Recently, on the editorial pages of the New York Times, William Kristol argued that the biographies of candidates will play only an ancillary role in determining the next President of the United States this fall. Reading his editorial, my thoughts turned to the central role that biography is currently playing in determining the Democratic nominee. Absent a meaningful divergence between the candidates on a substantive policy issue, the media (induced by the candidates themselves) has turned Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton into living symbols of the aspirations of a race and gender respectively. Voters, however, seeking to evaluate whether these candidates are truly capable of representing these communities, have turned to their autobiographies, hoping to find stories within that commune with their own tales of hardship.
But do these autobiographies reveal anything interesting about the candidates… and are they worth reading?
In the case of Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, the answer to both questions is yes. Primarily, this is because the book was written in 1994, shortly after Obama was elected Editor of the Harvard Law Review, and years before he rose to national political prominence. Obama’s publishers expected that would offer an honest, often raw, account of his formative years in America, and he delivered. Thus, unlike those who read The Audacity of Hope, readers of Obama’s first book will not find within its pages the voice of the ‘post-racial’ politician who has enjoined all Americans to discount the possibility that “white racism is endemic” and to set aside racial politics in favour of “problems that confront us all”. Rather, they will become acquainted with the young man who once withdrew into “coil of rage” when he realized that his “captors” would describe him as paranoid or militant should he “lash out” at their “rules”, and who, as a habitual user of both marijuana and cocaine, thought himself heading for the “final, fatal role of a would-be black man”. Ultimately, regardless of whether one is inclined to believe that President Obama would heal America’s enduring racial rift, or that he has been purposefully subdued in his racial rhetoric, Dreams From My Father offers an interesting perspective unto a man whose background and motivations have received only superficial attention in the media. There is a reason a contributor to the National Review described the book as “achingly good”, and a prominent black British politician opined that no politician would ever willingly write such a candid memoir. At the very least, observers of American politics should consider reading this book so as to better anticipate the negative messaging that will be beamed into their homes by the GOP should Obama square off against McCain this fall.
By contrast, if anything, Hillary Clinton’s history has been over-exposed in the media. Unfortunately, Living History reveals little that would help the reader better understand her. This is understandable, given that book was published during early in her senatorial campaign, and accordingly, glossed over the details of her failed attempt at healthcare reform, and her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. While the chapters concerning her early life helped to ‘flesh out’ an individual who had always been caricatured by the media, there is little within about the formation of her political ideology that cannot be found in the pages of her husband’s autobiography. Ultimately, Living History reads as a highly processed, largely ghost-written, policy tract… and can safely be disregarded. Voters looking to find the ‘true voice’ of the former First Lady, which has been the subject of so much spilt ink during the course of this campaign, simply won’t find it here.
In conclusion, HL Mencken once opined that “honest autobiography is a contradiction in terms”, and George Orwell argued that “autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful”. While politicos will always be interested in mid-life autobiographies purely in order to evaluate the communication strategies of prominent politicians, with the exception of Profiles in Courage, pre-campaign publications typically don’t have much salience in presidential campaigns. However, with close to four million copies of these two books sold thus far, however, it’s obvious that many voters are swallowing their cynicism about autobiographies in the hopes of coming to understand the Democratic candidates. If you’re inclined to join them… read Dreams From My Father and seek your answers about Clinton elsewhere.