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Publisher Peter Osnos, Who's Worked With Promininent Americans, Pens Memoir

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The book publisher Peter Osnos knows he's in a very old business that often seems like it's nearing its end.

PETER OSNOS: I used to say - and I do still say - that the first book in print was Gutenberg's Bible, and the second book in print was called "Publishing Is Dead."

INSKEEP: Needless to say, publishing lives, and Peter Osnos has seen a lot of its ups and downs. He started his career as a journalist, where his work included a weekly slot on this program in its early years. In the 1980s, he became a book editor at Random House and then the founder of PublicAffairs, and now has an imprint called Platform, which has published his memoir, "An Especially Good View." Peter Osnos has had one. He has edited or published many of the most famous people of his time, including four presidents. When I started listing those presidents, he had something to say about each one.

OSNOS: Jimmy Carter is totally and completely authentic. I sat at his kitchen table and said grace. He wrote every word of every book.

INSKEEP: Bill Clinton.

OSNOS: Bill Clinton had charisma and intelligence. Wrestling a book out of him while he was also running for president was no easy trick.

INSKEEP: Barack Obama.

OSNOS: He came to me. I bought the book for $40,000.

INSKEEP: This is before he was president, we should tell people.

OSNOS: And after he made the famous speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004, that same little book we had published in 1995 with, you know, modest success was reissued by my successors in the Random House company and sold 4 million copies. Barack Obama is a man who knows where he's going and is determined to get there.

INSKEEP: Donald Trump.

OSNOS: Donald Trump. I was - just arrived at Random House. I was tasked by the owner of Random House, Mr. Newhouse, who said, this Trump fellow's a comer and I want to do a book with him.

INSKEEP: It's 1980-something, yeah.

OSNOS: 1986. Long story short, the man I saw in 1986 is very much the same man who became president of the United States, except then he was a developer. And later, that person became the president of the United States with the same instincts of how to be in charge to the extent possible of himself without regard to the consequences.

INSKEEP: I guess we should remind people - some will know, many will know - he didn't really write that book, right? He had a ghostwriter who hung out with him and created a Donald Trump for the page.

OSNOS: Yeah, but unfortunately for Tony - because Tony has - and with Tony, I discussed this extensively - he did a brilliant job. That book is Donald Trump. If you read that book, you are meeting Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: What did you think about when Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter, during the 2016 campaign said, I now feel guilty, I feel that I helped create a monster, I polished this man, I made him look better than he deserved to look?

OSNOS: The truth of the matter is, I understand why Tony regretted doing the book. The difference was, Tony was the collaborator, in effect, the person who captured the essence of Donald Trump. I was the reporter. For me, it was observing Trump. My entire career, both in journalism and publishing - and it's just a fact; it's the way we are - is an awful lot about observing, and I was observing Donald Trump. I wasn't serving him. I wasn't giving him money. I wasn't taking money. The company was.

INSKEEP: Is this true of your publishing career, generally, you still think like a reporter, I just want to learn things and pass them on?

OSNOS: Absolutely. You know, Robert McNamara...

INSKEEP: The former defense secretary, sure.

OSNOS: Right. And the person most people identify with the debacle of Vietnam, he came to me in about 1993 and said he wanted to write his life story. And I said, well, Bob, what people really want to know is, how do you feel about Vietnam? And he said, well, OK. And he went off, and he came back with 100,000 words about Vietnam. And over the next 18 months, we met regularly - it's all taped; I have the tapes - in which a young editor and I and his assistant researcher explored Bob's feelings about Vietnam. And in one of the very last sessions, we asked him what it felt like to go to the Mall and see the...

INSKEEP: The Vietnam Memorial, sure.

OSNOS: Yes. And he said, the war was wrong, terribly wrong, and we owe it to future generations to explain why. And I thought to myself, that's the book. And it was. And when we published the book, it was immensely controversial. People said, how dare he, after 25 years, finally acknowledge what he knew all along. The war was wrong. Well, the truth is, my job as a - in that sense - as an editor wasn't to hook the paragraphs and change the adjectives. It was to get the story. And what is a reporter's job? To get the story.

INSKEEP: What have you thought about, as there have been protests within the publishing industry, about publishing certain books from political figures? There was a protest, for example, against publishing the memoir of Mike Pence, the former vice president.

OSNOS: I would publish Mike Pence, but I would not give him one dollar more than he earned. In other words, the mistake there was not saying, we want to publish Mike Pence. Mike Pence was the vice president. He's a story. He may have a story to tell. I would ask for two things. One is I would insist that Mike Pence's book met the same standards of, to use a pompous word, verisimilitude as any other book I published. And the second thing is, I'd say we're going to pay you royalties on every copy sold, but we're not going to give you a million dollars just to do it. If he wanted money for it, he had to earn it. He wouldn't get it as a gift or guarantee.

INSKEEP: Last thing I've got. As a publisher still publishing in your 70s, how do you make sure that the books that you publish represent America?

OSNOS: Well, I don't claim to do that. Look, I am what I am. I'm a 77 now - God help me - 77-year-old white man. But I'm also - my parents left Poland after the Nazis arrived. My brother was 8. I had yet to be born. By the time they were brought on a cruise ship in Bombay and came to New York, I was in a basket. They came here with nothing but their wits, really.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

OSNOS: And I grew up in this country. So do I represent America? Nope. I'm a, you know, white man in my 70s. But I'm also a father, grandfather, friend, and that represents a lot of America, too.

INSKEEP: Peter Osnos has published many, many books, and his memoir is called "An Especially Good View." Thanks so much.

OSNOS: Thank you, Steve. It's a pleasure to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT JAZZ ENSEMBLE'S "I SAW STARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.