Donald Trump says President Obama should have read his book, The Art of the Deal, because it would have kept him from making a bad nuclear agreement with Iran. Jeb Bush says that Trump should have read his book, Immigration Wars. Bobby Jindal says all the other candidates should read his book, American Will: The Forgotten Choices That Changed Our Republic, when it comes out in October.
And lest anyone has missed the point, in the Republican candidate debate this week, Dr. Ben Carson said he wanted as president the Secret Service code name “One Nation,” which just so happens to be the title of one of his many books.
It wasn’t always the case that would-be presidents wrote books or talked about them so much.
Today, however, campaign books are as routine as campaign photographs, which incidentally is a common theme for book jacket covers.
But is book authorship a valid credential for making someone resident of the White House?
Our study of presidential writing suggests it is not.
Good writers aren’t necessarily good presidents
Let’s start with Ulysses S Grant. He is one of our least successful presidents in large part because he surrounded himself with scandal-prone appointees. Once out of office he wrote what may be the best presidential book, a two-volume memoir of the Civil War. Influential critic Edmund Wilson said it was the “most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar.”
Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, neither of whom were reelected, are among the most prolific presidential writers. Hoover wrote some two dozen books on subjects as diverse as fishing and Woodrow Wilson. His Principles of Mining was a standard text on the subject. Jimmy Carter, one of our most admired ex-presidents, has written 29 books, one of the better of which picks up a Hoover theme, fishing.
A survey of historians, done by Arthur Schlesinger in 1996, ranks George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as our three best presidents. Not one of them wrote a book. The only one of the three who was a good writer was Lincoln. Washington once penned a two-hundred word letter that had only one period, at the end.
The one exception on Schlesinger’s list is Theodore Roosevelt, who he lists as a “near great.” His countenance is on Mount Rushmore and his byline is on 38 books. His Naval War of 1812 is a classic and is still in print. An avid reader as well, he wrote about books, A Book-Lover’s Holidays In The Open.
Using ghost writers
The discriminating reader will say, “Ha, but what about books by those in the ‘high average category,’ Eisenhower and Kennedy, or Reagan, to whom the current crop of Republican candidates like to compare themselves.”
True enough, all three have books with their names on the cover. But they were not the principle authors of the words inside.
Eisenhower enlisted literary subordinates to do his writing for him, just as he used military subordinates to peel potatoes and fight in combat. “One of the jobs of a guy like me,” said Sam Vaughan, the Random House editor who worked with him, “was to get [Ike’s dictation] past the report stage.”
Kennedy received the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, his book on political leaders with great integrity. Most of the writing was actually done by his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, and a Georgetown University history professor Jules Davids. After Ronald Reagan’s An American Life appeared, he commented, “I hear it’s a terrific book. One of these days I am going to read it myself.”
The point is that the ability to sit alone for long stretches of time to write a book is no indication of the ability to lead a large, complex nation made up of competing interests.
Woodrow Wilson, a book author who enjoyed solitarily pecking away at his typewriter, was, as historian James McGregor Burns told one of us years ago “stubborn, fixed, inflexible.” Largely as a result of his uncompromising attitude, he did not secure Senate approval for the League of Nations.
Franklin Roosevelt, who tried writing books on several occasions but never got beyond a few pages, relished political deal making. During World War II he masterfully marshaled support for a “united nations” organization in which the United States would play a strong role.
One reason former presidents write books or have them written for them is to tell their side of the story after their service is up. Another is to make a little money.
Grant did not write his book to get elected. He was dying of throat cancer and did not receive the White House retirement stipend presidents do today. He had to take care of his family somehow.
Can a book win votes?
Writing books in order to get elected is more difficult to explain.
Maybe it is because we live in a media age that budding presidents feel they need to make use of every communications device, from book to Facebook. Maybe it is because the contemporary citizen is so accustomed to celebrity authors that a ghostwritten book is accepted as a sign of intellect.
In any event, most candidates seem to understand intuitively the lessons of history. Spending a lot of time alone writing a book is much less productive than standing in front of a television camera or picking up the phone to ask for campaign contributions. No doubt for these reasons, few of the books by the current crop of candidates were written by them.
You sometimes can find the name of the real author buried in the acknowledgments. John Kasich is particularly generous in this regard. In his book, Stand for Something, he thanks a long list of people for their help. Bernie Sanders’s book, The Speech, is not a book at all, but a transcript of his 2010 filibuster of the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010. Nevertheless, his acknowledgments thank his staff and the Senate stenographers.
Book covers inevitably serve as campaign posters. Usually the author’s name is in bigger type than the title, and the titles sound like campaign slogans, to wit, A More Perfect Union (Ben Carson), Taking a Stand (Rand Paul), Unintimidated (Scott Walker), A Time for Truth (Ted Cruz), and A Time to Fight (Jim Webb).
Donald Trump’s 2011 book, Time to Get Tough, has been “updated for 2016” and now features his campaign slogan on the cover, “Make America Great Again.”
Books dwell on family stories - “My first book, Tough Choices, began with my mother and father. This book will end with them,” writes Carly Fiorina in Rising to the Challenge. They extol America’s greatness - “But it’s never smart to bet against the United States,” Hillary Clinton states in Hard Choices. And they appeal to hot button issues their political base considers signs of American failure. In the latter category are Mike Huckabee’s God, Guns, Grits and Gravy (“In the world I come from and choose to live in, ‘gun control’ means that you hit the target”) and Marco Rubio’s American Dreams (“If we raise the minimum wage, companies like Chili’s will be driven to replace workers with machines sooner than planned.”)
Of course, there are some exceptions.
The title of Jeb Bush’s 2013 book and its subject are serious – Immigration Wars. It may be a sign that he won’t win, although he is taking literary steps to counter the impression he is a dull policy wonk. To get into print quickly, he is self-publishing a book in October of his emails as governor. Reply All also serves as a convenient dig against Hillary Clinton who has been reluctant to release her own emails.
Even less likely to win is Senator Lindsay Graham, who wrote a 126-page e-book with the anodyne title My Story. It is free, and only available on his campaign website. Unlike Bobby Jindal, who says his October book has nothing to do with his candidacy, Graham said he only wrote his because as a candidate he had to.
Everyone has a story. Not everyone has to tell it, of course, and most people have the good sense not to. But if you’re in my line of work, and the time arrives when you start imagining a big promotion, and you let your imagination get the better of you, you are by custom expected to give a general account of your life.
If Graham really thought he was going to win he would not have said that.