The Instrumentality of Books: DC, TV, and optimism
This is the final installment of an interview with journalist, author and historian Craig Fehrman, who’s currently writing a book on presidential books. In Part I, we talked about the earliest campaign books and how campaigning has changed; in Part II, we talked about authenticity and style, and today, we talk about what political books mean and do—who they’re written for and why, and what they do to our national political discourse.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anne: That just reminds me of something else too—it’s kind of been a pet theory of mine with a few of these books that it seems like they’re written for donors and they’re written for people in the party establishment rather than necessarily average American readers. Has that been—who do you think the modern audience for campaign books is, who’s supposed to be reading them?
Craig: Well, I think like a lot of things in modern life, they’ve become more partisan, they’ve become more specialized. To speak to your point about them being written for donors and party insiders, we can see that just in the way that they’re sold. A lot of these books won’t show up on the New York Times Bestseller List, or they’ll show up with a little asterisk next to them and that’s because of bulk sales, which the New York Times doesn’t count in the same way. So if you look at FEC filings for a lot of these candidates, they’ll take donations and then they’ll spend tens of thousands of dollars buying their own book— sometimes not even at the discounted author rate, but at a rate where the candidate makes a nice profit from it. And then they’ll give these books out free, so people will say ‘we’ve sold all these copies,’ but in actuality they’re being given to, you know, to donors or people they’re trying to influence.*
Let’s, as an aside, point out that this is not new either, I talked about Coolidge’s book and how authentic it was and how much people responded to it, but—there’s no hard data on this so I can’t say if it was half the copies, or more than half, but a substantial number of those books were Coolidge’s campaign or Coolidge’s supporters buying these books and then mailing them out to delegates all around the country. So the person who stands up at the Convention in 1920 and says “what about Calvin Coolidge for Vice President?” that person has two copies of Have Faith [in Massachusetts], read them, loved them. This person lived in Oregon so it’s amazing that this person would know what the governor of Massachusetts was all about. But he’s a big fan of the governor of Massachusetts because he’s read the governor of Massachusetts’s book; he only got that book because the governor of Massachusetts’s wealthy Boston supporters bought thousands of copies of this book and mailed it out to delegates for the Republican convention. So there are lots of examples of that happening over time. But I do think that campaign books are becoming more and more specialized in their focus. I don’t think that’s true for legacy books, I think legacy books still try to appeal to all Americans, but campaign books are certainly trying to appeal to people who will actually vote, which, in primaries, is still a pretty small slice of Americans.
Anne: So I know that elsewhere, and this is actually how I found you, you’ve talked about reception of books, and especially Nixon and his boycotts of his books, so this might get at the cynicism with modern books, but where do you see these books kind of fitting into national political conversations? Do you think that they’re adding something, and if so, what do they add, what do they contribute to the way we talk about politics?
Craig: Well, I think it calls for 98% cynicism and 2% optimism. I think the cynical answer is that most of these books are written—and we can again put written in scare quotes because some candidates work hard on the books and work closely with the ghostwriters and some candidates just farm it out to a committee of their trusted advisers. But I think most of these books serve more as a kind of launching platform to talk about themselves on TV as much as anything else. So, one of my favorite details that shows this: I actually think George W Bush’s presidential memoir was better than a lot of other examples—it’s certainly better than Bill Clinton’s even though Bill Clinton might seem like a more naturally literate and literary person—but Bush spent about as much time writing the book with his ghostwriter as NBC spent trying to book him, to have the first interview about his presidential memoirs. The nice thing about these books is that if you go back and watch Bush’s appearances on TV, the book itself, the new book, gives a reason for him to be on TV, but it also defines the areas of what he can talk about. So NBC would be less able to just ask random, difficult questions, because the parameters of this are sort of circumscribed by the book itself. The book gives them an excuse, the book makes everybody money, and if Bush gets confronted with a question that is particularly difficult, he can just say ‘well, I talk about that more in the book.’ It’s uncanny when you watch these interviews, whether it’s for campaign books or legacy books, how often people will wriggle out of questions by just saying ‘there’s more of that in the book,’ or ‘I talk about that in my book.’
So if you take the most cynical possible approach, you can say that these books don’t really matter as books, they’re not really intended for somebody to sit down and read. Rather, they’re sort of ‘pseudo-events,’ to use the historian Daniel Boorstin’s idea: these kind of artificially contrived moments for people to talk about the candidates and their campaigns, or for people to talk about presidents and their legacies, with the book mattering less as a book. And part of the problem here is that people in Washington DC just don’t know how to talk about books. Any time a big book comes out in Washington DC nobody is like ‘this is a complex and revealing narrative,’ they’re just like ‘hey on page 36 there’s this paragraph, which will make news.’ It’s a city and a culture that doesn’t treat books like books, doesn’t value books as books. And so for all these reasons, I think most books are just an excuse to get on TV and an excuse to control the parameters of TV interviews.
But there’s still the 2% positive I mentioned. The good thing in all this is that because these books are so popular, because our culture has evolved to the point where we want people to campaign and we want to know about our candidates personally, and because these kinds of books end up in Barnes and Nobles all across the country—because we have things like Barnes and Noble—if somebody writes a good book, it’s going to be read more widely than at any point in American history. And the obvious example here is Barack Obama. I think, I would hope at least, that whether readers agree with his politics or not, they can admit that his book was really insightful, really personal, an entertaining and informative book to read—not a book where you’d pull out a paragraph on page 36, but a book that you want to spend some time with and devote some energy to. So, there aren’t very many books like his, by Republicans or Democrats, but while our current system is frustrating, the good news is that when somebody does, through luck or just personal desire, write a good book, that book will find a bigger audience than ever before.
Anne: This has obviously been an incredible amount of work, and you mentioned a couple books that have stood out. Have any others kind of jumped out at you, would you recommend a general interested public to read any more of them?
Craig: I definitely think people should read Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, although they should feel like it’s okay to skim it, because the kind of generic conventions of nonfiction hadn’t really set into place yet. So, it’s a really weird book, but its best passages are the best thing ever written by a president, they’re amazing. You just have to kind of hunt for them. And so in that chapter in my book, I kind of do that work for the reader, I hope, and give the context, this is why he wrote the book, this way, this is the stuff that’s really telling or really powerful. Same thing for Adams, John Adams wrote an autobiography that in some places is the best stuff you’ll ever read by a president reflecting on his own life, but you have to slog through 440 pages to get that (and readers can even do that online!). So, there might be a modern edition that has a few pages of Adams’ autobiography, I’m not sure. In terms of books that are easy to access and immediately rewarding, Grant’s memoirs are a great example. They don’t talk about the presidency hardly at all, but they’re captivating to read—a little dry, but certainly the portions on his childhood and him growing up, he has a wonderful sense of humor and a way of describing himself. Eisenhower’s memoir, Crusade in Europe, I think is a really interesting read that holds up even today. Again, sort of a campaign book, it’s certainly was written with the idea of elevating his profile—well, I guess not that it needed much elevating, after WWII, but it needed defining—that’s a lot of fun to read. Obama’s books, obviously are good examples. I think Jefferson and Adams, Grant, Eisenhower, and Obama, those would be the five I would list.
Huge thanks again to Craig Fehrman for taking the time to share his research and insights here! More of Mr. Fehrman’s work can be found here, and stay tuned for his forthcoming book from Simon and Schuster.