State Department spends $70,000 on Obama's books – and stirs a controversy

The US State Department calls the purchase of Obama's books "standard practice," but critics call it "inappropriate."

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
When US embassies around the world stock books by Obama, is that a good way to export American values – or a "gift" to Obama from taxpayers?

It’s the biggest books shopping spree we’ve seen in a while.

The State Department bought more than $70,000 worth of President Barack Obama’s books, The Washington Times reported Tuesday. The books, mostly Obama’s 1995 bestseller, “Dreams From My Father,” will be used as Christmas gratuities for embassy staff and to stock “key libraries” around the world.

Records show the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, spent more than $40,000 in 2009 on “Dreams,” and the US Embassy in South Korea spent $6,061 on the same title, all to be used for Christmas gratuities. Obama reported between $1 million to $5 million in royalties in 2010 for “Dreams From My Father,” and between $100,000 and $1 million in royalties for “The Audacity of Hope,” far more than he has made as President. If he earned 10 percent royalties on roughly $60,000 worth of the State Department purchases, he would pocket about $6,000, notes The Washington Times.

Both the White House – which was not involved in the buying – and the State Department have come under intense fire for the purchases.

“It’s inappropriate for U.S. taxpayer dollars to be spent on this,” Leslie Paige, the spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste, told The Washington Times. “This sounds like propaganda.”

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens against Government Waste, told CNN that the purchases provide money from the taxpayers to the president in the form of royalties. "[I]n an era where everyone's trying to cut back, it really doesn't look good to the taxpayers to have this being done at the State Department."

The State Department, as expected, is defending its shopping spree.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told CNN it is "longstanding practice" to allow embassies to buy books, "to put them out in libraries ... give them to contacts, which they think will help deepen understanding of the U.S. political system, of U.S. political figures and leaders of U.S. history, U.S. culture."

The purchases, she added are "done in strict accordance with government procurement standards."

"It's the embassies themselves that make the decisions what American books to buy. And they make these decisions based on the interest in the country where they are. But these are not decisions that are made in Washington, and they're not decisions that are directed by Washington."

The White House, for it’s part, is happy to wash its hands of this decision.

"Obviously, the White House didn't have anything to do with this," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One on Wednesday. "I think this is an embassy-by-embassy decision based on what they think ... in buying books makes sense for them in terms of advancing American foreign policy interests."

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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