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On the Spot: Joe Wilson at Elaine's

The simple surfer from Santa Barbara is also a sharp critic of the Bush administration who sees truth telling as a civic responsibility.
 
 
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Former ambassador Joe Wilson is a charming guy. He calls himself a "simple surfer from Santa Barbara" who never in his wildest dreams thought he'd be the star of a book party. But on Thursday, May 13 at Elaine's -- the legendary hang out for the literati and the power brokers on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan -- he was certainly the star. Years from now when we look back at this dark period with its unbelievable shocks virtually every day, Wilson will be remembered as one of the heroes, a clear strong voice in opposition to a government he and many others knew to be far out of the mainstream of America.

Wilson is busy promoting his book The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity , collecting some influential media appearances on the Daily Show, MSNBC and Charlie Rose, showcases like Elaine's and other stops across the country. In a week, he's headed to San Francisco where there will be a Commonwealth Club appearance, book readings and a party at Tosca -- which, in a funny way, is a kind of Elaine's of San Francisco.

Wilson, of course, is the guy who blew the whistle on one of the five biggest lies mobilized by the Bush administration to bring our country to war in Iraq: the assertion from British intelligence that Saddam Hussein had acquired uranium from sources in the West African country of Niger. By writing an op-ed about this obvious falsehood in the New York Times, and going on the road to speak out, Wilson was, in effect, leveraging his credibility as an establishment insider to expose the mendacity of the Bush administration. After all, Wilson was asked to go to Niger by the White House; as acting Ambassador, he was the last diplomat to engage with Saddam Hussein as Iraq invaded Kuwait; he has served both Democrats and Republicans in a long career in the foreign service and was friendly with Bush Sr.

Of course, Joe Wilson's celebrity shines more brightly due to the unfortunate and still hard-to-fathom outing of his wife, Valerie Plame as a CIA agent by the odious Robert Novak using information leaked by the White House. Wilson doesn't mince any words, calling the incident "A conspiracy at a high level in the White House to promote a political agenda at the expense of the security of the country."

Like many first-time authors who think they may only have one book in them, Wilson, by his own admission, tries to do a lot. The Politics of Truth serves as a primer about what it is like to do diplomacy from the inside; it looks at issues of war and peace in a succession of conflicts including Gulf War I and Bosnia and it examines in detail the whole yellow cake uranium fiasco in Niger. But, significantly, Wilson can't contain his outrage about how the country got taken by a small group of "maybe 150 neocons making policy for 270 million Americans, essentially based on one document: The Project for a New American Century" that served as a blue print for the invasion of Iraq after 9/11.

Wilson is a bit of a throwback. He comes from several generations of old-style Republicans. He sees his efforts on behalf of truth telling as an act of civic responsibility; he told the audience at Elaine's that it was no different "than speaking up at a town council or the local PTA." He reminds this writer of a World War II-era movie hero who felt the need to speak up because he believes in the system.

The Politics of Truth has become a hot book, yet another successful, powerful critique of Bush policies -- it will debut at number 11 on the New York Times best seller list next week. At the Elaine's party Wilson went out of his way to express appreciation for his publisher Avalon Publishing Group, a unique bi-coastal (Emeryville and New York City) enterprise with a gaggle of imprints including Nation Books, Thunder Mouth and Carrol & Graf, the imprint which published The Politics of Truth .

Wilson joked about sacrificing any lucrative advance to get the book out fast, and Avalon did, in five months to be exact, according to Charlie Winton, the CEO and main man at Avalon, despite needing sign-offs by the CIA, National Security Council and the State Department.

Hamilton Fish, who runs the Nation Institute, was at the event; under his guidance, Nation Books -- another Avalon imprint -- has grown rapidly. It is now publishing more than 40 books a year, becoming a serious player in the political books market. Their top author is Gore Vidal, whose two recent long-form essays, "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace" and "Dreaming War" have sold over 100,000 copies -- big numbers for political books, according to books editor Ruth Baldwin. Another Nation book, Taking Back America , edited by Katrina vanden Heuvel and Bob Borosage, is selling briskly -- and popping up at airport bookstores -- always a good sign.

From Wilson to Vidal, it's clearly a good time to be in the business of political books.

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.