A campaign that cracks the books
With the flick of a vice-presidential nomination switch, sales of Sen. Joe Biden’s book “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics,” shot up the best-seller list at Amazon.com last week.
We shouldn’t be surprised, and not just because free publicity has long been great for book sales.
There’s another reason: This presidential contest has been a battle of books, the likes of which we haven’t seen in more than 40 years.
Both Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, have framed their candidacies, first and foremost, through literature: Mr. McCain with “Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir” (1999) and Mr. Obama with “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” (1995).
Though they never ran against each other, the closest analogue is John F. Kennedy’s study of ster- ling senators, “Profiles in Courage” (1956), and Barry Goldwater’s influential treatise “The Conscience of a Conservative” (1960) — both of which, unlike Mr. McCain’s and Mr. Obama’s efforts, were ghostwritten. (“Faith of My Fathers” is co-credited to Mr. McCain’s longtime aide Mark Salter, but by all accounts, the senator was intimately involved in its composition.)
The books are remarkable for originality and sheer readability.
“They’re not merely exercises in campaign pamphleteering,” says Robert Schlesinger, an opinion editor at US News & World Report and the author of “White House Ghosts: Presidents and their Speechwriters.”
“These were meant to be books in and of themselves and actually have some lasting value beyond hoping someone will read the platform.”
Crispin Sartwell, a political science professor at Dickinson College and syndicated columnist, says, “Over the years, I’ve read a lot of candidate-type books, which are, in general, pathetic. Probably the nadir of my reading life was grappling with Jimmy Carter’s ‘Why Not the Best?’
“But both McCain and Obama have written excellent books,” he adds. “I think this speaks extremely well for both men.”
Intriguingly, both books deal with (decidedly different) paternal legacies.
“Dreams” describes — with a deftness and sensitivity that impresses even more today than it did a decade ago, given what we have learned about the author’s political ambitions — how the absence of a father profoundly shaped, and complicated, a biracial boy’s sense of identity.
“Faith,” meanwhile, tells the story of a headstrong, rebellious young man trying simultaneously to wriggle out of and live up to the shadow of Scots-Irish warrior roots that stretch to the country’s revolutionary period.
“This is an Oedipal struggle between one man trying to find his father and another one trying to escape his,” remarks the blogger and essayist Andrew Sullivan, who, though an admirer of Mr. McCain, suppor ts Mr. Obama.
Literary blogger and novelist Mark Sarvas is less sanguine about the impact of candidates’ books this political season. All too typically, he says, the “books that make the most noise on the campaign trail still seem to be the smear titles,” such as Jerome R. Corsi’s “The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality,” which topped the New York Times best-seller list despite being roundly disavowed by mainstream conservatives.
“In the end, I fear we’re not living in an especially literary age, and so while one might fervently hope for a literary political renewal, I’m not sure it’s in the cards,” he says.
Yet, on a fundamental level, the McCain and Obama memoirs continue to set the terms of debate between the two men — even amid the incessant attention being paid to the national conventions, polls, television ads and other momentary drivers of the presidential horse race.
“Biography is not the subtext of the campaign; it the campaign,” Mr. Schlesinger says.