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Between the covers
The Democratic candidates’ campaign books say much about who they are and why they’re running. And Edwards’s is actually a good read.

TOWARD THE END of North Carolina senator John Edwards’s autobiography, Four Trials, comes a passage so human, so heartbreaking, that I got choked up while reading it.

It was early 1997, right after Christmas. The previous April, the Edwardses’ 16-year-old son, Wade, had been killed in a Jeep accident. And Edwards, a phenomenally successful plaintiffs’ lawyer, was in court representing Valerie Lakey, a young girl who had been disemboweled, and nearly killed, when she sat on an unsecured drain in a kiddie pool.

"Strange as it is for me to say it, I was lucky," Edwards writes. "When I stood before that jury, I knew I could keep my secret and hold it tight. When I spoke of the injustice that had come to Valerie, I was also silently protesting the absolute injustice of my son’s brief life — but no one knew what I was saying. Each day I was allowed to describe my pain, the ache of unbearable pain, and I spoke instead of the Lakeys’ and I would look over at them. I would speak about Valerie’s struggles day after day and those she would face in the years ahead, but a voice inside me was speaking too of the lovely years my son had lost, even the hours he had lost, and I was putting him to bed at night when he was still a child. And I spoke of my wife Elizabeth’s pain — but I would say Sandy Lakey’s name, and the jury would turn their heads and look at her."

This is powerful stuff, no less powerful for the fact that Edwards used a ghostwriter — John Auchard, best known for editing The Portable Henry James. Its power, in turn, makes Four Trials an example of a rare breed: a campaign book with real literary merit, 237 pages of why-you-should-vote-for-me done with heart, nuance, and a sense of drama.

No one knows whether Edwards’s lagging presidential campaign will catch fire in the final days before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But of the eight Democratic candidates toting campaign books (former ambassador Carol Moseley Braun is the only candidate without one), Edwards stands out as having by far the most impressive.

The campaign book is a relatively recent phenomenon. Parson M.L. Weems’s The Life of George Washington, with its archetypal tale of the cherry tree and the boy who would not tell a lie, came out too late (1810) to help in either of the general’s two presidential bids — not that the Father of His Country needed any assistance at the ballot box.

The first modern campaign book, John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, was a model of the genre. By writing about his heroes rather than himself, Kennedy was able to elevate his stature without coming off as overweening. And it certainly didn’t hurt that he won a Pulitzer Prize for it, regardless of how much of the actual writing may have been done by his speechwriter, Theodore Sorenson, or how many strings his father may have pulled with the Pulitzer committee.

By 1976, the self-written campaign book was still enough of a curiosity that Jimmy Carter’s Why Not the Best? received far more attention than it would today. (It also inspired one wag to joke that the sequel, for Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign, should have been titled I’ll Tell You Why Not!)

In 2000, George W. Bush (A Charge To Keep) and Al Gore (Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit) each toted around books — as did third-party challengers Ralph Nader (Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender), Pat Buchanan (A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America’s Destiny), and Harry Browne (The Great Libertarian Offer).

Why do candidates write books, or hire people to write them? After all, in the Age of Television, presidential candidates live and die by the sound bite. And those interested in depth and substance can go to the candidates’ Web sites, which are not only more up-to-the-minute than any book, but are also — as former Vermont governor Howard Dean has discovered — nifty fundraising tools.

The answer is that a book gives a candidate gravitas, or at least the perception of gravitas. A book communicates to voters that the candidate has a plan, that he’s thought it through, and that it’s all contained right here, between the covers. And it is a tangible object, a small piece of the candidate that supporters — or would-be supporters — can hold in their hands, regardless of whether they actually read it.

But a campaign book should be more than that. It should tell a story, as Edwards’s does. It should tell readers something important about the candidate — and why they ought to consider voting for him or her. Ideally, it should offer some biographical details, and show why those details are vital to who the candidate is and why he or she’s running. (Granted, that’s not easily done when a campaign book is not an autobiography.)

What follows is a highly subjective guide to the books of the 2004 Democratic campaign.

A couple of provisos.

First, I have, as a maggot of the media in good standing, divided the candidates into tiers, reading those of the mainstream candidates in full and skimming through those by Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich and the Reverend Al Sharpton at warp speed.

Second, I have ranked them in order of their popularity on Amazon.com as of Monday afternoon. That’s not entirely fair; after all, those by Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt and Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman have been out for some time, and presumably sold better when they were new. But life isn’t fair, and neither is the book business.

With that, the envelope, please.

Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire, by General Wesley K. Clark (PublicAffairs, 2003). Amazon.com rank: #974.

A follow-up to his best-selling book Winning Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat, Clark’s latest is a general’s take on the war in Iraq. Closely observed and analyzed, Winning Modern Wars shows how beginning the war with fewer troops than the military wanted may have cost American lives, and may be costing them still in the reconstruction phase.

The second half of Clark’s book offers much more of the big-think, big-picture sweep that he hopes will carry him into the White House. He offers some chilling anecdotes that he attributes to friends in the White House: stories circulated immediately after 9/11 that the Bush administration intended to topple Saddam Hussein, and that Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan were next on the list. And he shows that the failure to use sufficient American firepower in Afghanistan, a mistake that may have allowed Osama bin Laden to get away, was "an eerie prelude to the bias in Pentagon planning that would lead to problems in stabilizing postconflict Iraq in 2003."

Clark argues that Bush’s empire-building schemes endanger the "virtual" American empire that already exists — an empire that comprises everything from institutions such as the World Bank and NATO to the "soft power" (channeling the book of that name by Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government) of free trade and American culture.

Quotable: "Less than four months after dismantling Saddam’s statue, we had to admit that we had reenergized Al Qaeda by attacking an Islamic state and presenting terrorists with ready access to vulnerable U.S. forces. It was the inevitable result of a flawed strategy."

Winning Back America, by Howard Dean (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Amazon.com rank: #2314.

Just as the former Vermont governor’s campaign has proven to be the most nimble and sure-footed of the nine, the handling of his book, too, shows more than the usual degree of wiliness. Rather than coming out with a $25 hardcover doorstop, Dean has written a short (179 pages), cheap ($11.95) paperback. A Deaniac might be moved to buy a bunch and hand them out to friends.

The book itself — written with the help of an uncredited ghostwriter, according to Newsweek — is nothing special, but it gets the job done. It’s a rather flat recitation of Dean’s life story, his years as governor, and the first months of his presidential campaign, sprinkled with numerous attacks on Bush. He also makes some attempt to humanize himself, writing that when he first started dating his future wife, Judith Steinberg, she liked his friends better than she liked him. Somehow that’s not surprising.

Winning Back America came out in late fall, yet we learn things that the mainstream media have presented as recent news: his religiosity ("I’m a fairly religious person.... I’m a Christian") and his intention to push for some sort of middle-class tax cut ("government has to help working families ... with tax relief"). Don’t political reporters read these books? (See "Bookmarking Howard Dean on the Issues," page 7.)

Quotable: "With a strategy of always moving to the center, always sounding like Republicans, Democrats have made it possible for George W. Bush to move so far to the right, he’s become the most radical president in our lifetime. By being afraid to stand up to the Republicans and their radical agenda, the Democrats have actually empowered the radical right."

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Issue Date: January 16 - 22, 2004
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