Read, Weep, and Vote
A bookshelf of "writing" from the presidential candidates.
Dec 3, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 12 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Promises to Keep
It Takes a Village
From Hope to Higher Ground
Letters from Nuremberg
Is the traditional campaign book dead? Several weeks ago, for reasons I'm not entirely clear about, I found myself sitting alone in my office with (a) a stack of books written by this season's presidential candidates, and (b) too much time on my hands. The question dogged me as I sifted through the pile.
Books by presidential candidates are not worthless; they are hurriedly written by hired hacks filling page after page with dim reminiscence and stultifying platitude, sure. But read right, despite themselves, they often carry information about our present politics that's hard to capture elsewhere. Sometimes the information is coded, sometimes it's as plain as the type on the page.
The first campaign book I recall reading came out in 1975, a memoir ironically titled Why Not the Best? by Jimmy Carter. Carter's book was premonitory: In one place a discerning reader could find the pointless, free-floating moralism, the bitterness over professional failure, the Faulknerian family, the scrupulosity, the tendency to envy and recrimination that made the Carter presidency so interesting. From every page the memoir seemed to cry, Caveat lector. If only more Americans spoke Latin!
By the time Carter sought reelection four years later, there were already too many Why Not the Worst? jokes going around to risk a reissue of the book. Instead, 1980 was defined by the publication of a special gala edition of Ronald Reagan's 1965 Hollywood autobiography (Where's the Rest of Me?), one of the few books ever to combine stern warnings about the dangers of International Communism and the sinister intentions of the Soviet Union with winsome anecdotes about Errol Flynn. By 1988, in a development that only a reader of his book might have foreseen, Reagan had dealt International Communism a death blow by, among other things, boring the leader of the Soviet Union with endless stories about Errol Flynn.
Later that year, after the major parties had selected their presidential nominees, communism was nearly finished and so was Reaganism. Sensing (wrongly, as it happened) that the electorate was ready for change, the candidates broke explicitly with the past and used their campaign books to cast themselves as forward-lookers. George H.W. Bush published an autobiography called, appropriately enough, Looking Forward, while his opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, published Creating the Future, which described innovative strategies for improved income-tax collection, the use of quasi-governmental entities in generating capital for corporate start-ups, and adjusting admission standards for job-training programs to make them more flexible and cost-effective over the long term. Together with his two earlier books--one on solar energy, published by the Massachusetts Solar Action Office, and another on zoning, published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy--Creating the Future established that Dukakis was too tedious to be elected president.
And so on. The discerning reader of a campaign book digs into a spillage of entrails that professional soothsayers in the press often ignore. As you can see, campaign books usually come in one of two styles. There's the policy book or the memoir, and sometimes a blending of the two. Which type of book the candidate chooses can itself be illuminating: In 1996, Bill Clinton published a book of policy ideas called Between Hope and History, hoping to deflect attention from his problematic personal qualities; his opponent, Bob Dole, demonstrated his admirable personal qualities in a memoir called Unlimited Partners: Our American Story, deflecting attention from his problematic lack of policy ideas.