Reading Red

In 1852, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Life of Franklin Pierce about his friend and Bowdoin College classmate who was running for president. If they wished, Hawthorne wrote, Americans could elect Pierce's opponent and "retard the steps of human progress," or they could "put their trust in a new man, whom a life of energy and various activity has tested, but not worn out, and advance with him into the auspicious epoch upon which we are about to enter." The biography might not have caused quite the sensation of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, published two years earlier, but the book about Pierce, which arrived in the heat of the campaign, no doubt persuaded at least some voters that Pierce was just the kind of man to guide the country into that auspicious epoch.

In the ensuing years, presidential aspirants who lacked celebrated novelists to write their biographies took matters into their own hands -- or at least their ghostwriters'. John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage may have won a 1955 Pulitzer Prize and brought its author to national attention, but the formula today calls for a publication schedule more in sync with the electoral calendar. By 2008, writing a campaign autobiography had become almost mandatory, even if the book were quickly forgotten. Go into a bookstore today, and you'll find no fewer than five books released in the last year by Republicans considering a 2012 run for the White House. Indeed, if a potential candidate hasn't recently published a book, it's a good indication he or she is going to sit out this election.

The typical campaign book presents its protagonist as a man or woman both heroic and ordinary, possessed of courage and vision yet firmly connected to the common folk, and this year's crop holds to the standard. Though none may actually be worth the sticker price, the books -- by Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Tim Pawlenty -- do offer some insights into the candidates themselves but say more about the party they represent and the state of the conservative movement during the Obama administration. Despite their surface differences, the books raise some common questions. How do we answer key policy questions? How important is God to our politics? Is Barack Obama merely wrong about everything, or is he actively attempting to destroy our country? Just how great is America?

Actually, that last question is something the candidates all agree on: America is stupendously great, awesomely great, so great that "great" doesn't begin to describe its greatness -- and Obama just doesn't get it. "I think ordinary Americans are tired of Obama's global apology tour and of hearing about what a weak country America is," Palin writes in America By Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag. Pawlenty, in Courage to Stand: An American Story, puts it another way: "America is different. And what makes us different makes us great. Barack Obama doesn't see it that way. He readily apologizes for his country while ingratiating himself to our rivals and enemies." In A Simple Government: Twelve Things We Really Need from Washington (and a Trillion That We Don't!), Huckabee intones, "Other presidents have chosen to speak loudly and carry a big stick. But this is the first president who believes you can command the respect of rogue nations by apologizing and throwing away the stick." Romney, in No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, writes, "Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined."

The "apology tour" framing raises an epistemological question: How do we determine how awful Obama is? Huckabee, still putting a friendly face on conservatism, does allow that Obama may not actually be carrying out an evil plan to undermine America. "I don't doubt for a moment," Huckabee writes early on in A Simple Government, "that Barack Obama loves our country and wants to make it better." Even that, however, is too much for Gingrich. "Obama doesn't resort to these machine methods because he's a bad person," writes the former speaker in To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine. "He resorts to them because his big-government agenda of wealth redistribution, unsustainable government spending, high taxes, suffocating business regulation, and the denigration of traditional American values is so widely rejected that it can't be imposed openly and honestly." It isn't that Obama's a bad person; it's just that he wants to destroy everything we hold dear.

In their attempts to understand Obama, the candidates again and again reach the conclusion that when Obama does or says something they like, he's either shrewdly hiding his real intentions or has been cornered by political reality. When he does or says something they don't like, he has revealed his true self. So Romney can claim, without any supporting evidence, that "another of President Obama's presuppositions is that America is in a state of inevitable decline," just as Palin avers that Obama "seems to see nothing admirable in the American experience." How do they know this? Well, they just do. None of the candidates provides any quotations in which Obama apologizes for America because he never actually has. And don't bother bringing up the hundreds of speeches in which Obama has lavished praise on this country, because as Romney says, "President Obama is far too gifted a politician to say in plain words that America is merely one nation among many." However, if we take some things Obama has said out of context and make a series of absurd leaps in logic to arrive at the worst possible interpretation of them, then we will learn the truth.

This kind of thing is particularly disappointing, if not that surprising, coming from Romney. In No Apology no less than in his last presidential campaign, Romney seems at war with himself. One Romney is a smart, informed, competent manager willing to work hard to devise effective solutions to policy problems; the other Romney will pander to fleeting anger or prejudice in the Republican base if doing so brings him one step closer to the presidency. One Romney talks at length about his career as a management consultant, discussing his interest in gathering data and performing careful analysis before making decisions -- his book even includes graphs. The other Romney complains about the "elite."

Such criticism is a consistent theme of these books, as it is of most Republican campaigns: that a snooty and foolish "elite," deprived as it is of the common wisdom of ordinary Americans, is the source of most if not all of America's problems. And heaven help us if it succeeds in its diabolical scheme. The question we confront, writes Gingrich, is "whether the United States as we know it will cease to exist," and the source of this existential threat is "a radical left-wing elite that does not believe in American exceptionalism." Pawlenty even uses this thesis to defend Palin, asserting that people don't like her because she didn't go to the right college. "So this idea that you can only be wise and correct if you are from one of the great educational or political institutions on the East Coast -- I just don't buy that."

Huckabee knows how to play that tune with style. "I'm not trying to win a Pulitzer Prize or impress the folks at Harvard, Yale, or Stanford -- if they'd even listen to me!" he writes. "I'm writing directly to everyone who loves America and believes that it's still the greatest country in the world." Good thing, too, because those Ivy Leaguers probably wouldn't get Huckabee's folksy metaphors. (I'll spare you his extended discussion of how America is "a kind of giant self-cleaning oven.")

The master of anti-elite cultural resentment is, of course, Palin. She even flaunts her status as an amateur gatherer of information. Many of the dozens of lengthy quotations from various writers and political figures (they go on for pages at a time) in America By Heart are introduced with some variant of "A friend sent me this quote," or "I came across this speech." Though she may be writing a book, Palin seems to insist, she's no egghead who relies on "research" and "analysis." She's just a regular gal, lookin' through her e-mail, passin' along the good stuff to you.

If Romney is struggling against his own intelligence and Palin is disavowing hers entirely, Pawlenty seems to be wrestling with the better angels of his nature. For 21 of Courage to Stand's 24 chapters (heavy on biography, since he's largely unknown), Pawlenty comes across as a sweet guy -- reasonably modest, affectionate toward his neighbors, loving toward his family, and generous with praise. But that's because he's been talking about his own history and his actions in his home state. After 265 pages of Minnesota nice, he finally starts to talk about national politics and Barack Obama and turns into a vicious partisan. By the time he says that "the current administration and Democrat-controlled Congress have led us further down the road of the socialist, liberal agenda than at any time in the history of the country," any suspicion that Pawlenty will be different than his rivals for the GOP nomination has disappeared.

Though the books range in tone from the venomous (Gingrich's) to the hokey (Huckabee's), they converge on common themes and ideas, ones that define the conservatism of the moment. Ronald Reagan was perfect in every way. Bill Clinton did not exist (Gingrich has a section on "The 25-Year Reagan Boom"), and George W. Bush barely did either; neither one merits more than a passing mention. If we aren't careful, we'll turn into Europe, a nightmarish place consisting solely of the country of Greece ("That will be America soon," Pawlenty's 13-year-old daughter tells him "with simplicity and clarity" while discussing an article about riots there). Those who believe in God are an oppressed group in America ("People of faith have been systematically marginalized," Gingrich writes, by a "secular campaign waged by the cultural elite"). There are two kinds of people in America: the hard-working and virtuous and those who have become slaves to government (the nightmare of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, Palin explains, was caused by "a population of Americans dependent on government and incapacitated by the destruction of the American family"). Change is threatening, and when I was a kid, things made a lot more sense.

Above all, these candidates insist, the answers to our problems are simple. Look to the Founders (the authors have eagerly absorbed the Tea Party's Founding Father fetishism), get back to our fundamental values, seek the wisdom of ordinary folks, and all will become clear. In one emblematic example, Pawlenty says about tackling the federal deficit, "It's a matter of junior high math." This is a commonly told story -- you might remember the scene in the 1993 movie Dave, in which an impostor president brings his CPA buddy into the White House; the accountant looks over some spreadsheets for a couple of hours and manages to balance the budget.

The problem is that the federal budget is not junior-high math, it's not like the local hardware store meeting its payroll, and it's not like balancing the family checkbook. The answers to all of our policy dilemmas aren't spelled out in the wise words of the Constitution. Our values are often in competition with one another. If everything were as simple and clear-cut as these aspirants to the White House suggest, governing would be easy.

Perhaps one shouldn't expect too much realistic discussion from a presidential campaign, let alone a presidential campaign book. The campaign books written by Democratic candidates of the past, and no doubt of the future, are hardly less vapid and oversimplified than these. Every four years, we ask candidates to convince us that all our problems can be solved, to paint a picture of a glorious future to come if only we elect the right president. We push from our minds the knowledge of post-election disappointment, forgetting that folksy sayings and expressions of deeply held values don't solve thorny policy challenges. The 2012 Republican candidates may put their ideas between the covers of a book, but it doesn't make those ideas any more connected to the realities of governing.

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