With New Book, Rep. Gutierrez Joins Large Club of Authors on the Hill

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Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 23, 2013, while testifying before the House Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security hearing: "Addressing the Immigration Status of Illegal Immigrants Brought to the United States as Children". (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Sept. 22, 2013, 8:52 a.m.

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.”

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