A few weeks ago I was watching a great interview on Stephen Colbert’s TV show with Bernie Sanders. I love Sanders and find all his ideas to be interesting. Yet when Colbert revealed that Sanders had a new book out, I remember thinking, there is zero chance I’ll be reading this book.
Even though I’m a book reader, news junkie and liberal, I rarely pick up or buy a book by someone running for political office. At best I may read a sample chapter in Time or Newsweek, but I generally don’t go out of my way to do so. Why not?
First, I wouldn’t expect to enjoy it. I’ve been told that politicians are not terrible authors. I’ve been told that Barack Obama’s memoir is well-written, and generally I have enjoyed reading opinion pieces by Hillary Clinton or John Kerry. Professional politicians probably spend a lot of time writing speeches which are moving or insightful. But a book?
I would expect that books by politicians would consist of a series of political speeches put together in chapters, plus a few introductory chapters about growing up. The problem is, I already know the gist of their backstories and political positions. Most politicians lack deep knowledge of a subject; they are more keyed into the political process and which bullet points are most persuasive. They may have collected interesting ideas and political anecdotes, but for the most part they are conveying insights secondhand.
Second, books by politicians are tied to current events and thus get stale very quickly. A few months ago Simon & Schuster was having an insane sale where they discounted a large chunk of titles to free. Among this treasure of free stuff, I stumbled upon political memoirs — several by politicians I abhor, but one by Howard Dean. I love Howard Dean, and the book was FREE! But I wasn’t even remotely tempted to download it because the book would probably have lots of talk about issues which were hot in 2003.
Last week, the most talked-about book was one by Chris Christie. Without even trying, I came across TV interviews with this “author.” (Believe me, Cheever or Updike or Oates would have killed for this sustained media attention.) It seems unfathomable when in this busy news cycle, PBS Newshour would deem this book newsworthy enough to devote an 8 minute segment on it. Soon, in the grand spirit of G. Gordon Liddy, the onslaught of “bad actor” memoirs will soon be upon us . We’ve already had Omarosa and Sean Spicer; it’s only a matter of time before there are memoirs by Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and John Kelley. While maybe some of these people are not corrupt per se (or at least, not outlandishly so), they are still pushing an agenda. Chris Christie isn’t as loathsome as Trump (and he showed visible disdain for him during the Colbert interview). His main line was that he disagreed with Trump’s rhetoric and political methods but he still agreed with Trump’s political ideas. Wait — what? Everyone is entitled to their point of view, but then again, talk shows can accommodate a diversity of viewpoints by inviting social scientists and policy experts rather than the actors involved. Otherwise, you’re just allowing politicians to rewrite history as they think it ought to be written.
A memoir written by an actual president is a different beast (See note #1 at bottom). Almost anything an ex-president says or does is historically important; they can relate encounters firsthand of important people during critical times. A presidential memoir also provides insight into the private vs. public aspect of running the country (although I’m not sure Bill Clinton’s own memoir contained any mention of Monica Lewinsky). I still wouldn’t read most books by presidents, but if I were to pick one, it might be Ulysses Grant’s memoirs (about which Edmund Wilson raved in his book Patriotic Gore). Although I disagreed with George W. Bush profoundly about many things, I thought his Decision Points book to be a somewhat interesting way to tell a story. Bush and his ghost writer/editor picked a few key decisions Bush had to make as president and covered them in depth. Brilliant! It’s far easier to write a book-listicle than a full chronological narrative.
Nonsucky books by politicians
I generally avoid books by political figures, but have enjoyed some notable exceptions.
Among them are Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance and his other works. That 1991 book literally changed my life. From my study in school, I already knew about global warming, but Gore described the scientific, economic and political issues cogently. After reading it, I remember thinking that first, the carbon tax was a brilliant way to solve the climate change crisis. Wouldn’t the world be a better place now if it had been implemented in the 1990s? That would have given the U.S. a 25-year head start on transitioning to a clean economy. This book made me see that the Texas lifestyle (cars, air conditioning, etc.) and the Texas economy (heavily dependent on petroleum and natural gas) would have a difficult time transitioning to cleaner fuels. Despite Gore’s dire warnings, I could never have imagined that some devastating environmental effects (like hurricanes and forest fires) would be here 20 years later.
Actually what Gore wrote about after losing the election turned out to be even more interesting. In Assault on Reason, Gore wrote think pieces about our intervention in Iraq and what values should guide our domestic and foreign policies. Gore was always a vision guy, and his insights into the political process were thoughtful and profound. Well worth reading.
Gore also wrote two books about the technologies used to make the transition to a carbon-free economy. These two books had no real political agenda or axe to grind, but their aim was simply to educate people about what’s becoming possible technically. (I even bought the interactive ebook edition when it came out on iPad.)
Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote many books which influenced public policy, but his best book was the one he wrote after retiring from the US Senate: Secrecy. (Amazingly, an ebook version is not available.) Moynihan was tasked with investigating why the CIA got everything so wrong about the Soviet Union – both its military might and its political stability. After poring over classified and unclassified documents and doing an in-depth policy analysis of other administrations, Moynihan concluded that the gathering of intelligence under the guise of secrecy ensured that bad information would be distributed but never challenged. “Secrecy is for losers,” the book said. “[It’s] for people who do not know how important the information really is.” People at the CIA were not idiots, but they (and political leaders) assumed that information from classified sources was higher quality than it actually was. Publicly available information and news reports can be vetted and challenged and confirmed, while classified intelligence briefs rarely undergo the same skeptical rigor.
This book had a profound effect on me when looking at George W. Bush’s military buildup in anticipation of the 2003 invasion. Bush had been referring to classified reports of Hussein’s WMD. I remember attending a town hall meeting right when the Iraq invasion was about to take place. My far-right Congressman, John Culberson, was telling us about how chilling the classified briefings were and how if people attended the same briefings about weapons of mass destruction, they would all would understand why the U.S. had to intervene now. As the town hall meeting broke up and I had the chance to push back on his claim, I realize that instead of talking to him, I should have just handed him Secrecy and asked him just to read the damn book.
I don’t know if he actually wrote this book or it was simply compiled, but Bob Dole’s Great Political Wit was a random pleasure that I bought for 25 cents at a library sale. I never expected to read it, but the book consisted of short anecdotes between 1 and 3 paragraphs. Some parts were dull, but most were silly, unexpected and fun. Actually, I’m sure Ronald Reagan was an incredibly good joke teller, and I wouldn’t mind reading compilation of his humorous anecdotes. (Some people have compiled them on YouTube—have fun, guys!) I wish more politicians could write joke books. (See note #2 at bottom).
In the early 1990s Robert Reich had written widely about how more public investment in people and infrastructure would be more effective than other GOP solutions like enterprise zones. (Work of Nations) In the last two decades Reich wrote deep and thoughtful pieces about managing economic policy and improving the social safety net. I’ve been reading his blog forever; indeed, recently I reread his 2008 posts where Reich details the buildup of the mortgage crisis, the recession indicators, the failure of Bush’s SEC and FTC to regulate industries and ultimately TARP. (Reich made a vehement case against bailing out the major banks and for helping citizens directly.) Reich was been right and prescient about so many things that I lose count.
Locked in the Cabinet by Robert Reich was one of his less ambitious books; it gave a firsthand account of what it was like to work in the Clinton White House and how his progressive agenda was frequently overruled by Bob Rubin and Larry Summers. It was also very funny. Reich details the byzantine protocol that cabinet members have to observe and some charming private conversations he had with the Clintons. I was a big fan of the Clinton Administration anyway, but Reich successfully humanized them and revealed their limits as political figures. (I have not read the books by Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton; don’t plan to!)
Before Elizabeth Warren was barnstorming the Senate (and now, possibly the presidency), she authored a pretty amazing bit of scholarship, The Two Income Trap with her daughter Tyagi. She tried to unmask the subject of consumer debt and bankruptcy (a lot of it is due to medical bills and unexpected emergencies, not slacking off). She noted that Americans saddled themselves with unusual amount of debt to buy more expensive houses than they could afford. Their actions were motivated mainly by the desire to send their kids to good schools in good school districts. To accomplish this, a couple could have two people working full time instead of only one. This provided extra income and extra ability to buy a nice home, but it also added risk; if you are dependent on two incomes, what happens if one person loses a job? In the past, Warren shows, a family could afford to buy a house on a single wage earner’s income, and so sending the spouse to work in the event of an emergency provided a buffer against financial ruin. Now they no longer have this buffer, resulting in more economic uncertainty within the household. It is an intriguing explanation (Matt Yglesias has more), and the book argued policy in a book for a general audience.
Elizabeth Warren is a good and thoughtful writer, but will I be reading her pre-campaign book? Not a chance! (Anyway, I already follow her speeches; her speech at last year’s Netroots Nation was perhaps the most remarkable).
Why some books by politicians aren’t bad
Several things are evident from the limited number of books by politicians which I’ve actually read.
First, Moynihan, Warren and Reich started off in academia and did a lot of important work there. Moynihan taught and even had a tenure-track position until JFK asked him to serve in the Kennedy White House. After he left office in 1965, he worked in academia again before serving various ambassador roles with the Nixon Administration. He was elected to the US Senate in 1976 and mostly stayed away from being an author until after leaving the Senate. Although he wrote many public policy reports (most notably his 1965 report about the Negro Family), probably his Secrecy book will have the most lasting influence. (Also, on my to-read pile is Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary).
By now Warren’s biography is well-known, but her punchy speeches derived from decades of teaching bankruptcy law and becoming master of economic and legal details for the purpose of advocacy. While Robert Reich got a J.D. and started out in law and government, his most productive and formative years were teaching 12 years at Harvard.
It’s an obvious point really, but political memoirs are richer/juicier/more thoughtful after a political campaign (and presumably after someone leaves office). If you think of it, pre-election books amount to little more than long homework assignments which will become a series of talking points at interviews. One expects competence and occasional insight, but not genius.
Second, although politicians have gotten used to retelling their life stories, often they produce a book with a specific agenda in mind: to show I’m actually brainier than I appear, that I’m warmer than I appear in public, that I am actually very charitable, that my critics have been consistently been wrong about me, that God is an important part of my life as a politician, that I’m just an ordinary Joe like you. The agenda of these books may interfere with the enjoyment of the book itself — especially when the reader has tons of other celebrity memoirs competing for attention.
Books by political spawn and sidekicks
Family and children of famous politicians also write memoirs. The Bush daughters, First Ladies, Ronald Reagan’s son, probably lots of others. Barbara Bush wrote several memoirs, as did Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. Chelsea Clinton has written several books for children (as did Mike Pence’s wife Charlotte). Barbara Bush wrote Millie’s Book, a tongue-in-cheek book about their dog in the White House. This trend of writing children’s books is not limited to First or Second Ladies. Kamala Harris wrote both a campaign book and a book for kids. Children’s books are their own thing. Often a dull story can be livened up by a first rate illustrator. That said, I wouldn’t be caught dead reading a children’s book by a politician.
It can be more fun to read tell-alls by the Rosensteins and Guildensterns than the Hamlets. (I’ve been partial to Barton Swaim’s The Speechwriter, which details being a speechwriter to now-disgraced South Carolina governor Mark Sanford). Actually, some journalists started out as political speechwriters (James Fallows, Bill Moyers, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.), but these gigs were just a short detour off their career in journalism. Often obscurity can work to your advantage. If you are just a small cog in a campaign or administration, your perspective might be more interesting or insightful.
The sad duty of having to read campaign books belongs to political journalists looking for insights into the person’s character or policy prescriptions. Fortunately, journalists are already good at poring through court records, government documents and police reports; compared to these things, reading a campaign book by Kamala Harris or Jeb Bush would be a walk in the park. Some clever writers have read these books in nontraditional ways. Journalist Tim Murphy read only the blurbs for these books and learned a lot about a politician’s voter base and potential constituents. Another very clever journalist named Christopher Beam, upon noticing that Sarah Palin’s awful Going Rogue memoir had no index, decided to make his own.
But what about the reader?
Well, it is good for journalists to do these things, but what about the ordinary reader? Also, how much money are politicians and publishers really making? In the 1990s, Speaker of the House Jim Wright was able to make extra money in bulk sales of his political book, which violated ethics laws at the time. About 10 years ago, Pakistani prime minister Pervez Musharraf wrote a memoir that I have no interest in — and probably less than 1% of literate Americans would have even the slightest interest in. Yet. when his book came out, he was interviewed by all the major talk shows and reviewed even in the highbrow presses. (The Washington Post gave it mild praise.) I guess that this book is somewhat newsworthy, but wouldn’t it be better to interview Pakistani novelists (Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif, etc.) instead? Still better, what about a book by a Pakistani journalist or academic? I get it that talk shows prefer newsworthy and recognizable figures, but Musharraf’s media appearances were unremarkable, plus he’s not that great a man (he staged coups, was a military strongman, derailed democratic elections; in other words, no Nelson Mandela!).
Why do we need these books?
I understand that books by political figures come with an agenda and that a political author may be more interested in selling this agenda than actual books. Why, then, do you need these books? Can’t talk talks and news shows just invite them on the show without books in hand? I’m not against politicians mentioning books during TV interviews, but we currently have a media environment where celebrity has become the primary currency. At the moment Michelle Obama has been going on a very successful book tour for a book which sells for $20 hardback/$15 ebook. That is insane. Part of my reaction is furious writer envy; part of it has to do with knowing that dozens of great ebooks are being published by journalists and scholars and pundits — all of whom are rarely compensated anywhere near what they deserve. Part of it derives from knowing that most of these political celebrities are already millionaires and hardly need the royalties. Part of it derives from my awareness that entertainment dollars are scarce; money spent on Obama’s book will not be spent on other books. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic; the money could also have been spent on videogames, booze, online gambling or overpriced concerts.
I don’t want to sound like I’m beating up on Ms. Obama; her book probably is competently written and moderately entertaining. But don’t Americans deserve something more substantive (and at a more affordable price)?
Aren’t books supposed to help us understand the world and ourselves? Or are they merely supposed to facilitate celebrity crushes on multimillionaires and flatter ourselves into thinking that these people are like us? I’m reminded of Richard Schickel’s book Intimate Strangers, which shows how Americans fixate on celebrities they think they understand — and celebrities reinforce these fixations by making bland pronouncements of personality. Political books are just one further way to humanize a politician’s political views. Maybe Bannon has vile beliefs or Christie is clueless about making government work. On a talk show, they can share “inside scoops” and deliver well-rehearsed laugh lines. The TV audience can watch it and decide that maybe Steve Bannon and his beliefs (or his boss’s beliefs) weren’t so vile after all.
Americans will spend their money on the darndest things. You can’t really complain about why certain books sell the way they do. That’s just the American way. But when you allow books to be used as props for political campaigns or comeback tours, you are degrading what is special about books — the deep analysis, the confessions, the bold manifestos, the dramatic/lyrical qualities. To swipe Kamala Harris’ catchphrase, books are “better than that.” The world is already awash with books that are unread or have trivial aspirations. The public does not hunger for bland political memoirs; it hungers for arguments and ideas and empathy. If that means that most political books will be unwritten or unpublicized, so be it!
This post was originally published in the writer’s personal blog.
November 2019 Update. Since writing this original piece, I have read quite a number of pieces (and book reviews) by Teddy Roosevelt. What a great president and writer. Project Gutenberg has over 30 titles — many on nature, the outdoors, history and memoirs. (Wikipedia has a long bibliography of original and secondary works). (This site about Roosevelt contains this and much more).
- As I said above, I admired George W. Bush for using Decision Points as the structure for his memoir, but I’d never actually read the book. I personally love Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (and heck even Herbert Walker Bush), but I don’t think I’d ever want to read their books. Nixon (like Obama) is probably intellectual enough to write a deep book, but (unlike Obama) doesn’t seem adept enough to tell a good story. I’m really guessing; I haven’t held any of these books in my hands for more than 15 seconds.
- Even though I think Al Franken was an effective politician and thought his comedy performances on SNL were great, I wasn’t that impressed with Franken’s fake-political memoir, Why Not Me? which he wrote in the 1990s. The humor seemed predictable and risque — so much that it surprised me that Franken dared to run for office later. I thought the book contained enough tasteless humor to disqualify him. Later books by Franken were sharper and more issue-oriented, (Rush Limbaugh is a Big Lying Idiot!), so perhaps Franken gets a pass. Other politicians have played around with fiction. In 19th century England, British prime minister Disreali wrote about 10 novels in and out of office . More recently, Democratic senator James Webb wrote a handful of military/Vietnam novels and nonfiction works well before running for political office. (When he entered the presidential race, some intrepid journalists highlighted some of the racier parts of Webb’s novels, but they don’t seem especially lurid or disqualifying for me. Long after they retired, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich co-wrote novels with different people; Clinton tried it once with James Pattern, the bestselling novelist, while Gingrich co-wrote several alternate history novels along with other nonfiction. Discovering your muse after leaving office might become a thing, although the median age of presidents and Senators make it hard to imagine people writing that much. Obama might have the imagination and temperament, and perhaps one of these fiction works might turn out to be good, but I currently have no plans to read any of these things.
Though it seems we disagree politically at practically every point (good for you for being upfront about your views) I found your article to be a very nice taxonomy of first person political books. Grant’s autobiography rises to the level of literature, in my view. I might have to locate a copy of Secrecy. Moynihan was a smart guy.