American Culture

WordsDay: Political Books in a Soundbite Election

With the presidential election season in full swing, bookstores have transformed into veritable Libraries of Congress, featuring titles by and about politicians on the national stage. Add to that the flood of books on policy issues like health care, national security, environment, and the role of government and, indeed, it takes a village to sort through it.

What’s of particular note, though, is an irony often overlooked in the midst of the mass media hubbub: The same election circus that has perfected the ten-second soundbite also makes indispensable use of an older, wordier technology—the book.

Books by politicians are especially rampant this election year not only because of increased interest by the public but because of increased public relations activity by the politicians themselves.

What a candidate says in a soundbite exists in the here and now and is then gone in a literal electronic flash (although the soundbites sometimes find extended life in YouTube clips and TV attack ads). What candidates write, on the other hand, is crafted to last. Anyone truly critical of the soundbite culture need only look as far as the local retail bookshelf or library to find all the depth they could possibly want from politician after politician.

Let’s set aside all the books written about—and against—the various candidates by pundits and politicos. Set aside, too, the books written by political insiders like Scott McClellan, whose gee-whiz-I’m-sorry explanation, What Happened, provides interesting if not especially substantial glimpses in Washington political life. What do the politicians themselves have to say?

The main movers and shakers on the nation’s political stage have all written books. The challenge, of course, is to differentiate the honest, insightful memoir from the slickly sincere campaign propaganda.

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America has a long tradition of presidential scribes. Jefferson and Lincoln, of course, stand out as two of the most enduring writers in any American genre. Teddy Roosevelt made his living as a writer, authoring some 35 books on history, biography, and nature, and his writings were among the most influential forces to shape our modern stereotype of “the Old West.”

In modern times, JFK won literary acclaim for his 1956 Profiles in Courage, a book that’s since become standard reading for many high schoolers. Kennedy, still in the Senate when he wrote Profiles, looked at eight of his predecessors who embodied integrity in their actions. His book won him the Pulitzer Prize. It’s no wonder that his Inaugural Address ranks as one of America’s best-written and most memorable.

But prior to the 1980s, presidents and other political leaders tended to avoid self-serving literary endeavors—at least until they were out of office. But even Ulysses S. Grant, who could’ve really used a self-serving book to rescue the legacy of his embattled presidency if anyone could’ve used one, avoided the topic entirely when he wrote his Memoirs, focusing instead on his youth and his Civil War experiences. Wildly popular in its day, Grant’s Memoirs is still considered one of the finest works of American nonfiction.

Richard Nixon wrote extensively in an attempt to rescue his presidential legacy—a process that began before he was even elected when he published Six Crises in 1962. Following his defeat in the 1960 election, Nixon wrote his book during his so-called “Wilderness Years.” He looked at six critical moments in his political career and talked about the way they shaped him. At the time, he had no intention to ever again run for the White House, but when he did make a go of it in 1968, Six Crises provided Nixon fans with insights about their candidate.

Nixon’s post-presidential writings included two memoirs, the uncreatively titled RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, which is solidly written if kind of uninspiring, and the much more relaxed and insightful In the Arena: A Memoir of Victory, Defeat, and Renewal. Nixon also wrote extensively on public policy, particularly foreign affairs, and it’s no coincidence that scholars today, even those who loath Nixon’s character flaws, recognize Nixon’s presidency chiefly for its important foreign policy triumphs.

Another president whose post-presidency writings have done much to bolster his image has been Jimmy Carter. Generally considered mediocre-at-best as president, Carter now enjoys high approval ratings. Much of that has to do with his humanitarian work and his Nobel Prize, but some of it has to do, too, with his prolific literary career, which has balanced public policy, personal faith, and memoir (with some kids books thrown in for good measure).

Carter actually wrote the first real self-styled “campaign book disguised as a memoir” in 1975. An obscure governor from Georgia, Why Not the Best served as his autobiographical introduction to America. He followed it up in 1977 with A Government as Good as Its People. Carter has since gone on to write 21 other books on topics as diverse as peace in Palestine, America’s “endangered values,” the virtues of aging, Bible study, and his mother. Although he won the Nobel Prize for Peace rather than for Literature, Carter has nonetheless racked up an impressive resume as a versatile writer.

In 1987, George Bush published Looking Forward—at a time he was looking forward to being elected president. Honest and straightforward, the book was also a little like eating the confetti left after a big political rally. Working as a page at the ’88 Republican convention in New Orleans, I got a free paperback copy of Bush’s book. They may, in fact, have given away more free copies at that convention than they sold to the general public.

In contrast, Bush’s wife, Barbara, conspired with the family’s Springer spaniel to write Millie’s Book, which recounted life in the White House as observed by the family pet. “I overheard the Bushes talking the other night. Some discussion about me keeping a lower profile,” Millie said. “The media were reporting that I was getting more publicity than some members of the Cabinet. Considering some of my press, maybe they should be grateful.”

The same might’ve been said comparing Millie’s books sales to the president’s. Millie’s Book remained on the NY Times Bestseller List for 29 weeks, topping out at number one. It eventually sold 400,000 copies, which made George’s forward-looking literary attempt look kind of sad. In fact, I suspect the low sales figures are one of the most closely-guarded top-secret secrets of that Bush’s administration.

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Regardless of anyone’s personal feelings about Bill Clinton, from a literary perspective, his presidency resulted in several influential political works. The most notable was probably his wife Hillary’s It Takes a Village, published in 1996.

“The African proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ summed up for me the commonsense conclusion that, like it or not, we are living in an interdependent world where what our children hear, see, feel, and learn will affect how they grow up and who they turn out to be,” wrote Hillary Clinton in the introduction to the tenth anniversary edition, released just prior to the launch of her own presidential campaign. “At the core of this book is my own experience as a mother and my conviction that parents are the most important influences on the lives of their children. But decades of work on behalf of children have taught me that no family exists in a vacuum, many parents need support to become the best parents they can be, and sadly, not every child has a parent as a champion.”

The book’s title turned into a cultural catchphrase, a phenomenon Hillary herself joked about in the anniversary edition. “This small book with the bright, whimsical jacket provided endless opportunities for headline writers,” she wrote. “[M]y all-time favorite: ‘It Takes a Village to Raise a Pig.’”

Hillary’s 2003 Living History had far less cultural impact, probably because it was a “safe” and not especially insightful book, written by U.S. Senator who was dodging lots of questions about her own presidential ambitions.

Bill Clinton waited until 2005 before writing his political magna opus, My Life (as Bill’s fans and critics alike will admit, it’s always all about him, so why shouldn’t the title be, too). “And he can write,” said author Larry McMurty, reviewing the book for the NY Times. Bill’s autobiography won praise for being witty, engaging, and well-written. “In the end,” admitted Booklist, in a favorable review, “Clinton’s life story probably will function like a supersized Rorschach test. Most readers will find just what they’re looking for.”

Bill Clinton’s 2007 endeavor, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, proved to be a far-less enchanting read. The Washington Post called it “an extended public service announcement masquerading as a book.” Many political observers questioned the timing of the book’s publication, coming out as it did while Hillary was starting her run at the White House. Defenders said it was Bill’s attempt to keep the Clinton name in the news and focus on issues important to his wife; cynics reiterated the truism, “It’s always all about Bill.”

Al Gore, another Clintonite, has had a pair of successful book outings. Gore carefully positioned himself above the fray with 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, his environmental wake-up call that earned him mad props around the world, including the Nobel Peace Prize. While he didn’t avoid pulling punches in his criticism of George W. Bush’s administration, he came across as statesman-like in his comments. However, by the time he published The Assault on Reason in 2007, Gore could hardly prevent the venom from spilling out of his inkwell. The book is an excellent primer on the responsibilities of citizenship, but his outstanding political theory gets marred by his partisan swipes, preventing the book from being a true enduring classic. (It was still one of the best books I read last year.)

One final literary footnote to the Clinton years: Republicans reacted strongly against Clinton’s administration, propelling Newt Gingrich to the post of Speaker of the House on the strength of his Contract with America. Gingrich followed it up with books that implied an odd mix of disillusionment and Republicans-have-it-right hope: Restoring the Dream (1995), To Renew America (1996), and Lessons Learned the Hard Way (1998). Gingrich learned some hard lessons of his own that very same year when he had to step down as Speaker and leave the House. While he continues to write public policy books, his best writing has been with co-author William Forstchen on several “alternative history” novels—unsurprising, perhaps, since his own attempt to rewrite history didn’t work out so well.

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On Friday, August 22, when Barack Obama announced that Joe Biden would be the vice-presidential candidate, Biden’s literary stock shot through the roof. Biden’s 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep, became a red-hot property.

“Originally, I was going to entitle the book ‘Get Up,’ because my father, you know, you lose a game, get up. You lose a family, get up. It’s just constantly get up and move,” Biden told CBS’s The Early Show in July of 2007, referring to the loss of his wife and daughter in a 1972 car accident. “But one thing led to another. And it seemed more appropriate to go back to Frost.”

The “Frost” he refers to, of course, is Robert Frost, whose poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” ends with the lines “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

Within hours of his vice-presidential candidacy, online booksellers sold out of Biden’s book. On Monday, August 25, publisher Random House announced it was rushing to print 100,000 paperback copies, which it would have in stores by Thursday, August 28 in time for the last day of the Democratic National Convention.

Had it been someone else selected, prospective voters could’ve rushed out to get From Father to Son: A Private Life in the Public Eye, the memoir published in 2003 by Indiana’s junior senator, Evan Bayh. Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel, rumored for a while to be a contender for the Democratic V.P. nomination, had published an “audition” earlier in the year with America: Our Next Chapter.

Bill Richardson, another VP short-lister, was especially busy in the build-up to his own failed presidential campaign. In 2007, he released two books, the paperback edition of his memoir Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life (originally issued in hardcover in 2005) and Leading by Example: How We Can Inspire and Energy and Security Revolution.

(At the time of this writing, the Republican V.P. has not yet been named, but one of the short-listers there, Joseph Lieberman, published a 2001 book called In Praise of Public Life: The Honor and Purpose of Political Science. Another, Mitt Romney, published Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games in 2004. Tom Ridge, another person reported to be on the short list, hasn’t published a book.)

But not all politicians are trying to get elected president. Some use books to reshape their images. John Kerry, following Al Gore’s attempts at recasting himself as an above-the-fray elder statesman, released This Moment on Earth, a look at the environmental movement. It was a curious casting choice since Kerry has been known more for foreign policy than environmentalism.

Nancy Pelosi, the daughter to follow her father into Congress and the first female Speaker of the House—making her, arguably, the single most powerful woman in America—wisely built on the historical nature of her achievements with Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters.

The important thing to note is that, for the most part, politicians are preaching to choir when they write. Let’s face it: Someone who loves George W. Bush is not going to pick up Nancy Pelosi’s memoir and read it with an objective, unbiased eye, regardless of how empowering her message is to young women.

More likely will be the partisan voter who’s shopping around for a candidate within his or her own party (which, at this point in the political process, is moot). These books are sales pitches to the party faithful.

If a reader is truly uncommitted, they’re probably going to pick up something other than a political memoir to read; if they’re interested enough in politics to devote the time a book requires, then chances are, they’ve already formulated some opinions on those politics.

Which, in a way, it’s kind of a shame. After all, this year’s two presidential candidates are two of the strongest literary talents in decades. 

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John McCain honestly seems to enjoy writing. He certainly doesn’t need to do it for the money (although he does certainly do it for the publicity). His first book, Faith of My Fathers, co-authored with staffer Mark Salter, appeared on August 31, 1999—a convenient five months prior to the 2000 New Hampshire presidential primary. But McCain’s book turned out to be far different than the traditional political song-and-dance most people expected. It turned out to be good. Really good. “[A]n astonishing exception to the rule,” one reviewer said. Critics gave the book almost universal praise, calling it “eloquent,” “restrained and honest,” and “candid, moving, and entertaining.”

McCain focused not on his political career but on a pair of personal stories that readers of all political persuasions would find compelling. McCain focused first on the story of his father and grandfather, the first father-son tandem in the history of the navy to both achieve the rank of admiral. He also told the story of his five and a half years as a P.O.W. in Vietnam. “McCain carefully avoids the pitfalls of self-promotion, knowing that he has a larger, more interesting story to tell than merely why he wants to be president,” said Publisher’s Weekly.

The McCain/Salter Book Machine has since turned out a book every few years. The follow-up to the first, 2002’s Worth the Fighting For, picked up where Fathers left off and covered McCain’s life in politics. By that point, it was clearly obvious to political observers that McCain already considered himself a candidate for the 2008 presidential race, and his second book proved to be a useful tool for shaping and reshaping McCain’s political image. Despite the political motives, McCain again put forth a literary effort solid enough to surprise critics.

His next book, Why Courage Matters: A Way to a Braver Life, published in 2004, got dreamy and philosophical in ways that hurt McCain’s stylings. He then ventured, in William Bennett-esque fashion, to create his own Book of Virtues, which he called Character is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember. (Frankly, I’m not sure how many kids can easily wrap their head around the phrase “Character is Destiny.”)

His most recent attempt at authorship was this year’s Hard Call: The Art of Great Decisions. Written in a presidential election year by someone considered to be one of the front-runners, Hard Call could have easily been another political screed—albeit another well-written one—dressed up as an attempt to sound brainy about historical matters. But Hard Call, with Lincoln on the dust jacket of the hardcover edition and a red-white-and-blue color scheme on the trade paperback, is more evocative of JFK’s Profiles.

Without actually talking about his support of the Iraq War, Hard Call has let McCain frame the topic on the campaign trail in a way that, he hoped, would defuse an issue that had the potential to dog him. However, McCain plainly wore his presidential ambitions on his sleeve when he wrote the book, as evidenced by its original subtitle: “Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them.” McCain’s implication was pretty clear: He was willing and able to make the tough decisions when the time came. 

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While John McCain has the faith of his fathers, Barack Obama has the dreams from his.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, written in Obama’s pre-political life in 1995, offers a look at “the stories of a family trying to explain itself,” the author says. The son of a white American mother and a black African father, Obama spent much of his life trying to understand his “divided inheritance.” The resulting quest is a story every bit as compelling as McCain’s story, although the social context is entirely different. While Obama has made an effort not to make race a part of his presidential bid, Dreams demonstrates just how conscious he is of the issue. Obama’s writing is rhythmic and lyrical. There’s art to Dreams.

He began writing his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, shortly after his election to the Senate in 2004. That fall, he had been introduced to the nation courtesy of a high-profile keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. He was very much aware that he stood in the spotlight.

And so, when he wrote Audacity, Obama wrote his game plan for fixing a broken government by speaking to the “common hopes, common dreams” all Americans share. While there isn’t a captivating narrative to hold the book together the way there is in Dreams, there is a powerful overriding vision. Audacity also feels more conversational in style than Dreams, yet with impressive rhetorical mastery, Obama’s language manages to be inspirational, as well. Political opponents have derided Obama’s “fancy speeches”—but Audacity provides depth to the vision he so often articulates in those speeches. It offers style and substance. 

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With Election Day only two months away, there’s still plenty of time to turn off the TV, tune out the soundbites, and pick up a book. Both candidates have written some interesting, worthwhile material, and both encourage thoughtful engagement and consideration.

For my part, that thoughtful writing by each candidate has probably done more to reassure me, as a voter, about the future of our country than anything I’ve heard either candidate say. I get easily annoyed by the name-calling and attack-dog tactics that I’ve seen unleashed in the media day after day. That sort of behavior doesn’t serve the electoral process well at all, and it doesn’t help me as a voter one single bit.

And while some politicians may be writing with voices that demand to be heard at the moment—or demand to be heard so they can have their moment—other politicians have written pieces that will, I believe, endure. McCain’s Faith of My Fathers and Obama’s Dreams from My Father are likely to be two such works.

The savvy politician may be able to get his or her voice heard today, but the wise politician knows that words uttered just for today, regardless of the form, will be gone tomorrow. Better are the words that can have lasting impact and influence, and with a touch of literary flair, those politicians can create those kinds of words and tell those kinds of stories.

As that wisest and savviest of British politicians, Winston Churchill, once said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

A reader willing to sift through the political hackwork will assuredly find some words that will endure.

And the electoral process just may be better off because of it.