Campaigning Between Covers

Why do presidential wannabes write books?

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.

There are campaign books that have mattered before. Dreams of my Father certainly didn’t hurt Obama in 2008, just as Profiles in Courage, however ghostwritten, didn’t hurt John F. Kennedy (It’s worth noting both were written well before their presidential campaigns). McCain’s Faith of my Fathers in 2000 and Hillary Clinton’s Living History are both credited for generating momentum for their (ultimately unsuccessful) primary campaigns.

Jimmy Carter, who is largely credited for starting the trend—sans ghostwriter, even—with his concise 1975 autobiography, Why Not the Best? was also was given a boost. His book, which promised readers an exclusive rendering of Carter’s life, faith and beliefs in America “in his own words,” sold over a million copies in the run-up to the 1976 election, and later became a hit in South America, where Carter may have enjoyed more popularity. Back in America, the book also became a sort of bottomless well for journalists and pundits during Carter’s troubled term in the White House, who were quick to point out why it was not the best.

“Carter wrote very engagingly of growing up on the family farm in segregated Georgia, and rather less so of his subsequent career in the U.S. Navy, the state capitol and the governor’s mansion. At its best, his plain, well-carpentered prose has the air of a Sunday school teacher telling a Bible story,” wrote Jonathan Raban in an essay on “The Best Presidential Writers” published in The Wall Street Journal in January 2009. Raban asserts Carter’s bestseller “clearly helped in his victory over Gerald Ford in November.”

While autobiography is a common form of the campaign book, other candidates publish policy guides. Bill Clinton and Al Gore did this in September 1992 when they teamed up with Putting People First: How We Can All Change America, which promised to cap national spending on health care and “guarantee every American a core benefits package.” USA Today pointed out that Clinton’s 1996 campaign book, Between Hope and History, offered a less specific and less liberal vision. Obama’s Audacity of Hope, published as his national star rose, also fit in this vein.

A third category of campaign book, which often is a sort of hybrid, is the pre-emptive book project, in which candidates, anticipating lines of attack, issue their version of events hoping to put them to rest. Both George Bushes, the father and son, were noted for doing this in their campaign books (both were written with a professional writer). In George H.W.’s Looking Forward, he addressed his role—or lack of one; he said he was “out of the loop”—in the Iran-Contra scandal. Meanwhile, George Bush the younger’s A Charge to Keep earned this review from Frank Bruni of The New York Times in November 1999:

A Charge to Keep is, instead, a breezy, 243-page amalgam… born of Mr. Bush’s desire to get into print his own take on his life and political career before too many outsiders promoted their views. It reads, deliberately or not, like an astute act of political positioning, with kinder, gentler versions of unflattering anecdotes that have appeared elsewhere and with careful explanations of any of the controversial aspects of his gubernatorial record.

Perhaps because they’re so predictable, campaign books, ubiquitous as they are, have been dismissed. Political scientists seem to take an especially dim view of them; if the genre has influence in elections, they haven’t been studied enough to really know.

Richard Pious, a political science professor at Barnard College told me, “I don’t think political scientists would have an answer on this. The Latin term for these books is ‘abiblia biblia,’ which referred to objects that had the shape of a book but which contained nothing inside them.”

I contacted six other political scientists in reporting the story. None of them had made a serious study of the books, nor knew of someone who had, other than Andrew Civettini of Knox College, who had recently advised an undergraduate thesis on the topic.

His student, Helen Schnoes, analyzed the books as “strategic, political texts that often attempt to utilize the memoir form.” She asserts that candidates use the books to express their visions of self and nation, and make their case for election.

The media world has taken slightly more interest in the subject. New York University’s School of Communications and Professional Studies hosted a panel on “Candidates as Authors” in March 2008 where panel member David Rosenthal, then publisher at Simon and Schuster, commented, “It’s almost impossible now to run for president unless you have a book.” He notes that candidate authors that manage best-seller status get a sort of credibility, as well as a lot of media attention.

He continued, saying books have become “a tremendous platform for candidates and would be candidates to strut their stuff and more important, to have a wonderful excuse even out of the cycle to talk to press all around the country to talk to people and to get their faces out there, and also to show fundraisers, ‘My book sold, how can you say I have no credibility as a candidate?’”

He also commented that books are “great indicators” of the public’s enthusiasm and regard for a candidate pointing out that for someone to buy one, they have to care. “This is something you’re literally taking to bed with you,” he said.

How much are people caring this year?

Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney’s latest book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness is tracking at #201,643 on the bestseller list.

Rick Perry’s Fed Up! ranks #451.

Ron Paul’s latest, Liberty Defined, comes in at #569.

Herman Cain’s They Think You’re Stupid, published in June, is above #601,000. Snd Pawlenty’s Courage to Stand is tragically in stock and sitting at #255,940.

As for President Obama, three years in, his books fall somewhere in the middle, #3,183 for Dreams of My Father and #12,416 for The Audacity of Hope.

Let’s hope some of these buyers are journalists. If anyone ought to care, they should.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , ,