A cam­paign that cracks the books

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY SCOTT GALUPO

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.

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