I don't know what got into me, but I just read four books in a row by some of our current presidential candidates. That's not something I've ever done before, or even considered doing. But I'd heard that Barack Obama was a good writer, and I was curious about his candidacy, so I decided to try out The Audacity of Hope. It was interesting enough that when I finished, I thought I'd check out Bill Richardson's book, Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life, because I wanted to know more about him, and the media certainly wasn't going to tell me anything. They seem incapable of dealing with more than three candidates in each party, and Obama and Hillary have sucked up the vast majority of the coverage anyway. [I did some research on that several weeks ago and discovered that they were getting about 50% of all media coverage of the 19 presidential candidates from both parties.] So, two books down. I was on a roll. Hell, I thought, I might as well read John Edwards' book, Four Trials, since I was also considering him as a possibility. Finally, I went for broke and decided to try Hillary Clinton's Living History. I'm still not sure if that was out of fairness or self-flagellation. I'm not a Hillary fan. But I realized that I might have to consider her in a general election, so I thought I should give her a chance. Who knows, maybe I'd really grow to like her.
It was an interesting process, and I would recommend picking up a book by one or two of the people you're considering. They don't always answer the questions you may have about them. Richardson, for example, says next to nothing about immigration, and I was curious to see what he of all people had to offer, because he's part Mexican, and because he's had to deal with the issue head-on as Governor of New Mexico. Hillary ends her book with her election to the Senate, so there was nothing about her support (her continued and irritating support) for the war in Iraq. Edwards' book only deals with politics obliquely through the four court cases he talks about, which was both a relief and a disappointment. Whatever. I can continue to read about their policies and ideas in the press, watch debates, etc. But now I feel like I have a better sense of where they're coming from.All four write about their backgrounds growing up, which I found illuminating. Hillary turns out to have been a Goldwater Girl and President of the Young Republicans at Wellesley her freshman year. Obama and his idealistic white mother move to Indonesia only months after Suharto begins his brutal 30-year dictatorship. Richardson was born in the U.S. but lived in Mexico City until he was 13, when he is shipped off to an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts. It was the 1950s and he was half-Mexican, but he survives and actually thrives in such an environment because he turned out to be an excellent baseball player. In fact, he had a chance to play professionally but was ultimately persuaded to attend college instead.
Most importantly, perhaps, I felt like each candidate had a very distinctive voice. Obama and Richardson don't strike me as being far apart in terms of policy, but there was a profound difference between the two in terms of tone and style. And I think the difference is important. As Cervantes said, "The pen is the tongue of the soul." You can tell a lot by a person's writing, even when they don't do all the writing, as in the case of Richardson and Edwards, who both had co-authors. The figures I only knew about from media soundbites and scattered articles seem much more fleshed out to me now, more human.So, I offer a few thoughts on these four books, and then I include a series of reviews from Publisher's Weekly as a sort of counter-balance to my own opinions.
Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream - Crown (2006) 384 pages.
I started reading these books because of a single question: Is Barack Obama really that good of a writer? The answer is yes. At least for the most part. He does best when talking about his own personal story, and when giving history about something - the Senate or about the African-American experience, etc. He's got a good eye for detail. I particularly liked when he describes his first day in the Senate chambers. When it comes to policies and ideas for the future, however, his writing becomes less interesting. Which also sums up many of the ideas themselves. Publisher's Weekly describes his policies as "tepid Clintonism," which I thought was spot on. His style of politics may be fresh, but I don't think you're going to find much difference, in the end, between Barack and Hillary. Actually, that holds true for Richardson as well. They're all three Clintonites - one is married to Bill, the other worked for and strongly supported Bill, and the new kid on the block ain't gonna rock the boat. Edwards may be a little different, though it's hard to tell from his book, since he doesn't focus on policy at all. I get a sense here and there that he might be a little more Left on globalization and economic issues, for example, and he seems to be positioning himself that way right now, but you can't really judge by his book.
Ultimately, I had mixed feelings about Barack's book. I liked aspects of it very much, but I also found it uneven and somewhat disappointing. In the chapter called Race, for example, he writes a long, eloquent section on the hardships faced by African-Americans. But then he follows it up with a shallow (and questionable) throw-away piece on immigration. He also seems overly cautious, so concerned about his image as a fresh, new face willing to reach out to everybody that he can't stake out any territory. His desire to find "common ground" with others sounds real nice, and, yeah, like most Americans I'm tired of the bitter partisanship of the last 20 years, but I left his book feeling like he could slide around politically and not take stands when stands are needed. Only when he shifts on his politics, it won't be a calculated ploy to get elected - like Hillary gets tarred with - he'll portray it as something noble, a decision reached after searching his conscience in order to find that mystical place where all Americans love one another and want to work together to make the Republic strong. In other words, he'll paint it prettier, but it may still be an old rusted car he's trying to sell you.Bill Richardson: Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life - Putnam Adult (2005) 384 pages.
Richardson is kind of the anti-Obama. His style is rough and tumble, straight-ahead action. "I went to Iraq. I met Sadaam. I negotiated the release of the prisoners. And then I got the hell out of there. Then I went to North Korea. A helicopter went down with two of our soldiers. I negotiated the release of the prisoners. Then I got the hell out of there. I ran for Congress. One day, the President called and said he had an emergency. So, I went to Afghanistan. I met with the Taliban. I negotiated the release of the prisoners. Then I got the hell out of there." To be honest, after Barack's cautious prose and ideas, I found Richardson's book to be a bit of a relief. And it was in the light of all this action that I realized how precious Obama can sound. So reading the two books helped me understand both men a bit better. Barack's a thinker, Bill's a man of action. He's not going to paint the rusted car all pretty for you. You're going to buy the damn car, and you might as well get used to the rust, because that's all you're gonna get. It just has to be that way in order to get things done. What these things are that need to get done, well, who knows. Probably to get some of our prisoners released.The problem is that Richardson's book can get a little tiring after a while. Confidence, shall we say, is not his problem. And while I might like his James Bond schtick, I did start to miss Obama's thoughtfulness. What are you going to do? On the other hand, I prefer Richardson's take on finding that elusive common ground. Like Obama, he talks about the importance of working towards agreement, but his vast experience in negotiating with dictators points in another direction. You have to know exactly what you want and be willing to fight for it. Then, you establish a dialog and a bond of trust. And somehow, despite his bluster, people trust Bill Richardson. That's why he keeps going into these hot spots to negotiate with some pretty hardcore people. He's been described as charismatic, and he must be to some degree to sit down with Fidel Castro and smoke cigars and talk baseball in Spanish and then work out a deal to get some prisoners released. He made me think of Lyndon Johnson at times. He's a politician. He knows he's a politician. He likes being a politician. While he thinks it's a noble calling in the end, he sure does love the game. And I can actually appreciate that. It's the ones who want me to think they're all noble and caring who I don't trust.
Richardson's resume is very impressive - important early committee work on Human Rights, 14 years as U.S. Representative, Secretary of Energy, Ambassador to the U.N., two terms as Governor of New Mexico, etc. But I was disappointed in the end by some of his policies. He writes at length on how as Minority Whip he helped get NAFTA pushed through, and he considers it one of his great successes. I was hoping that by 2005, he might look back and talk about the mixed blessing NAFTA has been. Is it just coincidence, for example, that the massive immigration of Mexicans to the U.S. started right after NAFTA was implemented? Personally, I don't think so. The Mexican economy collapsed, especially the longstanding and vital rural agricultural economy, driving millions of people into the big cities and across the border. NAFTA played a role in this. To what degree? But Richardson simply counts it as another notch on his belt and moves on.My sense after reading the book was that Richardson would be a strong president, but not one I would be happy with at times. But then, when have I ever been happy with a president? At least, I think, he would be somewhat entertaining - I found myself really enjoying writing about his book and had to go back and cut a lot out of this section. That says something.
John Edwards: Four Trials - Simon & Schuster (2003) 256 pages.
Edwards' book is quite different from the others. It definitely affected me the most emotionally, as the four court cases he writes about all involved pretty horrific situations. In one story, a little girl gets caught on the faulty drain of a public wading pool, and literally has her guts sucked out through her rectum. She survives, but has major medical complications, as you can imagine. The company who manufactured the drain disclaims any responsibility for what happened, even though it's eventually brought to light that several other children across the U.S. have died and been seriously injured by the company's product. Edwards is painting himself as the guy fighting on behalf of the little people against the big corporations. And though it's obvious what he's doing, I found the book compelling, especially as he talks about each case in relation to the challenges he's faced in his own life, from growing up poor to losing his son. At one time, I had an idea of Edwards as just some pretty boy trial lawyer, and I think the book definitely challenges that assumption. Of course, Edwards' book may only be the equivalent of one of his well-constructed closing statements that helped him become a millionaire lawyer, but it worked on me. As a juror of sorts, I wound up believing him.Four Trials reads pretty well. I like books and movies about court cases (though I've never been able to read more than a single page of a John Grisham novel), and I found each of the four trials Edwards talks about to be fascinating. He does a good job of portraying the real people going through incredibly difficult times and how these kinds of court cases affect individuals, communities and big companies. He takes you through the ups and down of each trial and weaves in some good little observations here and there. The downside of all this, is that you don't get much about Edwards' political views. How would he handle the crisis in our educational system? Well, he'd fight on behalf of the little guy. What about Health Care? Well, he'd fight on behalf of the little guy. You get the picture. On the other hand, having just read two books in a row by politicians talking a lot about themselves, I found Four Trials to be a welcome break. I didn't expect it to be so haunting, however. Even now, a month later, thinking of that little girl trapped in the wading pool really upsets me. In the end, the book is really about Edwards' character. It's up to you to decide whether or not he's done a good job of making his case.
Hillary Clinton: Living History - Simon & Schuster (2003) 592 pages
More than anything, Hillary's book needed some serious editing. At 592 pages, it's much longer than the other three, and I don't think the added length means added value in this case. It was a tough slog, and, to be honest, I wound up skimming through a couple of the later chapters when they started sounding like previous ones - mainly detailed accounts of overseas trips she made as First Lady. One gets the feeling that she had copies of her itineraries by her side while writing the book and just included everything she could think of for each stop along the way. The length might not have been such a factor if she didn't spend 90% of the book talking about her eight years in the White House and so little about everything else. Many of the most interesting aspects of the book - her childhood, her time at Wellesley, her meeting Bill, etc. - are given short shrift, while these damn trips she made to Asia take up a zillion pages.I enjoyed reading about her childhood and her time in college - I thought these gave me some slight glimpse into who she is - but she just doesn't stay with them very long. And I walk away from the book feeling like she barely cracked open the window on her life, despite all those pages. Living History struck me, in the end, as a reserved book, cool in tone. It also feels pretty scripted at times. There were three or four occasions when she mentioned something that didn't quite feel right, kind of a product placement moment. The most genuine and emotional parts of the book are, interestingly, about her meeting Bill Clinton in graduate school and what she went through after he admitted the Monica Lewinsky affair to her. The writing in these sections seemed much more alive and real. I wasn't, admittedly, a big fan of the Clintons, but I did gain a better appreciation for their complex relationship as husband and wife after reading this book. She also has a good collection of photos, including this fun one of her and bearded, hippie Bill in 1970.
In addition to spending too much time on her White House years, though I guess that was the point of the book, Hillary also goes off way too much on the vast right-wing conspiracy. This is her chance to get back at all of the bad guys, and she hammers away at them over and over. It's not that I disbelieve what she has to say, but after a while I found myself thinking, "Christ, let go of it, why don't you? We get the point." She seems pretty seriously bitter about the whole thing. Who can blame her? But the combination of this palpable bitterness and the emotional coolness of the book didn't exactly turn me into a Hillary supporter. She's intelligent. She cares about children. She's concerned about women around the world. She loves Bill. She loves Chelsea. She hates certain conspiring, right-wing Republicans. These things become clear in the book. She would probably make a fine president. But after about 600 pages, I'm not sure I really know much more about her. I found myself thinking of Gertrude Stein's famous quip about Oakland: "The trouble is that when you get there, there isn't any there there."
Publisher's Weekly Reviews of the Books
Obama's Audacity of Truth
Illinois's Democratic senator illuminates the constraints of mainstream politics all too well in this sonorous manifesto. Obama (Dreams from My Father) castigates divisive partisanship (especially the Republican brand) and calls for a centrist politics based on broad American values. His own cautious liberalism is a model: he's skeptical of big government and of Republican tax cuts for the rich and Social Security privatization; he's prochoice, but respectful of prolifers; supportive of religion, but not of imposing it. The policy result is a tepid Clintonism, featuring tax credits for the poor, a host of small-bore programs to address everything from worker retraining to teen pregnancy, and a health-care program that resembles Clinton's Hillary-care proposals. On Iraq, he floats a phased but open-ended troop withdrawal. His triangulated positions can seem conflicted: he supports free trade, while deploring its effects on American workers (he opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement), in the end hoping halfheartedly that more support for education, science and renewable energy will see the economy through the dilemmas of globalization. Obama writes insightfully, with vivid firsthand observations, about politics and the compromises forced on politicians by fund-raising, interest groups, the media and legislative horse-trading. Alas, his muddled, uninspiring proposals bear the stamp of those compromises.
Richardson's Between Worlds
A charismatic politician with a standout résumé, in 2008 Governor Richardson may become the first Hispanic-American on a presidential ticket—at least if he has anything to say about it. In this campaign pamphlet, er, autobiography, Richardson lays out the highlights of his professional career, documenting how, after gaining a taste for politics in college and finaglinghis way into the international affairs program at the Fletcher School, he worked his way up from Capitol Hill staffer to U.S. congressman, United Nations ambassador, head of the Department of Energy and now governor of New Mexico. Along the way, he developed a knack for negotiating the release of prisoners from some of the world's most notorious dictators, among them Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro, work that led him to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times. Richardson prefaces his account of these triumphs with a short chapter on his life in Mexico City, where he lived with his father, a prominent American businessman, and his mother, a Mexican secretary, until he was 12, but the focus of this book is his life in America. Though the autobiography is clearly designed as part of Richardson's long-term campaign for re-election in New Mexico and for national consideration by the DNC, it manages to provide a sense of his most famous characteristics: his blunt, disarming humor; his glad-handing chumminess; and his dogged ambition. "Some politicians say they feel uncomfortable talking about power, as if it's the nasty relation a family wants to keep hidden from public view," he writes. Richardson isn't one of those politicians, and it's his straight talk about how he got the power he has, and how he likes to flex it, that saves this book from being one long commercial.
Edwards' Four Trials
In his campaigns for the U.S. Senate (successful) and the Democratic presidential nomination (struggling), Edwards has defiantly celebrated his earlier career as a trial lawyer. Following that instinct, Edwards has chosen to cast his campaign memoir as an account of four of his courtroom experiences. Four Trials is brimming with Clintonian empathy for regular folks, and Edwards is at his best in his endearing portraits of the victims he represented in medical malpractice and personal injury lawsuits. He also displays a keen understanding of the psychology of a jury, which he calls "a microcosm of democracy." Edwards weaves in recollections of his youth as the son of a mill worker, his rise to prominence as a lawyer, his dedicated family life and the death of his son in a car accident. But he mostly sticks to the details of the cases; he omits almost entirely his years in the Senate and his plans for the presidency. Edwards can tell a good yarn, and at times this book works as a courtroom drama. But it suffers from shoddy, platitudinous prose. The book is chiefly of interest for the way it manifests Edwards's strategy to present himself as an advocate for the downtrodden to his new jury, the American electorate.
Clinton's Living History
Whether or not you believe that the Clintons were victims of what Hillary calls a "vast right-wing conspiracy," this memoir has enough information and personality to appeal to people on both sides of the political fence. Most will not be surprised by Clinton's reading style, as it is similar (though not nearly as formal) to the manner in which she has delivered many television addresses. Her Midwestern accent is evenly pitched and pleasant. She easily laughs at herself, and fluctuations in her delivery render her emotions nearly palpable. Indeed, the casual straightforwardness of her delivery will engender a sense of trust and respect in listeners. Though she does not offer much new material, she is adept at disclosing many "backstage" details-from the personal, like her inner feelings about the Lewinsky scandal ("the most devastating, shocking and hurtful experience of my life"), to the humorous, like the time a mischievous Boris Yeltsin tried to coax her into sampling moose-lip soup. Her devotion to Chelsea, Bill and to her country feels genuine, as do her hopes for future. All in all, her infectious sense of optimism and unwavering energy shine through in her delivery and will leave listeners with a new respect for the former First Lady.