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.

What We're Following See More »
34 STATES MUST SIGN ON
Scott Walker to Lead Effort for Constitutional Convention
33 minutes ago
THE LATEST

"A national group says its campaign to convene an unprecedented U.S. constitutional convention to balance the federal budget has a new leader: former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The Center for State-led National Debt Solutions on Monday announced Walker will serve as its national honorary chairman. It marks one of the first efforts by Walker to re-enter the political fray since his November election loss to Gov. Tony Evers. In 2017, Wisconsin became the 28th state to request an Article V convention — so named for the article of the U.S. Constitution that sanctions the process." Thirty-four states must sign on to trigger a convention.

Source:
WOULD ALSO LIMIT MONTHLY PAYMENTS
Administration Aims to Cap Student Borrowing
35 minutes ago
THE LATEST

"The Trump administration on Monday proposed placing limits on federal student borrowing programs as part of a series of initiatives to amend the Higher Education Act. ... A number of the proposals seek to change the borrowing and loan repayment process. A senior administration official said the White House wants to institute a limit on loans through the PLUS program, which graduate students and parents of undergraduates use to help pay for college or trade school."

The official did not say what the loan cap would be, but that it could vary by program rather than by institution.

The administration is also calling for Congress to simplify loan repayment programs, in part by condensing five income-driven repayment plans into one plan that would cap monthly payments at 12.5 percent of the borrower's discretionary income.

Source:
HE PLANNED TO LEAVE MID-MARCH
Rosenstein Not Leaving DOJ Yet
1 hours ago
THE LATEST
"HE HAS STAYED OUT OF A LOT OF PEOPLE'S WAY"
Mulvaney Likely to Become Trump's Permanent Chief of Staff
1 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The White House plans to drop the word 'acting' from Mick Mulvaney’s title, officially making him President Donald Trump’s third chief of staff, according to four current and former senior administration officials...'He has stayed out of a lot of people’s way,' said one senior administration official. No one is saying he is killing it but staying out of people’s way has helped.'"

Source:
MANAFORT STEERED HIM WORK IN UKRAINE
Prosecutors Weighing Whether to Charge Greg Craig
19 hours ago
THE LATEST

A long-running federal investigation into former Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig "is reaching a critical stage, presenting the Justice Department with a decision about whether to charge a prominent Democrat as part of a more aggressive crackdown on illegal foreign lobbying." Federal prosecutors in New York have transferred the case to Washington. ... The investigation centers on whether Mr. Craig should have disclosed work he did in 2012 — while he was a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom — on behalf of the Russia-aligned government of Viktor F. Yanukovych, then the president of Ukraine. The work was steered to Mr. Craig by Paul Manafort."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login