Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., wants to tell the story of his ascendancy from the tough Chicago streets to the halls of Capitol Hill. It's a unique story worthy of 432 pages, he promises, and you can preorder your copy on Amazon for $21.07.
Still Dreaming: My Journey From the Barrio to Congress hits shelves Oct. 7, but already the reviews are pouring in. "Funny, feisty, and heartfelt," declares Kirkus Reviews. "A frank, often hilarious memoir," offers Publishers Weekly.
Yet the simple fact is that the shelves are full of books by members of Congress, and few of them penetrate deeply into the public consciousness.
"The largest category of books written by lawmakers are memoirs, and they've been doing that for a long time," said Don Ritchie, the Senate's historian. Lawmakers such as Henry Cabot Lodge began experimenting with writing about other, mostly academic topics in the 19th century, Ritchie said, and the 20th century began to see a spattering of eclectic novels, including children's books and murder mysteries.
At least 192 U.S. senators have published books during their time in office, according to a compilation maintained by the Senate Historical Office, ranging from standouts like John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage (1956) to Joseph McCarthy's ignominious McCarthyism: The Fight for America (1952). Fully 33 senators in the current 113th Congress can boast at least one title to their name. The bulk of them are memoirs or exercises in political and ideological posturing, though outliers like Capitol Venture: A Novel by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., are easy to spot.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, likely owns the most colorful collection of printed works; and with 10 financial treatises, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is the most prolific--though she has yet to pen a memoir. In 2012 alone, six senators wrote books, including Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., both of whom may run for president in 2016.
The House does not keep any comprehensive database of members' published works.
More lawmakers are writing books today because of changes in the publishing industry and because doing so is widely seen as a necessary step for anyone with greater ambitions, especially those eyeing the White House, said Diana Owen, a Georgetown professor of American politics and media. And although the books often might not make a big splash, they can help members mold their history to their liking.
Lawmakers contemplating a run for higher office usually want to publish about a year before an election, Owen said. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for example, wrote Faith of My Fathers in 1999, a year before his first presidential campaign, and he authored Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them in 2007, a year before his second.
"If I were running a campaign, that would be one of the first things I would do," Owen said. "Try to get a memoir out.… It's one of the things on the candidates' checklist now. You put out your memoir, and you control the narrative."
Controlling the narrative and generating some buzz is usually the raison d'être for why lawmakers want to write hundreds of pages about themselves, and memoirs can be helpful resources for journalists or people who don't know much about a candidate, Owen added. But it's hard to say whether any--save a few notable exceptions like President Obama's Audacity of Hope (2006) or Kennedy's Profiles in Courage--penetrate public opinion and inform a voter's ballot.
Gutierrez calls his forthcoming memoir, for which he looked to The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Chris Matthews's Hardball for inspiration, "a reflection not of my life work but of my life." He resolutely dismisses any suggestion that it is a play for electoral or personal gain.
"Some of my colleagues look at Congress as a place to step forward in their pilgrimage to get votes," said Gutierrez, who is serving his tenth term in the House and represents a very safe district (he will soon embark on a national tour promoting his book). "I would have written something a long time ago if I had ambitions beyond the House of Representatives.
"We don't claim I invented the Internet or that I have a solution to global poverty in this book."
This article appears in the September 23, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.