In 1935, James Harold Wallis wrote in The Politician: His habits, outcries and protective coloring:
Only a very shrewd politician should indulge in writing of any sort. At best, it is a political luxury, of very little value to any office-seeker—a minor matter, not in the same class with talk, with gab, with oratory.
And, so, as we look upon the field of Republican contenders we either have a remarkably shrewd group of politicians, or a terribly misguided one. Forty-three books have been written between the ten current Republican candidates. (This tally does not include race-dropout Tim Pawlenty’s now incongruously-titled Courage to Stand or the work of the prolific ghostwriters of Sarah Palin).
Of the candidates, all but Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann have written (or have had written for them) books, and each of the candidate authors, save Buddy Roemer, has published one in the past year.
In a sign of how common presidential hopeful books have become, ABC News’s Guidebook to the Republican contenders makes “Most recent book written” a part of each candidate’s profile.
While these books litter the political landscape and are a time-worn tradition in presidential elections, the volumes of pages that presidential hopefuls produce are rarely referenced in campaign reporting. One must wonder, are they ever read?
Amazon rankings and journalist reviews in recent years would suggest only rarely. With few exceptions, campaign books earn a collective groan from the press corps. Ghostwriting and banality have become expected and accepted practices. Ezra Klein recently called the genre “terrible.” The Wall Street Journal in 2007 (the year of writerly Obama!) declared that “Campaign Books Reach a New Level of Awful.”
It may seem a truly peculiar phenomenon that American presidential hopefuls believe these books to be assets to their campaigns, but history—I’ll get to that later—suggests sometimes they are. These books have become a way for candidates to generate buzz, craft their message and reach over the press to speak to potential voters directly. Perhaps what’s more peculiar, is how little members of the press seem to draw upon these 200, 300 page resources. Sure, they’re carefully crafted by candidates, but they can also inform reporting over time and serve as tool for tracking the evolution of a candidate’s rhetoric.
If campaign books are bland, it’s no doubt because politicians stick to a piece of Wallis’s advice too closely: if you’re going to traffic in words, traffic in platitudes. Even a “hint of erudition, originality, disturbing or daring statement” is something to be avoided, warned Wallis.
And, so then, what to make of Fed Up!: Our Fight Our to Save America from Washington the 240 page book Rick Perry published last November, in the quiet that preceded this week’s—“that handsome rascal is running for president!”—media storm? It’s chock full of daring statements.
The book, in which Perry compares social security to a Ponzi scheme and charges that much of the federal government’s work is unconstitutional, enjoyed brief buzz when released, thanks to speculation that its author would run for president in 2012.
In an interview at the time, Perry told the AP that the book, provocative as it was, was evidence that he would not be running for the executive office. And he had a point. Wallis’s custom suggests not offending. As David Greenberg wrote in a fall 2007 issue of Dissent magazine, such books “inevitably brim with palaver and bromides. They aim to woo as many voters as possible while alienating the few.”
Fed Up!, which is Perry’s second book (he wrote one about boy scouts in 2008) certainly breaks form and commentators are responding in kind. Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein rated Perry’s book “good. Really,” because it so boldly broke from campaign book tradition.
This is not a boring book. More to the point, it’s not even a book about Rick Perry. It’s a book about Rick Perry’s ideas.
Piggybacking on Klein’s assessment—and it appears to be only Klein’s assessment—Husna Haq at The Christian Science Monitor went one step further with a story titled “Rick Perry’s Fed Up! may actually win him some votes.”
It may, but given Perry’s radical stances towards popular entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, he will likely lose more.
But what can be said with more certainty about Fed Up! is that it puts a new twist on the campaign book—and come this primary season, or November 2012, Perry’s book may actually matter.