Reading the Pols

The Baltimore Sun

How well will the next president of the United States lead us? It's a question that carries a certain urgency these days.

Only 32 percent of the American people say they approve of the way George W. Bush is doing his job, polls say. Congress doesn't fare much better, and there seem to be daunting problems everywhere -- Iraq, immigration, health care, a new Cold War, a growing gap between rich and poor -- the list goes on and on.

There is no shortage of Oval Office candidates. Long rows of well-dressed politicians to line up in studios to seek their moments of truth in debate, while journalists assess the zeitgeist. But most of the coverage thus far appears more tactical than cosmic.

You might think it's too early to think seriously about who should follow Bush, but you would be wrong. The field of candidates is likely to be narrowed from two dozen to only two by early next year, when several large-state primaries could be decisive.

Whatever your political persuasion, if you really hope to make a wise personal choice of who should lead, you've got a lot of reading to do in the next few months.

Most of the serious presidential candidates have written a book -- some several -- to tell life stories and offer their visions on leadership and personal views on the great questions of the day. Beyond these efforts, there is a flood of candidate books produced by fans, by enemies and even thoughtful independent biographers.

Why bother with the books? Because, in our busy world, it is difficult to probe beyond advertising sound bites, debate moments and artfully dodgy Web site position summaries to assess the personal qualities he or she would bring to the office. Books can offer a larger view, one that is as accessible and easy to tap as a volume on your bedside nightstand.

The candidates know books are important. That's why they write them, or have others do the job for them. Books are an important tool in recruiting networks of local supporters, vital for fundraising and organizing primary campaign efforts. Books suggest the candidate is a serious person, a fact reporters note when the contender suggests that they "read my book" while passing on a tough question.

As with most literary ventures, there are many candidate books, but very few great ones. But, unlike a bad novel, a poorly framed candidate memoir or policy tome can be usefully revealing.

Independent biographies can also be revealing, particularly if the subject has been in public life long enough to attract significant public attention. The lapidary effects of the varied views of an array of biographers can help readers shape a richer, subtler view of the candidate's strengths and weaknesses.

The idea that books can be important took hold in the modern political era in the 1950s, when John F. Kennedy, then a young senator from Massachusetts, wrote, possibly with some help from friends, Profiles in Courage, a widely praised collection of essays highlighting political acts of courage through American history. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957, and Kennedy's stature as a presidential contender got a significant boost. The rest, as they say, is history.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama did something similar in the current political season. His The Audacity of Hope, a compelling appeal for centrist politics based on broad American values, became a runaway best-seller after its publication last October and set the stage for Obama's early decision to seek the presidency this year.

In 1999, Sen. John McCain published Faith of My Fathers, a moving chronicle of his ordeal as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and an artful description of the lives of his naval forbears: his grandfather, who commanded an aircraft carrier in the Second World War, and his father, who led all naval forces in the Pacific during the Vietnam War.

McCain's passionate and candid account was another best-seller, revealing his humanity to millions of Americans and helping to set the stage for a strong run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

Among the current presidential contenders, McCain and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton lead the publishing pack, with four books each to their credit. Former senator (and vice presidential candidate) John Edwards has written three while Obama and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have each written two. Among other Democratic candidates, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio each have one, while Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut are promising books this summer or fall. Among other Republicans, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado have written one each.

Clinton, Giuliani and McCain are the current candidates most written about by others, with Clinton a particular target of unfriendly biographers. Published just last week, the two latest profiles of the former first lady -- A Woman in Charge, by Carl Bernstein, and Her Way, by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta -- offer mixed views of her character and performance.

McCain's political reputation has benefited from the work of a number of skilled and thoughtful writers in recent years, beginning in 1995 with The Nightingale's Song by Robert Timberg, a former editor at The Sun. In 2002, political writer Elizabeth Drew portrayed McCain's Senate battle for campaign finance reform in Citizen McCain, a book that won him admiration from reform-minded voters from both parties across the nation.

Giuliani is viewed by his biographers through sharply different lenses, either as a brave and energetic leader who carried New York City through its worst trauma in history in the wake of Sept. 11 or as a failed mayor rescued from ignominy by the tragedy.

One of the more interesting political books this year arrived recently from a failed presidential candidate who says he doesn't want to run again. Al Gore's book The Assault on Reason, published last month, balances theoretical discussion of the foundations of democracy with a lacerating critique of the Bush administration.

"We are at a pivotal moment in American democracy," Gore said recently. "The persistent and sustained reliance on falsehoods as the basis of policy, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, has reached levels that were previously unimaginable. It's too easy and too partisan to simply place the blame on the policies of President George W. Bush. We are all responsible for the decisions our country makes."

Mike Huckabee, the long-serving Republican governor of Arkansas, also offers an interesting perspective in his book, From Hope to Higher Ground, listing 12 action steps to avoid cynicism, which he describes as the nation's No. 1 problem. Among his recommendations: Don't believe bad reports without documentation, listen to more music and less talk radio, and do volunteer work.

Those who don't take the time to do the work of reading in search of the character of the next president are in serious danger of getting what they deserve.

larry.williams@baltsun.com

CANDIDATES? LIVES

Here is an assortment of books written or promised by candidates for president in 2008:

REPUBLICAN

Sam Brownback:From Power to Purpose: a Remarkable Journey of Faith and Compassion (July 2007)

Rudolph W. Guiuliani: Leadership (October 2002)

Mike Huckabee: From Hope to Higher Ground; 12 STOPS to Restoring America?s Greatness (January 2007)

John McCain: Character is Destiny:Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember (October 2005)

Mitt Romney: Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games (August 2004)

Tom Tancredo: In Moral Danger: The Battle for America?s Border and Security (June 2006

Tommy Thompson: Power to the Peoiple (September 1996)

DEMOCRATS

Joesph R. Biden Jr.: Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics (August 2007*)

Hillary Rodham Clinton: Living History (June 2003)

Christopher J. Dood: Letters from Nuremberg (September 2007*)

John Edwards: Four Trials (Auguist 2004)

Dennis J. Kucinich: A Prayer for America (March 2002)

Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope (October 2006)

Bill Richardson: Betweens Worlds: The Making of an American Life (March 2007) *Promised for future publication

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