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 (Ã 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.