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Lead Time

It isn't what it used to be.

11:00 PM, Jan 28, 2008 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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A FEW WEEKS ago, in the New York Post, our friend Peter Wehner had some innocent fun with a book by Jacob Heilbrun titled They Knew They Were Right, the theme of which was the damage done by the neo-conservatives in driving their besotted party and country into a calamitous loss in Iraq. The tone was triumphalist, one might even say snotty, reveling in the disgrace of the author's ideological enemies.
Iraq was a mess! Neocons were in purdah! They would never eat lunch in this city again! All true, it would seem, when the book had been written, about the time, one would guess, of the 2006 rebuke.


The fun part came from the fact that by the time it was published, every conclusion made in it was wrong. The military tide had been turned in Iraq, al Qaeda was being roundly defeated, and the plan that had made it all possible had been cooked up by---yes, the neo-conservatives!---who weren't quite so wrong after all. Mocking Heilbrun is fun, but this also suggests a larger phenomenon: things change so fast nowadays that by the time a book about current affairs hits the market, the reality it is describing may well have ceased to exist.


The first sign of this trend appeared after the 2004 election, when books were commissioned describing the newly re-elected President George W. Bush as a master strategist, who had established a model of dominance for the next generation. These books appeared near the end of 2005, just in time for Katrina, and Bush's big slide in the polls. On a similar note, a flood of books were published a little bit later about how the Republican party was in for a period of permanent dominance, with titles such as One Party Country, suggesting the entire country was about to turn red. These came out shortly before the slide that led to the loss in the 2006 midterms, after which pundits declared that if there was a one-party state, it would be run by the Democrats. This was before the 2007 session, in which the Democratic leadership lost all of its battles, and saw its approval ratings sink into the teens.


Sometimes, it's not just the facts that change, but the views of the author in question. After Bush and the Republicans won in 2004, Peter Beinart wrote a rousing article in the New Republic urging the Democrats to become more like Harry S. Truman, who in the early days of the Cold War had driven Henry A. Wallace and his pacifist followers out of the party, and adopted the muscular and confrontational stance vis-à-vis the Red Menace for which he is at present remembered so fondly. By the time the book based on the piece had appeared, Iraq had grown worse, the Democrats were driving the Trumanites (such as Joe Lieberman) out of their party, and the author himself had recanted his prior support for the war. It's not just the partisans who find themselves tripped by the time line. Ronald Brownstein's The Second Civil War, largely an anti-partisan argument, ends with a rebuke to Bush's refusal to change his course on Iraq, his folly in rejecting the advice of the Iraq Study Group, and the determination of a unified Democratic party in Congress to force a quick end to the conflict. When the book came out, Bush had completely reversed his old strategy, the Democrats' efforts had been totally stymied, and it was becoming more clear by the moment that rejecting the Study Group's recommendations was the smartest thing Bush ever did.


But it's not only books---with their multi-month lead times---that face out-of-date problems in this stunning new whirlagig world. In the primary season, things move so fast and so counter to pattern that even weeklies find their stories outdated about three days after printing: in the past two weeks, no less than five major figures have gone from being inevitable to being has-beens, to being wave-riding wonders; and three---given up for dead, and already buried---have come roaring back from the grave.
They may make writing books about current affairs an act of great daring. Or they may make them all obsolete.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.