The Unbearable Awfulness of Campaign Lit

We read seven 2016 presidential wannabes' books so you don't have to.


Cover of Ben Carson's book
One Nation

One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America's Future, by Ben Carson, Sentinel, 225 pages, $25.95

Hard Choices: A Memoir, by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Simon & Schuster, 635 pages, $29.99

Rising to the Challenge: My Leadership Journey, by Carly Fiorina, Sentinel, 198 pages, $26.95

God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, by Mike Huckabee, St. Martin's, 258 pages, $26.99

American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone, by Marco Rubio, Sentinel, 212 pages, $27.95

Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works, by Rick Santorum, Regnery, 216 pages, $27.99

Unintimidated: A Governor's Story and a Nation's Challenge, by Scott Walker with Marc Thiessen, Sentinel, 282 pages, $16

Say what you will about the 2016 presidential race, but the candidates are almost twice as good as those in the 2008 election. This is an objective fact, which I established using the pioneering methodology of essayist Paul Greenberg, who added up the prices of all the 2008 campaign autobiographies and then divided by the total number of pages. That yielded an average value of about a nickel a page. I did the same thing with the seven 2016 autobiographies published so far and calculated that they're going for about nine cents a page. It's morning in America!

Having read—God help me—precisely 2,026 pages of this stuff, I can tell you that no sane person would pay nine cents a page for it. But more surprising than the price it commands is that the genre exists at all. In an age when even the old and much-despised 30-second TV soundbite is considered windy, when all political thought must fit into the confines of a 140-character tweet, it seems quixotic and even mildly deranged that candidates spend time committing tens of thousands of words onto the corpses of slaughtered trees. Even Carly Fiorina's Rising to the Challenge, with barely 188 pages of wide margins and big type when you subtract out the index and acknowledgements, weighs in at around 46,000 words.

Campaign books are not even that long-established a tradition. The first one, so far as anybody can tell, was John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, a collection of short and in some cases historically dubious political biographies, published in 1957 with an obvious eye to the 1960 presidential election. The whole genre fell into instant disrepute when Kennedy's claim to have written the book himself was widely challenged—a challenge that turned out to be correct when, 50 years later, Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen admitted he was the actual author. (Technically, he merely said that he "helped choose the words of many of its sentences.")

With the notable exception of Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative (actually written by National Review's Brent Bozell; Goldwater is said to have leafed through it for about 10 minutes before agreeing it could go out under his name), no other campaign autobiography has ever again attracted readers or critical attention in any significant way.

So what's the use of these books? National Journal, in an essay earlier this year titled "Soapbox Lit," generously suggested that the act of producing such a book helps a candidate and his advisors to think through issues thoroughly. I personally prefer the explanation of the University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who infelicitously draws a parallel to China's Great Cultural Revolution: "True believers want a little red book to wave in the air while they chant the name of their chosen leader." (That should answer your question about why every political reporter in America talks to Sabato but he never gets invited to moderate a campaign debate.) As the Chinese Communists used to say, "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend." Or, if you prefer, "have fewer children; raise more pigs."

About the best that can be said for these books is that they give us a glimpse of the general parameters of the 2016 campaign. (Or at least the planned parameters. John McCain never expected to spend the last eight weeks of his 2008 race talking about banking bailouts.) The GOP will be hammering away on the dysfunctional economy; that's the backbone of every Republican book. Although God appears early and often in each of their works, they—with the major exception of Mike Huckabee—seem to be largely holding their fire on social issues. Even the commentary on gay marriage is mostly restricted to deploring any economic bullying of those who oppose it.

Their comments on foreign policy are generally expressed as a vague afterthought that Obama is some kind of a wimp, a strange criticism of a president who went to war in Libya, tried to go to war in Syria, tried to back into one he'd left in Iraq, and still hasn't extricated himself from one in Afghanistan. (Caveat: As this review goes to press, planned autobiographies by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have yet to appear, though The U.S. Senator "Ted" Cruz to the Future Comic Coloring Activity Book is available.)

Clinton, on the other hand, will be offering herself as the (almost) apolitical voice of experience, a master of foreign policy and the champion of such unassailably do-gooder causes as AIDS vaccines for African kids.

Her book Hard Choices was published last year, masquerading as a foreign policy memoir. But its determined blandness gives away its place in the campaign category. Much of it reads like your neighbor's extended narration of a slide show about his vacation, an exquisitely painful combination of travelogue (Botswana has some of the best highways in Africa!) and name dropping (Bono let me play the piano with him!). Yet she never allows that to cloud her central narrative, which is that the most interesting and perspicacious leader she encountered in those 112 countries was Hillary Rodham Clinton.

She revels, for example, in informing us that no matter how much fun she had working her will on pashas and potentates, she also enjoyed a good town-hall meeting at the end of the day where she could mingle with the plebes (a concept she says she came up with while attending the famously proletarian World Economic Forum in Davos). "I loved hearing their thoughts and engaging in a substantive back-and-forth discussion," she writes, then proudly presents three audience questions at a South Korean university: Is it difficult to deal with misogynistic leaders around the world? (Since South Korea was only the second country Clinton had visited, perhaps this was a Joe Biden reference.) Could you tell us about your daughter, Chelsea? And: How do you describe love? Read it and weep, Kissinger.

Clinton is also second to none in admiration for her own diplomatic achievements. Of Obama's pledge for a new beginning with Vladimir Putin and Russia, she writes: "The 'reset' delivered." That will certainly be a surprise to a lot of people in the Russian-occupied chunk of Ukraine. Then there's the many months she spent negotiating a deal to open the border for trade between Turkey and Armenia, mortal enemies for the past century. Clinton flew to Zurich for the signing ceremony—where the Armenian foreign minister refused to even come out of his hotel room. Clinton, who was literally driving to the ceremony when she got word, spent three hours on her cellphone setting up a mini-accord in which the two ministers wouldn't have to speak at the ceremony, just scrawl their names and leave. They did, practically sprinting out the door afterward. Not surprisingly to anyone except, apparently, Clinton, neither country ever ratified the trade protocol and six years later the border is still sealed. Clinton nonetheless counts it as a big win: "President Obama called to offer his congratulations. It hadn't been pretty, but we'd taken a step forward for a sensitive region."

This is probably the only book ever written that manages to make the SEAL team raid that killed bin Laden seem dull. And on the few occasions when it accidentally veers toward readability, Clinton quickly clamps down the hatches. If you're going to quote Nicolas Sarkozy calling another world leader "a drug-addled maniac," at least tell us which one.

Quite the opposite is Scott Walker's Unintimidated. When it was first published in 2013, George F. Will called it "a nonfiction thriller." That's not hyperbole, at least for the first 170 pages or so, which offer the Wisconsin governor's account of the tumultuous battle with unions at the beginning of his term. Protesters were so bent on disrupting Walker's every public appearance that they even dressed up like rotting zombies while protesting his appearance at the Special Olympics. Walker and his legislative allies had to make their way around the capitol in secret underground tunnels.

The unions were widely successful—at least outside Wisconsin—in portraying Walker as a reactionary barbarian trying to abolish collective bargaining and reduce education funding to Stone Age levels. But the issue that really touched off the war was his attempt to abolish automatic withholding of teachers union dues from their paychecks.

The automatic deductions were the foundation of a cycle of corruption. The dues went to the unions, which kept some of the money and turned the rest over to politicians in the form of campaign contributions. The politicians then negotiated sweetheart contracts with the unions (particularly when it came to pensions, a deferred expense that could be kicked down the road at no cost to the pols).

There was also a direct kickback to the unions—the contracts usually mandated that medical insurance be purchased from union-affiliated companies that charged well over the market rate. This game of footsie reached such epic levels that in Milwaukee, some of the county supervisors actually suggested bringing the unions in to help shape the county's bargaining positions before negotiations began.

No wonder that, as Walker writes, "the unions were willing to do anything to keep their hands on that cash. They were worried that given a free choice, their members would choose to keep the money for themselves." As it turned out, that's exactly what happened. In the 18 months after automatic deductions were finally outlawed, membership in some public sector unions fell nearly 90 percent. The state senate ultimately passed the bill as a police SWAT team stood watch.

Sadly, the excitement of Unintimidated does not extend to its policy prescriptions. There are any number of conclusions that might be drawn from Walker's ordeal, starting with whether Wisconsin schoolchildren really should be left in the custody of people whose idea of political discourse is donning ski masks, seizing buildings, and chanting, "This is what democracy looks like!" Walker considers none of them and pish-poshes the idea that ideology of any sort was involved, even at as simple a level as shrinking the government a little. ("We rejected the false choice between raising taxes and cutting government services.") The real lesson, he writes, is that our country needs to be more like a Frank Capra movie: "Americans want leadership. And in times of crisis, they don't care if it is Democratic leadership or Republican leadership—they will stand with those who offer bold ideas and have the courage to take on the tough issues."

At best that's the babbling, value-free civics of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. At worst it's a recipe for fascism, which, whatever you may think of it, certainly does not lack for determination or bold ideas. What it isn't is a battle cry likely to rally the GOP: "Elect us! Or somebody!"

Equally faint are the chances that Republicans will swarm to the redneck chic of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. From his puzzled questions about the lack of garlic-cheese grits or chocolate gravy on New York restaurant menus to his complaints that there's no duck-hunting allowed in Central Park, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy reads less like a campaign book than a lost episode of Beverly Hillbillies.

Huckabee is making several bad bets here. One is that the entire swath of what coastal progressives like to call "flyover country" is cut from identical sociocultural cloth, that grits and catfish and frog gigging are the same touchstones in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Laramie, Wyoming, that they are in Pine Bluff and Baton Rouge. Another is that these populations are simpleminded enough to think that what we really need in the White House is a guy who watches Duck Dynasty. (Huckabee's condescension to his target audience is anything but subtle. "I've written my book for you to easily understand and enjoy," he promises. Hey, Jethro, a book for you!)

Then there's the problem with reconciling Huckabee's social conservatism with his purported belief in smaller government; or, indeed, with any governmental policy at all. How can an American president make kids more polite or less likely to knock one another up? Short of repealing the First Amendment, how do you get rid of reality TV? No mocking hyperbole there. Huckabee actually devotes an entire chapter to the moral scourge of Temptation Island and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

The sad thing about the phony redneck chip on Huckabee's shoulder is that it will put people off from reading the substantive parts of the book, which can be surprising. Who would have guessed that Huckabee regards Edward Snowden as more of a patriot than the National Security Agency? Or that he believes heterosexuals have done far worse damage to the institution of marriage than have advocates of gay matrimony? Or that the PATRIOT Act was a massive Bush administration overreach: "One mistake the government made was to assume that because the enemy hid in a crowd, it was okay to treat the entire crowd as suspects."

And while it's surely no shock that Huckabee thinks overtaxation and overregulation have made California a less desirable place to live than Texas, his use of a U-Haul trailer price index to prove his point is admirably clever. (Turns out the trailers are much cheaper to rent if you're picking them up in Dallas and dropping them in Los Angeles because the traffic overwhelmingly runs the opposite direction.)

The most astute critique of current-day progressivism—the idea that the economy is a zero-sum game, that Bill Gates can only be rich if everybody else is poor, that what matters is not the creation of wealth but its redistribution—comes from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's American Dreams. His arguments are not only squarely on-target but stated more simply and more forcefully than in any other Republican candidate's book. "Growing the economic pie to benefit the poor and the middle class is no longer possible in the view of Obama," observes Rubio. "The only just course is to adjust the size of the slices."

He offers good examples of how business regulations are often actually crony capitalism, in which big corporations stifle competition by supporting rules they can afford to comply with but smaller rivals can't. He also explains the danger that raising the minimum wage poses to workers using simple, instantly recognizable examples, like the little computerized menus on the tables at some Chili's restaurants that enable customers to place their orders without ever speaking to a waiter: "If we raise the minimum wage, companies like Chili's will be driven to replace workers with machines sooner than planned."

Unfortunately, his solutions to these problems often have less to do with market economics than technological tinkering with the welfare state. Instead of making Chili's pay its waiters $15, the government will shell out the money via "wage subsidies"—essentially an expanded earned-income tax credit, distributed monthly, that simply shifts the cost from businesses to taxpayers. Rubio regards as a bragging point that it wouldn't "force employers to pass higher labor costs to consumers." But it also encourages the preservation of outmoded jobs. The top priority of a Rubio presidency might well turn out to be the resurrection of the buggy-whip industry.

The bottom line is that Rubio and other so-called "reform conservatives" have embraced the welfare state. They think it merely needs a new set of technocrats to do the fine-tuning. It's hard to believe he was once called the crown prince of the Tea Party movement.

Contrasting Rubio's book with Ben Carson's One Nation and Carly Fiorina's Rising to the Challenge raises the question of which is worse: a candidate with bad ideas or a candidate with no ideas?

Neither Carson nor Fiorina has ever held elective office, which given this century's dismal political record could be argued is a plus. But I'm not sure that dumping on Obamacare at a meeting where the president is present (Carson's main claim to fame) or getting fired by Hewlett-Packard after its stock lost half its value during your term as CEO (Fiorina's) is a convincing claim to being presidential material.

Fiorina's slim volume is modeled more after those business-management books you see at airport bookstores, and is about as scintillating. The impression that you're reading a motivational text gains speed with her constant talk about fulfilling your potential—which, Supreme Court hopefuls be warned, she says is a constitutional right. I look forward to a solicitor general trying to convince Antonin Scalia of that.

To be fair, Fiorina does manage to link the fulfillment of potential to concrete policy issues, such as protectionist business regulations that require licenses to braid hair, or union officials who say teachers can't be held accountable for the educational failure of kids from poor or broken homes. But mostly the book is about how Fiorina managed to survive a traumatic period in her life that included breast cancer, the loss of her stepdaughter, and a hideous electoral thumping by California's none-too-lustrous Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Rising to the Challenge is so slight that it's reasonable to wonder if Fiorina is seriously running for the presidency or just trying to get her name in the mix for a cabinet post. If the latter, let's hope it's not secretary of state. The four pages of her book devoted to foreign policy reach their apex with her plan to rebuild American influence in the Middle East by chumming up with the many opponents of ISIS, because "nothing is more clarifying than common enemies." Just ask George H.W. Bush and those Afghan jihadists whose mutual enmity for the Soviet Union eventually clarified itself right into 9/11.

Carson is even more of a lightweight. Balance the budget? Simple! He'll just do some trimming of "duplication of services, extravagant entertainment for government officials, fraud, unnecessary programs and so on." Unless this is a polite way of saying Social Security, Medicaid, and the Pentagon are unnecessary programs, the Carson White House is unlikely to create a national red-ink shortage. He also thinks budget-cutting can be successfully achieved through compromise, apparently never having met Ted Cruz or Harry Reid.

Oddly for a guy with the reputation of shooting from the hip, Carson presents himself as a great compromiser because, lacking political experience, he'll simply govern through common sense. The problem is that his "common sense" ranges from the banal (reading is good!) to the nutty (we should rain bombs on Iran, a suggestion he floats in a single throwaway sentence).

But give Carson credit for a certain fearlessness. Not many candidates in the 21st century are going to include a spirited defense of creationism in a campaign book. But not many candidates who do so are going to be elected, either.

That brings us to Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania politician who in 2006 lost his bid for a third term in the U.S. Senate after, among other things, comparing abortion supporters to Nazis. Ever since, he's complained about being "pigeon-holed as the social-conservative candidate." Blue Collar Conservatives is his attempt to show he can think outside the Biblical box.

On many occasions he succeeds, though not necessarily in ways that will thrill Republican primary voters. All the GOP candidates say Mitt Romney ran a poor campaign in 2012, embodied in his dismissal of nearly half the electorate as useless welfare ticks. But Santorum is the only one to ask whether "Republicans really care less about the person at the bottom of the ladder than Democrats do" and comes up with the answer: "To be painfully honest, I would have to say in some ways 'Yes.'"

He makes a few good points, particularly on Obamacare, which he argues is scarcely insurance at all but more like a giant government health care clinic. "If we had the same kind of 'insurance' for our cars as we now have for our health," Santorum observes, "the insurance company would pay for all our gas."

Alas, his good points are utterly drowned by the tidal wave of stupid ones, particularly that the tax code should be employed to "encourage certain behavior and punish other behavior." Specifically, he wants us to use it to encourage marriage and the breeding of "good, virtuous, faith-filled children." Drug-addicted, atheistic slut children will presumably become Puppy Chow for IRS attack dogs.

Much of Santorum's book reads like a post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel in which working Americans wander through a hellish wasteland of food stamps, teen pregnancy, and addiction while a handful of elites cower inside walled compounds supplied by Whole Foods and Starbucks, reading The New Yorker and listening to NPR.

I mean that literally. Weaving through Blue Collar Conservatives is the fearfully Dickensian tale of James and Susan Harrison and their struggle to survive the depredations of dystopian Fishtown, Ohio. Santorum says they are composites of people he's actually met on the campaign trail. Note to self: Make sure to fill Prozac prescription before covering any Santorum rallies.

A decade ago, the Harrisons were happy Rotarians with two kids. Then the economy caved. The aluminum company where James worked went bust, and Susan's hours as a school nurse were cut. Even the Little League field grew weeds. Jeff took a minimum-wage job in a big box store. On Election Day, they didn't even bother to vote—James was picking up an overtime shift, and Susan was busy with something else, probably working one of those online porn cams the libertarians were setting up all over town. Schools went to crap, and then, arrrrgh! Common Core! James' nieces got knocked up and went on food stamps.

As the book ends, the family's fate hangs in the balance. Will they be rescued by President Santorum? Oh, no! As word goes out that Obama and his henchmen have passed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, a scaly claw emerges from the silt at the bottom of Tokyo Bay.…

Sidebar: Highlights from the 2016 Campaign Literature

The Claude Rains Award for total transparency: Mike Huckabee, for his forthright declaration that "I didn't kidnap the Lindbergh baby, I didn't sink the Titanic, and I wasn't standing on the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963." He also denies ever having tasted Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill wine.

The MKULTRA Award for a veiled bid to run the CIA: Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon: "I could take an 85-year-old man and place depth electrodes into a certain part of his brain followed by an appropriate electrical stimulation and he would be able to recite verbatim a book he read 60 years ago."

The Don-Draper-on-Acid Award for political advertising: In the 2010 U.S. Senate primary in California, Fiorina portrayed her opponent as a sheep with hellfire-red eyes wearing a Jason-style hockey mask. The "demon sheep" ad, as it became known, was "unconventional," she recounts with considerable understatement. More accurately, the online outlet SFist proclaimed: "Fans of batshit insane campaign commercials rejoice!"

The greatest circumlocution since "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is'is." Hillary Clinton, describing an argument over whether the raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout could be scheduled during the White House Correspondents' Dinner, at which Barack Obama was scheduled to speak: "While I don't remember exactly what I said, some in the media have quoted me using a four-letter word to dismiss the correspondents' dinner. I have not sought a correction."

The most ringing endorsement of technology: "I don't buy into the dystopian scenario of self-aware robots enslaving mankind," declares a defiant Marco Rubio.

The John Galt Award for the most concise description of a libertarian society ever: Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania: "It has become popular, particularly among libertarians, to think of freedom as being allowed to do as we please….Smoking marijuana, hiring prostitutes, aborting your child, ignoring the poor and doing whatever else gives you momentary pleasure, as long as no one else gets hurt."

The most useful guy to have around in a post-apocalyptic landscape: Huckabee, who pugnaciously notes that his family was so poor when he was growing up that he had to learn to stab frogs with regular garden tools instead of fancy store-bought frog-stabbers.

The best Hallmark moment: The first nine months of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's first term were mostly spent battling public sector unions who took over the Capitol building, picketed his home, and vandalized the Capitol grounds. When it all ended, Walker's staff presented him with a scrapbook of clippings and photos, including some of demonstrators with signs comparing him to Hitler. "Now when we're old and sitting in our rockers," murmured his wife Tonette, "we can look back and remember how 100,000 people hated you."

The With-Charity-Toward-All-and-Malice-Toward-None Award: Carson writes that Adolf Hitler's regime "may have started out innocently enough, but…"

Most likely to stand up to Big Vegan: Huckabee, the unapologetic animal lover: "I loved them baked, fried, roasted, grilled, sautéed, steamed, smoked and poached." On the other hand, there goes the barbecue vote.

Have I mentioned how hard-working and experienced I am? Did you know Clinton visited 112 countries as secretary of state? She mentions it three times in the first four pages.

Ruthless ambition? Who, me? Clinton's book also mentions "public service" four times in the first three pages.

The Henry F. Potter Humanitarian Award: To Rubio, for explaining that we need to offer parents generous tax credits for having kids, because they're raising "the children who will be the taxpayers of tomorrow and who will support the generational entitlements like Social Security and Medicare that we all benefit from." And if they get mouthy about it, we can turn them into Soylent Green.

The most gratuitous smear of Arachnid Americans: Carson: "I have never been a fan of big hairy wolf spiders."

Best vocational tip: Thanks to guaranteed overtime stipulated by their union-negotiated contract, seven bus drivers in Madison, Wisconsin, made more than $100,000 in 2009, writes Walker.

Best tip for patronage seekers in a Hillary Clinton White House: His intelligence services warned Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov that when Clinton's hair was pulled back, she was in a bad mood.

Let them eat fried green tomatoes—or else: None of that "I'll be president of all Americans" stuff for Huckabee. "If people don't put pepper sauce on their black-eyed peas or order fried green tomatoes for an appetizer, I probably won't relate to them without some effort," he warns. "I'm a catfish and cornbread kind of guy, not a caviar and crab salad connoisseur." He does not preview what might happen the first time President Huckabee is sitting at an arms-control summit table with Kim Jong Un and the kim chi comes out.

Most horrifying personal revelation if you're Harry Reid: Carson confesses that, during an argument, he once stabbed a high school classmate in the stomach.

Most horrifying personal revelation if you're everyone else: Carson confesses that in high school, he carried a slide rule in a holster.

Worst researchers: Those on Team Hillary (she employed at least four, according to the acknowledgments), who found such brain-deadening quotes as this one from a 2009 economic conference with China: "We need to build a resilient relationship that allows both of us to thrive and meet our global responsibilities without unhealthy competition, rivalry or conflict." I'm sure on the audiobook version you can actually hear reporters shrieking as they jab chopsticks into their ears.

Best researchers: Tie among all the Republicans, whose talent for oppo research consistently produces priceless stuff like Huckabee's description of environmental dilettante John Travolta explaining to reporters that flying his jet to London for a movie premiere shouldn't count against his carbon footprint because "otherwise I couldn't be here doing this."