Today, in the second installment of a three-part interview with journalist, historian, and author Craig Fehrman, we’re continuing from last week, where we talked about the early history of campaign books and campaigning. Today, we’re dealing with what ‘authenticity’ means in campaign books and for candidates, and the styles candidates’ books draw from—with examples from Coolidge, Reagan, Kennedy, and Romney. In the last installment, we’ll be talking about the instrumentality of books in Washington and how we should look at modern campaign books.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Anne: I’m thinking that today, when we talk about ghostwriting, the big issue that we’re talking about a lot of the time is this myth of authenticity, and the idea of the candidates presenting their ‘authentic selves.’ So where does that start to show up in these books? Can we kind of point to a specific time?
Craig: Sure. I really like the phrase ‘the myth of authenticity.’ We should just say as an aside, throughout history, the only people who care about ghostwriting are writers. This is not something where readers were scandalized, where readers are like ‘Oh my god, we’re not getting the authentic self.’
Anne: With sales numbers, same thing today.
Craig: Right, exactly. So it’s only writers who want to defend and kind of, I don’t know, elevate their own profession, and it’s just a simple profession—I mean, writing is fun, but it’s not, you know, it’s not brain surgery. But writers would certainly like to maintain the illusion that it is, so they attack ghostwriters and they attack candidates. But readers haven’t cared—readers knew about ghostwriting.
I don’t know if I can say exactly when this idea of authenticity came to be, but I can give you some good examples of how it’s sort of emerged in its modern form, and that would be with somebody like Calvin Coolidge. He had a collection of speeches that came out in 1919 called Have Faith in Massachusetts, and this was, again, another book that sold tens of thousands of copies, was really important for him becoming the vice president, and then becoming the president after that. And what people loved—and you can see this in its advertising campaign, so people know that this would help sell the book, but you can also see it in the way that voters responded—was that people loved that Coolidge was plain-spoken, that he was willing to tell it like it is, that he was willing to speak for himself. And so it was just a bound collection of his speeches, it’s a very narrow, small book. To read it today it seems so dry and specific that it’s hard to imagine what a sensation it created at the time, but people connected to it because they thought they were getting intimate access to Coolidge himself. And by this point, there’s not the blowback to saying ‘I’m campaigning,’ ‘I’m running for office.’ Coolidge himself didn’t do any campaigning because he was just a more timid, careful person, but people around this period—Teddy Roosevelt being an obvious example, Woodrow Wilson being another—they weren’t afraid to go and talk to the people, and even somebody like Coolidge wasn’t afraid to have his name on the book. So by the time you get to this period, around the turn of the century and then a little later, there’s no longer a drawback to having your name on a book—and in fact, it can start to become a selling point, for you, for your ideas, and for your candidacy.
Anne: So thinking about the styles in which these have been written, what’s struck me about the current candidates’ book is that it seems like they’re drawing on so many different kinds of genres, like we have people who are writing just kind of straight memoirs, and people like Jeb Bush who are writing very clear policy proposals. Has there always been this kind of range and this diversity, or have people always stuck to one format?
Craig: It’s always been a strange diversity. A good example of this is a book Ronald Reagan wrote—I don’t know if you’ve seen this one or not, called “Where’s the Rest of Me?” I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to check that one out?
Anne: I haven’t looked at that, no.
Craig: Okay, you have to track that down, because it’s honestly a really good book. He worked on it with a ghostwriter, but just as an aside, it’s a really good example of what I was talking about with the term itself being kind of a distraction. With this book working with a ghostwriter, he worked really carefully, I went through his—the ghostwriter’s—papers at a university in Boston, and you can see Reagan being extremely involved, correcting every little detail, working hard to make sure that this was a great book. So it came out in 1965, it’s a real pleasure to read, even today. It’s a weird book, but it’s a really insightful book. Fast-forward to his post-presidency in 1989, 1990, Reagan again does a memoir, gets millions of dollars for it this time, but is just completely disengaged, doesn’t work that hard with the ghostwriter, doesn’t care. And you can see, his first book was written with a ghostwriter and it’s still a good book, but his second book, written with a ghostwriter but again, ‘written with a ghostwriter’ can mean any range of outcomes, and the second book isn’t really that good. Reagan was more literate and forceful and rhetorical than a lot of people want to give him credit for, and we can see that in his first book. Second book, not so much, but that’s not because ghostwriting is good or bad or the presidency distorts or encourages these behaviors, it’s just that Reagan tried hard on his first book and didn’t really try hard on his second book.
Anyway, though, to get to your question about this kind of Frankenstein nature of the genre, he writes this book in 1965 and it’s pretty much just a straight memoir. There’s tons of stuff about his days in Hollywood, tons of stuff about his upbringing in the Midwest, but at the very end, they just staple on a speech he gave in support of Barry Goldwater. So at this point, Republicans realize Goldwater’s campaign is going nowhere, but here out on the campaign trail on his behalf is a new guy, Ronald Reagan, who they just thought of as an actor and a spokesman for GE, and he’s offering this incredibly passionate, detailed, energetic defense of what Conservativism means. So, this speech gets stapled onto the end of the book, so it’s mostly just a memoir, but at the very end, in the last 20 pages, you have something that’s clearly a campaign document, even if it’s technically on Goldwater’s behalf. So you can see Reagan’s people not really thinking ‘what’s the right genre here?’ but thinking ‘hey, we need the life story but we also need this great speech that people are really responding to.’ So the genre takes all kinds of different forms and shapes and it has throughout the 20th century. Kennedy, in Profiles in Courage, would be another good example: there’s not really anything about him, although on every page you can feel Kennedy thinking, ‘man, I hope people think of me as courageous,’ and that certainly came through in the marketing of the book as well. But still, that’s just a historical book, and there are chapters on people like Thomas Hart Benton—you know, not exactly American historical all-stars—but that’s the kind of book Kennedy chose to write, and you can see people using all sorts of different forms.
Anne: That brought up something with Reagan’s book—one thing I’ve noticed a lot in this crop of candidates’ books is that almost every single book quotes themselves in some kind of way, so they quote a speech that they’ve given in the past or whatever, and I’m thinking that with a lot of modern campaigning, since it’s taken shape, this seems almost like a way to like test a message or test some wording beforehand? How do you think these books shape the eventual message of the campaign or shape how the campaign is run?
Craig: So can you expand for a second on what you mean by ‘test a message’? Do you mean test a speech, or test a book?
Anne: Yeah, so with these speeches, it seems like they’re are only quoting the ones that have been successful—so this has been wording or an idea that’s really resonated with people and been popular, and I’m wondering if we can kind of see the books in the same way—like there are some very obvious ‘buzzwords’ that they’ll use, like Hillary Clinton will encapsulate policy in a little pithy phrase and you see the other candidates doing that as well, so I’m wondering how these books work as their own focus group in a way, like they’re testing the message and the sales numbers and how that relates back into the campaign?
Craig: Yeah, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, and we can get into why I think these books are written, the modern version of them. Although, while working on my book, I’ve uncovered so many amazing stories and overlooked moments of these presidents’ lives and how important books have been to them. That said, by the time we get to the modern period, I tend to be pretty cynical about it, and we can talk about why. But still, I think you’re absolutely right, I think these books are a way to test out ideas, and you can see that in the way these books evolve. Probably the best example is Mitt Romney’s book, No Apology. Romney literally changed it between the hardcover and the paperback, in part to flatter the rising Tea Party. So the hardcover edition is more of a moderate Republican, and by the time the paperback comes out, without even saying anything—this was only noticed by a journalist at a Boston alt-weekly—Romney just deletes whole paragraphs where he’s relatively sanguine about Romneycare and Massachusetts. That just totally changes the book, and I think that speaks to what you’re talking about, that there’s a flexibility in these books and a desire in the modern versions, at least, not to provoke but to kind of pacify and appease the base, and because of that you’ll see someone like Romney not feeling guilty at all about just deleting whole paragraphs, deleting sentences, rewriting things because he wants the book to reflect and empower the current version of Republican frustration and there are certainly examples on the other side of the aisle as well.
Find Part 1 here, and Part 3 is coming soon.