Burn Before Reading

David Harsanyi
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Posted: Mar 20, 2009 12:01 AM
Burn Before Reading

When news broke this week that former President George W. Bush plans to pen a book exploring the tough decisions of his presidency, my initial thought was: Who cares?

But then I remembered that this kind of assault on our intelligence never ends. And it is not confined to a political party or ideology, and no creed, race or religion is immune from the generic dullness of books authored by politicians.

Is it conceivable that a politician could write a candid or fascinating book? I submit the answer is hell, no. Politicians are inherently risk-averse and obsessed with message control, legacy building and revisionism.

There are many sub-genres of political tome, but a few of them stand out.

If you can excavate a copy of Al Gore's 1992 comic masterpiece, "Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit," please take a gander. Here we find a timeless illustration of an elected official giving in to the overbearing urge to tackle issues way beyond his intellectual range. Other titles of this variety include Diane DeGette's "Sex, Science, and Stem Cells" and Dan Quayle's "Standing Firm: A Vice-Presidential Memoir."

At least those titles feign seriousness, unlike another self-important sub-genre: the bogus candidate manifesto. Here the author (or ghostwriter) attempts to compile some middling positions and transform them into a heroic philosophy. This kind of arrangement can be found in Bush's first book, 1999's "A Charge To Keep," as well as in John Edwards' "Four Trials" (ambulance-chasers have hearts, too!) and Hillary Clinton's heartwarming collectivist fable, "It Takes a Village" (matriarchal enough for the entire nation).

I'm not sure whether this is treason, but I am also mildly irritated by authors who employ steely gravitas we can only marvel at. The master of this genre is John McCain.

McCain is a great American hero. After all, his book titles alone -- "Character Is Destiny," "Call of Duty," "Faith of My Fathers" and "Why Courage Matters" -- aggressively promote one indisputable point: McCain is brave, and you're a sniveling nobody with inconsequential problems. While you may fret about paying for your kids' dance camp or wonder about the trans fat in your potato chips, John Sidney McCain III is busy changing history.

The most obnoxious of all these books, though, have to be the ones in which elected officials give you advice about the real world. A perfect example of this is Nancy Pelosi's most recent offering, "Know Your Power: A Message to America's Daughters." The only thing this book taught me is that men are all-powerful chauvinist pigs who spend their time trying to impede the progress of women -- well, except women who are third in line for the presidency, I guess.

Then again, the less consequential your political career the more books you get to write. Jimmy Carter is the author of dozens of books and novels.

Admittedly, Barack Obama authored one compelling book, "Dreams from My Father," but then followed up with the platitudinous "Audacity of Hope" when he began hoping to be president.

What should be interesting isn't even interesting. How can Bill Clinton write a boring book? I should have to hide his work from my kids. Instead, I got "My Life." Well, I guess we always will have the Starr report.

"I want people to understand the environment in which I was making decisions. I want people to get a sense of how decisions were made, and I want people to understand the options that were placed before me," Bush explained.

We won't. I promise. We won't learn anything. I will, in fact, just assume that the book will be as intensely uninformative as all the others.