Looking for a cocktail-party-length review of books by current presidential candidates? Look no further. These are extremely personal, and also taken in the context of the other books I’ve read from this field.
Jeb Bush’s 2013 book Immigration Wars, co-authored with Clint Bolick, is surprising for its moderation. The personal is neatly bracketed off; the professional success is used gently, and in support of specific policies, not partisan identities. Jeb sticks to two areas, immigration reform and school choice (but as related to immigration!) with a short post-script prescription for the GOP on how to appeal to minorities. The immigration proposal is compelling, based on accepted scholarship and comparisons of other countries’ programs, as well as analysis of public opinion inside the US. I also really appreciated the fact that Jeb’s citations were perfect—he’s obviously done some serious homework and put some serious thought in, but I still feel like I can’t evaluate him as a potential candidate from only two issues.
Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick, 2013. Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution. Threshold Editions, New York.
Ben Carson’s political offering One Nation is the good doctor’s diagnosis of and prescription for America’s ailments. The greatest enemies we face are “the secular progressives” and their allies “the political correctness police”, as well as “the elites” who push for progressive taxation and Obamacare, which is basically the first step on the road to the Holocaust, although that could also have been avoided if people had risen up against Hitler’s gun control. Helpfully, he begins each chapter with a personal parable (although sometimes I find the connections tenuous), and provides four “Action Steps” for the reader at the end of each chapter. Carson’s claims that his approach is the most courteous, least bigoted, contrast sharply with the tone of derision and breezy vilification in much of the book. I hesitate to totally dismiss a candidate, but I found very little to offer here: the pronouncements are dire, the solutions sketchy, the evidence scant, and the logic suspect.
Ben Carson, 2014. One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future. Sentinel, New York.
Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton’s 2014 memoir, covers her life from her failed 2008 presidential campaign through her career as Secretary of State in Obama’s first term. The book is primarily an argument for Hillary’s mind-boggling array of personal connections, as part of her foreign policy experience but even as an end in themselves. The book is purposefully dense, and smartly ordered: she deals with her tenure geographically, not chronologically, so she can impose an order that starts with relatively successful events in Southeast Asia and Latin America, moves on gradually to murkier things like Benghazi, Iran, Libya, and Iraq, and ends on hopeful, global issues like climate change and human rights. Hard Choices is a challenge to the other candidates, most of whom either don’t mention foreign affairs or find themselves in embarrassing gaffes: can you handle this? She asks, sparing no detail of the difficulty, delicacy, and time it’s all required.
Hillary Clinton, 2014. Hard Choices: a memoir. Simon and Schuster, New York.
A focus group couldn’t do a better job of putting together a family story and career than Ted Cruz has. One of the most straightforward memoirs, Cruz begins not with his own life, but with his grandfather and his father in Cuba before telling the story of his early childhood–including his conscious decision to be ‘popular’ in high school and his participation in a constitution-defenders program–his college years, law school, and career in private law, the Bush campaign, and working as Texas’ solicitor general before running for office. Interestingly, though, Cruz seems careful to be both approving and critical of most people from his early career, including Rand Paul and George Bush himself. A Time for Truth is relatively well-written, although really nothing too surprising for this field: he’s smoother about integrating his stance on some issues into his memoir than some candidates, but still falls into a lot of the same cliches endemic to the right. The last chapter in particular is almost nothing but platitudes–making the whole book feel like a box-ticking exercise of a smart candidate.
Ted Cruz, 2015. A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Promise of America. Broadside Books.
Unlike many other books in this race, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy is not Mike Huckabee’s extended resume. He doesn’t describe any skills, any experiences, any concrete issues he would tackle and solve as Commander-in-Chief. Rather, the book is essentially the transcript of something that Huckabee might have read out on his radio show: one long rant about the state of American culture today, presuming to speak for a homogenous, united rural–although mainly Southern–culture. One of the most striking points is the length Huckabee dwells on the salacious, the sexual, the “biological” argument against gay marriage, among other things that seem chosen to shock, even as he protests the presence of this sort of material in mainstream American media. Huckabee has a sharp wit and a gift for a clever turn of phrase, but the book contributes nothing new or substantial to the race or to American literature.
Mike Huckabee, 2015. God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. St. Martin’s Press.
Is Rand Paul still running for president? Yes, and he’s been explicitly running since he wrote his most recent book, Taking a Stand. While Paul is as personal as some of the others, taking the reader through his life, medical practice, and senatorial career chronologically, the bulk of the book is taken up with him discussing actual legislation that he’s sponsored and drafted—although what Paul leaves out is often whether or not he was successful. This is the smartest, most relevant book I’ve read yet on actual policy, and the clearest book yet for understanding what the candidate would do as president on both foreign and domestic issues. I may not always agree with his analysis or his proposals, but at least he’s a known quantity, and I’m impressed with the thought and effort that’s gone into this.
Rand Paul, 2015. Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America. Center Street, New York.
Bernie Sanders’ book The Speech is unique among the pack for several reasons: first, in an unusual move for this crowd, he starts with his acknowledgements and mentions that all proceeds go to a Vermont children’s charity; second and more obviously, The Speech is a transcript of Sanders’ 13-hour filibuster of a tax bill that he argued would exacerbate the issue of income inequality. Sanders mentions in the introduction that he would repeat himself a lot, as he didn’t expect anyone to tune in for the whole 13 hours, and besides, the speech was mostly extemporized from some articles and past speeches. For me, this was the least successful book because it wasn’t written as one: while Bernie made some good points and some decent policy proposals, it was a chore to read, and came off overly familiar and informal. A shame—I would love to see an actual book written by the senator.
Bernie Sanders, 2011. The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed and the Decline of Our Middle Class. Nation Books, New York.
Looking for a good hate-read? You’re actually better off reading Huckabee. Trump’s book is dull, with policy proposals that would be right at home in any other GOP candidate’s portfolio (peace through strength? how novel), and nothing of the panache and verve you’ve been led to expect. Notable are the lack of an index, the glossy photo section with Trump-branded buildings, and 14 pages of ‘about the author,’ including a statement of net worth. Props to his writing team for perfectly mimicking his voice, but the rhetoric can’t cover up the banality of this book.
Donald Trump, 2015. Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again. Threshold Editions, New York.
Scott Walker is very convinced that his battle as Wisconsin governor to pass Act 10, restricting collective bargaining laws, is a sign of a sea change for American conservativism and one of the greatest domestic battles of the last thirty years; further, he is convinced that he is the Hero Reborn, and the New Hope of the GOP. Beyond just being a one issue book, Unintimidated is a one-event book—other conservative policies and legislation were literally smushed together in a chapter titled “We Did That Too”. Before Walker dropped out, his prescriptions for the GOP (and advice to Mitt Romney) read as arrogant, but now they read as ironic, and a cautionary tale for the rest of the pack.
Scott Walker, 2013. Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge. Sentinel, New York.