I Read the Candidates' Books ... so You Won't Have To

Debra J. Saunders

5/31/2010 12:01:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

We know this much about who will win the Republican primaries for U.S. Senate and governor and who will represent Democrats in those races: The winners will be writers. To better understand the candidates, I read three memoirs, a book compilation of 18 radio interviews and three novels. I skipped GOP Senate hopeful Tom Campbell's legal textbook. So sue me.

Steve Poizner: State insurance commissioner, GOP candidate for governor.

Book: "Mount Pleasant."

National Public Radio's Ira Glass read Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner's memoir, "Mount Pleasant," about his time as a volunteer teacher in a San Jose public high school, and determined that Poizner failed to engage students. "The conclusion Poizner comes to -- again and again during these scenes -- isn't that he's doing anything wrong or has anything to learn as a teacher. Instead, he blames the kids."

Rush Limbaugh

To the contrary, while most political memoirs put candidates in soft light, in this memoir co-written with Andrew Tilin, Poizner beats up on himself throughout the book.

After his first time teaching, he went home that night and announced, "Taught like a true rookie." Told about a weeklong workshop on classroom management, he grabbed the chance to attend. He writes that "the more time I spent at Mount Pleasant, the more I appreciated the fact that not just anyone can walk into a classroom and stand at the blackboard -- including me. ... In retrospect, I felt that the school district bureaucrat who had rejected me back in September wasn't wrong for thinking I was a little nuts."

A fellow teacher who frequently challenged him "had me nailed," Poizner writes. "I was a poser." Then there's his "difficult admission: I didn't control my students."

"Mount Pleasant" tells the story of one would-be politician's attempt to reconcile two worlds. _There's his daughter's private elementary school: "Ask someone to bring in snacks, and the next day there's a bowl of perfectly scooped melon balls in front of every kid."

Then there's the Mount Pleasant social science teachers' lounge: "Besides the broken copier and the wastebaskets that double as rain catchers, the lounge's walls were covered with yellowing news headlines, dusty books and snapshots curling with age. The lifeblood had been drained from the lounge's decor."

In the end, Poizner never does pull those worlds together, but he emerges "grateful that I have the ability and wherewithal to aim so high."

Carly Fiorina: GOP candidate for U.S. Senate.

Book: "Tough Choices."

Her very personal memoir begins with Fiorina's mother's harsh childhood. Raised by a father and stepmother who had no aspirations for their daughter, Madelon Juergens ran away from home and joined the Women's Army Corps. "Both of my parents," she writes, "grew up feeling they had something to prove and something to escape."

Fiorina felt the need to prove herself as well. At Stanford, she studied ancient Greek, Latin, French and German -- as well as Italian "just for the fun of it." Then it was on to UCLA law school, where she confronted a discipline that left her cold.

"The decisions that were hailed as brilliant frequently had, to my way of thinking, nothing to do with justice and everything to do with legal constraints predetermined by other case law." She dropped out. Her father, who became a conservative judge on the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, told her, "I'm not sure you'll ever amount to anything."

Fiorina started anew, first as a receptionist for a hair salon, then a secretary for a commercial property brokerage firm, where she enjoyed "for the first time, the feeling of being on a team." She would become a trailblazing female corporate titan, but first, there would be painful tales of bully bosses, unwanted come-ons and incompetent managers.

She started her job as CEO of Hewlett-Packard intent on revving up the corporation's "slow and stately" pace. "HP people seemed relaxed and calm," she writes. "The parking lot emptied at 4:30 or 5:00 every afternoon. The most frequently asked question from employees in those first few months was what I thought about work/life balance."

The answer: HP buildings felt as if they "were wrapped in layers of gauze bandages," and she likened headquarters to "a mausoleum." Fiorina pushed for a controversial merger and oversaw the layoffs of thousands of HP staff. "I watched with interest as male CEOs fired people and were hailed as 'decisive.' I was labeled 'vindictive.'" It ended with her spectacularly public firing.

What a shame, I thought as I read, that Fiorina is not running to face off against Jerry Brown. She is his match in education and intellect but without all the pompous intellectual preening.

Meg Whitman: GOP candidate for governor.

Book: "The Power of Many."

Others have commented on the sharp contrast between former eBay CEO Meg Whitman's campaign and her book, "The Power of Many." The book exhorts readers to "be frugal." The campaign has spent a record-busting $68 million of her own money on her campaign. She claims to "really hate waste" -- yet Whitman 2010 is running ads on KFOG, a San Francisco rock station, during a GOP primary.

It's odd that a candidate whose campaign is over-scripted and over-staffed paints herself as a no-frills businesswoman in a book, co-written with Joan O'C. Hamilton. Once asked to describe herself, Whitman famously answered, "She's frumpy, but she delivers." Whitman writes that she is at peace with the fact that she'll never be a flashy dresser or Martha Stewart. You can't do everything.

And forget all the touchy-feely stuff. "To me," Whitman writes, "the journey is not the reward. But what matters most is whether or not you accomplish your mission."

That said, I like the contempt in which she holds those ego-rich but profitless operations that flashed and burned in the dot-com boom and bust. "That revenues should exceed expenses is a concept that does not require advanced math, but remember, there were Ph.D. electrical engineers all over Silicon Valley who did not appear to understand it." When the high-flying operations blew up, one of her top people would shop for the failed companies' office and leather desk chairs on -- where else? -- eBay.

Why don't I see that Meg Whitman on the campaign trail?

Jerry Brown: State attorney general, Democratic candidate for governor

Book: "Dialogues."

Since he was elected Oakland mayor in 1998 and in his successful bid to become attorney general, Jerry Brown has been a law-and-order Democrat whose office frequently churns out press releases about his staff arresting fraudsters, bad bankers and other bad guys.

But before he became Sheriff Jerry Brown, he was Bhagwan Jerry Brown, host of a radio talk show, "We the People," launched in 1994, which allowed him to interview members of the Fellow Intellectual Big Shots Club and ponder deep thoughts about globalization, alienation and sustainability. The result is this 1998 compilation of edited versions of Brown's chats with the likes of linguist/activist Noam Chomsky, education reformer Jonathan Kozol, anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, scholar Ivan Illich, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh and author Alice Walker.

As he questions his guests, Brown makes many observations. There's the deep Brown: "In many respects, education is a deeper embedding of alienation." The apocalyptic Brown: "We have to recognize that current patterns of affluent living, in America and the rest of the developed world, if not corrected, pose a real threat to the continuation of civilization." And the conspiratorial Brown: "Some people might say that this increase in the prison population is a conspiracy, because it seems to be working almost perfectly for those with extra capacity for sale."

Brown explains that each of his 18 dialogues "illuminates the paradoxes of progress, and opens up cracks in the certitudes of the modern world view. The perspectives you will encounter here are not ideological or cynical. They are caring." Maybe I'm just cynical, but these folks seemed highly ideological to me.

Barbara Boxer: U.S. senator, Democrat running for re-election.

Books: "A Time to Run," "Blind Trust."

It's not every first novel that rates a blurb from former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who asserts that "Time to Run" shows "what politics is really like" and "tells an entertaining and savvy tale that invites the reader into the hearts and minds of those who shape our politics."

Co-written with Mary-Rose Hayes, Boxer's two chick-lit novels feature Boxer alter ego Ellen Fischer, a liberal Democratic senator from California, and they are entertaining -- stylish, polished and well-paced. But realistic?

Warning: I can hardly give an objective answer when the main villain of her first novel is a conservative writer for The Chronicle.

If you like fiction in which all the liberals are selfless and all conservatives are toxic, well then, maybe you'll buy Fischer's new husband. Ben Lind, a rich former "liberal Republican" congressman, calls Fischer his "cunning little vixen" and refused to run for re-election, even though he thought he could win, because, "My Congressional seat is the battle, but your Senate seat is the war. You're the one they're really after."

You could call it "Blind Trust" Fabio meets AARP. Talk about being wrapped in gauze.

Chuck DeVore: State assemblyman, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.

Book: "China Attacks."

Barbara Boxer clearly had the help of a pro to turn out her novels. For his part, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore had the help of China-expert Steven W. Mosher. DeVore also can boast no blurb from Albright on his jacket, although Human Events calls it "a page-turner for those interested in Sino-American affairs."

When China attacks Taiwan, the book starts moving. As luck would have it, U.S. planes and ships are in the area. After they are attacked, members of the U.S. Navy, Army National Guard and Marines join the Republic of China forces to save democratic Taiwan from the party apparatchiks running the People's Liberation Army.

An appeasement-happy president -- aka "the chicken in chief" -- is slow to engage, but a leggy CIA analyst and retired military man join forces with a good guy in the PLA to thwart China's hegemonic plans.

With the apparent North Korean bombing of a South Korean warship on March 26 that left 46 dead, DeVore's book serves as a chilling reminder of the danger in assuming war in Asia will never happen.

If you like novels with tactical military maps, this is your kind of read.