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Sunday, November 5, 2006

Campaign Tools

Thousands of people gathered all over the country in late October to have Barack Obama sign copies of his new book, The Audacity of Hope . In San Rafael, Calif., they paid $125 to attend a lunch where the freshman Democratic senator from Illinois spoke for 15 minutes and signed books for about an hour. In Denver, they carried sleeping bags into the streets, lining up at 4 in the morning for an event that began at noon. "It was a love fest," said Margaret Maupin of Tattered Cover Book Store. "I saw one young woman, he shook her hand, and she just started fanning herself like she was going to faint."

The question fueling all this devotion -- will Obama run for president? -- has yet to be answered. (He promises to think about it after Election Day.) This continuing mystery is wonderful for sales. According to Nielsen BookScan, The Audacity of Hope sold more than 69,000 copies in its first two weeks. (That should go some way toward covering his $1.9 million, three-book advance.) But if the prospect of an Obama White House bid has been good for The Audacity of Hope , the book has also been great for his bid. Obama, who won his first election (to the Illinois State Senate) in 1996, a year after he published his memoir, Dreams From My Father , must know in his bones that books help political campaigns. In fact, since 1952 every winning presidential candidate has published a book. Even Abraham Lincoln authorized the writing of two biographies during his successful 1860 presidential run.

"It's like establishing a campaign committee," said Andrew Ferguson, a columnist for Bloomberg News. "It's something you have to do. It almost doesn't matter what the book says."

While any sort of publication may fill the requirement, a well-made book and a savvy publisher can give a candidate an extra political boost. Obama's message is: Red states and blue states, I could unify you. But it's the existence of the book, not its substance, that has snagged him front-page articles, the cover of Time magazine, appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "The Today Show," "Meet the Press" and "Larry King Live."

"We orchestrated all of it," said Tina Constable, executive director of publicity at Crown Publishing Group. Her team spent months coordinating Obama's interviews and his 12-city, campaign-like book tour, for which Crown also footed the bill.

The increased celebrity has made Obama more politically viable. And the late nights of writing may have given him subtler benefits as well: the chance to clarify the vision he might campaign on, for example, and practice in translating arcane policy matters into ordinary language.

Those are the kinds of advantages Steve Wasserman saw conferred on Bill Clinton when Wasserman edited the then-governor's Putting People First (1992, co-authored with Al Gore) and Between Hope and History (1996) for Times Books. The latter volume, Wasserman says, was Clinton's attempt to articulate for himself his underlying vision for reelection. In true Clinton style, he was refining it until the last possible moment. In August 1996, while Wasserman was at the typesetter double-checking the final proofs with Don Bahr, then one of Clinton's chief advisors, the president called asking them to remove a paragraph from the middle of the book. The passage was drawn from a heartfelt speech he had given in Texas about race relations in America. "It was one of the few personal and authentic bits in a book otherwise given to wonkish policy pronunciamentos," Wasserman recalled. But Clinton had decided it was a "downer." What he wanted, Wasserman said, was "an upbeat book that would put some wind in his sails as he embarked on his last campaign for the White House."

No matter how sincerely an author like Obama may approach the task of writing a campaign book, the campaign itself will undermine authenticity in a thousand little ways. Obama wrote The Audacity of Hope himself, his editor, Rachel Klayman, said. But members of his staff read it over before it was published, just as Clinton's staff read over his campaign books before they were published. (John McCain shortens the process by writing all his books, including his memoir Faith of My Fathers, with longtime staffer Mark Salter.) The publicity schedules for all these books were coordinated with rallies and other political events. McCain's memoir was published in September 1999, when the author was already dashing around New Hampshire in preparation for the 2000 GOP primaries. And on his book tour, Obama juggled signings with democratic rallies.

Such political imperatives are probably why "only one presidential memoir has really lasted in history," according to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. It was written by Ulysses S. Grant, long after he left office, while he was on his deathbed with no election in sight.

-- Marcela Valdes valdes.marcela@gmail.com

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