Read, Weep, and Vote
A bookshelf of "writing" from the presidential candidates.
Dec 3, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 12 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
That's a lot to ask, however. Like most conventional campaign books, Promises to Keep is so light in tone, so breezily written, that it becomes, paradoxically, extremely difficult to read. Its superficiality and general insincerity may explain why the traditional campaign book has become a dying genre. In the stack in my office, none of the other campaign books looks like a campaign book. They look like everything but campaign books. I've got a self-help manual, a business book, a sociological tract--nowadays, a candidate will do whatever it takes to disguise his campaign book. It's as if our politicians, knowing the low regard in which the public holds them and their craft, feel they can only advance their politics by stealth. This lays yet another complication onto what is already a slippery business.
Yet it also makes for a pleasing variety of disguises. I've even got a coffee-table book here, an album of photographs edited by John Edwards. You're probably thinking: Of course the most photogenic presidential candidate since John Kennedy would publish a book of photographs. But these aren't photos of Edwards, they're pictures of houses, lots and lots of houses. Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives collects brief reminiscences about childhood homes to go along with the pictures. The contributors are a cross-section of America. They come from movies (Steven Spielberg, Benicio Del Toro, Danny Glover), TV (Star Jones), fashion (Vera Wang), pop music (John Mellencamp), pop religion (Rick Warren), and sports (Sugar Ray Leonard). There are a dozen nobodies included, too, for balance.
Home is a strange book for a presidential candidate to be associated with, or so it seems at first glance. After all, by Anglo-American tradition, the family home is the place where politics ends, the bulwark against government meddlers and their schemes for uplift and improvement. Thus, Home is Oprah-like in its soft, trans-ideological inoffensiveness. It's a Hallmark card to the joys of nonpartisan domesticity. "Home is family," writes Edwards's ghostwriter in the introduction. "Home is safety. Home is faith." Home is also a place of sentence fragments: "Where we learn to dream. Where we become who we are. And where we can always return."
And then you catch glimmers of the Two Americas that Edwards once made the theme of his presidential quest: There's the America of Vera Wang's shingled mansion in Pound Ridge, New York, where the rest of us are eaten alive by real estate envy; and there's the America of the rat trap that Star Jones grew up in, where we thank God we weren't born Star Jones. Edwards neglects to tell us which America he lives in by omitting any photos of his own current home, a 28,000-square foot compound built on 102 acres outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Home, for Edwards, is not only faith, not just safety, not merely family; it's also a 15,000-square-foot attached gym with a basketball court, a squash court, two stages, a caretaker's suite, a locker room, and an indoor pool. And a four-car garage. No wonder he likes homes so much.
So what's the point of all this cloth-bound coziness? The reader will likely be puzzled until he reaches the Acknowledgments, where Edwards mentions that the idea for the book came from Harrison Hickman. He doesn't mention that Hickman is his pollster. Home is a book of, by, and for a focus group: reassuringly fuzzy, harmlessly populist, mandatorily multicultural. And as with all high-concept advertising, it carries a subliminal message. Home serves as one politician's warning to voters who might hope for a limit on his ambitions for "giving government back to the people." Lock your doors if you want, he seems to be saying; go ahead and draw those blinds, retreat to the bulwark if you dare. But the gates of Home will not prevail against my plans to make your life wonderful.
Edwards is credited as editor of Home rather than its author, and he acknowledges the help of several others in the actual editing of the book, suggesting for the first time in the history of campaign books the existence of hired ghosteditors. If you're like me, when you read books by politicians you get distracted by the question of who actually wrote them. Americans are far past the point where we expect our statesmen to sweat through an effort to discover and assemble and refine their thoughts by putting them into their own words. For this reason, and this reason only, I was happy to find in my stack a new copy of Hillary Clinton's famous bestseller, It Takes a Village, revised, updated, and reissued in a special anniversary edition to coincide with her presidential campaign, by which she seeks to take over the whole village.
Like Castro, like Ceausescu, like many other politicians, Mrs. Clinton prefers to be photographed surrounded by schoolchildren, an image that suggests either a kid's birthday party or a hostage situation, depending on your point of view. I got past the cover photo, with its army of youngsters and Mrs. Clinton's mandible-cracking smile, to search through the actual text, in hopes of finding some mention of Barbara Feinman who, in addition to other professional accomplishments, wrote the book. A decade ago, when Village was first published, Feinman was much talked about for having gone unmentioned.
Shortly before the book came out, Mrs. Clinton boasted of having "written a 320-page book in longhand over the last six months." This came as a surprise to her ghostwriter. Feinman had often worked late nights at the White House and even followed Mrs. Clinton on vacation in hope of picking up stray thoughts she could use to bulk up the manuscript, and she had been assured her role as ghost would be generously acknowledged. Yet when Village finally appeared there was no mention of Feinman either on the cover or in the Acknowledgments. News stories appeared detailing Feinman's role, but White House spokesmen backed the first lady in her contention that the book was her work alone.
It became a minor controversy, stoked not only by Mrs. Clinton's political adversaries but also by Feinman's friends in the Washington press corps (she's a former researcher for Bob Woodward). With Mrs. Clinton's claims of sole authorship long ago disproved, I picked up this expanded edition of Village to see whether she had expanded it enough to make room for Barbara Feinman. Nope: Mrs. Clinton still believes that while it takes a village to raise a child, it takes nobody worth naming to write her book for her.
We are left, unhappily, with the book itself, turgid and sanctimonious. It remains what its author called it in a speech a few years ago: "At best a mediocre political tract on the virtues of governmental responsibility in the raising of children." I'm quoting Barbara Feinman, of course, not Mrs. Clinton. Anyway, the episode is worth recalling, and Village is worth keeping at hand, as another instance of the creepy, and often self-defeating, pettiness that marks every phase of the Clintons' public life.
The question of authorship adds some interest to another not-a-campaign-book, this one by Mrs. Clinton's fellow Arkansan, the former governor Mike Huckabee. Huckabee takes special care to assert that he wrote his own book from start to finish: "I don't do well giving someone else's speeches or publishing a book I didn't actually write." Why, then, does From Hope to Higher Ground still have the feather-light feel of a ghostwritten product? The answer is simple: Huckabee himself once made a living as a freelance ghostwriter--the Barbara Feinman of the Ozarks. Now, having written books under his own name, he has realized the ghostwriter's fondest dream. All he needs to do next is get elected president of the United States, and he'll be a happy fellow.
He still has the technique of a ghostwriter. Professionally, a ghostwriter works at a terrible disadvantage. As a hired laborer, he is cut off from the taproot of what makes a regular book interesting: the writer's own inspiration, concern, and experience. All the ghostwriter can do is rely on what his employer says he, the employer, wants to say. And since the employer is unlikely to be expressive or articulate (or else he wouldn't need a ghostwriter), the ghostwriter will strain to make the book interesting by artificial means. This is why so many ghostwritten books hang on the use of impersonal gimmicks, with lots of lists, bullet points, graphics, tips, potted third-person anecdotes, aphorisms, and changes in typeface.
The habit must be hard to shake. The ghostwriter-turned-governor-turned-writer has built his book around a series of gimmicks. The purpose, again, is disguise: He wants his campaign manifesto to look like a self-help book. The unfortunate, pun-crippled subtitle--12 STOPs to Restoring America's Greatness--makes the intention clear. ("1. STOP Being Cynical; 2. STOP Thinking Horizontally; 3. STOP Cheating Our Children.") The hortatory tone comes naturally to Huckabee, who in addition to his time as a ghostwriter and governor was also a highly successful Baptist pastor. Like so many contemporary divines, he is skilled at easing evangelical Christianity into the pillowy idiom of pop therapy. With his book, Huckabee is betting that he can do the same with right-wing politics.
But it's a bad fit--so uncomfortable that, sooner or later, one or the other, the right-wingery or the therapy, has to cry uncle; and almost always it's the therapeutic approach that triumphs. "I'm a conservative," he writes, who believes in "lower taxes, less government, personal empowerment, personal ownership, and personal responsibility." His book is the work of a buttinski, however--a busybody in overdrive. There is no sphere of other people's lives that he doesn't have elaborate theories about how to manage. Anyone who follows Governor Huckabee's STOPs will find his energy, if not his income, sorely taxed. Each of the twelve STOPs has twelve "action steps." That's 144 steps to go with the STOPs:
*"Write letters of praise to total strangers you read about who do wonderful things";
Sure thing. And should we file it in triplicate, gov? The STOP steps are exhausting. And expensive:
*"Try to find and enjoy organic or natural foods and grass-fed beef raised on a self-sustaining farm."
Pundits tell us that Huckabee knows he has only the slimmest chance of being nominated for president. What he really wants, they say, is the vice presidential nomination. I don't think so. I've read his book, and what he really wants is a spot on the bill with Zig Ziglar's "Strategies for Success" tour. By this time next year he'll have it.
He may have to fight for it, though. By this time next year Mitt Romney may be broke and eager for the money that a Ziglar tour would bring. Motivating and inspiring America's midlevel corporate managers is clearly among the goals of Romney's not-a-campaign-book, Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games. He also tries to make the case that his success as a venture capitalist and president of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City makes him a terrific, as he might say, candidate for president.
Turnaround looks like a business book, reads like a business book, and is as boring as a business book, stomped flat by excruciating accounts of sales pitches, budget meetings, brainstorming sessions, PowerPoint presentations, and marketing strategies. The dream that a businessman might someday seize the reins of American government and force it to work according to the most American of pursuits--making money--is apparently eternal. Over the last 20 years the public's bizarre flirtations with Lee Iacocca, Ross Perot, and Peter Ueberroth have attested to the dream's appeal.
Turnaround is Romney's bid to exploit this frustrated and misguided constituency himself. Just as Huckabee would like to squeeze politics into the categories of pop therapy, Romney hopes to apply the principles of corporate management to politics: "At All Costs, Protect the Brand." "Never Underestimate the Value of Your Product." "Rivalry Breeds Interest." "Communicate the Vision." "Challenge the Team to Stretch." There are a dozen more. If they worked for Romney, they can work for you--and for America. It also helps if you look like Bob Barker.
Looking at my stack as it dwindled, I was struck by how cleverly the campaign books have been disguised. A campaign book is a bad book to begin with, and none of these is the worse for masquerading as something else; the authors don't necessarily deserve the accusation of bad faith for their subterfuge. The single exception I find is at the bottom of my stack, figuratively and literally.
Christopher Dodd wants us to think of his Letters from Nuremberg as a work of history. His father, Thomas Dodd, worked as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II, and the book gathers the letters Thomas wrote during the trials to his wife, back home with their kids in Connecticut. The letters are love letters, which lends them personal charm, but they are also full of news, quick sketches of the criminals and the men who worked to bring them to justice, which lends historical interest. Under other circumstances, the book might have been a small but rewarding addition to the literature of the war.
But Dodd lets the mask slip. He'd waited for years, he writes in an introduction, for just the right time to publish his father's letters. That time happily coincided with his own decision to run for president. His father's words, says the son, are suddenly urgent because they form a kind of anticipatory indictment of the current Republican administration in its fight against Islamic terrorists.
"For six decades, we learned the lesson of the Nuremberg men and women well," Dodd writes. "We continued to stand for the right things. [He doesn't really believe this, by the way, since as a public figure Christopher Dodd has tried to derail the foreign policies of the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush I administrations. No matter. He's after bigger game now.] But that has changed in the past few years," he continues. "If, for sixty years, a single word, Nuremberg, has best captured America's moral authority and commitment to justice, unfortunately, another word now captures the loss of such authority and commitment: Guantánamo."
The moral dislocation created by this cheesy equivalence--comparing the treatment of defeated enemies at the close of one war with the treatment of dangerous combatants in the midst of another--seems almost pathological. It isn't, though. It's just political--the result of Dodd's desperate attempt to use anything at hand to gratify the ambition that gnaws at him. In any case, it has nothing to do with history and everything to do with Christopher Dodd's presidential campaign.
Repellent as it is, I suppose we can take some reassurance from Letters from Nuremberg, especially those of us who manage to acquire a stack of campaign books every four years. The puffery, the opportunism, the ambition are all unconquerable. We shouldn't be fooled by the variety of its infinite forms--tract or memoir, history or picture book, self-help manual or businessman's guide to climbing the greasy pole. The genre endures and retains its value.
Even politicians, even their ghostwriters, can't kill the campaign book.
Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author, most recently, of Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America.