Politicians write two kinds of books—airy and uplifting or stupefyingly dull
The title pretty much says it all
Politicians write two kinds of books—airy and uplifting or stupefyingly dull
Unlikely as it seems, I’ve been spending time on the U.S. bestseller lists recently, and, as is the way, after the thrill of discovering one has reached big hit position No. 6 at Amazon, one naturally wants to discover what blockbuster is preventing one rising even further. “What’s No. 5?” I asked. “Barack Obama,” said my trusty minion. “The Audacity of Hope.” Well, I roared my head off. Mr. Obama is the junior senator from Illinois and the Great White Hope—well, actually the Great AfricanAmerican Hope—of the Democratic party. And his book title is an ingenious parodie distillation of an entire genre of political writing. I take my hat off to him. He fully deserves to whup me on the literary hit parade.
What’s it about? Hey, who cares? During the 1992 election, a Reagan/Bush speech writer, Peggy Noonan, happened to remark that that year it was a choice between depression (if Republicans win) and anxiety (if Democrats win), and that “Americans would take anxiety over depression any day, because it’s the more awake state.” Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s running mate, got wind of the line and started using it on the stump. Word for word. Except for one word. He changed “anxiety” to “hope.” “Politicians kill me,” said Miss Noonan. That’s the genius of Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope: it’s a noteperfect summation of the great sonorous banality of consultant-driven politics. It may be focus-grouped, but it’s brilliantly so.
Senator Obama even manages to maintain his high standards during the subtitle: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. Which is also pretty crafty. Democrats exist in a complicated relationship to conven-
tional expressions of patriotism, so “reclaiming” suggests not merely that the Bush junta has hijacked “the American dream,” but also reassures lefty multiculti progressives that they won’t be unduly discombobulated by appeals to a traditional understanding of the phrase. As for “thoughts” on the reclaiming thereof, that just means the book isn’t a book as such but random pearls assembled by Senator Obama’s stenographer during breaks in his hectic schedule. It’s truly magnificent. The Audacity of Hope will be stuffing stockings across the great republic this holiday season and, even though 90 per cent of recipients will never read a word beyond the title, Senator Obama fully deserves his royalty avalanche. Okay, whichever of his ghostwriters, agents or editors actually cooked up the phrase probably deserves even more of the royalty avalanche, but such is life.
When writing songs, Ira Gershwin liked to say:
“A title Is vital.
On ce you’ve it Prove it.”
He meant that, while it’s important to come up with a hit title, it’s also important to live up to it. Cole Porter was very good at this. He’d cook up the end of a song first and
then write up to it: “But if, baby, I’m the bottom / You’re The Top!” etc. There’s nothing sadder than a song with a great idea whose lyricist hasn’t vindicated it.
But in the bookstores the title alone will pretty much do it. The then-editor of Punch, Alan Coren, was informed by his publisher that titles about golf, cats and the Second World War were the biggest sellers, and promptly wrote a book called Golfing for Cats with a swastika on the cover. It had nothing to do with either golf or cats or the Nazi party, never mind the intriguing ménage à trois promised by the jacket. That’s The Audacity of Hope. As with Golfing for Cats, both nouns are in short supply past the title page: such “hope” as can be discerned derives mainly from Senator Obama’s presidential ambitions (perhaps after a stint as boyish veep to President Rodham Clinton), and any genuine “audacity,” either stylistically or in matters of public policy, has been painstakingly airbrushed from every paragraph. Instead of Alan Coren’s swastika, the book has a picture of Barack Obama on the front. But, likewise, Senator Obama seems to be there as a bankable brand rather than for any particular connection to the contents.
There are two kinds of books by politicians. The first is by politicians when they’re on the way up, the second by politicians when it’s over. The former are all airy uplift of the Audacity of Hope school. Running for president, George W. Bush produced a vol-
ume called A Charge to Keep, which felt vaguely like a runner-up in a Name The Most Unlikely George W. Bush Book Title competition. On the stump that season, he was full of proposals for eliminating the death tax and other forms of fiscal depredation by the state, and A Charge to Keep always sounded like a credit-card payment for a Bush fundraiser. Politicians aren’t the only chaps not to write their own books. I once congratulated Sammy Cahn, Oscar-winning lyricist of Come Fly With Me, My Kind of Town and Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!, on his fabulously self-focused autobiography (the jacket read, in huge type, THE SAMMY CAHN STORY BY SAMMY CAHN). “Thanks,” said Sammy, after the compliment. “I couldn’t have been happier if I’d written it.” But the political class go one better: they couldn’t be happier if they’d read
it. And you suspect that titles like The Audacity of Hope and A Charge to Keep come out of some great central warehouse located in suburban Virginia that plucks them at random for passing politicians in primary season.
The second kind of book—by politicians on the wane—is divided into two subcategories. Almost all of them—especially by retired cabinet ministers under the Westminster system—are stupefyingly dull accounts of political achievements long forgotten— The Audacity of Torpor: My Years in Office 1958-1973 by Derek Timeserver, recounting the controversy over the expanded parking lot at Mirabel. Given that, as the British Conservative Enoch Powell observed, all political careers end in failure, there is a consistent message in most of these: “Don’t blame me.” But for a handful of retired politicians the memoir is more tragic still. Mesu merizing figures, all too human, flawed but
BILL CLINTON LIVED AUDACIOUSLY, BUT MY UFE REDUCED HIM TO JOE CLARK WITH A BIGGER ADVANCE
fascinating, they pick up their pen—or Dictaphone—and a truly audacious life turns to sludge. No politician lived more audaciously than Bill Clinton, and none could have written a wilder memoir. But My Life reduces him to Joe Clark with a bigger advance. On the Monica business, the president accidentally modifies his testimony and begins his relationship with the comely intern several months earlier than he swore to under oath, but it’s so tediously recounted you barely notice: “During the government shutdown in late 1995,” he writes, “I’d had an inappropriate encounter with Monica Lewinsky and would do so again on other occasions.”
Truly, that is one of the saddest sentences ever written. If I’d been his publishers at Knopf, I’d have said: “Look, we understand that a politician with legal difficulties has to say things like ‘inappropriate encounter.’ And, if you want to write a memoir in dead pol-speak, that’s fine, we’ll pay you 20,000 bucks tops. But for 10 million, do us a favour and ixnay on the T had an inappropriate encounter’ stuff. Shoot for more of ‘The shaft of light from the dying sun through the Oval Office window caught the swell of her bosom as she slid the extra-large pepperoni across the desk. I knew it was wrong. I’d pencilled in that evening for bringing peace to Northern Ireland, but what the hell, the two sides of that troubled island’s sectarian conflict were separated by as deep a divide as the plunging cleavage now beckoning from her low-cut angora sweater. Ulster could wait.’ ” But he couldn’t. And so My Life is as meaningless a title as Golfing for Cats. It’s tough on paying customers. But maybe in the New Year some lifelong Democrat voter who got The Audacity of Hope for Christmas will write a book on why he hasn’t yet given up on his dreams of finding a readable book by a politician. He could call it The Hope of Audacity. M
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