As I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, my wonderful client Kim Long’s new book THE ALMANAC OF POLITICAL CORRUPTION, SCANDALS & DIRTY POLITICS is now in stores.
Every time I pick up the ALMANAC, besides chuckling merrily at our history of political malfeasance and skulduggery (however bad today’s scandals seem they were 1,000 times worse a hundred years ago — see Potter, Robert) I am just awed by the amount of research that went into the ALMANAC. How does one go about compiling the most important (and somewhat hilarious) political scandals in the past 300 years along with some of the best political cartoons and pictures? How does one even find out that a politician once tried to annex Ireland and that a New Jersey State Senator elaborately faked his drowning by leaving oxygen tubes on the floor of the Caribbean?
I asked Kim to blog about how he researched the ALMANAC, and here’s what he had to say:
My most recent book, the Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals, and Dirty Politics, will be published in September by Bantam/Dell. Nathan Bransford handled the sale, and provided useful input during the proposal stage. At 368 pages, this project attempts to span the history of political corruption in the United States with a chronology of various people and events that make up this story, a different approach than the thousands of other titles, almost all narrative nonfiction, that have covered the subject. I have written other books using this type of almanac format and find it an engaging way to present information, from serious topics to trivia.
But with politics, various complexities compounded the task of research, organization, and writing. Most of the effort here, as with many nonfiction book projects, was expended in the former category, finding information and answering questions. What comprises corruption in the history of politics? Who was involved? What happened? The “big” stories — Watergate, the impeachment of President Johnson, the Teapot Dome scandal — are so well-covered that they present a problem of too much information. In a project such as mine, room has to be made for lots of entries, so reducing large stories to digest-sized items often took as much time as researching smaller stories from scratch. As journalists and reference professionals know, condensation is a tough slog.
However, most of the research involved combing published sources for lesser known stories, with newspapers, periodicals, and books my primary sources. With few exceptions, this meant relying on published indexes or online searches of full-text archives. Browsing was one method, hunting for topics that met my criteria in a discovery process without strict rules, as in “you know it when you see it.” The other method is searching, the quest for answers when specific information is already known, such as proper names, geographic locations, or other keywords.
Online databases make the former method practical, but not always straightforward. Consider the range of keywords that might link a politician to a misdeed: “arrest,” “indictment,” “sentence,” “fine,” “accused,” “parole,” etc., not to the mention the dozens of potential activities that might have been involved: assault, murder, bribery, fraud, kickbacks, larceny, misdemeanor, felony, public nuisance … the list is lengthy.
The multiple keywords defining politicians also added complexity to both browsing and searching. In order to do a thorough hunt, other alternatives are necessary as well, including, “mayor,” “governor,” “senator,” “congressman,” “representative,” and so on. Even these narrowed alternatives might miss opportunities to uncover a scoundrel, as early newspaper accounts, which were typically partisan, might skip the official title altogether in favor of an insulting adjective, derogatory nickname, or party affiliation. And sometimes, merely, “The Hon. …” Ultimately, it was combination of keywords that produced results, some combinations being more successful than others.
To ensure further discovery, another avenue I employed was to find shortcuts, previously published accounts that included names, events, and specific misdeeds. The muckrakers of the late 1800s provided one such field as did scholarly publications that focus on a single issue, such as bribery or election fraud. Here, thanks to the demands of academic publishing, potent details are often included, leading back to Internet searches armed with specific keywords. A single newspaper article could also be a gold mine, as when the Chicago Tribune or the Washington Post assigned a reporter to provide historical perspective on a contemporary misdeed by a local politician. An article on yet another alderman sent to prison in Chicago, for example, might provide a list — a long list — of previous escapades involving other aldermen.
At the other end of the research spectrum, some characters defied uncovering. Either because their actions were local and did not make it to the readily-available archives for national publications such as the New York Times, or they were truly obscure and lost to history. Felix McConnell is one example. I stumbled across a short newspaper article announcing his death while scanning hundreds of entries turned up in a browse for “congressman” and “suicide”; he killed himself with a pocket knife in December 1843. But despite being a national politician — he was a Democratic representative from Alabama — there was little else about his life until, by accident, I discovered an illustrated history book published in the 1940s, in which McConnell was depicted brandishing a knife on the porch of a Washington, D.C., hotel, an event that was newsworthy at the time, and enough to make him eligible for an entry in my book.
Unfortunately, without being able to track down a source or permission to reuse this illustration, I was left at the last minute with a hole in the page where his entry was placed, and not enough time to repaginate all of the pages that would be affected by simply closing up the text to replace the graphic. Luckily, in a second search of historic texts in a local academic library, I found a juicy bit of information I had missed the first time around. It seems that McConnell’s one claim to fame while he was in Congress was to propose that the United States annex Ireland.
Research can be tedious, repetitive, and benumbing to the brain, but the payoff is discoveries both significant and trivial, the browsing incidents and search accidents that end up populating my books.
And, in the case of political shenanigans, there’s always tomorrow’s morning newspaper.