Dr. MEL STEELY (Carrollton, GA)

I first interviewed Mel Steely in November 1978. He was a History teacher, I was a student, but we had each been part of Newt Gingrich's first winning campaign for the U.S. House. By 1995, Steely was doing all the interviewing, for the ambitious book project showcased below. For this web document, the roles are reversed again, as he recounts the twists and turns of producing a full-scale political biography. A Georgia native, Steely graduated from Carson-Newman College and Vanderbilt University. He served many years as a state and national lobbyist for the American Association of University Professors, and from 1948 on took part in political campaigns for candidates from both parties. He worked with Newt Gingrich, on campaigns and/or as an administrative aide on staff, for 12 years. Steely recently ended over four decades teaching at the University of West Georgia (UWG). He still directs the "Georgia's Political Heritage" audio and video program at UWG.

FRANK GREGORSKY: The subject of our discussion is the idea that became the research that fueled the processes that became your book -- The Gentleman From Georgia, published by Mercer Press in the year 2000. We should stay away from your and my experiences with Newt Gingrich himself. Newt is the subject of your book, but he is not the subject of this tape. The book is the subject of this tape.

Dr. MEL STEELY: Yes sir.

GREGORSKY: Hey, the moderator's gotta exercise some control.

STEELY: I understand, I understand [chuckling] -- you're doing a good job.

GREGORSKY: Thanks. Any literary project breaks down into a series of processes. So, beyond your book's content, we might cover interviewing tips, research practices, how you used the archives, dealing with the publisher, marketing lessons, breakthroughs, mishaps --


GREGORSKY: -- all the way to the proof-reading! Anything and everything about the book itself is fair game. Any questions?


GREGORSKY: Okay. When did something like this book take hold as an idea, a process, a whim -- how did it all start?

"Have Somebody Do a Scrapbook..."

STEELY: Newt first became a candidate in 1974. But it was '73 when he started giving talks and organizing, and that's when I signed on to help him get elected. We decided to save as much material as we could. Both of us being historians, we felt his race would be an important race. From the beginning we felt like he was something special and that, later on, people would want to know about those early campaigns.

GREGORSKY: Saving innovative goodies from a new phase of professional life is always wise. But this doesn't sound like a book project per se.

STEELY: Right. I don't think there was -- not on my part, at any rate -- the idea of doing a book. We wanted to save the data, keep it together, classify it "campaign," and then break it down into various types of lists, approaches on fundraising, save all of the letters that go out to people, and so on.

GREGORSKY: Interestingly, the process started before the project started.

STEELY: Yes. The process started very early. And we saved everything. Bumper stickers, things you'd hand out at the county fairs, copies of press releases --

GREGORSKY: Not a lot in the way of strategy memos, though, that I ever saw [going through the archives of the first two campaigns].

STEELY: Chip Kahn [manager during 1974 and ‘76] wrote a couple, but mostly we didn't do strategy memos. Getting ready for a campaign meeting, Newt would scribble things on the back of a sheet of paper -- whatever he thought was important to talk about. We didn't "hand out" agendas -- except on rare occasions when a whole crowd was coming in and Newt wanted to make a big splash. (We'd mimeograph copies so they'd be impressed and know what we were doing.) Anyway, we tried to save all of that. And our campaign managers and staff knew we were trying to save it. So, they weren't supposed to throw away things.

We also got people to -- I [almost said] "we got them to volunteer," but we didn't have to. People on the staff -- they or their spouses -- would volunteer to do scrapbooks. That was really helpful. I did not realize, at the time it was happening, how helpful it would be later on. But I would certainly recommend, to anyone going into a campaign situation: Have somebody do a scrapbook, and not only of newspaper clippings. These ladies who would do the collecting -- they collected everything. Might be a Republican napkin that was handed out, and they would write "napkin used at Republican Women's meeting" on such-and-such date.

I didn't care about the napkin, but I cared that the meeting happened, [for example] in Newnan, on that date. And I'd have another document over here, where Newt had said: "I spoke to the Newnan Republican Women last summer, and I think it was June" -- or something. He would tell what all had gone on there.

GREGORSKY: And you would know it was really May 21st.

STEELY: I could go back and say he was here: "You were in Newnan on this date." We also saved his campaign schedule. Once we got a scheduler, we saved those little day books, where we had 15-minute increments indicating what he was doing every day.

GREGORSKY: What about cassette copies of radio ads? Were they saved?

STEELY: Some were, some weren't. We missed some of those.

GREGORSKY: As I recall, there was only one television commercial run in the '74 campaign [against 20-year Democrat Congressman Jack Flynt].

STEELY: That's right.

GREGORSKY: Newt was surrounded by stacks of milk cartons -- to attack Flynt for taking [milk-industry contributions from a dairy association].

STEELY: No, no. It was sugar.

GREGORSKY: Sugar? Oh, sugar! Okay.

STEELY: Five-pound sacks, 10-pound sacks of sugar. We made a huge investment in sugar. Went out and bought up all these sacks [to make that one TV commercial]. We really had so little money.

GREGORSKY: Just wondering if a copy of that TV ad exists.

STEELY: Never found it. Never found it. See, that's before videotape!

GREGORSKY: Yep. If you were lucky, the production company would give you a copy of the ad on a chunky metal reel.

STEELY: Yeah, and it was more like film than videotape.

Gingrich's House Years Up to 1994

After a second close -- but losing -- race against Jack Flynt in 1976, Gingrich the college teacher is preparing for a third, when suddenly Flynt decides to retire from Congress. This is when Gregorsky enters the scene (April 1978, as a campaign intern). On November 7, Gingrich beats Democrat Virginia Shapard by eight points. Four years later Gingrich will begin transferring his political papers and memorabilia to West Georgia College, where he had taught for eight years and where Steely is still a History professor...

STEELY: Between the ‘78 election and his taking office in early January ‘79, Newt and I talked about what to do with all of this stuff. He indicated at that point that he wanted to do a book. From that point on -- from late '78 into the very late ‘80s -- I operated on the assumption that I was saving all of this stuff "for history" and for Newt to write his book. Not for me to write the book, but for him to do the book.

GREGORSKY: Yep. STEELY: That was how I was thinking about it. And I think that's how you thought about it when you were on staff -- that he'd be the guy to write the book, not us.

GREGORSKY: Yup. I never thought I would write anything.

STEELY: And I didn't either.

GREGORSKY: Yet the piles kept growing, and by ‘83 whole boxes are being shipped to West Georgia College [now University] for archiving. Weren't those stacks sending out signals, as in: Hey, can't you use some small part of us now?

STEELY: At times, in the mid-‘80s, I did begin to talk with him about doing articles dealing with particular projects, or campaigning, or something. We didn't really pin anything down. It was more "this would be really interesting to write about." He would play that game: "You ought to do this" -- all of a sudden he would have 50 ideas about what kinds of book ought to be written.

GREGORSKY: Some sort of study or profile of a particular aspect of politics?

STEELY: Oh yes -- it would be an extended article or a book. For instance, he would say: "You knew all these Governors, and now you're working on my campaign. You worked for Carl Sanders [Georgia Governor during 1963-66]. You did all this stuff -- and you ought to write about that." But it wasn't: "Mel, you ought to do a biography of me." That was never a topic.

GREGORSKY: Then comes March 1989, and suddenly Newt is elected to be #2 Republican in the U.S. House.

STEELY: When he got to be Republican Whip, yes -- that's the first time I began to think of doing a biography. "He's so busy doing this other stuff, he's not gonna sit down and write about himself. If he writes books, they'll be policy-type things. And he'll do papers" -- you know, he would have output. But as much of it would be written by staff people as it would by him. As for him writing an autobiography, that was not on the front burner at all.

GREGORSKY: But you were moving into that void?

STEELY: At that point, I was primarily motivated by the idea of getting promoted to full professor -- I needed to get a book published in a hurry.

GREGORSKY: Umm-hmm! [Sympathetically]

STEELY: I thought, "You know, I might just do something with some of this material we've got from the early days."

GREGORSKY: Newt is now a national figure, and he responds --

STEELY: "Yeh, that's good." No big encouragement, and no discouragement either. And I wasn't so motivated that I actually did anything about it for two or three years.

GREGORSKY: You knew Newt didn't disapprove.

STEELY: No, no, he didn't care.

The Events of August-December 1994

From August into early October 1994, national political rumblings, plus Steely's own time aboard Gingrich's campaign plane, convince him that Newt could become Speaker within months, thereby ending a 40-year period of Democratic control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Steely left his part-time congressional staff job four years earlier, and is still teaching full-time at West Georgia College.

STEELY: A whole bunch of stuff was going on then, and I felt: I really ought to do a book on him. And then, that September, after school got started, a Russian History professor was there. We were out at his house one night for a party. Everybody else had gone in, and Bob Smith, from the English Department, and myself were the only two sitting there. After three or four beers, we were feeling pretty good. I said, "You know, Smith, you're a writer, and I'm a researcher. We ought to get together and do a book on Gingrich." Which was really dumb on my part. I should have left Smith totally out of it. But I was totally drunk.

GREGORSKY: Is Bob Smith really liberal or what?

STEELY: [Sigh] No, he's a real [expletive deleted].


STEELY: I like Bob, but he's very difficult to work with.


STEELY: So Bob said, "That sounds good. Yeah, I always kinda liked ol' Newt, and I bet we can do a book on him that might sell."

GREGORSKY: "Let me pour ya another one!"

STEELY: And we did -- we got another beer and went back out there for more talk. He said, "How do you want to do this?" I said, "I've got a lot of stuff on Newt already. Let me draft something, and get us an outline, and give it to you." At this point we were not thinking "academic" at all. We're thinking popular history.


STEELY: No footnotes. Nothing like that -- just a good book about Newt.

GREGORSKY: "The Rise of Speaker Newt," or something like --

STEELY: Something along that line. And Bob said, "Okay, you do the research, and kinda draft it out and everything. Then I'll take it and I'll re-write it and make it right. And we'll have something we can sell."

GREGORSKY: It sounded so simple.

STEELY: It did. Later I ran into Bob, and I said, "Do you remember us talking about all this?" "Yeah." "Are you still interested in doing it?" I kinda hoped he'd say "not really." Instead he said, "Well yeah, I am. You know, we might make some money off this if we did it right." And -- money. That caught my attention. I really hadn't thought about money up to that point -- because I didn't have any idea I could write a book that anyone would buy.

GREGORSKY: Political books generally don't make much.

STEELY: Yeah -- exactly. If you make enough to cover your costs, that's it. So, we both said "okay."

GREGORSKY: Twenty-plus years after the saving of the campaign papers was instituted, a project has finally crystallized.

STEELY: Before October, I had actually outlined the book and begun putting something together. And then, in October, I was with Newt, right after he had gotten an update about dozens of House races around the country. That's when he told me he was supporting a committee to start planning for him being Speaker. I said, "Are you sure?" He said, "Yeah, I'm sure. Joe [Gaylord] knows exactly what he's talking about, and we're going to win the election. We're going to have a [Republican] majority."

So I told Smith: "You know, Gingrich really thinks he's gonna be Speaker." (Smith is a Democrat.) "Naaah," he said, "that ain't gonna happen." I said, "If it does happen, though, this book will be important. Bob, we better get busy on this thing."

At a dinner with Speaker-to-be Gingrich a few weeks after the November 1994 GOP triumph, Steely tells him: "Newt, I don't want to step on your toes, but I'm going to do a book on you -- a biography -- now." The response: "If anybody is going to write a biography of me, you're the guy to do it." Keep in mind the setting: Right at that moment, Gingrich is benefiting from a bidding war by the New York publishing houses -- it's the first time he has been in a seller's market as a writer. He naturally sees that strength as extending to Steely's project.

STEELY: We're walking in front of the Library of Congress, heading toward [the restaurant known as Bullfeathers], and he said: "You really need to put that book out for bids. With my becoming Speaker," he said, "if you can get it done pretty quick, it will be a valuable book." I said, "Well, in thinking about it, Newt, I approached Stuart Irwin, to see what he thought. Irwin was of the impression that we ought to go to [independent publisher] James Jones. Since Jones has done other stuff for you, and if he'll get us an advance to help cover things, then we could do it that way."

James Jones? Not his real name -- but way more than a mythical figure on this literary landscape. Gingrich and "Jones" go all the way back to a sci-fi convention in 1983. Gingrich delivered a speech there, Jones heard him, and the result was the Newt & Marianne Gingrich book Window of Opportunity (St. Martin's Press, 1984). As for Stuart Irwin? Also a very real person, represented here by an unreal name. Another long-time Gingrich advisor, Irwin helped with that 1983-84 manuscript and several other literary projects over the years. Bottom line: On the eve of Gingrich becoming House Speaker, it's just plain simpler to tweak those longstanding relationships than to start dealing with the big boys in New York City.

STEELY: Irwin's feeling was that the team owed Jones a shot at [the bio I proposed to write with Bob Smith]. I was undecided. I didn't realize what all had transpired at this point, but Jones and Gingrich had kind of a falling out. Newt didn't allude to that, but he said again: "Well, you really ought to get an agent and have them do this." I said, "Well, I think Stuart's already contacted Jones. Maybe we ought to wait and see what he says."

At that point, Newt gave up and said, "Well, whatever y'all want to do is fine with me." We went on down to the restaurant and had supper.

Making a Bet on the Devil You Know

GREGORSKY: Let me get this straight -- you had talked to Stuart Irwin about [your planned biography of Gingrich], and both these guys [Irwin and Bob Smith] go back [at the college] to Newt's time as a junior professor.


GREGORSKY: Irwin had suggested James Jones as a publisher.

STEELY: That's right.

GREGORSKY: Newt then suggested [as an alternative to approaching Jones] an open bidding process.

STEELY: Right.

GREGORSKY: When Newt heard that you and Stuart Irwin might have something underway with James Jones, he backed off.

STEELY: That's right. He backed off.

GREGORSKY: I'll ask you about the tense situation between Jones and Gingrich later. For now, let's stick with your own writing commitment and timetable. It's December '94, and you've gone to Jones?

STEELY: We have gone to Jones. And he is pleased. He thinks this is a book that would sell: "Let's do something with it." I started writing pretty fast, and by Christmas -- I had the damn book just about written.


STEELY: Not quite -- but I had a first draft of the first eight or 10 chapters. I'd write it with little worry about how everything sounds. "I'm just getting it down and Smith is going to take it and make it nice."

GREGORSKY: Yes. That's what word-processors are for. Were you proceeding roughly in chronological order?

STEELY: Every once in a while, I had a topical chapter, but mostly chronological. And then Bob Smith would take [each draft]. After Smith would finish that chapter, and another one -- in other words, whenever we had produced two chapters -- I would mail those two to Jones. We were trying to move this thing pretty fast. After about the first two or three [deliveries], Jones decides he really wanted to do this. "This is good." He sent us a contract --

GREGORSKY: Always a magical moment.

STEELY: But -- this was a strange book contract. Jones told Irwin: "I don't know these other people [Steely and Smith], but I do know you. I'm going to make the contract with you." With Irwin.

GREGORSKY: Who was not a co-author!

STEELY: No, not at all. Irwin became kind of a facilitator, and wanted part of the profits. "Okay, fine with me" -- you know, I'm brand new at this game. And so Irwin negotiated a $13,000 advance. I got five, Smith got five, Irwin got three. Irwin got the smaller share because he wasn't doing any of the work, beyond talking to Jones and assuming responsibility for getting a contract done.

GREGORSKY: Do you remember -- did the money come in, say, during the winter of ‘95? How quickly did you have it?

STEELY: [Pauses to recollect] We had the money before the summer of '95. And I took off work that summer. Didn't work at the college at all. Didn't teach anything. All I did was come home and write. We had the 13 thousand by then. The deal was that he [James Jones] would send us more money. I don't even remember how much the total was gonna be. But we got that first chunk, and the rest would come when I sent in the final chapters.

GREGORSKY: And how "final" are those chapters? You and Bob are retaining the right to do a lot of re-working and smoothing?

STEELY: Jones didn't see it that way. He thought he was getting [the book in stages] from Smith and me -- and that was pretty much it. He's have his people look at it -- do the kind of [editorial] thing that you do, I guess.


STEELY: You do a book and they look at it --

GREGORSKY: Spiffing up, de-bugging, smoothing out.

STEELY: Yeah, yeah -- that kind of stuff.

GREGORSKY: But no wholesale rewrite.


GREGORSKY: And you're okay with that -- because time is of the essence. You can hear that clock ticking relentlessly.

STEELY: Right. Something else is going on, too. I'm getting calls from professional agents: "Did you sign anything with Jones?" I'd reply: "No, I didn't sign anything with him." And they'd say, "You got no obligation to him. You should just drop Jones. Let Irwin worry about it."

GREGORSKY: What a mess.

STEELY: But Irwin had my word on this, which is what I told them. They said: "Look, if you want to make any money on this, you'll get out of that contract very quick. Write [the other parties] a letter and say you're not going to do it, period. And then, you sign a contract with us. You quit teaching; you sit down and put all of your time into this book; and you get it to us within three months. We will send someone down to work with you" -- etc. etc. etc. Two agents are calling -- trying to get me to screw Jones. And I am really resentful about that.


STEELY: I said, "I gave him my word." They said, "Look, you didn't sign anything. Nothing's legal here." I said, "Of course it is. This man [Stuart Irwin] signed with the understanding that I would do these things, and I gave him that understanding." "But you didn't sign!" They just really went after it. And I just said, "No, I'm not gonna do that." Both of ‘em gave up on me.

GREGORSKY: And looking back now?

STEELY: As a practical matter, I should have grabbed one of ‘em and done exactly what they said, and I'd have made some real money.

GREGORSKY: And you could have given Irwin a part of the profits as "conscience money," if you felt really bad about [junking that first strange contract where he represented you and Smith].

STEELY: [Quietly] Yeah.

GREGORSKY: Might have been a way [to square everything].

The Cost of Complex Literary Business Dealings

STEELY: Well, let me tell you what happens now. Jones is getting this stuff; he's reading it. What he's getting is my original copy, and Bob Smith's rewrite. Well, Smith didn't do anything [beyond] just kinda rewrite what I had written. Jones looks at both versions and tells me on the phone: "Look, Smith's work is a piece of shit. I don't like it. It's not gonna sell, it's bad. I like what you're writing -- that's good." And he says, "Let's leave Smith out of this. I want your work on this."


STEELY: And I say, "Ahhhhhh, well now, wait a minute. He and I have got an understanding. We've already split money. You know, it's a pretty strong commitment to Smith." And Jones says, "Well, I want him out of it." Then he reveals to me that "I published a book for him once. Didn't sell anything."

GREGORSKY: Did you know that?!?

STEELY: Nope. Not at the time I didn't. And Smith had forgotten!

GREGORSKY: [Big laugh]

STEELY: You see, Smith used to write science-fiction novels. Those books had a very limited success, but he wrote a bunch of them. Which is why I talked to him in the first place -- Smith had actually published stuff.


STEELY: And one of those books was for Jones. But Smith didn't remember that, because he'd written maybe six or eight of those things. So here's Jones telling me: "I know Smith [from way back], and this book is not gonna sell with him writing it." He says, "What you're doing is fine, I like that. You send me that, and just leave his stuff out. Don't even worry about it." [Exasperated sigh]

GREGORSKY: I had no idea the story was this good!

STEELY: So I go over to Smith and say, "Bob -- I didn't know that you'd ever done any work for Jones." He says, "What are you talking about?" I say, "James Jones." It finally comes back to him: "Oh yeah, yeah." He names the novel (I can't remember the title now): "Yeah, it had limited success. It didn't do too well. It didn't do too bad either -- made a little bit of money on it." And I say, "Well, Jones is telling me that he really doesn't care a whole lot for your work, and he'd much prefer that I just send him what I'm doing." Which really pisses Smith off, as you can imagine.

GREGORSKY: There's no easy way to "hear" that message.

STEELY: And remember, Smith is a published author, and I've never published anything. But I'm telling him this publisher likes my stuff better than his. Smith is not happy.


STEELY: He blows up. I can tell you this -- you ain't cutting me out of this. Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah -- just really has a fit. I leave him alone at that point. He sends me a memo, using inter-college mail; whether it was e-mail or written [on paper], I don't remember -- but it says: "You can buy me out. If Jones wants me out, you can buy me out. Give me a check for $25,000, I'll walk away clean, and won't say another word." So I call Jones and tell him: "Smith says he'll quit, but it'll cost you 25 thousand." Jones laughs and said, "It won't cost me a damn thing. We'll just forget him."

GREGORSKY: But Smith's name is not even on the contract at this point!

STEELY: Nope. And mine isn't either. Irwin's name is on the contract. And so Jones feels pretty comfortable! At this stage of the game, he's screwin' everybody.


STEELY: And, by this time, [the manuscript is] almost finished. I did not do the final two or three chapters with Smith. Instead I mailed them directly to Jones, who says: "We're gonna go with this -- but, I'm pushed right now financially. It's gonna take just a little while to get this going" [major throat-clearing]. Irwin contacts Jones and says, "Okay, we delivered the last chapters; we're ready for the rest of our money." "Well, right now, I'm squeezed. Haven't got the money right now. I'll get it to you."

Six months [go by] -- nothing; nothing. I'm calling him on a monthly basis: James, we need to get this out. I mean, it's hot. Right now. Gingrich is having his hundred days [as a reforming Speaker]. He's doing this, he's doing that. We ought to get it out. It's hot. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, we're gonna do it." Nothing! I mean, just -- dead. I sent memos. I sent registered letters, to be sure he got it and signed for it. I did all of this stuff -- and nothing from Jones. Well, at that time he was having a real fuss with Gingrich...

And you thought this literary imbroglio couldn't get any more tangled? In December 1994, Speaker-elect Gingrich had signed with HarperCollins to produce what becomes To Renew America. But Gingrich had a slightly earlier deal -- with none other than James Jones -- to produce a novel "about the Nazis attacking Oakridge, Tennessee." Title for that one will be 1945, cowritten by William Forstchen. Independent operator Jones intends to piggyback this novel onto the display and sales strategy for the big non-fiction book. And the timing is great -- 1945 becomes available on August 1, 1995 (400 pages, ISBN 067187767), right as Gingrich is doing a national tour promoting To Renew America.

STEELY: Jones envisions making huge amounts of money. Newt had informed Jones that [HarperCollins] has no objections to him having that book there [in stores], but they can't display it at the same time. Newt's book is put up towards the front of the store. The novel is also in the store -- but not publicized. It's put in stacks in the back bin. So Jones is being stuck with great boxes of these in his basement.

GREGORSKY: Jones is a publisher, as opposed to an agent.

STEELY: He's a publisher. Mostly, he publishes science-fiction stuff. He got involved with Newt that way, which led to these other books. But I found out that Jones operates on a very tight budget. He hopes to make a lot of money, and that'll carry him through his next project -- etc. Had I known all of this to begin with, I might not have ever started with him. But Irwin felt strongly [positive] about him, and I trusted Irwin to take care of this -- which was a really bad mistake, too. It was really a learning experience.

GREGORSKY: Wasn't Stuart Irwin [also helping research 1945]?

STEELY: Yes, yes.

GREGORSKY: So we have conflicts galore here.

STEELY: Yep -- all over the place. And Irwin -- while he's talking to Jones about paying us the money he owes, now that I've turned in all of my chapters -- is also trying to get Jones to pay him personally for the stuff he's done on that novel.

GREGORSKY: Unbelievable.

STEELY: And Jones won't pay that either. He wants to see some money coming in first [from sales of the novel]. It ain't coming, and he's very upset -- which makes him more determined not to pay us any money. He's mad at Newt, so he's not gonna help us.


STEELY: And he's not gonna publish the book I have written about Newt for a while. He's waiting. He's just sitting on my book. And Smith is still saying: "If I'm out of it, I want my money."

GREGORSKY: My God. And for all we know, Jones is sitting back thinking -- given that you, Irwin and Smith all teach at the same college -- "This whole gang is in cahoots, even though they can't shoot straight. And why am I supposed to -- "

STEELY: I don't know what the hell Jones was thinking. He began asking for his money back. "We oughta call this whole thing quits." But he didn't want to give the manuscript back.

GREGORSKY: But how could he ask for the money back without [ceding all rights to your] manuscript?

STEELY: Ummm -- he did [laughter]. That was it! I said, "Well James, I think we could still do something with this if you'll just get the damn thing published."

Clear the Decks, Come Up for Air

At the point of maximum hopelessness, Mel Steely turns to a lawyer friend, who gives him free advice and a new strategy.

First, write a letter dissolving the literary collaboration with Bob Smith.

Second, decide, and then explain to all concerned, that he intends to do his own biography of Gingrich, and it will be an academic treatment, not any kind of popular story or quick product.

Third, write Stuart Irwin, pulling out of the agreement Irwin signed partly on Steely's behalf, on the grounds that publisher Jones is showing no sign of following through on his obligations to produce that book.

And finally, write James Jones, the recalcitrant publisher, and say that he (Steely) is keeping the $5,000, while making a pro forma request to be given back his draft book chapters. He does not get them back; but, since he has copies of them, he can use segments for this new book. What happens with Jones? How does Jones react? Nothing happens, which on balance is an improvement! After all, Steely is keeping his friendships with Smith and Irwin. Each of the three keeps his original advance from Jones -- and Jones never responds to, or talks with, Mel Steely again. At least, not as of June 2006, when this Q&A ascended to the Web.

During 1995, and now throughout ‘96, with a brand new plan, Mel Steely conducts interviews. He is bolstered by being able to link these tapings to the West Georgia University archives, where, as noted, the Gingrich congressional papers have been accumulating for a dozen years.

STEELY: I interviewed a lot of people -- around a hundred.

GREGORSKY: You didn't transcribe all of those?

STEELY: A lot of ‘em I did, yeah.

GREGORSKY: You hired somebody to help -- I hope. That's a bloody lot of transcriptions. [Sound of groan]

STEELY: Yes it is. I literally sat downstairs at my desk with a tape recorder. I would do one sentence and stop it [thump] -- write that sentence. Do another sentence and stop it [thump] -- write that sentence. I worked almost every night, seven nights a week. I would come in from work or whatever and we'd have supper; Nancy and I would go do something; and then, about 8:30 or thereabouts, I would go downstairs and work. We're talking about massive amounts of time.

GREGORSKY: Which is above and beyond [the call of academic rigor]. I would have flicked through all of the tapes, found the parts I knew the book needed, and typed out [just] those parts.

STEELY: I had a real fetish about making sure my quote was accurate.

GREGORSKY: Well, that's fine, that's fine -- but you transcribed everything, even though you might not have any need for it.

STEELY: But I didn't know what I was gonna need and what I wouldn't need. I'm also thinking historically: These ought to be transcribed, because I'll be turning all this stuff over to the Archives, and I ought to have it done right. So if anybody says, "Well Steely, I'm sure the General never said that..."

GREGORSKY: Yeah. Or "you took him totally out of context."

STEELY: Then I can reply, "Here are the notes on it. The General looked at the notes, had a chance to change anything he wanted -- and he didn't change it. So I think this is what it is." After I had done all of that, I'm trying to decide who can help with this new book...

No More Popular Rush; Switch to the Academic Field

Before pitching Mercer University Press, on the advice of a Bowdon friend -- Mike Steed -- who had published with that institution, Steely tries the publishing house Regnery. He sends ‘em three chapters. "They were known as Republican publishers," and Steely really liked the Regnery book by Dinesh D'Souza on Reagan. But they are also "doing scandal books at this time -- exposing Hillary, things like that. And that wasn't what I had." Regnery is polite and responsive, but the response is negative.

GREGORSKY: Which version had you tried to interest Regnery in?

STEELY: The new one, the academic one. When Regnery said no, I thought: "Okay, we'll go academic." Turns out Mercer had a series going on: Governors of Georgia. And I thought: "You know, Gingrich is a big-time Georgian, and this might go." So I sent them different chapters -- the first two chapters, plus something like Chapter Five and Chapter Ten -- just [enough to provide] a flavor.

GREGORSKY: Is this cold mail?

STEELY: Cold mail.

GREGORSKY: How did you know who to send it to?

STEELY: Mike Steed gave me a copy of the Mercer Press brochure listing all their books. It had their phone number and address. But I sent it to the wrong guy -- "the Editor" of Mercer Press. He doesn't fool with [chapters coming in cold], he does business. But Mercer has also has an "editor" who goes out and finds authors. They passed it on to him and he gave me a call.

GREGORSKY: Who was that?

STEELY: Marc Jolley -- the acquisitions editor. He doesn't do much "editing," actually. He goes out and gets people to write books. Then he rides herd on ‘em to make sure they follow through.

GREGORSKY: At least they passed it on as opposed to leaving it sitting on a back table or throwing it out.

STEELY: Yes, that's right. And Marc and I established a nice working relationship. He had me review books for him. If Mercer had a book that looked interesting, but they weren't sure, they would send me the rough copy.

GREGORSKY: Did you get paid for that?

STEELY: They offer you $150 if you do it, or they'll give you your choice of any five books that they have. I always took books.

GREGORSKY: Not bad -- yeh.

STEELY: By this time, we're well into '97. I had a few more chapters to finish. Jolley wanted it finished by mid-'98, which allowed me more time to put it all together, double-check the footnotes, do all of that. September 1998 is when I finally sent it to him. Jolley said "looks great." They assigned it to somebody, an editor, who spent almost all of their time arguing about semi-colons and scratching out stuff. They would scratch out sections of pages, big huge sections: "Take this out." They were also very concerned that I was using first-person. "Newt told me...," "I saw..."


STEELY: Jolley liked that. He thought that added creditability to it.


STEELY: The editor didn't like that -- the real editor, the one changing the manuscript.

GREGORSKY: They wouldn't let you interact with this guy directly?

STEELY: The acquisitions guy, Jolley, had no say over what this other person did. And I didn't know who was blue-penciling my book. Mercer doesn't tell you any of that, because they say, "If you know who it is, you'll worry him to death, and we don't want that." So it's blind. When I had problems, I'd call Jolley. Jolley would then talk to the editor. I told Jolley: "If I don't have the first person, I've got to go back and do a lot of stuff."


STEELY: He came back and said, "They're really insistent on this, and we better do it the way they want it." And so, I did. But that meant beginning on page one. It took a month-and-a-half or two months [to undo the first-person]. By that time, we're into the fall period. Right at the end of the year, or possibly even February [of 1999] -- somewhere right in there -- I finally got all of that done, and got it back to them.

GREGORSKY: Newt's out of the Speakership at this point.

STEELY: That's true, because I had done an interview with Newt. In fact, the manuscript ends with that interview -- I didn't get the final draft to Mercer until May of '99. That interview was the last thing tacked on -- we decided not to try to fit it into the book, but to attach it at the end.

GREGORSKY: "Life after the Speakership."

STEELY: Right, and they worked on it pretty fast. That was in May of '99, and the book came out in very early 2000. I had a draft in my hand, from them -- the galleys -- before Thanksgiving, and was able to check it and send it back to ‘em. I later found out, when I got the final printed copy, how sloppy an operation it was.

GREGORSKY: We'll get to that!

Photography, Index, Footnotes, Needless Errors

STEELY: During that same period, I was also [assembling] photographs. They wanted me to send them a lot of photographs, so they could pick the ones they wanted. They did say, "If you have any you absolutely want in the book, tell us." But, other than those, Mercer would pick what they thought was good, and --

GREGORSKY: I thought the book was remarkable for having as many photos as it did.

STEELY: Didn't have a single photo of you.

GREGORSKY: Yeah it did -- supposedly. I was in the Fourth of July '78 [parade], when Guy Scull and Cathy Gingrich were holding those signs.

STEELY: Oh, were you? I missed it.

GREGORSKY: Guy swears it's me, a tall skinny fellow with long hair, and I said, "That's not me." [Laughter] Guy claims it is.

STEELY: I did not pick that out as you, and I told [my wife] Nancy: Before you leave tonight, she's gonna take a picture of you and me standing together -- so I've got a Gregorsky picture. Let's remember to do that, before you go back to the hotel.


STEELY: Because I want it in the archive. At any rate, we did pictures, and [Mercer was] pretty good about lettin' me have what I wanted there. They picked some I might not have picked, but they liked those, so that was fine with me.

GREGORSKY: How did you feel by this point? I mean, you're finally at the top of the mountain -- almost.

STEELY: I felt great. It was almost over with, I was ready to see the book in print, I sent ‘em the picture I wanted on the front cover, which was a picture of Newt in his second campaign, campaigning with his glasses and full head of hair, dark hair with not all white --

GREGORSKY: Not a crazy tie, though.

STEELY: He had that square checkered tie, with coat thrown over his shoulder. Beautiful picture of him as a young man on the go -- and they said, "We don't want that." They wanted a picture of him being sworn in as Speaker, which was the one they used.


STEELY: And they didn't clear it with me. What they did was to call Gingrich's office and say: "For the biography Steely is doing, we need a picture of him being sworn in, if you have one. We saw a picture in the paper like that."

GREGORSKY: Yep. Traditionally, the publisher controls the cover art.

STEELY: They did. I didn't argue. Not that I didn't argue, I didn't know! They didn't tell me any of this. I had no clue what they were doing. And, during that final edit, they cut more stuff -- this is after I had already gone through the galleys. I lost stuff there. They messed up my index, put footnotes on the wrong pages -- and the book wound up with terrible typo problems.

GREGORSKY: Um-hmm, ummm-hmm [very sympathetically].

STEELY: Some of those typos, Frank -- it really bothered me, because on the stuff I sent to them, there was no typo!


STEELY: I mean, I went back and checked. I wondered: "Did I do that? Surely I couldn't have spelled it that badly." I'd go back, and on the stuff they had for me -- I [kept] it on the disk, and it was clean. They made the mistake.

GREGORSKY: A lot of publishers will not take the digital version [with the author's final clean-up] --


GREGORSKY: -- and carry it over. Or, sometimes if they do, glitches are added by the carry-over from one software program to another. Or, sometimes they scan in a manuscript, because they don't have the disk [at the moment] they want it -- so they scan in your pages.

STEELY: I think they scanned them.

GREGORSKY: And by introducing scanning [into a manuscript sequence], many, many glitches, spatial irregularities and such are not quite recognized, and it takes -- it's like getting cockroaches out of a hotel. I mean, that's my business, and it takes forever to do it thoroughly.


GREGORSKY: Meanwhile publishers are overworked, and they've got other books they're trying to get out -- blah, blah, blah. The worst situation is when the publisher, as the "hotel owner," acts in a way to let dozens of "bugs" back into the rooms -- the ones you know you cleaned out! The individual author is made to look sloppy. At times it's sickening.

STEELY: Well, whatever it was [that added that final wave of mistakes, my feeling was one of extremes]. On the one hand, I was thrilled. It was like having a baby -- "this is my new baby and I am so pleased" -- and then I find out it's blind.

GREGORSKY: Yep. Right.

STEELY: You're so happy to get it out, to be through. You can hold it in your hand: "This is my book. I finally finished the damn thing, after working on it for five years."


STEELY: It's like a marathon. By God, it's out! I'm so happy. And then you read it, and the more you read, you just almost feel sick. 


STEELY: You look at it and close it, and there's your name -- right on the front page. Anybody who reads it, they'll see it as your book. Not Mercer's book, your book.


STEELY: And all the mistakes are yours.


STEELY: And that hurts. I mean, that's a sick feeling.

GREGORSKY: Reading those parts, I felt for you. "This is a great story, great prose -- but damn the absence of quality-control here."

STEELY: It was terrible, it was just terrible. I talked with Jolley, and he assured me: "This is gonna be fine, don't you worry about it. We're already planning a second edition, and we'll correct all of these things. You keep a record as you go through the book yourself. You write down every place you see a problem, you keep it, and we'll change all of this." I thought, "Well, alright, I'll do that then." Of course, no second edition ever came out.

"This is One Libraries Should Buy"

GREGORSKY: Let's talk about the timing of the release, and how that interacted with Newt's divorce proceedings.

STEELY: When I would go around and do book-signings, people would denounce me, for writing this book about that terrible man.

GREGORSKY: So, is this March 2000? What month are we talking about when it finally came out?

STEELY: I guess it was March and April, yeah.

GREGORSKY: Okay, and you say that the divorce from Marianne --

STEELY: I wanted it out by Christmas, see. I really wanted the book out in November, where it'd become a Christmas book.


STEELY: People would buy it and give it to other people who know Newt and all. Had it played out that way, sales would have been okay, because Newt hadn't announced the divorce. Actually, he had announced his divorce, but they hadn't had all the stuff in the paper about their debate, their arguments, their fighting over [property and possessions], and all of that.

GREGORSKY: Oh, I see. When was the divorce announced?

STEELY: It had to be in May [1999] -- the news came out the day after I did the interview. Literally, the next day. And I was with them all that day and never had a clue. He was [offering friendly talk], she's doin' the same, and he gives me this good long interview. Never a word about, once the tape was off: "Well, you know, I'm getting ready to divorce Marianne." Nothing like that.

GREGORSKY: Right. Newt often lets his allies get blown away by the big change of plan.

STEELY: I walk out, thinkin' everything's fine. "Got all this stuff to carry back for the Archives, everything's going great." Look in the paper the next morning, and bam, there it is. No, it wasn't the paper, it was on TV -- I heard it on the evening news the next day: "Gingrich Filing Papers for Divorce." Whoa. This is May of '99. 

GREGORSKY: So the repercussions and the after-effects in the court [proceedings] are bubbling, 10 or 12 months later, when your book comes out.

STEELY: That's right, that's right. It's hot in the press, because their lawyers are talking to each other. "Is Gingrich gonna give this up? Is he going to give that? What's gonna happen here?" Randy Evans [Newt's lawyer] is making pronouncements. And so all of that is really stirring. The stories talk about "first wife" [Jackie] again. Cartoons appear in the paper about "the third wife ought to beware, because she'll probably be dumped too." The nastiness built during this time period, from then until end of the year -- a six-month period or so.

GREGORSKY: Did you get any book reviews?

STEELY: Book reviews were pretty good! Yeah, yeah. Only one book was harshly negative, and it was from a person who really did not like Gingrich, and he said so -- in the review.

GREGORSKY: Was there a review in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution?

STEELY: No. Absolutely not. I knew there wouldn't be. They would never review anything about Newt. Good or bad.

GREGORSKY: Anything in The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, New Republic?

STEELY: Most of the reviews were in historical journals -- Journal of Southern History, a review in a political-science quarterly, and reviews in a couple of regional things. Even had a review in a quarterly for librarians -- about four paragraphs, where he said: "It's a good book. We oughta have it as the standard work. A lot of footnotes, a lot of reference material in here. This is one libraries should buy." And I thought, "Oh thank you [smiling] -- please tell them all to buy copies. It'd be really nice." [Laughs]

GREGORSKY: You mentioned receiving a buck a book -- is that the case whether the book sells for $4, or the full list price?

STEELY: Right.

GREGORSKY: So that's a flat dollar rate per sale?

STEELY: The only time I don't get [that minimum] is if it's for authors. And I can buy the book, directly from Mercer, at a 30% discount [due to being the author].

Marketing and a Unique Book-Signing

GREGORSKY: Every new author wants more marketing help from their publisher. You've got a couple of stories there?

STEELY: Yeah. I had a lot of problems trying to get Mercer Press to publicize the book. I asked ‘em to send a copy, a free copy, to Rush Limbaugh. "Don't ask him for anything, just mail him a copy."


STEELY: "With any kind of luck, he will actually mention it [on the air]. But if you ask him to do it, he won't do it."


STEELY: You know, take a shot. They came back with: "Wellll, it costs a lot of money to mail these things, the books cost so-and-so, we ain't got enough of ‘em."

GREGORSKY: [Sound of disgust]

STEELY: I asked them to send [C-SPAN founder and president] Brian Lamb a copy, and get me on Booknotes. I mean, there's a faithful group that watches that.


STEELY: They didn't send him one. Never sent one. But I didn't find that out until way later. I assumed it had been done, and I kept hoping I'd get a call. Having met Brian before, I figured "something will happen here. If I get interviewed there [on C-SPAN], that'll be really nice" -- but [Mercer] never sent him one.

GREGORSKY: Even a year later, it still would have been worth trying.

STEELY: Sure, it would. Sure, it would! 

GREGORSKY: What I mean is, you should have sent one to Lamb, a year later. Explain the delay by telling him: "Hey, the publisher screwed up. Have this, it's still good" -- "Your friend, Mel."

STEELY: I think I thought it was too late, and much too pushy [to be doing that on my own behalf].

GREGORSKY: Not much tape left. Do you want to talk about that Washington event and the joint book-signing?

STEELY: Okay. I told ‘em I was gonna be in Washington at a reunion of Gingrich people, and they wanted Newt and me to sign copies [at that event].

GREGORSKY: "They" meaning Mercer?

STEELY: No, Newt's people wanted us to do that.

GREGORSKY: Oh, okay.

STEELY: So I contacted Mercer and said, "Would you send up 50 copies of the book?" Or whatever -- a box of books. They sent up two boxes; each one contained 20 books. When we got there, I said: "Okay, how are you guys handling this?" And they said, "What do you mean ‘handling' it?" I said, "Well, didn't Mercer send you something [about a discount for those who arrive tonight] and want to buy ‘em? How are they going to handle this process?" They said, "We received nothing like that; we just got the books in the mail. They came, they delivered ‘em -- that's it. We assumed that we weren't payin' for em and they were to be given away."

GREGORSKY: Where is this Gingrich staff reunion being held -- at the American Enterprise Institute?

STEELY: No, this was at The Gingrich Group. They have their own place on K Street -- conference room, series of offices, reception area, all of that. Then I asked: "Well, do you have any provision for people paying for ‘em?' They said, "No, we hadn't even thought about that."

So now I'm sitting there, as this event is beginning. Newt and I are supposed to sign books. The people who are coming think they're getting a free book, because they've been faithful Gingrich people. "It's part of the event, they'll get a copy of the Newt book, with Steely and Gingrich both signing it."


STEELY: [Sigh] So the fellow in charge says, "What do you want us to do?" And I have decided: "If they think they're gonna get a book, they're all gonna get a book."

GREGORSKY: The first 40, anyway [smiling].

STEELY: The first 40 people -- "we'll give a book to each of ‘em. I'll sign it, Newt'll sign it, we won't charge ‘em for it, period." So, we did that -- and got rid of all the books. Actually -- we kept two. I had already given up all of my copies, personal copies, because Newt had asked me to give copies to his family: Both of his daughters, his mother, Calista's mother, her family. We took my copies to the wedding he and Calista had, and passed them out to the family members. I went around to each room and handed ‘em a copy of it. That took care of all of my extra freebies.

GREGORSKY: So you can buy them for how much? Thirty percent off the list, you said.

STEELY: I could get 30% off, yeah.

GREGORSKY: Any other comments about the signing ceremony, or the unveiling -- whatever we can best call it -- in Washington as part of this Gingrich reunion.

STEELY: It wasn't really an "unveiling," the book had already been out a while when that happened, but --

GREGORSKY: Newt got up and talked?

STEELY: No, Newt didn't really get up and talk. He came into the meeting and just kind of circulated for about 10 minutes. Then he and a couple of staff people went into an office and worked. People would stick their head in [to say hello]. They'd go in, come back out, and he'd go back to work. And when it came time to do the signing, I was sitting off in a conference room with all of the books, waiting on Newt, and he was busy doing his thing. They called him and said, "Newt, we need to go over and sign these books. People can come through and get ‘em and all."

So, he came over and sat down beside me. I signed it just "Mel Steely," and then he would sign, "To _________." He was the one who actually had the "To Whoever," which was fine. They came through, everybody got a book, he and I chatted for maybe 10 minutes or so, and then he went on back in. And by that time, Cathy had arrived, his daughter, and they went into kind of a staff meeting -- and that was the end of it.

GREGORSKY: Did you speak?

STEELY: No. Nobody spoke. There was no speech to make. It was just visiting and chatting and people showing baby pictures -- a reunion.

Conclusion of the Odyssey

GREGORSKY: In the minute or so we have left, your parting shot, your final verdict on this whole slow-motion catharsis. A quarter-century of research and direct observation, and nearly five years producing the manuscript.

STEELY: Overall, it was worth doing, because [pause] most people are not as critical as you and I might be about a book like this. They read right through those typos and, particularly if their name's in the book, they think it's wonderful.

GREGORSKY: [Chuckling]

STEELY: I've had more people tell me what a great book it is. They just don't pay attention to [the screw-ups] -- go right over ‘em. And they seem to feel good about it. Among people that I know and respect, Irwin thought it was a good book, in spite of the typos. Of course, he liked it, because it had him in it a lot. You thought it was a good book, because it made you a hero, and you thought that was nice [grinning widely].

GREGORSKY: Just "perceptive," that's all I want!

STEELY: Yeah, I understand, I understand. But overall, it was a good experience in so far as learning. It was a painful experience, but a good one. And, I'm in the process of working on another book, so it obviously didn't keep me from wanting to publish.