Would it really be a dream for a biographer to have thousands of pages of daily journal entries to work from? It certainly seems so. But when Don Hardy set out to write Shooting from the Lip: The Life of Senator Al Simpson, and the former Wyoming senator handed him the journals, it must have been overwhelming. Not the task of reading all that material — after spending 18 years as Simpson’s Press Secretary and Chief of Staff, that material must have been a fascinating romp down memory lane for Hardy — but the task of winnowing it down into a 488-page book.
Imagine the pressure. Simpson gave Hardy free reign to include anything he wanted, as long as it was true. Al Simpson was a highly influential senator and majority whip. He was involved in groundbreaking legislation. He chaired many committees, including Veterans’ Affairs, Immigration and Refugee Subcommittee of Judiciary; Nuclear Regulation; Social Security, and the Committee on Aging. He was there during the Iran-Contra scandal. He served under — and worked closely with — four presidents. Simpson’s father was a U.S. Senator as well. The volume of material available about Alan Simpson’s life is overwhelming.
And Don Hardy had to decide what details to include and what to leave out. In my humble opinion, Hardy did a yeoman’s job. Biographies are often one-sided documents, lauding or roasting the subject. Despite being very close to Simpson, Hardy presented the senator complete with all of his faults and foibles. He distilled all of the interviews, a 19-volume diary, and all of the documents from Simpson’s time in office into a story that held my attention. I really enjoyed reading it.
Audiences today have grown used to Dan Brown-style narrative crutches. If the plot isn’t exciting enough, the author can just add some gun battles, albino bad guys, kidnappings, mysterious coded messages, explosions, and (of course) sex. Non-fiction writers can’t throw in a car chase to liven a slow spot in the story. They have to rely on actual honest-to-goodness writing skill. Luckily, Hardy has that skill.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Don Hardy is a friend of mine. But I won’t praise his book just for that reason. Many of my friends and acquaintances are writers. Many of them are very good; I’ve written glowing reviews of books by Gary Ferguson, Mark Spragg, John Clayton, and others. Some are not so good; you won’t see reviews of their books written by me. When I speak highly of a book, it’s because I honestly thought it was a good book.
Hardy will be at my store on Friday, September 8 for a talk and book signing. I think that Shooting From the Lip is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in politics — especially the stark contrast between the way things work in Wyoming and they way they work in Washington, D.C.
NOTE: This review is based on an advance copy, and there may be changes before its scheduled release on September 4, 2011.