Soapbox Lit

Why are campaign books still a thing?

This illustration can only be used with the Ethan Epstein piece that originally ran in the 2/14/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
National Journal
Feb. 13, 2015, midnight

While tax­is, mu­sic, movies, and (alas) magazines have all been “dis­rup­ted” over the past dec­ade, pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns re­tain a dis­tinctly 20th-cen­tury hue. Sure, they have em­braced Face­book and Twit­ter. But to get their mes­sages across, can­did­ates still rely heav­ily on ra­dio and TV ad­vert­ising; on the in-per­son re­tail polit­ics needed to win in Iowa and New Hamp­shire; and, per­haps most sur­pris­ingly of all, on that old stal­wart: the cam­paign book.

In the past 15 months or so, po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial con­tenders Ben Car­son, Hil­lary Clin­ton, Mike Hucka­bee, Marco Ru­bio, Rick San­tor­um, Scott Walk­er, Eliza­beth War­ren, and Jim Webb have all re­leased books seem­ingly tied to 2016. (Rick Perry, des­pite the lit­er­ary mien provided by his new spec­tacles, hasn’t writ­ten a book since 2010; Rand Paul’s most re­cent tome came out in 2012.)

Broadly speak­ing, these books—which I read in rap­id suc­ces­sion over the past few weeks (well, I skimmed a bit at times; I’m not a com­plete mas­ochist)—come in two forms. First are the nar­rat­ives—auto­bi­o­graph­ies (War­ren’s A Fight­ing Chance, Webb’s I Heard My Coun­try Call­ing); mem­oirs of spe­cif­ic events (Walk­er’s Un­in­tim­id­ated, about the Wis­con­sin col­lect­ive-bar­gain­ing fight); or long, dis­join­ted tales that give cre­dence to El­bert Hub­bard’s dictum that life “is just one damn thing after an­oth­er” (Clin­ton’s Hard Choices). The second group—un­moored by the con­straints of nar­rat­ive or plot—might gen­er­ally be clas­si­fied as po­lem­ics (Hucka­bee’s God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, San­tor­um’s Blue Col­lar Con­ser­vat­ives, Car­son’s One Vote, Paul’s Gov­ern­ment Bul­lies, Ru­bio’s Amer­ic­an Dreams).

While the can­did­ates nat­ur­ally ad­here to rad­ic­ally dis­par­ate ideo­lo­gies—Paul’s liber­tari­an­ism, War­ren’s pop­u­lism, Hucka­bee’s self-styled “Bub­ba­ism”—and while the writ­ing styles range from folksy to think-tank-esque to get-off-my-lawn en­raged, the books do have sev­er­al things in com­mon. For one, our po­ten­tial pres­id­ents tend to share a rather down­beat view of the state of our uni­on. (Clin­ton, pos­sibly be­cause of the nature of her book—it’s es­sen­tially a travelogue—is a not­able ex­cep­tion.) The sys­tem is “rigged,” War­ren as­serts re­peatedly. We’re liv­ing in an “Amer­ic­an dysto­pia,” says Paul. Amer­ica is on the verge of be­com­ing a “mod­ern-day ver­sion of a ba­nana re­pub­lic,” warns Webb. Car­son is up­set that too many Amer­ic­ans “have de­veloped at­ti­tudes “¦ char­ac­ter­ist­ic of spoiled chil­dren.”

But per­haps the biggest com­mon­al­ity is that you really don’t learn much about the can­did­ates that you can’t learn else­where. Which raises the ques­tion: What’s the point? Why—if they don’t really tell us any­thing and are out of sync with our fast-mov­ing di­git­al age—do these books re­main ba­sic­ally de ri­gueur for those seek­ing the White House?

“They want to build their ‘brand’ or in­sert an idea in­to the de­bate even if they them­selves don’t ac­tu­ally think they will end up the nom­in­ee.”

Peter Wehner, a former of­fi­cial in the George H.W. and George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tions who had a hand in writ­ing the for­eign policy sec­tion of Mitt Rom­ney’s No Apo­logy (2010), sug­gests that cam­paign books help can­did­ates “think through ideas and policies.” Writ­ing (or at least guid­ing the writ­ing of) a book “forces the can­did­ate to con­cen­trate the mind” and or­der his or her thoughts, he tells me.

Larry Sabato, pro­fess­or of polit­ics at the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia, sug­gests a dif­fer­ent ra­tionale: that pub­lish­ing a cam­paign book can give a can­did­ate heft. “A book fairly screams, ‘Take me ser­i­ously!’ ” he notes, “even if the book was writ­ten by oth­ers (à la Ted Sorensen for JFK) or is a shal­low ex­pos­i­tion of card­board cut-out po­s­i­tion pa­pers.” In­deed, Sabato ar­gues, it’s pre­cisely be­cause we live in the Twit­ter era that these books are worth­while: “We want to elect people of sub­stance to the White House; we want to be­lieve they have thought deeply about the great is­sues of the day.” Books, he sug­gests, can sig­nal ser­i­ous­ness in a way that tweets can­not.

It’s also true that some of the books do well com­mer­cially. Barack Obama’s The Au­da­city of Hope, for in­stance, sold more than a mil­lion cop­ies. And wheth­er they sell well or not, books can help can­did­ates garner me­dia at­ten­tion. A Bo­ston Globe ana­lys­is from this sum­mer found that when War­ren’s book was re­leased, her men­tions in news stor­ies and on blogs in­creased by nearly 800 per­cent.

All of this is be­ne­fi­cial wheth­er or not the book’s au­thor ac­tu­ally in­tends to be­come pres­id­ent. “For some can­did­ates, in fact, the cam­paign book is one of the main reas­ons they are run­ning,” says Matt Latimer, who co-owns the lit­er­ary agency Javelin with Keith Ur­bahn. “They want to build their ‘brand’ or in­sert an idea in­to the de­bate even if they them­selves don’t ac­tu­ally think they will end up the nom­in­ee.”

Of course, the cam­paign book has sub­stan­tial prob­lems as a form. One draw­back is the long ad­vance time. In God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, which came out in Janu­ary, Hucka­bee la­ments that too few en­ter­tain­ers these days are as “clean” as Bill Cosby. Ru­bio’s Amer­ic­an Dreams, which also came out last month, be­moans that “the eco­nomy shrank by the highest rate since the Great Re­ces­sion in the first quarter of 2014”—a gripe that comes off as odd, giv­en the fast eco­nom­ic growth of the lat­ter part of the year.

Moreover, plenty of these volumes end up as com­mer­cial and polit­ic­al dis­ap­point­ments. Walk­er and San­tor­um have both seen their books un­der­per­form, while a book by An­drew Cuomo—who was once thought to be con­sid­er­ing a White House bid—sold few­er than 1,000 cop­ies in its first week on the mar­ket. By avoid­ing an em­bar­rass­ing fate like that, Chris Christie might be the smartest can­did­ate of all: He hasn’t writ­ten a book. Yet.

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