For Politicians, More Than a Penny for Their Thoughts
A quick trivia question: what do Chelsea Handler, French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and at least a dozen of the 23 Democrats running for president this year have in common?
They’re all authors.
Macron’s book, Revolution, was published a year before he was elected president. Trudeau’s tome, Common Ground, was released the year before he became prime minister. (Handler’s Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea hit bookstands in 2008, but she opted out of running against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in that year’s presidential election.)
In the United States, publishing a book has become a rite of passage for politicians seeking the highest political office in the land. According to a Washington Post analysis back in 2015, 58 candidates for the presidency since the year 2000 had written, collectively,172 books. About a third of those books were released in the two years before a presidential race or within two months of the race’s conclusion.
The onslaught continued into 2016.
President Donald Trump penned at least 14 books before running for the White House. In 2015, Simon & Schuster published Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again, which outlined the current president’s vision for the country. Nearly 200,000 hardcover copies were sold in the first few months after publication, and the book sold out in paperback.
The president’s challengers didn’t fare as well.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R) published a book on immigration in 2014. It reportedly sold less than 5,000 copies. Several other contenders for the 2016 GOP nomination also published books, including current U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Other than Trump, Carson reportedly sold the most books of the 2016 GOP presidential field. (Related fact: after Carson published his book, America the Beautiful, in 2012, he was accused of plagiarism. Readers might recall that the same charge plagued Joe Biden in his 1988 presidential race, but in that instance, it was a speech and not a book that was at issue.)
In 2007, President Barack Obama released The Audacity of Hope to coincide with his first presidential run. It was a trick Obama had used before. His earlier book, My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, was published in 1995, two years before the future president took his seat in the Illinois state senate.
President Obama wrote a third book right before entering the White House. He gave all of the proceeds from this work, Of Thee I Sing, to charity. In contrast, President Trump used campaign funds to buy 55,000 copies of Crippled America. Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Tex.) 2016 presidential campaign also spent a lot of money to obtain copies of its candidate’s book – more than $120,000, in fact. So don’t let anyone tell you that running for office doesn’t pay.
The late Sen. John McCain published Faith of My Fathers, a reflection on his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, in 1999 as he was preparing for his first White House bid. He also donated proceeds from the book to charity. The man who bested Sen. McCain in the 2000 Republican primary, President George W. Bush, did the same when he published A Charge To Keep the same year.
Ross Perot wrote a book in 1992. So did the eventual winner, Bill Clinton, and his running mate Al Gore. Unlike his son, President George H.W. Bush did not write a book before running for the presidency in 1988. But don’t take that to mean that the elder Bush discounted the value of the written word. He had Doug Wead. Published in March 1988, George Bush: Man of Integrity by Wead is the result of several interviews in which, according to Google Books, the elder Bush “discusse[ed] his lengthy political career and reveal[ed] his thoughts on issues such as abortion, a balanced budget, national defense, religious freedom, and the Equal Rights Amendment.” (Bush is listed as a coauthor.)
In 1975, a year before his successful presidential bid, then-Gov. Jimmy Carter published Why Not the Best?, which was “considered a book-length advertisement” for his campaign. Ronald Reagan published his first autobiography in 1965, two years before he became governor of California. Robert Kennedy published To Seek a Newer World in 1967 while preparing his presidential bid.
While writing a book to promote a candidacy has only become common in the last few decades, past presidents, of course, have been authors. Their books just had little to do with a political platform.
At 16, the young George Washington wrote down 110 rules for social etiquette. As scholar Katrina Schoorl explains, Washington applied these rules “to various aspects of his life,” including his military service where he “expected a high level of decorum and cleanliness from his troops” (Rule 51). He also passed on the lessons to his step-grandchildren. Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation wasn’t published until 1888, however, 99 years after he first successfully ran for office and almost nine decades after he died.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s book, The Rough Riders, which is about the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, was published two years before he assumed the presidency after the assassination of President William McKinley.
Future President Dwight Eisenhower’s wartime memoirs, Crusade in Europe, was published in 1948 and Richard Nixon’s Six Crises, outlining six events that the eventually-disgraced president believed revealed his political leadership, came on the market in 1962. While on a leave of absence from the U.S. Senate in 1954, John F. Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage. Profiles examined the leadership styles of eight Senate leaders.
Some books published by candidates in the 19th and early 20th century did address their political platforms and aspirations, however. President Abraham Lincoln, for example, published transcripts of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1860, the year he won the White House. Lincoln won all of the states where this work was published.
As author and historian Jill Lepore explains in this week’s New Yorker, the origin of the political platform book is most directly tied to a failed presidential candidate, however: William Jennings Bryan. Bryan’s 1908 book, The Real Bryan: Being Extracts from the Speeches and Writings of A Well-Rounded Man, “promised readers” that it “would help them know the Democratic candidate.”
Herbert Hoover published A New Day in 1922, before he was elected president. Lepore also notes Franklin Delano Roosevelt published Government – Not Politics in 1932, the year he took the White House. The book was “an anthology of his magazine articles which reviewers claimed ought to ‘be taken as the program of Governor Roosevelt.’”
Barry Goldwater is another failed presidential candidate who published a book before running for the White House. Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative was published four years before his unsuccessful 1964 bid. Goldwater lost, but as The Guardian explains, the “book caused a sensation on publication, reignited conservatism, made him a star and influenced Republican thought for decades.”
Most of the books on the shelves today by 2020 presidential candidates won’t have the same lasting effect.
If that’s the case, why publish? For the book tour, of course.
Michael Steel, a top adviser to former House Speaker John Boehner and to Jeb Bush, told The Associated Press, “Particularly for the higher-profile potential candidates, it’s an opportunity to get out there and talk about your vision and your record — and it’s particularly good because in addition to political news outlets, you can talk to softer-edged media outlets … You can go on ‘The View,’ you can go on the ‘Today’ show, you can go on radio stations across the country …”
The book tour can help. In 2016, book sales clearly were an indicator of who was the people’s favorite for the GOP nomination. According to the right-leaning publication, The Daily Caller, if book sales are a sign of early momentum in the 2020 race, then Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are in the lead and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro (D) are bringing up the rear.
But is writing a book essential for becoming president? Hardly.
Writing in Washington Independent Review of Books, history professor Joseph A. Esposito, who served in three presidential administrations, explains only half of the American presidents have written books.
Fellow historian Lepore also agrees it’s not necessary. In her New Yorker piece, Lepore noted Beto O’Rourke hasn’t bothered to write a book this cycle and is instead blogging and live-streaming on Instagram – including a video of his mouth while he was getting his teeth cleaned. Even if he had been running for office today, George Washington, who famously wore wooden dentures, likely would have stuck to the written word.