While campaigning for the presidency in 1996, Patrick Buchanan arrived at a chilling realization about U.S. foreign policy: "America . . . was replicating, with alarming exactitude, the course that brought the British Empire to ruin." This and other pronouncements from his last campaign fill A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America's Destiny (Regnery, $29.95), Buchanan's attempt to rescue our nation from "imperial overstretch." But the book is hardly a lean isolationist manifesto: It is a diffuse, cumbersome textbook filled with wooden prose and dubious assertions.

He begins with a brisk and lively assault on America's overseas commitments: "The United States today," he writes, "spends more for the defense of South Korea than does Seoul." What follows, however, is a windy, 300-page survey of two centuries of American diplomatic history in which Buchanan honors those leaders, from Jefferson to Polk, who pragmatically expanded America's boundaries (the "annexation of Texas, the Southwest, and California was Manifest Destiny, not imperialism," he writes) while hewing closely to George Washington's dictum: "steer clear of permanent Alliances." But 1898 marked a watershed moment in U.S. foreign policy, and Buchanan's principal argument is that by embracing "the imperial temptation" in the Philippines, President McKinley opened the way to a century of reckless and costly overseas adventures in Europe and Asia.

The text is filled with polemical thrusts and unsupported claims: FDR's "strategic blunders during World War II cost millions their freedom and led to half a century of Cold War"; "Diem [was] South Vietnam's most effective leader"; "Chile's Pinochet was a better friend [to the United States] than the elected demagogue Salvador Allende." Buchanan's opinions about ethnic lobbies and World War II have proved to be controversial, but his inflammatory remarks concerning immigrants have garnered less attention: "Illegal immigration [should] be halted," he thunders, "and illegal aliens returned home." How the federal government might do that without turning America into a police state, candidate Buchanan does not say.

Bill Minutaglio's First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty (Times Books, $25) purports to be a full-scale biography of Bush, but it is really a book about his early life and the social and political milieu from which he emerged. Minutaglio, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, is well equipped for the task: He has a nuanced understanding of Lone Star politics, and he has monitored Bush's rise to political stardom. His book is unwieldy and hastily written, but it has color and depth and seriousness, and it imparts a strong sense of Bush as an individual. Whether he is writing about Bush's youth in Texas during the oil boom, or his elite education in the Northeast, or his efforts to get a foothold in the slippery world of commerce, Minutaglio depicts a rootless and sarcastic young man trapped in his father's shadow and searching for a way to forge his own identity while simultaneously honoring the traditions of the Bush clan. In the end, the lineage proved decisive: Minutagio demonstrates that, at nearly every key juncture in his life, Bush took full advantage of the family's connections and clout to advance his career.

Minutaglio, who endeavors to treat his subject fairly, offers an insightful portrait of Bush in the 1960s, revealing a man enamored of fraternity pranks, all-night poker games and beer guzzling; a man impervious to the political ferment around him; a man whose dormitory newsletter at Yale declared "we seem to strive . . . to denigrate and stamp out academic endeavor and intellectual activity." Minutaglio does not shy away from recording Bush's youthful antics, but, echoing Clinton biographer David Maraniss, he urges readers who might be interested in lascivious details "to do their dining elsewhere."

In the wake of Ronald Reagan's landslide victory in 1980, many Democrats, in Adam Clymer's words, "sought to accommodate a conservative mood." Ted Kennedy was a significant exception. "Let us resolve," Kennedy declared, "that we will not run away from our commitments as Democrats, as progressives, and as liberals." Clymer's Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography (Morrow, $27.50) demonstrates that the senator was true to his word and his principles, and that on issues ranging from civil rights and health care to poverty and education, he honored the pledge he made in his 1982 acceptance speech: "To be an advocate for the average man and woman, a voice for the voiceless, a Senator for those who suffer and are weak."

Clymer's book is comprehensive but uninspiring. He is not an engaging writer, and the narrative lacks verve and momentum. In chronicling the life of a senator, the biographer's challenge is to bring to life the behind-the-scenes legislative wrangling; occasionally Clymer succeeds, but in many instances he falls short. Moreover, he moves too quickly through Kennedy's early life, and his account of Chappaquiddick is curiously static and abbreviated, as though he did not wish to dirty his hands by excavating the murky details. But the book succeeds as a detailed roadmap of Kennedy's career, and Clymer, Washington editor of the New York Times, does a thorough job of illustrating how, on a wide range of foreign policy issues -- Chile, South Africa, Northern Ireland -- Kennedy has been a catalyst for democratic change and reconciliation.

Though Clymer believes that Kennedy is "the leading Senator of his time," his book is no hagiography. He is blunt about Kennedy's errors and shortcomings, but he refrains from moralizing. Instead, he quotes Murray Kempton, who accompanied Kennedy on a tour through Appalachia in 1983: "In the arrogance of our conviction that we would have done better than he did in a single case," observed Kempton, "we exempt ourselves from any duty to pay attention to the many cases where he shows himself better than us."

Readers in search of new revelations about controversial aspects of George Bush's career will be disappointed in All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings (Scribner, $30), which the author himself describes as "a personal book, a book giving a deeper insight into what my own heartbeat is." Details of Bush's politics and public life are by no means absent from these pages, but they are submerged beneath countless anecdotes about sports, etiquette, pets, recreation and food.

Bush has one eye on history, and some of his assertions appear to contradict the record. Describing his bruising 1964 Senate race against Ralph Yarborough, Bush affirms that his opponent voted for the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 -- "which," he adds, "would not help him in Texas" -- but that he himself "was not comfortable using that in the campaign." Bush casts himself as a principled moderate on race, a man unwilling to "inflame the passions of unthinking men to garner a vote." However, in his authoritative 1997 biography, George Bush: The Life of a Lone Star Yankee, Herbert Parmet noted that Bush's denunciation of Walter Reuther as someone who "even donated fifty dollars to the militant Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." was a familiar refrain on the campaign trail in 1964.

The collection, which covers 1942 to 1998, is not without value. The section on Bush's experience in World World II is both understated and powerful, while many of his letters to friends in distress are genuinely affecting. There is eye-opening correspondence with Richard Nixon, Peggy Noonan and Hugh Sidey, and the book occasionally provides a sobering glimpse into the quotidian routine of a U.S. president. One entry from 1991 reads: "Does Mil Aide need to carry that black case now every little place I go?" The briefcase, Bush explains, holds "the necessary codes for the President to launch a nuclear strike." With the Cold War over, he writes, "I did not think it was necessary for [it] to go everywhere with me. However, Brent [Scowcroft] and others disagreed."

During his 30-year stint as a maverick congressman from Indiana, Andy Jacobs Jr. forged a reputation as a quirky and eccentric representative. Now he has written a quirky and eccentric book. The 1600 Killers: A Wake-Up Call for Congress (Alistair, $25; 291 Southwind Way, Greenwood, In. 46142; 317-888-6581) is not quite a memoir; rather, it is a rambling set of sketches and reminiscences, held together by pungent anecdotes and good jokes.

U.S. foreign policy is his primary subject, and Jacobs begins with a description of his experience as a Marine during the Korean War, from which he barely escaped with his life. In Korea, Jacobs witnessed so much ugliness and stupidity that it transformed him into a lifelong skeptic of military engagement. He takes as his credo a quip from Will Rogers -- "The United States will `Send in the Marines' to any country where we can get ten people to invite us" -- and most of the book is given over to a sharp critique of those overseas adventures, from Vietnam to Grenada to the Gulf War, where Jacobs believes American soldiers were sent to their deaths to satisfy political imperatives at home.

It was Jacobs who, in the early 1980s, coined the term "war wimp," which he defined as "one who is all too willing to send others, but never gets around to going himself." Not surprisingly, some of his most astringent remarks are directed at figures such as Ronald Reagan and Patrick Buchanan, whose "macho talk around the White House" concerning aid to the Nicaraguan contras prompts Jacobs to observe: "President Reagan, though sometimes confused about it, spent World War II in California making training films for the government and regular ones (with pretty ladies) for himself." As for Buchanan: He "had a bad leg which made him ineligible for the war of his generation. . . . The good news: the leg miraculously recovered. During the Reagan years, Buchanan was a regular participant in the annual Washington running marathon."

Scott Sherman has reviewed books for the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News and the New York Observer.