Running with pens

The candidates make their pitches in memoirs, policy works, essays

Email|Print| Text size + By Steve Weinberg
January 6, 2008

By nature, politicians love to talk. They stream words faster than a jobless blogger on a double latte. But most of those words come during endless speeches and handshaking, in a robotic process that's even more draining for candidates who are amid a yearlong quest for the White House. Still, it turns out that most presidential contenders have a more thoughtful side, as authors of books that help to define where they began, what they want, and how they think.

Generally, the public knows who these politicians are from their stump campaigning, but who are they in print? We decided to find out by reading and analyzing their books.

In critiquing books by the candidates in New Hampshire's primary on Tuesday, the main criterion for judging each was: Does it illuminate the character of the candidate in ways that will help voters decide whom to support? Other criteria included whether each book addresses important policy issues, whether it is well organized, and whether the writing style is enjoyable. Lastly, each capsule review credits other writers, when identified.


Hillary Rodham Clinton
"Living History," Scribner, 567 pp., illustrated, paperback, $16

"Living History" is a gutsy book. Sure, a cynic could say, Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote it because a publisher offered her millions of dollars. But why should Clinton turn down that money, any more than a professional athlete should turn down similar sums from a team owner? Even if greed motivated Clinton, she could have written a less revealing book. She could have refused to admit personal and political mistakes. She could have written off the tawdry Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky liaison in a paragraph.

Instead, Hillary Clinton acknowledges that she could have maneuvered the failed health insurance reform initiative more skillfully during the White House years. She concedes her husband is a creep when it comes to predatory sexual behavior. Does she come across as defensive from time to time when trying to rebut her critics? Yes, but even that defensiveness reveals her character so starkly that she seems almost naked on the page.

The opening 100 pages are devoted to her life before Bill launched his campaign for the White House. What shines through is her formidable intelligence. Hillary Rodham emerged as a brainy, energetic, charismatic leader as early as her freshman year at Wellesley College. By the time she wrote "Living History," she had become a US senator from New York, a remarkable accomplishment given the intense hatred factor working against her in some quarters, plus her carpetbagger status. Although she was certainly considering a presidential campaign, she had not decided to jump.

As a result, labeling the book a campaign manifesto rather than a memoir that yielded a huge advance from a publisher seems imprecise, although she does address many policy issues highlighted in her campaign. As for her character - perhaps the biggest issue surrounding her candidacy - the real Hillary, in all her complexity, oozes out. Love her or hate her, she is unfailingly interesting.

Who wrote the book? In the acknowledgments, Clinton gives credit to four women for assisting in choosing and shaping the words: Lissa Muscatine, Maryanne Vollers, Ruby Shamir, and Liz Bowyer.

Barack Obama
"The Audacity of Hope," Three Rivers, 375 pp., paperback, $14.95

Barack Obama comes across as brainy and analytical - about himself and almost everybody else. Mostly, though, at least in the pages of his book about politics, he comes across as a man in a hurry, deciding to seek the White House after only three years in national electoral politics as a US senator from Illinois, where he previously served seven years in the state Legislature.

At times, the book is revealing and interesting. At other junctures, it is fair to ask: Where is the "audacity" suggested in the title? Especially in the chapters that are issue-oriented, it seems like Obama decided to write a book that would offend nobody. His on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand cogitation can illuminate issues well but just as often can make him seem wishy-washy. (Those issues, as defined by Obama in the prologue, include "how we might move beyond our divisions to tackle concrete problems - the growing economic insecurity of many American families, the racial and religious tensions within the body politic, the transnational threats, from terrorism to pandemic, that gather beyond our shores.")

Obama is more bold, and more captivating, in the chapters about the political process. He wrestles, for example, with the impact of lobbyists and other special interests on the day-to-day decision-making of senators. Obama is a politician who implicitly suggests that politics is overly dirty, so he has decided to present himself as a statesman.

The book appeared before Obama announced that he would backtrack on a vow to gain a full term of experience as a US senator. Maybe, quietly, he intended the book all along as a stalking horse for a White House campaign. His earlier book, the memoir "Dreams From My Father," told about his mixed-race life. That book appeared in 1995, before Obama had reached age 40 and before he had held elective office. It explains a lot about him. "The Audacity of Hope" is imperfect as a campaign document, but it gives voters more of a basis for deciding whether they could support him than any campaign speech since he became a declared candidate.

Who wrote the book? Obama mentions no coauthor or collaborator. Several passages about the book's provenance and evolution suggest he wrote it himself.

John Edwards
"Four Trials," Simon & Schuster, 237 pp., paperback, $13 (written with John Auchard)

When John Edwards's 2004 book, "Four Trials," was published, it seemed reasonable to assume that he might end up as the next occupant of the White House, or in an adjoining building as the vice president. That did not happen. Now it is time to mine this work from the previous election cycle to discern what it reveals about the current one.

Within the pages of "Four Trials," Edwards and coauthor John Auchard, a University of Maryland English professor, fold his life story into accounts of cases he argued as a personal-injury lawyer. The settlements Edwards won on behalf of hurt and deceased clients resulted in a comfortable life, financially. He says earning lots of money came in second, however, to the satisfaction he gained by successfully suing negligent hospitals, insurers, and the like to assist those they mistreated.

As a narrative about personal-injury law, "Four Trials" is unfailingly interesting. The question arises, though: Can voters be swayed the same ways jurors can? The answer almost surely depends on the individual voter-reader. Economic justice can constitute a compelling political platform for citizens looking up at the well-to-do. The well-off might find Edwards's campaign platform less appealing, since they could become the targets of income leveling, inside and outside courtrooms.

Making a living as a personal-injury lawyer is rarely a path to admiration in contemporary American society. Yet Edwards overcomes that prejudice through apparent sincerity and skillful narrative. He comes across as a devoted son, husband, and father. When he discusses the death of his 16-year-old son in a highway accident, it is difficult to hold back tears. Ultimately, though, the book is long on tributes to the "little people" and short on meaningful discussions of public policy outside of tort law. The book offers little insight into how Edwards would function as president.

Who wrote the book? Auchard's name appears on the cover with that of Edwards.

Bill Richardson
"Leading by Example: How We Can Inspire an Energy and Security Revolution," Wiley, 246 pp., $25.95

"Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life," Plume, 374 pp., illustrated, paperback, $16 (written with Michael Ruby)

It has become a truism of presidential campaign 2008: Bill Richardson has the broadest public-service résumé of any candidate and thus, by default, ought to be taken seriously.

Yes, it is true: Richardson, currently New Mexico's governor, also has served as US ambassador to the United Nations, US energy secretary, congressman, and official crisis negotiator in Cuba, Iraq, North Korea, and Sudan.

Here is a passage from "Leading by Example" on his background: "I was born in the United States and spent much of my youth growing up in Mexico. I have traveled the world for decades. I studied foreign policy in college and graduate school. I speak three languages [English, Spanish, French] and I have met and worked face-to-face with many world leaders. Because of my experience in Washington and at the United Nations, people from every imaginable country keep in touch with me, even though I am the governor of a small, somewhat isolated state."

Richardson strains so hard and so often to impress readers with his résumé that he risks coming across as a braggart. So, the question becomes, is it bragging if you did it?

In his writing, he clearly demonstrates his knowledge of and familiarity with energy politics. He is confident in criticizing oil companies, automobile manufacturers, George W. Bush's administration, and other targets for a lack of vision on energy independence. Richardson's solutions, some of them underway in New Mexico, sound promising.

Fortunately, Richardson knows how to say he's sorry. He concedes that supporting the 2003 Iraq invasion and opposing the earlier Gulf War should count as mistakes. Just as fortunately, he seems like a politician who is unlikely to condemn his chosen career. He obviously enjoys campaigning and governing; the book even reveals his handshaking technique while trying to win votes.

Who wrote the books? Richardson does not mention a coauthor or collaborator for "Leading by Example," but Michael Ruby is credited on the title page of "Between Worlds."

Dennis Kucinich
"A Prayer for America," Thunder's Mouth, 141 pp., paperback, $11.95

"The Courage to Survive," Phoenix, 316 pp., $25.95

Dennis Kucinich delivers lots of speeches and publishes essays. "A Prayer for America" collects 15 of them. One dates to 1977 and is grounded in Kucinich's service as mayor of Cleveland. The others are from 2001 to 2003. When published on a printed page, speeches originally presented orally tend to lose impact. As a result, Kucinich's personality tends to come across as flat, when in real life that is not usually the case.

Within his collected works, Kucinich appears as a patriot in the liberal Democratic tradition of protecting civil liberties, promoting civil rights, helping the needy from a platform of compassion, and ending wars among nation-states. He weaves his background into his speeches and essays. Born in 1946, Kucinich was the eldest child of seven. His father tried to support the family as a Teamsters laborer, but money was scarce. As a result, the family moved often and at times fell into poverty.

In this year's account of his adolescence, "The Courage to Survive," Kucinich explains why electoral politics attracted him despite his lack of resources and connections, physically small stature, and baby face, which caused potential allies to discount him. At age 20, he sought election to the Cleveland City Council. After rising to the apex of Cleveland politics, Kucinich served in the Ohio Senate and the US House. As a mayor, state legislator, and congressman, he has practiced what he preaches, so his sincerity is established. His determination to champion just but unpopular positions is refreshing, and admirable.

Who wrote the book? Kucinich does not mention a coauthor or collaborator. He does give effusive credit to two women for editing assistance - actress Shirley MacLaine, and Narda Zacchino, a friend and newspaper journalist.


Mike Huckabee
"From Hope to Higher Ground: Twelve STOPs to Restoring America's Greatness," Center Street, 196 pp., $19.99

Like Bill Clinton, Mike Huckabee hails from Hope, Ark., and, like Clinton, Huckabee became governor. The similarities pretty much end there.

Huckabee enjoyed growing up in Hope but became the first member of his multigeneration family to earn a college degree and leave. By age 21, he was directing a "full-service, faith-based advertising agency in Texas," producing television shows, magazines, and other material "for one of the nation's fastest-growing evangelical organizations." Politics attracted Huckabee, and he missed his Arkansas hometown, so he moved back, founded a communications business, and began preparing for elective office. As he started preaching as a Sunday guest in local churches, however, he kept hearing he had a gift. Instead of a politician, Huckabee became a Baptist pastor.

But a career in politics would not leave his thoughts. At 37, in 1992, he tried to jump from the pulpit to the US Senate. He lost. He did well enough that Arkansas Republicans pushed him to seek the lieutenant governor's job. He won, then ascended to the governorship. Huckabee emphasized better healthcare, improved arts and music instruction in the schools, and more efficient use of tax dollars.

Huckabee mentions his gubernatorial policies and practices throughout the book. But the text is as much a sermon as a political tract. He suggests that readers stop sinning and give up cynicism, selfishness, abusing the environment, and eating junk food. Huckabee used to be obese, but he shed about 100 pounds. His previous book, "Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and a Fork," sold well, and he speaks frequently during campaign appearances about healthy eating habits combined with a healthy lifestyle.

Who wrote the book? Huckabee notes: "I don't do well giving someone else's speeches or publishing a book I didn't actually write. The message in these pages is solely mine." No doubt he emphasizes his authorship because he believes authenticity matters. Everything about Huckabee's book, including its weaknesses (periodic artless phrasing and hackneyed thinking), seems authentic.

John McCain
"Character Is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember," Random House, 311 pp., paperback, $15.95 (written with Mark Salter)

"Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them," Twelve, 456 pp., illustrated, $25.99 (written with Mark Salter)

John McCain has served as a Republican US senator from Arizona since 1986. Mark Salter joined his Senate staff in 1989. They have collaborated on five books, each falling into the inspirational category.

Growing up in a military family, McCain chose to fly a Navy warplane during the Vietnam War. Shot from the sky, he endured unimaginable torture during years in a Vietnamese prison.

For most readers, it is difficult to know what to make of McCain's books in the context of his ambition to gain the White House. The two newest books are almost identical; the main difference is the target audience. "Character Is Destiny" is addressed directly to adolescents, while "Hard Call" reverts to a more traditional writing voice meant for adults.

"Character Is Destiny" trumpets seven abstract virtues (honor, purpose, strength, understanding, judgment, creativity, and love), then offers brief profiles of individuals who exemplify different aspects of them. Overall, McCain chose 34 individuals - some alive, some dead; some female, some male; some Caucasian, some not; some already famous, some obscure - whose selection could give rise to endless debate.

"Hard Call" trumpets some of the same individuals, mostly different ones, using new categories - awareness, foresight, timing, confidence, humility, and inspiration.

What do McCain's choices about qualities and the individuals who demonstrate them signify about his suitability as president? Now, there is a puzzle that almost certainly holds no obvious answer.

Who wrote the books? Salter receives cover credit.

Mitt Romney
"Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games," Regnery, 396 pp., illustrated, $27.95 (written with Timothy Robinson)

When Mitt Romney's book appeared four years ago, perhaps he had begun thinking about winning the White House as the Republican successor to George W. Bush. After all, by 2004 Romney had achieved the governorship of Massachusetts, an overwhelmingly Democratic state with no legacy of Mormonism. Romney is a sixth-generation Mormon; conventional electoral wisdom says Mormons are usually unelectable outside Utah and Idaho.

Like Bush, Romney entered a life of privilege. George W. Romney, his father, headed automobile manufacturer American Motors, attained the governorship of Michigan (another state that seemed unlikely to elect a Republican Mormon), and hoped to win the 1968 Republican presidential nomination.

If Romney decided to use his book as a campaign tract, he also decided to do so primarily by looking backward rather than forward. Romney tells the saga of how he and his wife, parents of five sons, uprooted themselves from Massachusetts for a move to Utah. Previously, Romney had run unsuccessfully for a US Senate seat in Massachusetts, but otherwise had occupied himself mostly with making money as a management consultant and venture capitalist.

The move to Utah in 1999 occurred because the Winter Olympic Games would take place in 2002, and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee was malfunctioning. Romney suggests he could not deny a plea to help turn around the mess, thus saving face for the United States on the world stage.

The sections of "Turnaround" about the business side of an Olympics cycle will captivate readers who care intensely about that worldwide athletic competition. Otherwise, the book is forgettable.

Above all, it suggests two overriding Romney qualities - his penchant for managing everything according to the principles of running a large private-sector corporation, and his self-proclaimed altruism. Whether the US government can be run like a Fortune 500 company seems doubtful, but maybe somebody with Romney's corporate experience and obvious brainpower can make it work. Whether any politician is driven by altruism seems doubtful, too, but maybe he means what he says in the final paragraph of his book: "There is not one day when I have regretted making a full commitment to public service. The battles, the triumphs, the personal associations are more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. I could have made a good deal more money . . . had I stayed at my investment job. . . . Instead, I have come to know many more people and to help many more people I do not know."

Who wrote the book? Romney says Timothy Robinson, "a published author and editor," read transcripts of dictation, conducted interviews with others, then "organized the topics and produced the first draft." From there, Romney says, "I edited and wrote the final draft."

Rudolph Giuliani
"Leadership," Miramax, 432 pp., paperback, $15.95 (written with Ken Kurson)

When Rudolph Giuliani began writing a book while mayor of New York City, he might not have thought it would be read later for insight into his worth as a candidate for the White House. After all, he was dealing with prostate cancer, a messy divorce that would cause him to break with his children, political scandals, and charges of authoritarian actions as he sought to reduce the crime rate. And he held policy views (about abortion rights, for example) considered too liberal for Republicans with clout. Then came Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attack and his response provided him worldwide renown amid tragedy.

He could not have chosen a better theme for a book than leadership. After setting the stage with a dramatic account of how he managed the city after 9/11, Giuliani sets forth 14 management principles, meant to show his abilities, that are totally inoffensive. Who is going to bridle at mottoes such as "Prepare relentlessly," "Everyone's accountable, all of the time," "Surround yourself with great people," "Reflect, then decide," and "Stand up to bullies"?

The anecdotes he uses to demonstrate leadership are derived from government bureaucracies, in which he spent most of his career. Almost all of the stories are interesting, many are entertaining, quite a few are educational. They might even contain relevance for presidential leadership.

Giuliani chooses to skirt the controversies from his personal life. "The dissolution of my [first] marriage, for example, had nothing to do with my public performance and never affected it in any way," he writes. Anybody who can so neatly separate personal troubles from job performance is either superhuman or inhuman. His statement fits in with the rest of the book - sometimes interesting, occasionally inspiring, far too often unreal.

Who wrote the book? Giuliani says in the acknowledgments that "I wrote this book with Ken Kurson. But more than that, Ken helped me to analyze and understand even better the principles of leadership I had utilized throughout my life."

Ron Paul
"A Foreign Policy of Freedom: Peace, Commerce and Honest Friendship," Foundation for Rational Economics and Education, 372 pp., paperback, $19.95

The subtitle of Ron Paul's collection of speeches and policy papers is from President Thomas Jefferson's inaugural address in 1801. In many particulars, Paul, a Republican in the US House but perhaps more accurately a spokesman for his own brand of Libertarianism, harkens back to the Founding Fathers. A lifelong student of economics, most pointedly the theories of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, Paul decided to use his Texas home as a base for trying to influence Congress. He ran for a House seat in 1974, at 39, and lost. But he won the next time, served from 1976 to 1984, left, then returned in 1998. Off and on, Paul, who received a medical degree from Duke University, has been an obstetrician and a gynecologist.

The brief, medium, and lengthy speeches and policy papers placed between covers and marketed from Paul's foundation in Lake Jackson, Texas, reveal almost nothing about his personal life. The dedication of the volume is revealing, however, in a personal as well as a policy sense. It reads, in full: "This work is dedicated to my children and grandchildren and to future generations of Americans in the hope and prayer that wisdom and peace may prevail so that no other American father, mother, son, or daughter will ever again be asked to fight and die in another undeclared, unconstitutional foreign war."

Paul approaches defense policy from the perspective that government should not intervene so profoundly in the lives of its citizens, or in the business of other nations. He advocates a limited government grounded literally in the US Constitution - free trade, low taxes, and monetary policies based on what he calls "commodity-backed currency." In his speeches and policy papers, Paul is not a scintillating stylist. The prose, however, is straightforward in its message. It would be difficult to ever accuse Paul of obfuscation.

Who wrote the book? Paul offers no indication that he relied on a coauthor or collaborator for the speeches and policy papers he includes.

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