Judge David Sentelle, a Ghost of Whitewater & Iran-Contra, Hip-checking DEMs since 1987

Saturday Update: Since Friday night when I began tweeting and blogging about the Judge Sentelle-led ruling–that if upheld on appeal could block virtually all recess appointments by President Obama–I’ve seen a lot of coverage. Here’s one the best pieces, a brief one by Scott Lemieux, of the blog, Lawyers, Guns, and Money. It’s called Neoconfederate Judges Rule Recess Appointments Unconstitutional. I recommend it.

Also not to be missed is Charlie Pierce, over at, railing against Judge Sentelle with his typically colorful flair and articulate opprobrium in a post titled simply “David Sentelle is a Hack”.
Thanks to the reporting of Robert Draper and Frontline we know that REPUBs began plotting President Obama’s downfall on the first day of his first term. Well, for a comparable artifact from the Clinton Years, cast your mind back to the early days of Bill Clinton’s first term. Whitewater, little more than an annoyance for the Clinton campaign during the ’92 presidential race–became a nuisance once the new president took office, owing to Republican insistence of corruption or worse, and media enabling. Stupidly, papers like the New York Times, notably under the byline of reporter Jeff Gerth–who weirdly was the grown son of a couple friendly with my parents back in the day in suburban Cleveland’s Jewish community–created a froth of interest and curiosity about the failed real estate deal.  To bat back the idea that anything nefarious had happened, the young administration acquiesced to demands for a special prosecutor to investigate the venture, and Robert Fiske was appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno. Reno, who had been Clinton’s third choice for the spot, coming to the fore after two earlier nominations flamed out (remember Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood?). The tall Floridian had little fealty to the Clintons, and had not lacked for independence when she named Fiske, a career attorney, not a partisan. Still, when media began reporting that Fiske was finding little of concern in the land deal, and no wrongdoing by the First Couple, right-wing poobahs claimed Fiske’s selection by Reno had been suspect, and that he was a lackey of the administration.

Senators Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, both from North Carolina, began pulling strings, soon enabling a three-judge panel of the D.C. circuit to remove Fiske. One of those three judges was David Sentelle, also of North Carolina. To the vacated position, the judges appointed Kenneth Starr, a sanctimonious legal prig, who over the next decade would spend more than $100 million on his ever-growing investigation of the Clintons and other DEMs. The rest, unfortunately, became modern history, including ultimately the impeachment and acquittal of President Clinton.

To coerce testimony from Susan MacDougal–former wife of Jim MacDougal, who had in the 80s inveigled the Clintons to buy Whitewater property–Starr charged her with civil contempt and had her jailed for 18 months.*  Once it was clear that Starr would never find a smoking gun amid the Whitewater folderol, moved on to place his investigative weight behind the Paula Jones case and the Monica Lewinski affair.  At the time Bill Clinton’s second term ended Starr’s investigation was ongoing, even though he had long since stopped looking primarily into Whitewater.

All that is prologue to today, when the NY Times reported along with other news outlets that a three judge panel of the D.C. district court, a body headed up by the same David Sentelle, had ruled that President Obama’s 2012 appointment of three officials to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was unconstitutional. The president had appointed those officials during a 20-day break in the Senate’s business, a hiatus during which he also appointed Richard Cordray to head up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. REPUB senators had stalled consideration of these appointments, and scores of others.

The court claims that the Senate was not really in recess, and thus the administration could not make these ‘recess’ appointments. The Times adds,

“Legal specialists said [the ruling’s] reasoning would virtually eliminate the recess appointment power for all future presidents [at a time] when it has become increasingly difficult for presidents to win Senate confirmation for their nominees. . . . ‘If this opinion stands, I think it will fundamentally alter the balance between the Senate and the president by limiting the president’s ability to keep offices filled,’ said John P. Elwood, who handled recess appointment issues for the Justice Department during the Bush administration. ‘This is certainly a red-letter day in presidential appointment power.’ The ruling, if not overturned, could paralyze the NLRB, an independent agency that oversees labor disputes, because it would lack a quorum without the three Obama appointments [made] in January 2012. . . . The ruling also called into question nearly 200 years of previous such appointments by administrations across the political spectrum. The executive branch has been making intrasession appointments since 1867 and has been using recess appointments to fill vacancies that opened before a recess since 1823. Among other things, Mr. Elwood noted, it called into question every ruling made by several federal appeals court judges who were installed by recess power. ‘You know there are people sitting in prisons around the country who will become very excited when they learn of this ruling,’ he said.”

AP reports that Jay Carney, Obama administration press secretary said, “The decision is novel and unprecedented. It contradicts 150 years of practice by Democratic and Republican administrations.”

I don’t pretend to be a lawyer, but I find it hard to believe that this ruling will be upheld. Judge Sentelle and his two cohorts have simply invalidated too much precedent with this radical pronouncement. What interests me more at the moment is how characters like Sentelle–little known outside the halls of government, and not all that well-known even inside them–exert so much authority over our lives and the fate of the nation. The wikipedia page on Sentelle reports that in 1987 to the D.C. District Court, taking the seat just vacated by Antonin Scalia who went on to the Supreme Court. In 1991, Sentelle invalidated the criminal convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter arising from their illegal conduct in the Iran-Contra scandal. I don’t know the man, so I’d normally be loathe to diagnosis his motives, but it is hard to not see Sentelle as a longstanding and ardent operative promoting right-wing, partisan causes, and doing his utmost to sabotage and confound DEM presidents when he has the opportunity to do so. I must add too that if this decision is upheld, it will become even more difficult for President Obama to run the government in the face of REBUB opposition, particularly that emanating from the Senate. This ruling today makes all the more regrettable the partial measures taken in the Senate yesterday, when DEMs there failed to adequately reform the filibuster. If the Sentelle ruling is not overturned, and soon, Senate REPUBs will have even less reason to work with President Obama. It makes me wonder if Sentelle–a Zelig-like figure on the conservative bench–and his colleagues held the release of their ruling until the day following the announcement of the Senate’s weak measures. lest the urgency of filibuster reform seem truly imperative to wavering DEM senators like Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Here’s an excellent piece by TPM’s Brian Beutler that reports on the constitutional issues at stake.

*In 2000 Susan MacDougal became my author, when I acquired and edited her book The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk: Why I Wouldn’t Testify Against the Clintons and What I Learned in Jail, with a forceful Introduction by Helen Thomas, a NY Times bestseller. In addition to Susan’s book, recommended reading on this topic is The Hunting of the President by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons.Susan McDougal

Herman Graf in 2012, Celebrating 51 Years in the Book Biz (now with a Bob Wietrak 2018 update)

February 6 2018 Update: With the sad passing this week of Bob Wietrak, longtime bookseller and publishing executive—with whom I was a colleague at Macmillan from 1987-1990—I want to point out to friends and readers of this blog that Bob was involved in a harrowing episode at one of our annual book conventions, at an ABA in the 1980s, the one time the trade show was held in Las Vegas. A key figure in the incident was Herman Graf, the longtime publishing pal whose surprise birthday party I wrote about below in 2012. Bob was at that party, too, seen in the background of the photo below.

In a phone call tonight Herman reminded me of some of Bob’s best qualities. Herman told me, “He had an uncanny talent for predicting what books would work big. He also had a knack for making publishers feel generally satisfied about the ordering and marketing decisions that the national book chain made about what books to feature, while also keeping B&N’s upper management satisfied.” Bob was laid off in a big B&N purge in 2011, when 40 people were let go, and went on to later jobs with online book sites Bookish and Zola. (I know about B&N’s corporate purges first-hand as in 2009 I was let go in a twenty-person layoff from Sterling Publishing, B&N’s publishing division, where I worked as Editorial Director, V-P of Union Square Press.) Nearly seven years after the party for Herman, I’m really glad that Bob Wietrak was there that night.


Last night Kyle and I were delighted to join a group of several dozen well-wishers who sprung a surprise party in honor of Herman Graf and his 51 years in publishing. Herman walked in on the hushed throng which had assembled in the living room of Tony Lyons, founder of Skyhorse Publishing, expecting to join Tony for dinner, when in unison we let out with our “Surprise.” More than a bit stunned, Herman said, “It’s not my birthday.” It’s not even my Bar Mitzvah.” We took the photos accompanying this post in the first few minutes after he walked in to find a party had been laid for him.

Herman began his publishing career in 1961, doing stints with McGraw-Hill, Doubleday, Arco Books, and then Grove Press, where he worked in sales and marketing during the indie press’s 60s and 70s heyday. This was the time when Grove was bringing writers like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Mikhail Bulgakov to American readers, even while founder Barney Rosset was frequently in court, accused of distributing “obscene” literature, like D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Herman rode that tiger with Barney, and other key Grove executives, such as Kent Carroll, Fred Jordan and Richard Seaver. That era is covered well in the 2007 documentary “Obscene,” made by Dan O’Connor  and Neil Ortenberg, also old colleagues of Herman’s, and mine.

The ride was so rollicking that in later years Herman liked to say, “I was the Billy Martin of publishing; Barney fired me three times, and rehired me twice.” There was something to this George Steinbrenner-Billy Martin analogy, as Herman, like the brawling, ill-fated Yankee manager, could handle himself in a tight spot, having been a fair boxer when he grew up in the Bronx. Once, at a Las Vegas ABA in the early 80s—the annual convention of the book industry—Herman found himself defending a number of bookseller friends including the genial Barnes & Noble executive Bob Wietrak. Bob and other B&N people found themselves on the wrong side of some ornery Vegas bouncers intent on vacating an after-hours club at an early hour, even though B&N management had secured the room for the night to host a publishing party. These bouncers were attacking the B&N people, slamming them and pushing them. Herman stepped between Bob and the bouncers, and over the next few minutes bulled, brazened, and punched his way out of the club with Bob and others in tow. I know this story is true—I heard about it not only from Herman, but from my late brother Joel, a bookseller—who happened to also be at the venue that night.

In 1978, my sibling and I with our parents began operating our Cleveland indie bookstore chain, Undercover Books, and like many stores of the time, we were glad to have an obscure bestseller land in our laps, A Confederacy of Dunces, the posthumous novel of John Kennedy Toole. The book came with a star-crossed and tragic pedigree–the author had killed himself after failing to get it published, whereupon his grieving mother managed to get it into the hands of Walker Percy. The great southern novelist championed it and convinced editors at the University of Louisiana Press to publish it in hardcover. However, that wasn’t the end of the story. Meantime, Grove Press had acquired rights to publish a paperback edition, but the university press edition, though attracting much critical attention and press, had not really sold a lot of copies in hardcover. Herman, though working for Grove, took it upon himself to sell many thousands of copies of the LSU press edition to national wholesalers, such as Ingram where Cathy Hemming ordered copies. The market was seeded for the paperback edition. When Grove published it some months later it sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and millions since, in part owing to Herman’s work for the hardcover of another publishing house.

Herman told me that story sometime after 2000, the year he hired me to work with him at Carroll & Graf, the company he started in the mid-70s. Last night it was great seeing old C&G colleagues, Peter Skutches, Failey Patrick, Tina Pohlman, Bea Goldberg, and Claiborne Hancock. One of our authors, Stan Cohen was there, and his agent, Peter Sawyer. Agent, Laura Langlie, a friend to C&Gers, was also there. Norton execs Bill Rusin and Dozier Hammond also gave their best wishes in person, as did Bob Wietrak.

The seven years I spent with C&G were among the most productive, fun, and successful years of my publishing career. I learned so much working with Herman and got to hear some of the best–and often the funniest–stories about the business. Together we acquired many terrific books and published them creatively and energetically, including Susan MacDougal’s The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk: Why I Wouldn’t Testify against the Clintons and What I Learned in Jail and Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity, both of which became NY Times bestsellers. The years there finally confirmed me on an editorial path I had begun to hew to by 2000, but had not yet fully embarked on–of publishing truthellers, whistleblowers, muckrakers, authors of such singular witness that only they could write the book in question.

Herman now works with Skyhorse Publishing, for whom a book he acquired, The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved by Jonathan Fenby, got a great review in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. He is not stepping back or slowing down.

Thanks to Tony Lyons and Jennifer McCartney of Skyhorse Publishing, and Claiborne Hancock, who after leaving Carroll&Graf started his own company, Pegasus Books. They did a great job of hosting and organizing the surprise party for our friend and colleague, Herman Graf.

On the Imperative of Publishing Whistleblowers

Neal Maillet, editorial director of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, has published a good opinion piece in Publishing Perspectives on what he sees as the imperative of publishing books by whistleblowers, and the dynamics that prevail when working with these authors and their books. In 2004 Berrett-Koehler published the breakthrough book on vulture capitalism, Confessions of an Economic Hitman, a mega-hit by John Perkins that was licensed to Plume for trade paperback for whom it was also a bestseller. More recently, he writes that B-K has published Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic, on the little-known darker side of what we like to think of as progressive measures to facilitate economic progress in the developing world.

For my part, when I describe the imperatives and mandates that impel my personal publishing choices I have long placed “whistleblowers, truthtellers, muckrakers, and revisionist historians” highest on my list, and refer to this on the two business-oriented pages at the top of this website, Philip Turner Book Productions and Philip Turner. Quoting from the latter page, I’ve written “As an editor and publisher I have always felt impelled to publish books by and about singular witnesses–whistleblowers, truthellers, muckrakers, revisionist historians–people who’ve passed through some crucible of experience that’s left them with elevated author-ity, and the only person who could write the book in question, or about whom it could be written. Whether told in the first person by an author who has passed through some crucible of experience that leaves him or her uniquely qualified to tell the tale or in the third person by a reporter or scholar who has pursued a story or historical episode with single-minded passion, I am devoted to publishing imperative nonfiction, books that really matter in people’s lives.”

My definition of an imperative book is not limited to books by corporate and government whistleblowers, though it certainly includes them. The list of relevant books I’ve acquired and/or published over the past decade and a half includes these ten titles:

1) DEAD RUN: The Shocking Story of Dennis Stockton and Life on Death Row in America (1999), a nonfiction narrative by reporters Joe Jackson and Bill Burke with an Introduction by William Styron, chronicling an innocent man on Death Row in Virginia and the only mass escape from Death Row in U.S. history. The condemned convict, Dennis Stockton, wasn’t among the escapees, but he kept a whistleblowing diary detailing corruption in the penitentiary that he later with the reporters;
2) IBM & THE HOLOCAUST: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation (2001), an investigative tour de force by Edwin Black showing how one of the world’s most successful technology companies lent its technology to the Third Reich’s killing machinery;
3) THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN’T TALK: Why I Refused to Testify Against the Clintons and What I Learned in Jail (2002) by Susan MacDougal, a New York Times bestseller. Susan served 18 months in jail for civil contempt when she wouldn’t give Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr the testimony he wanted from her.

4) THE POLITICS OF TRUTH: Inside the Lies that Put the White House on Trial and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity (2004) by Ambassador Joseph Wilson, which later became the basis in part for the film, “Fair Game,” a New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller;
5) AHMAD’S WAR, AHMAD’S PEACE: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq (2005) by Michael Goldfarb. A longtime NPR correspondent, this is Goldfarb’s tribute to Kurd Ahmad Shawkat, his translator during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, who started a newspaper in the months after Saddam’s fall, only to be assassinated for his editorials critical of intolerance. A New York Times Notable Book.

To the books by these authors, I would also add my writers, the late Edward Robb Ellis, the most prolific diarist in the history of American letters, and 100-year oldRuth Gruber, award-winning photojournalist–each of them singular eyewitnesses to history. Over the years I have published four and six books by them, respectively.

Among my professional roles nowadays is that of independent editor and consultant to authors on book development in which I continue seeking out unique individuals with stories like these to tell. That’s also why I enjoy working with Speakerfile, the company that connects conference organizers with authors who do public speaking. Thanks to Neal Maillett and Berrett-Koehler Publishers for reminding me and all readers of the vital role publishers play in helping us hear the voices of whistleblowers and truthtellers. H/t to Mike Shatzkin for alerting me to Mr. Maillett’s article. Also, thanks to the Open Democracy Action Center (ODAC) for use of their whistleblower graphic.

Please click through to the complete post to read about the last five books from the above list and see many of the book jackets.