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.