Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night

By Jason Zinoman. (HarperCollins, 344 pages, $28.99.)

Many comedy fans will agree with journalist Jason Zinoman's contention that David Letterman is the most influential host in late-night history, creating "a new comic vocabulary that expanded our cultural sense of humor and made a persuasive case for the daily talk show as an ambitious art form."

But after the laudatory intro of his new book, "Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night," the New York Times contributor spends the rest of his breezy bio making the case that his subject matter owes most of his success to those around him. Zinoman spends much of his time lauding colleagues like former Letterman girlfriend Merrill Markoe, director Hal Gurnee and a revolving door of head writers, all the while providing examples of how the boss resisted their groundbreaking suggestions.

The book, light on family history and heavy on Letterman's days at NBC, doesn't have the rich drama of Bill Carter's "The Late Shift" or the juicy gossip in Henry Pushkin's "Johnny Carson." Instead, you get a blurry portrait of a relentless grouch.

There are tidbits I've never heard before — Letterman almost got the lead role in "Airplane!" and was offered a chance to host "Wheel of Fortune" — but for the most part, you're left not learning much more than what die-hard viewers already surmised by watching "Late Show" desk pieces or reading the March 6 issue of New York magazine in which reporter David Marchese got Letterman at his most unguarded.

To be fair, Zinoman had a difficult task. Perhaps the only truly revealing picture will emerge if and when Letterman writes a bio himself.


Presidents' Secrets By Mary Graham. (Yale University Press, 272 pages, $30.)

Perceiving threats to national security does not mean we have to surrender our rights as Americans to know what our government is doing on our behalf — yet we've consistently done this anyway, according to an incisive new history of presidential secrecy that begins with George Washington and extends through Barack Obama's presidency.

Washington despised the partisan press of his day, yet he signed the Post Office Act of 1792, which subsidized the fledgling free press with favorable rates from the U.S. Postal Service as a way to spread knowledge about what the government was doing. The law also established the privacy of U.S. mail, threatening jail time for government workers who opened personal letters.

The British still occupied forts on the frontier and the Spanish were trying to take new territory on Washington's watch, yet he found ways to govern openly. "Washington's creation of an open presidency remains all the more remarkable because he governed during a time of national emergency," writes author Mary Graham, co-director of Harvard's Transparency Policy Project. Graham's book is tough on Woodrow Wilson, who ushered in unprecedented and destructive government secrecy before and after World War I, including hiding from Congress (and the press) a debilitating stroke that rendered him unable to govern.

Amid this power vacuum, Wilson's attorney general, Democrat A. Mitchell Palmer, illegally arrested scores of immigrants and "radicals" on secret evidence, jailed them without lawyers and deported many. Palmer created a new government agency to fight subversives and appointed J. Edgar Hoover to run it. That agency came to be called the FBI, which Hoover ran for 48 years, keeping secrets even from future presidents.

Under Hoover, the FBI began secretly opening the U.S. mail of Germans, Japanese, Italians and suspected Communists, among others. The program was revealed in the 1970s, after news stories about secret abuses of government power sparked congressional investigations that revealed widespread illegal surveillance of Americans. The book shows we should not be surprised today when we're told, after the fact, that government needs to open our e-mail in the never-ending fight against terrorism.