The State Department's Obama Book Buy

The Washington Times recently reported that the State Department has purchased over $70,000 of Barack Obama’s books, mostly “Dreams From My Father,” which is more than ten years old.  The President’s inspiring life story found its way into Christmas stockings and libraries around the world:

The U.S. Embassy in Egypt, for instance, spent $28,636 in August 2009 for copies of Mr. Obama’s best-selling 1995 memoir. Six weeks earlier, the embassy had placed another order for the same book for more than $9,000, federal purchasing records show.

About the same time, halfway around the world, the U.S. Embassy in South Korea had the same idea and spent more than $6,000 for copies of “Dreams From My Father.”

One month later, the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, spent more than $3,800 for hardcover copies of the Indonesian version of Mr. Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope,” records show.

Now, on the scale of trillion-dollar government waste we’ve all grown accustomed to, $70,000 barely qualifies as pocket change.  The State Department probably does this sort of thing with every President, right?

Actually, no, they don’t.  According to the Washington Times, “A review of the expenditures in a federal database did not reveal any examples of State Department purchases of books by former Presidents George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.”

The State Department says this is all business as usual:

State Department spokesman Noel Clay said the book purchases followed regular government procurement rules. He said diplomats have long used books as a way to help broker talks on important foreign-policy matters.

“The structure and the presidency of the United States is an integral component of representing the United States overseas,” Mr. Clay said. “We often use books to engage key audiences in discussions of foreign policy.”

Another State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, later told the Times that the demand for thousands of Obama books is spontaneously arising in embassies around the world:

“It’s the embassies themselves that make the decisions what American books to buy,” she said, adding the purchases are “based on the interest in the country where they are.”

Ms. Nuland also noted that such purchases were “standard practice” and that embassies can stock libraries with books, give copies to other libraries and provide copies to diplomatic contacts. She said if people went through the libraries, they would find examples of literary works from administration figures in both political parties.

But it’s clearly not “standard practice.”  There are no comparable State Department purchases of books from previous Presidents on record.  It might make some minimal degree of sense for embassies to stock up on the President’s books for their libraries, and give them as gifts to foreign officials, although it seems extravagant for a government that borrows forty-odd cents of every dollar it spends.  But there’s no record they’ve ever done this before – not on a $70,000 scale.

“It’s inappropriate for U.S. taxpayer dollars to be spent on this,” Leslie Paige of Citizens Against Government Waste told the Washington Times. “This sounds like propaganda.”  In fact, Thomas Jefferson went a bit further, arguing that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”  It probably wouldn’t have occurred to him that one day the State Department would be spending taxpayer money to carpet-bomb foreign capitals with mass-produced copies of the President’s ghost-written personal autobiography.

The White House claims it had no knowledge of the book purchases, which probably sluiced about $6000 of taxpayer cash into the President’s pocket through royalty payments.  He reported $1.8 million in income last year, making him a real honest-to-gosh millionaire, as opposed to the fake $250,000-per-year “millionaires” he’s so hungry to tax out of their “fair share.”  I can’t imagine anyone in America today has much of a problem with a 50-year-old millionaire picking up a $6000 check from the government in exchange for bulk purchases of his multiple autobiographies, so this should all blow over soon enough.