All the candidates’ books

The 2008 presidential contenders have written way too many books. A readers guide to 18 of them, the Good, the Bad and the Cosmic.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, John McCain, R-Ariz., Sam Brownback, R-Kan., Memoirs, Joe Biden, Rudy Giuliani, Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, Books,

All the candidates' books

The 2008 crop of presidential candidates is certainly a literate bunch. They’ve all written books, except Rep. Duncan Hunter,R-Calif., unless he’s the Duncan Hunter who wrote, “A Martian Poet in Siberia,” a self-published sci-fi novel about global warming. Published between 1972 and two weeks from now, the candidates’ books vary as much as their authors, ranging from gripping personal revelation to high-minded speechifying to run-of-the-mill wonkery.

And we have read many of them, though we didn’t get to Alan Keyes’ oeuvre because of his late entry into the race. In the 16 reviews that follow, the books are rated on a rising scale of one to five, with icons appropriate to the candidates — the first President Roosevelt for the Republicans, the second for the Democrats, and cosmonauts for the more, um, idealistic entrants in the race for the White House.

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“Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games” by Mitt Romney

We have had war hero presidents, cowboy presidents, presidents from academe and aristocratic presidents. Mitt Romney wants to be the first organization man president. So in his memoir, “Turnaround,” he thanks his “senior legal counsels” in the intro, and then follows with 384 triumphant pages of crisis management, marketing wizardry and audits.

In 1998, he was asked to leave his nine-figure job as a Boston buyout specialist to take over the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, which were reeling from a bribery scandal. As a proud Mormon, he felt the call of service from his great-great-grandfather’s homeland. By his own account, it was a transformative experience, yielding chapter titles like “Strategic Audit,” “Uncertain Revenues” and “The Budget.” He dictates the book as events happen, on his weekly commute from Park City to Salt Lake, detailing the highlights of his meetings with bankers and explaining his need to have his wife by his side at night. “I simply could not turn around the Olympics without her daily counsel,” he writes, after asking her to fly out from Massachusetts to join him. He also offers occasional insights into the passions that drive him. “McDonald’s was one of our best sponsors,” he confesses. “We loved the company as much as I loved their burgers. And that’s saying something.” Romney is not kidding. He really does love those burgers.

– Michael Scherer

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“The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream” and “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” by Barack Obama

I read both of Barack Obama‘s books thinking: Would I be reading this if the author weren’t running for president? The answer is no for “Audacity,” yes for “Dreams.” As the title suggests, most of “Dreams” is of course about his father, a Kenyan goat-herder who scrounged a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, met and married Obama’s mother, and then took his education back to his family in Africa.

The story of Obama’s trip to Kenya to learn about his late father is fascinating and the heart of the book. But what was most interesting to me was his unglamorous stint as a community organizer in the poor, mostly black neighborhoods of Chicago. He draws a sympathetic but not always flattering picture of the array of black activists he got to know in that web. Through it all Obama is smart and never mean, as critical of himself as anyone else.

All the issues that come alive in “Dreams” are in “Audacity” too, but they’re often fairly lifeless on the page. I was also irked by a tic in his writing, in which he holds up two opposing groups or ideas and then shows how he reconciles them: gun owners and gun haters; Daily Kos readers and Democratic insiders. “Audacity” also suffers because it feels padded with constitutional law lecture notes and speech drafts. I wanted stories from real-life politics to illuminate the way out of our current political divide, the way stories from “Dreams” did for our racial divide. The contrast between the richness of the two books could give ammunition to people who worry about Obama’s lack of national political experience. But I’d still rather have the author of “Dreams” as president than many of his challengers in either party.

– Joan Walsh

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“A Prayer for America” by Dennis Kucinich

Have you texted Peace 73223? Do you advocate the abolition of all nuclear weapons? Are you a vegan? Yes? Then prepare to have your mind blown by the wacky stylings of Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, in “A Prayer for America.” With a preface by Studs Terkel, who writes that Kucinich “is like Poe’s purloined letter — right there on the table as we helplessly play Inspector Clouseau goofily searching elsewhere,” the slim volume, mostly a collection of speeches, proves that Kucinich often represents the best in us. It is also a 141-page primer on why his candidacy is not even remotely plausible.

Kucinich quotes Carl Sandburg and James Russell Lowell! He composes a “Haiku of Hegemony”! And he sets down on paper the following passage, which might explain why he only lasted two years in his last executive position, mayor of Cleveland: “Spirit merges with matter to sanctify the universe. Matter transcends, to return to spirit. The interchangeability of matter and spirit means the starlit magic of the outermost life of our universe becomes the soul-light magic of the innermost life of our self. The energy of the stars becomes us. We become the energy of the stars. Stardust and spirit unite and we begin: one with the universe; whole and holy; from one source, endless creative energy, bursting forth, kinetic, elemental; we — the earth, air, water and fire-source of nearly fifteen billion years of cosmic spiraling.”

For. Real.

– Rebecca Traister

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“In Mortal Danger” by Tom Tancredo

You probably know two things about Tom Tancredo. One, that the Colorado congressman will not be the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Two, that he is really, really, really, really angry about illegal immigration.

There are only two things you need to know about the book in which he vents said anger, which is subtitled “The Battle for America’s Border and Security.” One, it’s dedicated to the late Madeleine Cosman, the pseudo-scientist whose phony stats about hordes of Mexican lepers swarming across the border were dutifully repeated on-air by CNN’s resident Know-Nothing, Lou Dobbs. (You can see video of Cosman ranting here.) Two, though Tancredo is sparing with his endnotes, he gives one to the late columnist Samuel Francis, who in 1994 made public comments so racist that even the Washington Times felt compelled to fire him. To repeat, Francis exceeded the RDA of wingnuttery at the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s newspaper.

You can stop right there.

– Alex Koppelman

“Living History,” by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Clinton‘s startlingly readable autobiography is one of those books that mostly sucks you in with the pictures.

Seriously, the photo of Hillary and Bill in college — he looking 12 feet tall and like an upmarket Seth Rogen — is alone worth the sticker price. And Hillaryland staffers worried about their candidate’s relatability should print up posters of the then-first lady staring darkly at a teenage Chelsea who is dressed in a miniskirt for her father’s second inauguration ceremony. “It was too late for her to change,” writes a still reproachful Clinton in the caption.

As for the book itself: Well, the woman — or collaborator Maryanne Vollers — can turn a phrase. There’s a surprising amount of what might charitably be called disclosure and realistically be called spin on topics from Whitewater to Vince Foster’s death to healthcare. Clinton comes off as most arrestingly candid when writing about her struggle to subsume her vivid identity in service to her husband’s presidency. As for what pass for the dirty bits, if you’re interested, you probably looked them up when the book came out: She first noticed his hands; they’ve been having a conversation for 30 years; she got real steamed about Monica … yada yada yada.

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– Rebecca Traister

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“Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and the Heroes Who Inspired Him” by John McCain with Mark Salter

Ever since the publication of his family’s military history, “Faith of My Fathers,” coincided with his spirited challenge to anointed candidate George W. Bush for the 2000 GOP nomination, John McCain has become the Republican most likely to scale the bestseller lists. Written, like four of his other books, with longtime top aide Mark Salter, “Worth the Fighting For” is as close as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has come to a standard political memoir. It begins not in a Vietnam POW camp, but in 1981 at the funeral of his father, an admiral who commanded the U.S. Pacific fleet. McCain’s strength as both a storyteller and a politician is his insight into his own failings, displayed in passages like this: “My [first] marriage’s collapse was attributable to my own selfishness and immaturity more than it was to Vietnam.” When it comes to his ill-advised meetings with a shady savings-and-loan operator, McCain becomes a one-man self-criticism session. But from the ashes of the “Keating Five” scandal, McCain devised a shrewd and seldom emulated public-relations strategy: “I would henceforth accept every single request for an interview … and answer every question as completely and straightforwardly as I could.” That refreshing policy has served him well as a writer and as a longtime favorite of the traveling press corps; but it will be emulated only if McCain somehow straight-talks his way to the nomination.

– Walter Shapiro

“Four Trials” by John Edwards, with John Auchard

Written for Edwards’ last presidential campaign, this my-life-in-court memoir is better written (the invisible hand of book doctor Elizabeth Edwards) than the standard legislative chronicle about “how I almost passed the Dry-Cleaning Reform Act of 1999.” Medical malpractice litigation might have an improved public image if all plaintiffs were like the one in Edwards’ first big case. E.G. Sawyer lost the ability to speak and care for himself when a doctor in Asheville, N.C., cavalierly prescribed three times the recommended maximum dose of Antabuse to deal with Sawyer’s alcoholism. After an initial settlement conference, Edwards recalls, “I left the courtroom scared to death.” The judge had told him, “Mister Edwards, juries down here don’t award more than a hundred thousand dollars.” But in Horatio Alger fashion, the plucky young lawyer eventually won a settlement of $3.7 million and “E.G. had the care he needed [and] a sense of dignity back in his life.” And Edwards had a calling — and the beginnings of the personal fortune that would help finance the 1998 Senate campaign that launched his political career. But no matter how many courtroom victories, in “Four Trials” Edwards (surprise) always remains faithful to his campaign persona as “the small-town son of Bobbie and Wallace Edwards.”

– Walter Shapiro

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“A Foreign Policy of Freedom: ‘Peace, Commerce, and Honest Friendship’” by Ron Paul

I’d never say anything bad about Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, if only because I tremble at the thought of the avenging Paulista hordes summoned to their keyboards by the resulting Google alert. I do think, however, that the jacket of his latest book, “A Foreign Policy of Freedom,” might be a little enthusiastic in describing Paul as “the premier advocate for liberty in politics today.” Also, Paul couldn’t even get through 10 pages before referring to “The New World Order,” which is almost never a good thing.

But the book, which is really just a collection of writings and speeches about foreign policy, is a good introduction to the Ron Paul phenomenon, and gives some insight into his allure for voters who might otherwise be allergic to a Republican. Anyone who opposes the Iraq war can find something to agree with in his generally isolationist, libertarian, anti-neocon views about the role of the United States in the world. They’ll just have to ignore his views on a lof of the other topics not covered by this book, meaning the environment, civil rights, taxes, healthcare, abortion …

– Alex Koppelman

“Promises to Keep” by Joe Biden

In the early primary states, despite six terms in the U.S. Senate, Joe Biden polls neck-and-neck with Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. But on Amazon, on a very, very good day, he’s breathing down the necks of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Biden’s autobiography debuted in August to admiring reviews and respectable sales. If all the readers who’ve purchased “Promises to Keep” could move to New Hampshire, Biden might no longer be a second-tier candidate.

Biden undoubtedly wishes he did not have such a diverting story to tell. Most political junkies probably recall that his first run for the Democratic nomination 20 years ago was scuttled by his uncredited recycling of a speech by British Laborite Neil Kinnock, a disaster closely followed by a pair of cerebral aneurysms that nearly killed him. Fewer may remember that Biden’s remarkable election to the Senate at age 29 in November 1972, which made him one of the youngest senators-elect in U.S. history, was followed within weeks by a car crash that killed his wife and daughter. Fewer still know that Biden is a bootstraps case, whose first success in life was willing himself to overcome a terrible stutter. Biden’s description of his Irish Catholic upbringing is sentimental, but moving, and his response to tragedy and near death both admirable and likable. It’s ironic, but in 2008 Joe Biden, whose previous White House bid was derailed by charges of plagiarism, is now more viable as an author than as a presidential candidate.

— Mark Schone

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“Citizen Power” by Mike Gravel

Mike Gravel, the former senator from Alaska who’s making a longest-of-shots bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, is no Quixote come lately. He’s been floating the same extravagant, idealistic and utterly doomed proposals since the Nixon administration. That’s evident in his 1972 book, “Citizen Power: A People’s Platform,” a guide to his political philosophy, which is centered on his enduring passion for greater citizen participation in government. Included are ideas like a progressive flat tax and amending the Constitution to allow voters to enact federal laws by referendum.

Gravel has spent much of the past 20 years devoted to an outgrowth of the law-by-referendum idea, working for a group called the National Initiative for Democracy, which led in turn to his current improbable presidential bid. Should he bend space and time and become the Democratic presidential nominee, one scheme from his book that is sure to excite potential corporate backers is his proposal that all companies involved in interstate commerce be required to apply for a federal charter, and then adopt governing boards with equal representation for stockholders, workers and representatives of the public.

– Alex Koppelman

“Leadership,” by Rudy Giuliani

The first chapter of Rudy Giuliani’s 2002 bestseller is titled “September 11, 2001,” and begins, “It was an exceptionally clear summer morning.” The first plane has hit the World Trade Center by the second paragraph, and the brand that Giuliani hopes will carry him to the GOP nomination is launched.

But it is the succeeding chapters of “Leadership,” which purports to impart the accumulated wisdom of a successful leader of men, that should really interest potential Giuliani supporters. If they have not already read the book, longtime New York residents might find some of the chapter headings unintentionally amusing. Not so much Chapter 11, “Weddings Discretionary, Funerals Mandatory,” as “Surround Yourself With Great People,” “Stand Up to Bullies” and, most important, “Loyalty: The Vital Virtue.” Prior to 9/11, New Yorkers were prepared to remember their mayor as an effective manager who was also a bully and a poor judge of people. In the book, Giuliani describes Bernie Kerik, his last police commissioner and very nearly the present chief of the Department of Homeland Security, as a “forceful hands-on manager” with “strength of character.” Kerik, currently under federal investigation for bribery, obstruction of justice and tax evasion, is proof that for the former mayor, as with the unpopular, unsuccessful president he would replace, the chapter on loyalty trumps all.

– Mark Schone

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“From Power to Purpose: A Remarkable Journey of Faith and Compassion” by Sam Brownback

Back in 1995, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback was a lost soul, consumed by ambition and distant from his family. During the heady days of the Republican Revolution, he had risen rapidly from Kansas secretary of agriculture to the halls of the U.S. Congress. Brownback may not have been happy, but he loved the rush of real power. “We even attempted to shut down four cabinet-level agencies,” he boasts like a schoolkid, in this memoir, which lays out the thesis for his presidential campaign. But the thrill would not last. He was blindsided by personal crises — children who did not know him well, an unhappy wife, and the surprise diagnosis of skin cancer. “My soul was empty,” he admits. “I was in line for some major soul surgery.” So out went the skin cancer (with a hunk of flesh from his torso), and in rushed the healing power of Jesus. He was reborn as a true believer and decided to devote the rest of his life to serving God. Now, as he says on the campaign trail, he serves a single, clear purpose. “All for Jesus,” he says, quoting Mother Teresa. “All for Jesus. All for Jesus. All for Jesus.” For Brownback, that means battling Sudanese genocide, international sex trafficking, abortion and gay marriage.

– Michael Scherer

“Letters From Nuremberg” by Christopher Dodd

In 1970 Sen. Thomas Dodd of Connecticut, who had been censured by his colleagues for diverting campaign funds for personal use, lost his bid for reelection. He died of a heart attack not long after. Twenty years later, his son Christopher, by then himself a Democratic senator from Connecticut, found the letters that Thomas had written home to his wife in 1945 and 1946 while serving as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. In 2007, Chris Dodd published these love letters from his father to his mother as his unorthodox, poignant and oddly old-fashioned entry in the often-stultifying genre of campaign biographies.

“Letters From Nuremberg” is meant to be an object lesson, testimony by prior historical example as to how the United States can defeat and prosecute a fearsome, murderous ideological enemy without blemishing the Constitution or compromising human rights. But just as Dodd uses Nuremberg to indict Guantánamo, he would rather talk about his father than himself. His book is also an object lesson in who and what he admires — more “Profiles in Courage” than an Oprah-era exercise in self-advertisement. And in the end, though Dodd has denied it, it’s also an attempt to rescue his father’s tarnished reputation. As Dodd’s brother told the New York Times, “He said to me once, ‘Every time I walk on the Senate floor, I feel that he’s vindicated.’”

– Mark Schone

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“From Hope to Higher Ground: 12 Stops to Restoring America’s Greatness” by Mike Huckabee

A former Baptist minister with a penchant for Dr. Phil-speak, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee casts his presidential ambitions in the formula of a self-help book. Even before you crack the spine, he has already made a funny, writing “Stops” instead of “Steps” in the subtitle, because all his steps to a better tomorrow are actually things that should be stopped — Being Cynical, Abusing Our Planet, Robbing the Taxpayers, Cheating Our Children. You get the idea.

The structure is either oddly comforting or completely annoying, especially since there are not just 12 stops/steps. For each of the 12 macro “stops,” there are 12 micro steps to “prime the pump for personal and civic action,” making a total of 144 stops/steps. “Always say ‘Thank You,’” reads one. “Don’t use profanity,” goes another. “Travel abroad … Sleep more! … Visit a museum of local history … Tour a manufacturing plant in your area … Buy Girl Scout cookies.” It’s not clear what all these have to do with running the world’s most powerful country, but they all speak to Huckabee’s master narrative of basic goodness, which is, well, both basic and, er, good.

— Michael Scherer

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“Between Worlds” and “Leading by Example” by Bill Richardson

On paper, Bill Richardson was perfect. A popular, swing-state governor of undeniable accomplishment, whose Latino heritage would help herd crucial Rocky Mountain electors into the Democratic column, he sounded like a Democratic presidential candidate designed in a lab. When the résumé hit the road, however, Richardson fumbled his way through televised debates and other public appearances. So far voters have not felt the magic.

In Bill Richardson’s two books, the initial hype around his candidacy again becomes understandable. “Between Worlds” is Richardson’s engaging campaign autobiography, in which he warms up the crowd by explaining his bicultural roots and then lays out his qualifications for the presidency. He describes how he grew up in Mexico City and how his philandering American grandfather left him with unknown numbers of second cousins scattered across Latin America. The former congressman and United Nations ambassador also explains how he negotiated with dictators from Iraq to Cuba to North Korea. Book No. 2, “Leading by Example,” due out on Oct. 26, is the candidate’s obligatory policy statement, in which he reminds voters that he is also the ex-secretary of energy, and thus uniquely qualified to reduce American dependence on foreign oil. In short, the perfect candidate is back on paper, but perhaps that’s where he belongs.

– Mark Schone

“At That Point in Time: The Inside Story of the Senate Watergate Committee” by Fred D. Thompson

Before Fred Thompson began doing his Old Country Lawyer shtick, he had the Young Country Lawyer routine down cold as the minority counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee. Or as he put it in his precocious post-Watergate memoir more than three decades ago, “There in the midst of it all, seated at the committee table, blinded by the television lights … was a 30-year-old lawyer from Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, six years out of law school: me.” For all his hayseed posturing, Thompson learned lasting lessons about how Washington really works. Despite right-wing bleats that the liberal press corps was out to get Richard Nixon, Thompson shrewdly notes, “It was competition, not ideology, that drove them on — the instinct for survival, the need to get … faster information than the competition.” Ultimately, for all his partisan instincts, Thompson also claimed to be satisfied with the justice inherent in Nixon’s fate: “How could I explain to my children what the president had done? Any attempt to justify his actions would fly in the face of the standards that I hoped to instill in them.” But, after a fairly uneventful eight-year tenure in the Senate, followed by a second-career stint on “Law and Order,” it’s another revelation from his bio that seems more relevant to his current quest for the presidency. “I had not fully appreciated the power of television,” he wrote, “or the fact that anyone who gets sufficient television exposure as a newscaster, an actor, or the Pillsbury doughboy, is an overnight celebrity.”

– Walter Shapiro

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