The Conclusion: Onward and Upward

I can’t stand unfinished business.img_0260

Trying to put a neat bow on this project has been bothering me for months, but as much as I try, I can’t seem to get there. I realized today why not: because while the campaign books from this year will slide further into obscurity in the 1c “Used—Acceptable” section on Amazon where I found them in the first place (and for most of them, good riddance), books keep happening, and keep playing the old roles and finding new ones in our politics. The popular media wisdom is that the publishing industry is dying, the American electorate is getting dumber, and the only thing that matters anymore is Twitter, but there are more campaign books than ever before and they continue to not just make news, but create it. In some ways, they provide a voice to people otherwise unheard.

But more on that in a moment.

If I had to sum up anything that’s come out of this project, it’s this: we deserve better books from our politicians, but we also have a responsibility to better scholarship on them. The point of this blog has been that although there are high points, touches of unexpected humor and humanity in almost every book I read here, they have also largely been condescending, manipulative, contrived, and not reflective of really any respect for the writing and editing process—which is to say, not reflecting much respect for their readers. Writing political books should be about living up to your citizen-readers, not talking down to them. Relatedly, the point of my thesis was that we don’t study political books well enough. The ubiquity of political books shows that they are a cultural practice, not the inspired genius of great people at particular moments of their lives. Nixon wrote books after America rejected him partly to joint the club of world leaders who also wrote books, and talking about writing was bedrock for the relationships that shaped Cold War diplomacy. Candidates write books because you need books to campaign, and the why of that need deserves some thought. The fact that these are objectively bad books—bad art, bad sources—isn’t an excuse to ignore them, when they’re part of the fabric of American politics.

As I’ve said before, I like books and I like people, and this was a project about books and therefore about people, so this has been tremendous fun. Dark, sometimes, especially in the deep dives on violence and language, on two-dimensional women, and when things got too ugly heading into the conventions [and my final Msc exams] at the same time—and certainly now, in a brave, harsh new world after all the campaigning and electioneering for 2016 is over and out. Books go on, and books continue to speak in new ways, and I want to keep talking about that.

I’ve put up a new wordpress (if it ain’t broke…), to be a place where I can talk about political books on the internet after 2016. As always, hit ‘follow’ when it hovers in the bottom right corner of your browser to subscribe. I’ve posted a roundup of news from the past week over there to get us started, focusing on how book sales are turning into a powerful tool for citizens to critique their elected leaders in real time—with the help of John Lewis and George Orwell. I’m going to try to stay on top of book news going forward, and tackle some deeper-dive projects there too, including some special guests (see image below). All around, I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.

Coming soon..

I owe absolute bottom-of-my-heart thanks to a lot of people:

-Everyone who’s read this, and even more to the people who shared it around, and even even more to the people who took the time to talk to me about it. Y’all made it feel worthwhile, which made it happen.

-Dad, for being the Master of the Tangential Idea on the road trip where this crazy project started.

-Mr. Craig Fehrman, who was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about books and how to think about them.

-Mr. Roger Alford of the Kentucky Daily, who was also kind enough to talk to me about writing, and to publish a column on the project.

-My adored housemates last year, who were always gracious about navigating around the stacks of books and putting up with my reading selected Huckabee passages aloud/missing social functions to hole up in my room writing about Ted Cruz.

Thank you for joining me here, with all your grace and courtesy and good will and openness to reading some #bookthoughts on some candidates you probably didn’t like. I hope to continue on with many of you in the future.

It’s like a metaphor!

The Written and the Heard: Obama

A few months ago, when I got to interview Mr. Craig Fehrman, I asked him which presidential books he would recommend.  From his recommendation, I saved one of the best for last.


Reading The Audacity of Hope reminded me why I started this project in the first place. I’m a reader, and a listener. I like books, I like speeches, I like podcasts, and especially the sort with one person, possessed of a slow, subtle voice, reading to me from a script.* I feel like this is particularly lacking to me in this election landscape: aside from the debates, I can’t recall a single speech from this campaign cycle with any of its language intact. Clips, yes, excerpts, yes. The Access Hollywood tape and the deplorables comment, yes.

The last real speech I remember is from Michelle Obama, after the Trump tape came out. I sat down to listen to that one, and cried, watching on my phone at 6am, because even though I was the one listening, she articulated what I had been feeling so beautifully that I felt like I was the one being listened to.

The one before that is Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Trump, because even though it made my skin prickle, her use of language was wild and fascinating and articulate in a new, different way, and I couldn’t shake it from my head.

The one before that is President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Pinckney, after the Charleston massacre. I turned it on while I was ironing, at home on summer vacation. A few minutes in, I unplugged the iron and leaned on the washing machine to listen, then spent the rest of the day quiet, and contemplative.

I think part of why I’m so drawn to these books is that reading feels like listening.  I’ve written about the intimacy of reading a book before, the physicality of obtaining and holding and turning the pages of a book, but there is also nothing quite so intimate as hearing the author’s voice echoing in your own mind as you read.  Reading these books feels a bit like hearing a speech.  I associate speeches with church, with the court, with other sacred moments.  I like the idea that we are a people who will hear each other out, even if we disagree.  I also like the idea that our politicians are sensitive people who have thought long and hard about how they intend to reflect the American soul to the American people–which saddens me, because this year, we’ve heard a lot of things not worth listening to.

Maybe as a reaction to there being so little worth listening to, my generation is native to a world of visual media.

I was in an art museum a while back, at an exhibit of beautiful, full-wall, colorful, textural paintings. A woman about my age, with long, curled hair and taller heels, came up to me and asked me to take her picture while she sat on a bench in front of one of the most dazzling walls, perfectly centered and facing away from the camera, in artful contemplation.  It was a beautiful picture.

The visual language of instagram and this election is about building on top of things that already exist. Not the passive appreciation of going to a gallery and then leaving, head full of paintings, but an active reckoning, creating a new image out of the raw material of the finished images on display, documenting the viewer’s relationship to the image for the consumption of another viewer. Literally showing where you stand in relation to a thing made for contemplation.

This lends itself to the world of clips, twitter and swift writing.  Video clips are obviously visual, but the way we interact with them is as well–in which forum do we share them, with what caption, how do we make our political position apparent by visually associating ourselves with one bit of video or another.  And there’s nothing wrong with this: one of the things that strikes me most, having just come home, is how skilled Americans are at self-making, how deftly people craft stories about themselves and then live up to them. Everyone here has a life story that they’re ready to tell at the drop of a hat, a focus, a goal, a vision. That vision involves locating yourself between poles of fixed positions and things already out there, building by reacting. How else have we ever built?  We are adept at lightning-quick evaluation, at efficient absorption, and at keeping each other awake by talking freely, openly about what we think and believe.  This is how I want politics in my country to happen, and I think my generation is great, even if they do get on my nerves sometimes, sibling-like.

But listening to share is the same thing as listening to reply, in many ways.  The conversation gets juggled forward, and we march on, satisfied that we have expressed ourselves so well–but disappointed, and having learned nothing new. Reading The Audacity of Hope, I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t watched anything longer than three minutes in a long time. And just when I feel like we most need a reconciler, someone who produces beautiful thoughts and words that give us solace–it’s the end of the Obama era.

I think one of the best ways to say goodbye is just to listen. Or to read.

I’m really glad I found this prologue in full online, because it’s beautiful.  Even without hearing it in Obama’s voice, it has a beautiful, measured, walking cadence to it that makes you slow down and hear each word.  It’s funny, and insightful, and it does so many things well in such a short space.  Where Walker and Cruz also both try the show of humility after a big defeat, Obama’s has so much more grace–genuine learning, and genuine wisdom, rather than spin, narrative-crafting.  Where almost every other candidate has a line about why they’re writing, Obama’s takes into account the material fact of writing a book, the skill and the practice to write a good one. This is political oratory, political writing as it should be. No matter what you think of Obama, this is a master at work in a difficult craft, and that’s worth paying attention to.

You should sit down and read this prologue.  There’s still a lot left of Sunday.  Make some tea.  Put your feet up.  Start saying goodbye.



*recommendations, please–I love Whistlestop, Lore, Myths and Legends, and I miss Nightvale from before it got repetitive and dull and felt compelled to have live audiences who seemed to miss all the wonderful irony.  Not quite ready to dive into Audible, but would still like some more being-read-to podcasts, if anyone has any.

Well-informed voters

There’s not been a whole lot about this project that’s given me hope.  Jeb Bush’s immaculate citations did, Nixon’s funny earnestness did, Rand Paul’s poetry did, and most else has been dispiriting.  But now, as we start to wind down, I was on Amazon and something made me really happy:

Stronger Together and Great Again are, apparently, frequently bought together on Amazon

I’ve been wondering through this whole project who reads campaign books, besides me.  More and more, I figured that the people buying these books were the fans wanting a memento, the campaigns wanting a party favor, and maybe sometimes a bored airport traveler or a journalist in the weeds.

I have no data to back me up here: this could be a fluke of my Amazon history (which is pretty confused by this point), or a coincidence.  I also don’t necessarily think that in this particular election, you’re necessarily going to be better informed about either candidate by reading their book.*

But the thought that Amazon customers buy Trump and Clinton’s books together could also be a hint that people turn to books to make up their minds, and to do so through a medium that demands a commitment of time and attention.  Buying either book, but especially both books together speaks to a hunger for something beyond sound bytes, a desire to go to the source of things and evaluate it from there.  The debates seem to draw this tension especially sharply, with the odd staginess of the events themselves followed by the immediate dissection and entrenchment.  I have a lot of faith in a population that watches the debates and then still goes to buy both books.  Trust but verify, and reject the easy answers and the hot takes.

It’s sad that the books don’t often live up to their readership, but at least this is a start.  You go, bipartisan readers.  I trust you.

Anyway, this post is also to raise a little flag that I’m starting my final act here.  I’ve ordered Stronger Together, and will read it before the election.  I’ll also try to wrap everything up into one longer essay that I’ve been thinking about for almost the whole project, getting all the Thoughts on books and this election out of my system.  Maybe.

Back soon.

*although I gave it a shot here and here and also this is literally the point of this blog

Foreign Policy and Failure

Wendell Willkie

In the early days of the Republic, the secretary-of-state-to-president pipeline was wide and fast, with the secretary of state often being the de facto next president.  Jefferson passed through it first, and was followed by James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Madison.  The shift away from this pipeline happened for a variety of reasons, the rise of the party primary system and increasingly professional foreign policy after the Civil War among them (for more, see this excellent Smithsonian piece).  However, maybe overlooked among these reasons is just precedent: in the last eighty years, foreign policy has been largely the preserve of failed candidates, whether through formal office or not.

In 1940, businessman Wendell Willkie ran as an interventionist dark horse candidate for the presidency, lost to FDR by a considerable margin.  In 1941, recognizing the popularity of Willkie’s message, Roosevelt sent Willkie off to Europe as a special envoy to Britain.  This trip was deemed such a success that in 1942, Willkie set off on a round-the-world trip, covering 31,000 miles in 49 days of air travel, touching on several zones of combat and future zones of conflict.

Following this trip, Willkie published One World in 1943, a book which has the added dubious distinction of being the only American candidate’s book that Nixon cites—and even then, only to take a potshot at its staying power and then steal his title for a chapter heading.  But One World is more interesting than Nixon’s credit would suggest.  It’s part travelogue, a little Jules Verne, part war memoir, hair-raising suspense on the question of a potential Nazi victory, and part—crucially—campaign book.  Willkie, when he wrote One World, didn’t think his career was over.  He ran again in 1944, only to be beaten in the primaries by Thomas Dewey.

Dewey also ran multiple times, first in 1944, then again in 1948—the famous upset where Truman’s surprise victory took the newspaper headlines by surprise.    Dewey had already written several books, but his 1952 book, Journey to the Far Pacific, stands out.  Like One World, Journey to the Far Pacific is a lot of fun to read: it’s a chronicle of said journey to the Far Pacific, with plenty of anecdotes about what he was fed and how delicious it was, as well as pontifications on directions for US foreign policy, many delivered through the convenient mouthpieces of foreign leaders.  At this point, it is doubtful that Dewey planned on trying for office again, but had accepted a position of post-election power.  In 1952, he was instrumental in the “Draft Eisenhower” movement that propelled Eisenhower—with Nixon as VP—into the White House.

In 1952, Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson for the first time, and in 1956, the second.  After losing in 1952, Stevenson wrote Call to Greatness, which reads like a Willkie/Dewey repeat, claiming that he went to “see for himself” the state of the world, and along the way, spoke with “the emperor of Japan, the Queen of England, the Pope and to all the kings, presidents and prime minsters along my route” (34).  Like Nixon, though, Stevenson also takes the grand opportunity to both steal and stick it to Willkie’s title: “It isn’t one world, it is more like three worlds” (34).  In 1956, Stevenson published What I Think, which lamented the awkwardness of the role of the failed candidate as “titular” head of the Democratic Party, and then in 1958 published Friends and Enemies, about US-Soviet relations and his pilgrimage to Russia and tete-a-tete with Khrushchev (a theme one day to be shared with Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, among others, to the point where Khrushchev probably could have sued for royalties).  In 1960, Stevenson didn’t formally run but kind of pursued the draft anyway, until the Kennedy political machine shut that nonsense down.  He published a book in 1960 anyway, Putting First Things First, again about Democratic politics in the US.

So when Nixon resigned the White House in 1974, there were two role models available: former presidents, who wrote definitive, long, boring political memoirs that were projects of record-setting for their administrations, and failed candidates, who went off voyaging and came back and wrote themselves up as ‘elder statesmen,’ dispensing the wisdom—often with an Orientalist flair, garnered through the sages and mysterious, exotic palaces and slums of the Far East or claimed in battle with Khrushchev himself, the Russian bear*—from their political pilgrimages.  Nixon dutifully wrote his post-presidential memoir, RN: The Memoir of Richard Nixon, and then quickly started traveling.  Every other post-presidential book Nixon wrote was either explicitly about foreign policy, explicitly about his relationships with foreign leaders, or contained in part of in great detail reference to Nixon’s many presidential and post-presidential travels abroad.  And for Nixon, it worked: by the end of his life, he was hailed as a statesman, if still not entirely forgiven.

The narrative of these books is like the one pulled out by Scott Walker: it’s a classic hero’s journey, from a first great epic defeat through dangerous lands, sitting at the feet of masters and sages (who conveniently agree with the hero’s policy, or provide useful straw men), and then a triumphant return, reborn.  But, again, thanks to Walker, we know that a good narrative doth not a good candidate make.

Here’s where we come to Hillary Clinton, and return to the question of precedent in seeking the presidency.  There has not been a secretary-of-state president in 160 years.  In the past century, foreign policy, and publicly becoming an expert on the issue—including writing about it—has been largely populated by failed presidential candidates, from Willkie up to John Kerry.  I was born in 1994, and I remember these failed campaigns, Kerry and Clinton.  The older you get, the longer this line of failed candidates going on a voyage of shame and redemption abroad extends.  No matter how much we might say (and believe) that we value foreign policy expertise, this is a hard thing to move past.

And so I wonder whether the strongest pillar of Clinton’s argument for her fitness to be president (besides the pillar that is the weakness of her opponent), her foreign policy expertise, isn’t also leaving her open to failure by association. 

*Yes, Nixon actually refers to Khrushchev as a “crude Russian bear” in Leaders, page 176.

Today in Men: Trump Inherits Cold War Bromance

I was listening to the NPR Politics podcast after work today, and they led the show with Trump’s thoughts on Vladimir Putin at the MSNBC Town Hall event last night.  Here is the segment (and MSNBC’s camerawork makes me sick, be advised).

I find Trump’s being such a devoted stan for Putin really unsettling.  But what struck me was how this is a relationship that has played out so many times in the past.  In the research for my dissertation, I looked at the books from failed candidates from Wendell Willkie onward.  I’m going to have more to say on this in a few days, but for now, let’s look at the representation of Russian leaders by American ones.

Adlai Stevenson lost to Eisenhower and Nixon in 1952, 1956, and to JFK for the nomination in 1960.  After losing for the second time, he wrote Friends and Enemies in 1958/1959, about the relationship between the US and Russia.  It included the lengthy retelling of Stevenson’s trip to Moscow in the summer of 1958, where he met with Khrushchev.  Stevenson emphasizes how unexpectedly long this meeting went—how Khrushchev wouldn’t actually let the conversation drop to the point where Stevenson could ask if he should be going.  Not only did Khrushchev press Stevenson for his time, but he actually “paid me a pretty compliment” in remarking that he had read Stevenson’s speeches and trusted his intentions (Stevenson, Friends and Enemies, 10).  First the complimenting, then the confiding: “At one stage Mr. Khrushchev confided in me that when the leaders of the Communist countries get together, they always toast their best friend, the American Secretary of State, Mr. Dulles. “We say: We will regret it if President Eisenhower’s sputnik leaves the State Department, for he helps us so. We’ll hardly get a more helpful opponent”” (12), Stevenson mentioned, deftly stealing Khrushchev’s joke.  Finally, the offers of marriage: apparently they joked around about marrying Stevenson’s sons off to young Russian women.  And just like that, rhetorically, Stevenson brought peace to our time through the age-old marriage-to-end-a-blood-feud strategy.  Kind of.  At least in his book.

The next failed candidate, Richard Nixon, also included a long chapter about his famous square-off with Khrushchev in 1959 in his 1962 campaign book Six Crises.  Nixon emphasized how this was a battle of wits and a battle of wills, and he was evenly matched against a formidable opponent but actually managed to score some points in the famous ‘kitchen debate’ in a model American home at an expo in Moscow.  Beyond Khrushchev, Nixon spends considerable time in later books discussing his relationship with Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev’s successor.  I’ll come back to Brezhnev in a moment.

Hubert Humphrey, who Nixon beat in 1968 and again in 1972 (these guys never knew when to quit), also included a chapter in his 1976 memoir containing a familiar-sounding anecdote: from pages 197 to 203, Humphrey relates in rich detail his conversation with Khrushchev, also in Moscow, in 1958.  This conversation was also scheduled last-minute and lasted hours and hours longer than Humphrey expected, which he was also deeply flattered by.  You simply have to wonder how Khrushchev fit them all in within the year, and how consciously Khrushchev was moving pieces around on the chessboard, flattering the failed candidates and the opposition leaders.

But it’s not just that they met with Khrushchev and matched wits.  Rather, there’s a very particular emphasis in some of these retellings. 

Let me retell one of Nixon’s favorite anecdotes, one that shows up in almost every one of his post-presidential books with the wording hardly changed.  When Nixon was vice president, he asked Churchill how Churchill liked to write.  Churchill said that he had a dictaphone, but he preferred to dictate to a pretty girl.  Later, in Moscow, on a boat with Brezhnev, Nixon related Churchill’s preference to Brezhnev.  Brezhnev agreed, and also winked and said that yes, having a secretary around was also very useful when you woke up in the middle of the night and wanted to make a note.  [Ew.]  In Leaders, Nixon brings this point home by mentioning that the Russian leader enjoyed the company of buxom women—Nixon himself had seen Brezhnev’s masseuse leaving his quarters and noted that she wore the same brand of perfume as Mrs. Nixon. [Ew.]

Humphrey does something very similar: “When he and I were seated again, I told him an old, and probably apocryphal, story about Winston Churchill and Clement Atlee.”  To make a long anecdote short, Atlee thinks that Churchill is next to him when they leave a heated debate to take a piss, and ends up talking to himself alone at a urinal while Churchill uses a urinal on the far side of the room, probably smiling smugly as he does so.  He yells at Churchill when he realizes what’s happened, and Churchill replies “Look, Clem, you socialists are all alike.  Whenever you see something that is big and functioning smoothly, you want to nationalize it” (Humphrey, The Education of a Public Man, 201-202).

Can you say…

Like, the sheer obviousness of the posturing, the macho posturing, the dick-measuring, and maybe most troubling, the transparent susceptibility to flattery, just blows my mind.  Stevenson and Humphrey seem to melt like butter over a little extra time and attention from Khrushchev, especially they way they tell these stories after losing elections as if to demonstrate just how well they would have gotten along with the man if they had been elected. Stevenson relishes the smallest of compliments.  Nixon and Humphrey enjoy a spot of almost-literal dick measuring.

Anyway, to go back to the podcast that touched this whole thing off for me.  What surprised me was how surprised the NPR reporters seemed to be by Trump’s respect for Putin: considering that the US and Russia have been adversaries since 1945, they said, it’s just unprecedented that a Republican presidential candidate would be so positive about a Russian leader.

Which is where I think they’re wrong: the playbook candidates have drawn from since Stevenson has been that—as I believe the phrase goes—real recognize real.  By building up your enemy, by promoting the idea of this macho gentlemen’s code where you recognize and honor and make dick jokes with a worthy adversary, you boost yourself.  Trump doing the same thing with Putin, even without such a clear meeting-of-equals anecdote, is a return to Cold War politics of the highest order, rather than a rejection of the entire Cold War and everything it stood for–including a return to a political order built on macho bro-bonding, implicitly rejecting the fitness of a female candidate.

Is that a good reason to forgive his sudden embrace of Putin?  Nope.  But it’s interesting that in this election, we have a female candidate running on a foreign policy platform and this is her opponent’s approach to Russia. *thinking-face emoji*

More on this from me soon–I have Thoughts on foreign policy and candidacy.

Money and Vanity: how books work, Nixon edition

Nixon_in_Pres_cabin_of_AFOLast week, we talked about how the pivot on the Trump book might be the product of internal conflict within the Trump campaign, and also about how much money is really in political books.

The moral of the story is that the more things change… well.  You know.

The research for my dissertation on Nixon’s post-presidential books also took a sidestep into Nixon’s campaign book, Six Crises.  Six Crises was a powerful tool in Nixon’s mid-career: it was written while he ran for governor in 1962 after losing the presidency in 1960, and then re-used when he successfully ran for the presidency in 1968.  The point I made in my dissertation and have been making here for a while was that the book worked for the campaign in two ways: making the candidate visible, and making the candidate real and tangible.  What I think is also important (and, again, have been saying for a while) is that at least for Nixon, books weren’t just campaign tools, but actually meant something and mattered to how Nixon saw himself and his career.  Books made him a lot of money, and brought him a lot of publicity, but their production was never separated from Nixon’s self-image—which is to say Nixon’s vanity.

The 1960 election was a close race, and one of the important factors was Kennedy’s 1955 book, Profiles in Courage.  Kennedy’s book was a historical stroll through a selection of US senators who showed ‘courage’, usually in acting against the demonstrated will of their constituents.  JFK’s father also got the Pulitzer Prize committee to award the 1957 prize for biography to Profiles in Courage, regardless of the fact that it hadn’t been nominated.  With that leap in publicity, Kennedy went into the 1960 campaign already gaining on Nixon’s public recognition.  Later, after the race, when consulting with Nixon in the White House, Kennedy had the nerve to recommend writing a book—it was a great way to be taken as an intellectual, he said, although it was an open secret that Kennedy had written very little of Profiles in Courage.  Nixon credits Kennedy as one of the people who inspired him to write Six Crises, and his staff was apparently inspired as well: in July 1962, a memo from Haldeman to Charlie Ferrington noted that Adela Rogers, a novelist and friend of the Nixons, suggested that Profiles in Courage and its use in the 1960 campaign be the model for the use of Six Crises (Box 62, folder 38).*

In 1962, Nixon ran for Governor of California, in part to avoid being drafted to run against Kennedy again in 1964.  November and December 1961, memos flew back and forth between Philip Boyd and Haldeman about the book: both were concerned that it would take attention away from Nixon’s policy plans for the state of California, although it would be useful for highlighting Nixon’s work against communism.  They suggested scrapping the book and working on a series of articles about California (28-3 and 53-13), but Nixon pressed forward and finished Six Crises.

Having written the book, Nixon was concerned to get his fair treatment in the national media: February 23rd, 1962, a letter from Ken McCormick at Doubleday mentions that Nixon wanted to direct his purchase of 1000 copies of Six Crises to stores informing the New York Times Bestseller List (62-24).  Keep in mind, the publication date for Six Crises was March 28th—so this is before it’s even published.  Meanwhile, Nixon also asked for follow-up research from Chuck Lichenstein about his comment that the Book of the Month Club never chose conservative books.  If Lichenstein’s research supported this observation (it didn’t), it would be included in fundraising letters as part of a larger strategy throughout Nixon’s entire career of portraying himself as abused and maligned by the press, the Democrats, and everyone else (62-24).  As if to prove a point, in April, the Nixon for Governor Speakers’ Handbook’s section on ‘endorsements’ was almost entirely made up of favorable quotes from reviews of Six Crises—including from a publication by the Book of the Month Club (64-12).

Beyond drawing attention to Nixon in the national press, the book itself was also widely distributed to people who might matter in the election.  In August 1962, Haldeman asked Reader’s Digest for a Spanish-language reprint of the Caracas chapter to be distributed among Latino/a voters in California (38-28).  Reader’s Digest not only printed the requested Spanish-language pamphlet, but also an extra 100,000 copies of the book in English (38-34).  These were spread among state fairs, Nixon campaign operatives, Republican party operatives, and door-to-door efforts.  Some influential people also ended up on lists to receive autographed copies, and were encouraged to write their friends and encourage them to buy copies as well in a patriotic literary pyramid scheme.

As with many things in politics, one good turn was suspected to be worth another: after Nixon’s successful election to the presidency in 1968, Hobe Lewis, from Funk and Wagnall’s, called to ask for an appointment with the President to discuss their firm’s publishing “any book that the president might consider having written—or writing.”  Funk and Wagnall’s was Reader’s Digest’s publishing house, apparently calling in their good behavior during the Governor’s race in 1962.

But it was not just Nixon’s campaign gratitude that made the Funk and Wagnall’s proposal go over so well.  In December 1968, after the election, Nixon wrote to Arthur Krock to say that he had just visited Eisenhower in the hospital and wanted to mention how much the general had enjoyed Krock’s latest book (6-8).  When Rose Mary Woods sent Nixon a memo in January 1969 passing along Hobe Lewis’ request for a meeting, she mentions that Funk and Wagnall’s had also recently published Krock’s book.  The memo has a check mark in the “yes” box at the bottom of the page (4-5), and the contract was signed September 1st, 1970 (23-8) (I can’t find evidence of this book actually being published, though).  Psychobiographers have had a great time digging into the relationship between Nixon and Eisenhower, taking Eisenhower as a disapproving, distant father figure standing in for Nixon’s cold, distant actual father.  Whatever.  What is safe to say is that publishing through the same firm as the well-respected former president, as well as the well-respected New York Times journalist, obviously meant something to Nixon.

But the campaign’s involvement with books was not limited to Nixon himself.  Gearing up for the 1972 re-election campaign in January 1971, Dwight Chapin sent a memo to Rob Odle and Jeb Magruder lambasting the books the campaign was working on, and in particular, the proposal that the campaign approach Nixon’s daughters, Julie Eisenhower and Tricia Cox, to write a book about their parents.  Chapin calls for “a master plot on all of the books that we have underway, which audience the various books are aimed at, and what it is that we are trying to sell on each of them” in order to “see where our void areas are and…give some thrust to what other books should be generated” (Contested 2-28).  Meanwhile, the campaign was also putting out fires from:

  • an improper contract for a book on Pat Nixon written by Gloria Seeley (23-7)
  • a book commissioned from Victor Lasky, who had run into financial trouble and required a guaranteed purchase of 10,000 hardcover and 50,000 paperbacks to seal a publication deal (the book was later scrapped because it was too dull, Contested 3-15, 7-29, 9-18)
  • a proposed fictionalized account of Nixon’s early life (that Fred Fielding recommended the campaign not get involved with because it seemed unlikely to receive a Pulitzer or a Book of the Month Club pick, 21-26).

Where the White House withdrew its imprimatur from the fictionalized volume over its quality, however, it also withdrew its visible blessing from a proposed book by Edith Efron about media bias against Nixon in the 1968 election in order to avoid damaging the book’s credibility (Contested 1-20), although they considered bulk-buying the book to throw it onto the NYT Bestseller list (Contested 1-9).

None of this is meant as a one-to-one comparison to Nixon–I think the Nixon/Clinton and Nixon/Trump comparisons running around are fascinating, but not often useful.  It does highlight some things: because I’m an idiot, it never occurred to me that campaigns might link up with other authors or bulk-buy books beyond memoirs and biographies, so that’s a nice reminder.  Do I think the Trump campaign is organized enough to be doing this in any particularly useful way? No: anti-Clinton books have and will proceed just fine without the Trump camp stamp.  Do I think the Clinton campaign is really doing this either? No: Trump is his own walking opposition research folder, and his own worst enemy on publicity.

What is actually useful is the reminder that campaign books are neither pure political tools nor pure artifacts of self-creation and vanity.  It’s the power of the medium itself that lets campaign books fill both functions.

*The numbers in parentheses here refer to Nixon Library documents, which you can peruse at your leisure (they’re great fun—lots of hidden gems of staffers snarking off at each other and sheet music for Nixon campaign fight songs).

Three for book news

As promised, here’s your quick roundup of book-related news in the 2016 race, or at least some recent highlights.

1. We found the pivot!

Donald Trump has had a mini-makeover in the literary world.  His campaign book, formerly called Crippled America, has been re-titled in the paperback edition to Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America.  Some other things have also changed: the preface in my copy of Crippled America begins “Some readers may be wondering why the picture we used on the cover of this book is so angry and so mean looking. I had some beautiful pictures taken in which I had a big smile on my face…The photographer did a great job.” But he concludes that such a happy picture wouldn’t be “appropriate” because America is in such bad shape.  He goes on to say that “People say that I have self-confidence. Who knows?” and to use this strange humble-but-not segue to outline all of the issues, from illegal immigration and deadlocked congress, crippling America.

But here’s the pivot: the new cover photo is Trump half-smiling in front of a rippling flag, adjusting his cufflinks.  Correspondingly, the new preface (published on Amazon) is exactly the same…but with the first few paragraphs about the cover photo edited out, beginning with the assertion that people believe Trump is self-confident but “who knows?”

I’m trying to work out why this is funny to me.  Maybe it’s the fact that it just skips over an emotion and a line of argument that seemed so important in the first edition–that America was in a dire place and Trump wasn’t joyous and therefore he wouldn’t let his image reflect a false joy.  That felt honest to me, even if it was also, paradoxically, thoroughly gimmicky.  This new preface doesn’t acknowledge that at all, not even a word about how the original cover was dark and gloomy but now that he’s won the primary he feels some hope or any other emotion that might be appropriate (if anyone in the Trump campaign would like to use that in the third incarnation, be my guest). Switching your branding to something less gloomy but not acknowledging the significance of that shift seems lazy to me–or maybe indicative of something rotten in the campaign.

Trump’s campaign has been dominated by tensions between Trumpists and Presidentialists.  A pivot in book branding that leapfrogs over the rest of the campaign’s [candidate’s?] branding toward a more Presidential-looking, optimistic image might indicate that book promotion work was in the Presidentialists’ portfolio.  This makes sense: books are a well-loved establishment tactic, and Trump’s book is policy-wise almost indistinguishable from other republicans’ offerings.  But as the recent hirings and firings in the Trump campaign indicate, there is no general agreement on whether to make Trump pivot toward the Presidentialists’ image or whether to ‘let Trump be Trump.’  Rewriting this preface toward joy and optimism would be a clearer signal of a true pivot toward this image, but avoiding the question altogether and just deleting the original paragraphs seems like the kind of awkward, contrived compromise characterizing the Trump campaign.

It might be pushing too far to take Crippled America’s rebranding as a tiny case study, a fragment representative of the whole fragmentation of the Trump campaign, but I didn’t say it.

2. Both candidates have made a lot of money off books, but you spend money to make money.

Hillary Clinton’s recently-released tax returns show that she made $3 million off book sales in the last tax year, which presumably doesn’t include reimbursing her campaign for the copies that she gifted her 17 rivals, but who knows.  As you’ll remember, Clinton’s book Hard Choices made the New York Times Bestseller List for quite some time after it was first published.  Fame drives sales, which drive coverage, which drives sales.

This is not unique to Clinton.  Alex Shepherd at the New Statesman recently reported that the Trump campaign sent supporters an email advertising (appropriately) a deal on his most popular book, The Art of the Deal.  The email claimed that the book was out of print, but you could get it from the campaign for $184.  What a steal, right?  Shepherd muses that this price inflation could be because the campaign is selling a hardcover edition from the original print run in 1984.  In which case, more power to them—a signed first edition text from such an interesting political figure is certainly worth more than list price, for certain collectors.  But claiming that the book is now out of print is, as Shepherd says, disingenuous, making money by creating demand based on falsehood.

And money for books gets into complicated FEC rules, although the FEC shows little initiative in enforcing them.  The Daily Beast raised questions over whether the Trump campaign’s $55,000 purchase of Trump’s books could be illegal: if Trump receives royalties on his books, this “counts as an illegal conversion of campaign funds to personal use.”  You can get around this by agreeing to not accept royalties on campaign purchases, but Trump so far has a history of making his campaign profitable.

3. Clinton has added to my reading list… again.

As far as I know, this is a first in US campaign books: In September, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine are releasing a joint book, Stronger Together, outlining their positions and plans for the White House.*  The blurb focuses on Hillary, so it will be interesting to see what role Kaine plays in the book.  The only other prominently co-authored book in this race so far as been Immigration Wars, by Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick, which was actually my favorite of this lot.  Their model was to have each author start with a solo preface, and then proceed without attribution for the rest of the book, even though it was clearly written to hit all of Bush’s strong points.

As we’ve said a million times, books are a window into the mechanics of a campaign, and the mechanics of celebrity, and the cross-pollination between the two.  But what the slow churn of book news also tells us is that the machinery of this campaign is still to a certain extent uncertain: we can tell how fast it’s going or where it is, but not both.  For the next while, news will raise more questions than it answers.

*The Cut also commented that it looks an awful lot like an Elena Ferrante book cover, from which the obvious conclusion to draw is that Ferrante has kindly stepped in as a ghostwriter.

The right way to do political anthropology

I leave you all alone for a few months and you go and nominate Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  Bless your hearts.  

But seriously, now that I’ve got my life–or at least my master’s degree and a transatlantic move–wrapped up for a while, it seems like I’ve missed the party.  However!  The battle of books has not ceased, and I will write an update on events in the literary sphere soon.  Also, one of the things I’ve been working on is a dissertation on the post-presidential writings of Richard Nixon.  That project uncovered some surprising parallels between Nixon and our two nominees, literarily speaking, so I’ll have a few posts on Nixon, Clinton, and Trump soon.  In the mean time, several months ago I wrote something in response to this article on the Huffington Post by Dr. Paul Stoller on anthropology and the presidential race.  While I never got around to sending it anywhere, I think it still has a few points that I would like to see made about anthropology, public commentary, and politics, so I’ll leave it here.  More from me soon!


Dear Professor Stoller:

I’m going to respectfully disagree with your article, but before I begin, let me say this.  You’re not alone!

As an anthropology student, a watcher of politics, and definitely as an American, I have also been mightily discouraged by the 2016 presidential election.  But your article raises some ethical questions about how anthropologists should engage in political discourse and what anthropology can actually contribute, and I think these questions deserve a second look.

For those who haven’t read it yet, Professor Stoller’s article basically goes as follows: this campaign is long, discouraging, and impossible to make sense of.  However, we can take a trick from anthropological fieldwork methods, and look closely at the relationship between what people say and what they do.  Looking at the field from this point of view, we see that Bernie Sanders is the only candidate where these match up.  Hooray!  We’ve found our guy.

But what makes this approach anthropological?  Looking at the discrepancy between what people say and what they do is just part of being a human in society.  Mystifying this ordinary skill as ‘anthropological,’ implying that it is the product of long study and difficult fieldwork and professional training, puts more authority into Professor Stoller’s observation and recommendation than it would have if he’d never mentioned anthropology.  What’s more, that means that Stoller’s commendation of Bernie Sanders carries a weight that it would not have if Stoller was a politician, or a bricklayer, or a secretary.

This is one of the great ethical binds at the heart of public anthropology.  I believe that anthropologists do have perspectives and insight that can benefit our public political discourse.  But I also believe that we have a responsibility to only use the authority of that education, training and experience if we have something new to offer—and if we are careful to offer it in a way that does not abuse our disciplinary authority.

At the risk of sounding like Reviewer #2, in my own blog over the past several months, I’ve had a great deal of fun trying to explore what anthropological approaches can tell us about this political cycle.  To me, the value and the fun of this work have been in how anthropology prods us to ask more interesting questions than we would otherwise.

For example, my blog focuses on a particular type of speech in this presidential campaign.  Writing a book isn’t necessarily the first thing we think of as a requirement for a successful campaign; however, it’s apparently convention enough that almost every 2016 presidential candidate has written one in the past five years.  Are they all great and enduring works of literature?  No.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.

The first thing I’m usually asked when people hear about my blog is “yeah, but how many of them actually wrote their own books?”  This goes back to Professor Stoller’s concern with authenticity: we believe that there is a real person, a real self somewhere under the political performance, and we want access to it.  Conversely, there is a whole spectrum of behavior that counts as ‘inauthentic’ to us, including publishing a book someone else wrote under your own name.  But the interesting thing about these books is that they are some of the most controlled places for candidates to present themselves and their messages—so in fact, these books are sometimes truer to who the candidates want to be and think they are than an unrehearsed off-the-cuff remark.  So which is the ‘authentic’ mode of speech?  Which is more informative to us as voters?

If we unlink ‘authenticity’ from actions and look at it as a performance, some other interesting things come out.  Our collective wariness of the rehearsed political automaton (poor Rubio) means that campaigns often go to great lengths to show you how ‘authentic’ they are—but ‘authentic’ in this context means spontaneous, plain-spoken, off-the-cuff, and somehow, then, sincere.  The fact that ‘authenticity’ connotes such a particular mode of performance, rather than Professor Stoller’s idea of word/deed coherence, might start to account for the success of a candidate like Trump, who perfectly matches the performative ideal of authenticity with his unfiltered remarks.

But that brings us to the fact that the rest of the field—including Trump—slips suspiciously under the radar of Stoller’s analysis.  It seems to me that on some issues, Trump’s words and deeds achieve perfect coherence—like the way Trump talks to and about women and his record of treating them, from his ex-wife to Megyn Kelly to the women on his TV shows.  The fact that Sanders might not be the only candidate meeting Stoller’s criteria for authenticity highlights the selectivity of Stoller’s article, and its conclusions.

In short, I’m not saying that authenticity isn’t or shouldn’t be a measure for our politicians—but I do want to say that it is a much more complicated measure than Professor Stoller suggests.  Using an anthropological lens to say “yes, but it’s more complicated than that” to our political system and presidential circus won’t tell anyone how to vote—and I don’t think it should.  Representing a notion as banal and unexamined as ‘we should look for an authentic candidate’ as authoritative because it’s ‘anthropological’, and then using that authority to shill for a particular candidate, is a poor representation of the discipline and a poor communication of its potential place in American political discourse.  Anthropology should raise questions, and should raise questions that make us think differently about the system we live in.  It’s up to us as voters to answer them.

Lorem Ipsum and the State of the Race

This is a bit of a placeholder.

I’ve taken a few weeks on and off because of work, and am about to take a few more weeks off to catch up on work and seeing family.  Part of that work is my dissertation, where I’ll be applying the methods and observations I’ve been working on here to a study of Nixon’s post-presidential works.  I’m really looking forward to diving into that research for real, into this kind of research, but at a bit of a remove from this race.

Here’s the other thing about why I’ve only been posting bi-weekly, and need a bit of a break.  We’re at a point in the race where each campaign has come totally unstuck from its original moorings.  Where the original narratives centered on character and issues, these new narratives and ideologies—ideologies in the sense of an explanatory rationale for how the world works and therefore why we should vote for a particular candidate—are about delegates and the inside-trading merry-go-round of who can beat whom and by how much and oh god will there be a contested convention who knows.  This isn’t about who will make the best president.  I mean, it is, but only tangentially—it’s really about who’s going to win the damn game.

I don’t know what to do with this phase in the campaign.  The campaign books were obviously manipulative, repetitive, contrived, boring, and dispiriting at times, but the project of reading all of them was (and is! when I’ve had time in the past few weeks) fun, and rewarding.  Part of the fun has been the joy at finding things I agree with, finding moments of humanity and interesting observations, in books on both sides.  This has been surprisingly easy, because these are about people and these are books and I like both people and books, and can take or leave politics.  I’ve humanized the books in a way that really surprises me (I’ve talked about it here), and so seeing candidates suffer setbacks or drop out of the race has been sad, in a way.

The violence of the campaign trail and of Trump’s rhetoric and policy is truly, deeply disheartening.  To be entirely honest, for most of the race, I’ve been an on-and-off Trump agnostic, in part because this whole project has been an exercise in giving the benefit of the doubt and being pleasantly surprised at what happens.  I think that while it’s our prerogative and duty to judge who we think will be the most capable candidate, to a certain extent, we’ve never been able to predict how the candidate we elect will actually act in office from their pre-presidency record.  While his rhetoric has been absolutely reprehensible, I’ve also thought very clearly that it might not have much of an impact on his actual capacity to govern, comfortable as he obviously is playing a character.

But this rhetoric has consequences, and one of the consequences seems to be justifying violence.  There is nothing to be proud of here.  There is nothing to justify here.  Further, the endless coverage of the Trump rallies, waiting breathlessly for violence, seems to be making the problem worse.  I’m exhausted explaining this election to friends and acquaintances across the pond.  Trying to articulate the difference between the hope and the humanity and optimism of the books and the vitriol and violence of the actual election is miserable.

So let’s take a break.  As always, email me at or leave a comment if there’s anything I’ve missed.

The Banality of Trump

Regular readers might remember that over the past few weeks, I’ve promised to live-tweet about reading Trump—didn’t happen.  I’ve also promised to keep up with weekly installments on reading Trump—nothing yet.  Yeah.  I’m cringing.

I made a mistake here, and the mistake was to commit to saying something before I knew whether there would be anything to say.  Relative to the volume of coverage elsewhere and the utter banality of Trump’s book, I don’t think there is very much worth saying.  This blog is a side project, mostly for my own entertainment, but I’m really proud of the work I’ve done here and it is still my goal to only write things that I think are worth reading.

So, without further ado, here are some thoughts on Trump’s book, and after today, I will treat Crippled America and Mr. Drumpf just like I would any other campaign book and candidate.  Rubio is next on my list.

trumpTrump’s book isn’t crazy.  Actually, it’s boring.  Crippled America is a pastiche of a conventional GOP candidate’s book, marbled with fatty Trump rhetoric.  It’s an issues book, in the vein of Paul or Huckabee or to a lesser extent Carson and Bush.  His chapter topics include immigration, foreign policy, education, health care, the economy, the 2nd amendment, infrastructure, taxes, two chapters on the media, and a fuzzy chapter on religious values and how to “achieve happiness” (127).  Since I’ve already talked about education and GOP books, let’s look at his education chapter and see how he compares to Bush, Carson, and Paul.

Chapter 5, “Education: a Failing Grade” (49), begins with Trump waxing about the values of an education, starting with “My father did not graduate from college” (49).  Education reform is easy for politicians to support, he says, but they don’t propose anything actually of use.  Part of the problem is a “one-size-fits-all approach,” and “Common core doesn’t work,” (50) he says.  He weasels out of a commitment with the weak phrase “A lot of people believe the Department of Education should be eliminated” (51).  But he should know this stuff because of his time in military school, which was a “tough, tough place” (51), segueing into the problems with political correctness.  “You know what makes a kid feel good?” he asks, and then the following words each get their own line: “Winning.  Succeeding” (52).  Then comes the policy, which boils down to competition, school choice, including charter and magnet schools.  These will help urban schools especially, since kids in wealthy districts are doing fine (53-55).  “One huge obstacle” (55) is teacher unions.  Another is a lack of classroom discipline (57).  Finally, the skyrocketing costs of college education and the federal student loans program are keeping kids from higher education (58-9).  If we look at “the Asian countries” (59), we’ll figure this out.

Not one of these policies is new.  Eliminating the department of education belonged to Rick Perry in 2012.  Political correctness is everyone’s favorite empty ‘tell it like it is’ stand.  Competition and school choice is Jeb Bush’s favorite thing.  Arguing that school choice will alleviate urban poverty is a peg for Rand Paul’s hat.  Teacher unions are Scott Walker’s supervillain.  Reforming student loans and college costs are Bernie Sanders’ centerpieces—go figure.  So the politicians propose nothing of use, he says, and then parrots standard GOP talking points.

Sometimes, the irony of Trump’s rhetoric is just too much.  In his discussion of foreign policy, he sneers that

“The career diplomats who got us into many foreign policy messes say I have no experience in foreign policy.  They think that successful diplomacy requires years of experience and an understanding of all the nuances that have to be carefully considered before reaching a conclusion.  Only then do these pinstriped bureaucrats consider taking action” (31, emphasis original).

Yes.  Yes, this is what I want from a diplomat.  This is what I want the chief of American foreign policy to value in his or her advisers.  But Trump doesn’t really rule this out, either.  On the next page, he declares that:

“My approach to foreign policy is built on a strong foundation: Operate from strength.  That means we have to maintain the strongest military in the world, by far.  We have to demonstrate a willingness to use our economic strength to reward those countries that work with us and punish those countries that don’t.  That means going after the banks and financial institutions that launder money for our enemies, then move it around to facilitate terrorism.  And we have to create alliances with our allies that reveal mutual benefits” (32).

In short and in paradox: the career diplomats are wrong, but what we really need is center-right foreign policy.  You can take this formula and apply it to almost every one of Trump’s positions: the establishment are liars, traitors, idiots, whatever—but what we really need is the same policy the GOP has been advocating for years, with a little more racism, isolationism, and protectionism thrown in. 

Maybe this is our strongest weapon against Trump—not that he’s ridiculous, or a hypocrite, or even a con man, but that the consummate entertainer is actually boring.