Doing the write thing

The wannabe presidential candidate is a hybrid beast. Part motivational speaker, fundraiser, baby-kisser and talk-show regular, the politician seeking to be his or her party’s candidate plays many roles.

Increasingly, the list also includes author. Every major candidate who has announced intentions to run for the 2008 nomination has at least one book to his or her name.

Along with BlackBerrys and sojourns to primary states, writing a book has become a requirement of the modern political campaign.

For a candidate, a book serves many purposes. First, it is an opportunity to speak directly, and at length, to voters without reporters or cameras getting in the way. “Politicians have a tough time addressing their audiences in any detail and everything is filtered in so many ways,” says Peter Osnos, editor-at-large for PublicAffairs. “A book allows them to do that.”

Political and media strategist Dan Schnur says a book can introduce a candidate’s personal story to voters before questions about policy arise. When Schnur worked on the campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for the 2000 GOP nomination, he said publicity around McCain’s book, “Faith of My Fathers,” helped him land appearances on shows like NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” There, Schnur says, McCain’s character, rather than his politics, took center stage.

“One of the real advantages is that on a book tour, you can get a candidate access to media that might not have been available to him,” the strategist says.

Penning a memoir in particular allows a candidate literally to write his or her own version of history. In “Dreams from My Father,” Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) disclosed his drug use during his college-student days, casting his pot-smoking and occasional cocaine use as the fumblings of a disaffected youth.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), too, used her memoir, “Living History,” to try to lay to rest the scandal surrounding her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. The senator describes her sense of betrayal and her reasons for staying married, providing a deeper and more nuanced rationale than even the most in-depth Barbara Walters interview could provide. Clinton also attempts to explain her much-maligned accusation that a “vast right-wing conspiracy” was to blame for the scandal.

A book can also help define candidates on their own terms, by calling attention to military service, particular accomplishments, or areas of policy expertise. Authors control the tone, look and even the cover-jacket photo to portray themselves exactly as they want.

McCain’s books dwell on his storied military career, a past that has defined him as a public figure. Massachusetts’s Republican governor, Mitt Romney, on the other hand, highlights his business savvy in “Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games,” which features tales of his boardroom derring-do.

Although it seems that everyone is an author these days, writing a book still lends candidates gravitas. “They’re being marketed to a culture that values pictures over words, but there is still a prestige factor,” presidential historian Richard Norton Smith says. “Candidates think it gives them heft and a kind of intellectual sex appeal.”

Not all candidate-penned books are equal, though. Smith says he doesn’t want to name names or single out those books destined for the garage-sale bin of history. After all, politicians aren’t necessarily natural literary talents, and the very qualities that often make a good writer — for example, a proclivity for self-reflection and naked honesty — are antithetical to most. “Most of them … are machinated,” Smith says of candidates’ writings. “It’s not something everyone can pull off — or should.”

Some candidate-authors hit the laptop themselves, while others hire ghostwriters to tell their stories. Even among ghostwritten books, publishers say, authors have varying degrees of involvement in the creative process. Obama, for example, is his own wordsmith. McCain, on the other hand, has collaborated with longtime aide Mark Salter on many of his books.

Although the publishing boomlet seems to be a modern phenomenon, it has been a fixture of politicking for decades. Smith traces the genesis of the modern candidate-book genre to former President John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” written while the then-Democratic Massachusetts senator was recovering from a back injury — and nurturing presidential ambitions. “Every one of those books that comes off the press is the ghost product of ‘Profiles in Courage,’” Smith says.

Other notable books by candidates include “Six Crises,” by Richard Nixon, which Smith says was a response to Kennedy’s earlier work. Jimmy Carter in 1976 published “Why Not the Best?” a book that helped to define the relatively unknown candidate during the year he defeated Gerald Ford in the presidential election.

The difference between those earlier works and the recent glut of would-be authors-in-chief is one of scope. “Like anything else in modern politics, there’s more of it and it starts earlier,” Osnos says. “It seems more urgent now than in the past.”

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HOW THEY STACK UP

Hillary Clinton
Her 1996 volume on children, “It Takes a Village,” gave the then-first lady some policy gravitas while softening her image. “Living History,” Clinton’s 2003 reflection on her experiences as first lady, dealt with some of her biggest political baggage, including the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Among Clinton’s minor works is “Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets.”

John Edwards
As the 2004 presidential campaign heated up, Edwards sought to cast himself as an advocate for the people in “Four Trials,” an account of four cases he worked on during his career as a trial attorney. Now, the candidate is displaying his sentimental side in “Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives,” a coffee-table compendium of celebs (a quirky lineup includes Mario Batali, Benicio Del Toro and Bob Dole) and their memories of childhood homes.

John Kerry
A prolific author, Kerry sought to burnish his reputation as a public intellectual, penning several books predating his presidential run, including the 1998 treatise on international crimes, “The New War: The Web of Crime That Threatens America’s Security.” In the lead-up to the 2004 race, he wrote “A Call to Service: My Vision for a Better America,” which highlighted his military service and outlined his policy prescriptions. Keeping his hat in the publishing — and perhaps presidential — ring, he and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry are co-authoring a yet-to-be-titled book set for release this year.

Barack Obama
Obama published his memoir, “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” in 1995, well before he was elected to the Senate and his status rose to rock-star levels. His latest, “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream,” is fueling the Obama craze with its on-message brand of optimism about the country’s future. Both are bestsellers; the senator also won a Grammy for an audio version of “Dreams from My Father.”

Rudy Giuliani
In “Leadership,” Giuliani capitalizes on his management record as New York’s mayor, calling attention to his stronger suits by recalling his approach to the Big Apple’s high crime rate and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

John McCain
McCain has skillfully used an ever-expanding shelf of titles to define his image as a maverick with foreign-policy bona fides. In the run-up to the 2000 presidential elections, McCain published “Faith of My Fathers,” which helped to spread the tale of his remarkable stint as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and cement the military credentials of McCain and his family. His 2002 “Worth the Fighting For” focuses on his public life as a member of Congress, while “Why Courage Matters” extends the McCain brand.

Mitt Romney
In 2004’s “Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership and the Olympic Games,” former businessman Romney attempts to bolster his reputation as a potential chairman-in-chief by recounting how he helped clean up the scandal-ridden 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.