Obama mentions a book about FDR and publishers go wild

Historians in the News

When President-elect Barack Obama appeared on “60 Minutes” on CBS on Sunday in his first interview since winning the election, he mentioned having read “a new book out about F .D. R.’s first 100 days” without specifically naming a title or author.

That tantalizing reference set off a scramble for the claim to First Reader rights all day Monday before a spokesman for Mr. Obama disclosed what the president-elect had actually read.

The publishers and authors of at least three such books that could fit Mr. Obama’s description each spent much of Monday wondering whether they had just gotten a plug from the soon-to-be leader of the free world.

Anthony J. Badger, a professor at Cambridge University in England, assumed it was his book “F D R: The First Hundred Days” when he started receiving e-mail messages from CNN producers on Monday morning, asking for interviews. Meanwhile, executives at Penguin Press, publisher of a forthcoming book, “Nothing to Fear: F D R’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America,” by Adam Cohen (a member of the editorial board of The New York Times), were convinced it was their title.

And then there was Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek reporter and author of “The Defining Moment: F D R’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope,” published in 2006. On Sunday night, he said, “I got a bunch of e-mails on my BlackBerry from excited friends saying Obama just mentioned your book, exclamation point.”

The mystery persisted for most of the day until a spokesman for Mr. Obama said late on Monday that the president-elect was actually referring to two books: Mr. Alter’s and “F D R” by Jean Edward Smith, a biography published last year by Random House that covers far more than the first 100 days.

There was already evidence that Mr. Obama had read Mr. Alter’s book. In a Nov. 6 interview with Larry King on CNN, Paul Begala, a CNN political analyst, said, “Jonathan Alter of Newsweek wrote a wonderful book called ‘The Defining Moment,’ ” adding that Senator Obama “has been quoting from that book.”

But “The Defining Moment” was published by Simon & Schuster in 2006, and the paperback edition came out last year. Given that Mr. Obama referred to a “new” book on Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the “60 Minutes” interview, Mr. Alter’s work didn’t appear to meet that criterion. Mr. Alter said that Mr. Obama was “literate enough that he’s probably reading more than one book about that period.”

After learning that his book was, in fact, one of the titles referred to by Mr. Obama, Mr. Alter said: “It’s just nice that we’re going to have a president that has a strong sense of history.”

Mr. Smith could not be reached, but Carol Schneider, a spokeswoman for Random House, was surprised to learn that “FDR” had been one of the books behind Mr. Obama’s comment on Sunday because Mr. Smith’s book was not new. “It’s probably safe to say there was no flurry here,” Ms. Schneider said.

Hill & Wang, an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which originally printed fewer than 5,000 copies of “F D R: The First Hundred Days” in June and received scant review coverage in the United States, decided to reprint 5,000 copies on Monday morning, partly in response to orders from booksellers. In an e-mail message, Bob Wietrak, a vice president of merchandising for Barnes & Noble Booksellers, said the company had noticed an uptick in orders on BN.com following the interview and was trying to get more copies in stock....

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