceivably have an impact on the outcome. Yet, nothing in the media coverage available would indicate that it will.

Michigan’s Sixth District in the House of Representatives covers twelve counties in the west and southwest of the state, including Berrien County where we have been all summer. In 2016, the region went to Donald Trump, 52.2 percent to 41.3 percent for Hilary Clinton. …


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Credit: flickr/Natasia Causse

The National Book Festival in Washington D.C. marked its 20th year this fall and, like everything else of its kind, it was virtual. The Washington Post recently ran an oral history of the first festival, and it showed, unequivocally, how much has changed since September 8, 2001 — one of the last days of that relatively tranquil period at the turn of the millennium.

On the opening night, there was a black-tie dinner in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress and every member of the George W. Bush cabinet was there, with Laura Bush as the honorary chair along with the featured authors, their families and other notables. …


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James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Vernon Jordan (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Here is a list of books a (now virtual) New York City book group has read in the past year or so:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Plague by Albert Camus

It is notable how closely these novels track the situation in the U.S. in 2020 — a year of simultaneous political, economic, racial and health crises. …

About

Peter Osnos

Founder in 1997 of PublicAffairs, he is the author of “An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen” to be published in June.

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