Over images of a Jordanian pilot burned to death by Islamic State captors, Fox News host Sean Hannity urged his on-air guests to express outrage over President Barack Obama’s failure to conquer America’s enemies.
Two of the frowning heads obliged, agreeing that the president is “disconnected from reality.” But the third, a retired Army general promoting his two new action-thriller novels, avoided red-meat rhetoric as he considered the stresses on a U.S.-led coalition against the terrorists.
“ISIS is thinking strategically,” author “A.J. Tata” – better known in North Carolina as state Transportation Secretary Tony Tata – said Tuesday night on Fox. “They burned him at the stake, and they’re trying to pressure (Jordan’s) King Abdullah to break away from the coalition.”
While he puts in long hours at DOT, Tata has resumed a side career – interrupted four years ago when he came to Raleigh – as a popular fiction writer.
And he is popping up again on Fox News, where he dabbled in partisan rhetoric while he churned out thrillers during his first few years as a civilian. This time he appears to be avoiding divisive politics to focus more narrowly on military strategy and a pro-troops message that will help him reach the target audience for his books.
Even as he swears commitment to Gov. Pat McCrory and to his responsibility for 14,000 employees and a $4 billion budget at the state Department of Transportation, Tata also is serious about his work as an author.
“I’m a very dedicated public servant,” Tata, 55, said in an interview. “I also love to write. And you can be both.”
Tata published three thrillers after he retired from the Army as a brigadier general in 2009 and before his 2011 arrival in Raleigh. He served a brief tour as Wake County schools superintendent before taking charge of DOT in 2013.
In January, he released “Mortal Threat,” an e-book sequel to his earlier books. It will be followed Feb. 24 by the paperback publication of “Foreign and Domestic.”
“Mortal Threat” was released mostly to drum up interest in the paperback. It is crammed with themes that could have been plucked from Hannity’s show. And even though the author avoids politics in his on-air commentary, there is plenty in Tata’s e-book that might appeal to a conservative, Fox News worldview.
Wild dogs and assassins
For starters, we get an African-American president who thinks he might be a divine being. He balks at authorizing more troops to help U.S. forces against ISIS. There are fleeting references to the “Benghazi debacle.”
This is one of those books where the CIA is the good guys. In this case, the CIA is developing a cure for AIDS and Ebola at a secret lab in Tanzania. A medical student heroine conducts drug experiments on orphans – and in Tata’s fictional world, this is presented as a good thing. She’s a pacifist who adroitly fends off attacks by assassins and Serengeti wild dogs.
“Foreign and Domestic,” set mostly in Dare County, incorporates red wolves, a decommissioned bombing range and a Blackwater-like military contractor into its storylines. The misunderstood ex-military hero, Jake Mahegan, seeks to avenge a comrade’s death as he foils plots involving terrorism and pirate gold. He kills with his hands and parachutes onto the deck of a mid-Atlantic freighter, in the dark.
Tata is publicizing the books with a vigorous social media campaign that includes Facebook and Twitter. When he isn’t speaking about the books, Tata issues pithy messages of support (on Friday: “Never forget that we have heroes far away from home”) for American troops and veterans. As it happens, his first book-signing events are scheduled near military strongholds in Washington, D.C., Fayetteville and Norfolk, Va.
Tata maintains two public identities, he says, to keep his jobs separate.
He sends messages as “NCDOT Secretary Tony Tata” on Facebook and Twitter – announcing on Tuesday, for example, that DOT had helped secure more federal money to dredge a sand-clogged navigation channel that is hurting shippers at the Morehead City port.
The Facebook and Twitter accounts for A.J. Tata - Author were busier this week. Tata tweeted on Tuesday that he was “Privileged to join distinguished panel tonight with Sean Hannity to discuss ISIS.” On Fox and in other promotions for his books, Tata calls himself a retired general and avoids mention of his DOT job.
Rob Schofield, policy director for N.C. Policy Watch, a left-leaning think tank, cited the twin Twitter streams when he rebuked Tata in a blog post this week. He noted that author Tata was sending out book-promotional messages during DOT workday hours.
In an interview, Schofield said he accepted Tata’s explanation that the book publisher produces most of his promotional tweets. But he said the books and the TV commentary are distracting Tata from his DOT responsibilities.
“It takes time to write a 400-page novel,” Schofield said. “I think it seriously raises questions about how central to his life this job at Transportation is.”
Frackers and murderers
Tata said he puts in 50 to 80 hours a week as DOT secretary, including two Saturdays a month. In his first two years on the job, he said, he has logged more than 400 engagements and has visited each of the 14 DOT divisions across the state at least twice.
“I have a pretty torrid pace all over the state, from Murphy to Manteo and everything in between, with this day job,” Tata said. “And I’m very careful to have a very clear air gap between that and the author business. Because the ethics are paramount to me on this.”
His state ethics forms show unspecified income from his publisher, and he has McCrory’s signature on a “secondary employment” form authorizing his book work. “The governor supports Sec. Tata sharing his military expertise along with the great job he’s doing at DOT,” McCrory spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said in an email late Friday.
Tata said he wrote the two new books in 2009 and 2010, adding timely updates to the Tanzania book last fall.
“An editor said, ‘Hey, tweak al-Qaida to become ISIS, and HIV to Ebola,’ and that was the fix,” he said.
He signed a contract with Kensington in 2013 to publish “Foreign and Domestic,” and in 2014 he wrote a sequel. Working toward a deadline to submit his completed manuscript in September, he said, was like training for a marathon.
He wrote in his off hours, often 1,000 words a night or 5,000 words on a weekend.
“That’s a three- or four-month process for me, and out of that you get a 100,000-word novel,” Tata said.
The sequel, to be published in 2016, is set in Wake and Chatham counties. Mahegan, the “Foreign and Domestic” hero, is chasing his mother’s murderer and other villains. He finds work on a fracking operation.
“Oh, the frackers are bad guys in this book,” Tata said. “Of course, they don’t have a permit.”