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Between the covers (continued)

A Prayer for America, by Dennis Kucinich (Thunder’s Mouth, 2003). Amazon.com rank: #4388.

Not really a book but, rather, a collection of speeches, Kucinich’s, like Dean’s, is an $11.95 paperback. At 141 pages, it’s the shortest of the campaign books, and with a preface by Studs Terkel and blurbs from Ani DiFranco and Granny D, A Prayer for America strikes exactly the left-reformist tone you would expect.

It’s easy to make fun of Kucinich, who includes such antic passages as a "Haiku of Hegemony" ("Plotting gains. False promise low rates./ Political contributions place."). But Kucinich is a serious person with an interesting mind and a spiritual approach to life. His biggest problem may be that he chose the wrong line of work.

Quotable: "We are at a critical and creative moment in human history where we have it within our power to change the world. It is about evolutionary politics which follows an evolutionary consciousness. We can do it by changing the way we look at the world. By contemplating and realizing the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of all persons. We can do it by tapping our own unlimited potential to think anew. Imagine if we could look at our nation with the same daring with which our founders gazed."

Four Trials, by John Edwards, with John Auchard (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Amazon.com rank: #5407.

By far the best of the bunch, Edwards’s should hold up long enough for him to be passing out the paperback sequel during his next campaign.

The populism wears a bit thin in spots, as Edwards goes on at some length about his humble roots as the son of a mill worker, and how that drove him to become a lawyer who would fight for the underdog. But there’s nothing clunky or forced about any of this. And when he writes about wanting to bring dignity into the lives of people like E.G. Sawyer — an alcoholic who suffered severe brain damage after being given repeated overdoses of Antabuse — you believe him.

Quotable: "The next summer I was older, and my job, which paid only a little more, was worse: clean the hundreds of looms fastened to the floor of the weaving room. They were slick with grease and lint, and because most of the loom fixers chewed tobacco to pass the time, they were also smeared with rank globs of thick, brown saliva. ‘Now you see,’ my dad said, bending close to me so that I could hear him over the din of the looms, ‘why you need to go to college.’"

A Call to Service: My Vision for a Better America, by John Kerry (Viking, 2003). Amazon.com rank: #33,255.

Another opportunity lost for the Massachusetts senator, who’s trying to revive his presidential campaign after plunging from front-runner to also-ran in the New Hampshire polls.

There is no other way to say this, but A Call to Service is a really bad book, by far the worst of the eight. Don’t believe me? Listen to Kerry spokesman David Wade, who, when asked about A Call to Service, told Newsweek, "If I was going to recommend a book to understand who John Kerry is as a person, I would recommend Doug Brinkley’s."

That would be Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, by the historian Douglas Brinkley. Fortunately for Kerry, Brinkley’s book, at #1882 on Amazon.com, is selling much better than his own — and better than any campaign book except Clark’s.

A Call to Service consists of 202 pages of clichés, pandering, and hedges, delivered in one stiff, awkward paragraph after another. Check this out: "I don’t want the Democrats to nominate me because I’m a charter member of one of the most selective but fastest growing sports clubs in the world: the NASCAR fans of Massachusetts." And: "We need to show the world the face of enlightened — not Enron — capitalism."

It’s not that A Call to Service isn’t substantive; it is. But there are literally hundreds of policy proposals in here, with no attempt to set priorities or explain what Kerry’s overall governing philosophy might be. Kerry’s fans insist he is better than his campaign. They had better hope that he is also better than his book.

Quotable: "Another part of the Democratic heritage that I want to reclaim is the ability to appeal to Americans as Americans."

Al on America, by the Reverend Al Sharpton, with Karen Hunter (Kensington, 2002). Amazon.com rank: #69,528.

Would you be shocked to learn that the good reverend plays the race card? Sharpton has used his superior speaking ability to positive effect at the Democratic debates, and the campaign has enabled him to forge a new, more reasonable image for himself.

There is some worthwhile stuff in here — especially his account of witnessing the Texas execution of a black man who insisted on his innocence until his dying breath. Shortly thereafter, Sharpton recalls, then-governor Bush came on television and declared, "This was a great day for justice."

But if you’re wondering whether he finally comes clean on his loud championing of Tawana Brawley — the young African-American girl whose almost certainly false claim of being gang-raped by white men led to Sharpton’s being convicted of defamation — I’ll cut to the chase. "I took the word of a young girl," Sharpton writes, "and if I had to do it over again, I would do it again."

Quotable: "To even question why I’m running is insulting. Pundits ask me why not run for Congress or local office, an office they say I might have a better chance of winning. That question, too, is insulting. If I’m good enough for Congress, why aren’t I good enough for the highest office?... What they’re really saying is, ‘Why don’t you stay in your place?’ Why didn’t Jackie Robinson stay in the Negro League? Why doesn’t Tiger Woods only play in Harlem?"

An Even Better Place: America in the 21st Century, by Richard Gephardt, with Michael Wessel (PublicAffairs, 1999). Amazon.com rank: #291,226.

Gephardt wrote this book in preparation for the 2000 presidential campaign, which he ultimately decided not to join. Thus there is an outdated quality to some of what is in here — long passages on the "politics of personal destruction" as epitomized by the impeachment and near-removal of Bill Clinton, and lamentations about how the stock-market boom of the 1990s left ordinary people behind. (True enough, but the boom is ancient history now.)

An Even Better Place is like Gephardt himself: thorough, plodding, decent, and ultimately uninspiring. Nevertheless, he has written a serious book about serious ideas, offering not just assertions but case studies — such as the Springfield Remanufacturing Company, whose embrace of workplace democracy created an enterprise "where everyone has a responsibility to participate in and contribute to a successful future."

He also discusses a truly bad idea of his: "The 10% Tax Plan," which would lower federal income taxes to 10 percent for most Americans and would require a national referendum in order to raise them.

Quotable: "I’m a believer in demand-side economics. Raising wages increases the buying power of American workers, and that’s good for the entire country. And that increased demand will put more people to work, producing the food, clothing, and other goods and services that the working poor and near-poor are eager to afford. That can’t help but be healthy for business, too."

An Amazing Adventure: Joe and Hadassah’s Personal Notes on the 2000 Campaign, by Joe and Hadassah Lieberman, with Sarah Crichton (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Amazon.com rank: #340,461.

Joe Lieberman really can’t get over the fact that Al Gore would pick a Jewish running mate. So much so that, on page 17, he recalls telling reporters right after he had been picked, "Miracles happen" — and on page 267, as the book is coming to a close, he quotes his concession speech, in which he said, "Anything is possible for anyone in America."

An Amazing Adventure is a likable book, but neither Lieberman ever gets much beyond the gee-whiz aspect of being thrust into the national spotlight despite their religion. And there is plenty of religion in here, as Lieberman defends himself against secular organizations, which had criticized his public professions of faith, and praises such reprobates as the Reverends Bob Jones, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, all of whom loved his Bible-thumping.

Lieberman never honestly addresses what was wrong with his campaign. Indeed, he congratulates himself for having a civil debate with Dick Cheney, never mentioning that many observers thought the charisma-challenged Republican actually won. (Hadassah Lieberman even quotes approvingly from a Washington Post editorial that the country might have been better off if the top-of-the-ticket candidates had been Cheney and Lieberman.) And he defends his public call to allow all the absentee military votes to be counted in the post-election fiasco, even though he himself acknowledges that some of them had actually been sent in after Election Day.

Quotable: "While the folks at the Anti-Defamation League and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State nearly had a constitutional coronary over what I was saying and doing, I was convinced that most Americans, including those who are not religious, accepted and respected our religious observance and our willingness to talk about its importance to us."

TO A SURPRISING extent, these books are a pretty good reflection of their authors’ public personae: Dean the no-nonsense Bush-basher; Clark the military and foreign-policy wonk; Lieberman the smiling conservative; Kerry the cautious hedger; Gephardt the earnest plodder; Edwards the congenial populist; Sharpton the race-baiting blowhard; and Kucinich the fiery idealist.

Are they useful? Well, yes. I’d rather read these books than sit through yet another televised debate. But they’re useful only up to a point. Kerry’s book simply doesn’t do justice to his experience and depth of knowledge, for instance. Nor does Edwards’s answer doubts about his less-than-stellar political career thus far. And, of course, the best part for the candidates is that they get to present themselves exactly as they wish, with no pesky reporters or political opponents to ask tough questions. There’s value in that, but it’s only part of the story.

Still, these eight books are a substantive addition to a process that often seems devoid of substance.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: January 16 - 22, 2004
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