You might not know it, but there are political books out there this summer beyond campaign quickies, former president Bill Clinton's admittedly self-serving autobiography and the polarizing rants of celebrity commentators on the left and right who appear to be writing books before they've ever read one.

The books reviewed here separate themselves into three categories. Two are by policymakers dealing with policy. One is by a non-professional commentator on the political scene. Two deal with issues of prior decades that remain with us today.

Unlike most analytic and policy-prescriptive books, Peter G. Peterson's Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It (Farrar Straus Giroux, $24) is lively and plainly written. A former Cabinet member, a lifelong Republican, a business and financial executive and chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, Peterson is a certified establishmentarian. But he also is a Nebraska straight talker who calls 'em as he sees 'em and has done so consistently regarding the structural federal budget deficits that threatened us in the 1990s and do so again now.

Thanks to the wars in Iraq and on terror, excessive tax cuts and post-9/11 spending jags by Congressional Republicans and Democrats, we are back in the red again. We face tough choices as we contemplate financing Social Security and Medicare, the baby-boomer generation entering its retirement years, and foreign and domestic challenges that are unlikely to diminish.

Peterson scorns Republicans for becoming "big government conservatives [who] don't bother much about balanced budgets or the size of government." He berates Democrats as "the party that has, over the course of several decades, turned the federal government into a massive entitlements vending machine which operates by dispensing new benefits in return for organized political support and by deferring costs as far as possible into the future." These benefits, in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars per capita, have expanded sixfold since 1965. Peterson also faults today's retirees for insisting on current or expanded Social Security and Medicare benefits; narcissistic boomers, with their "penchant for endless argument and values posturing," who now dominate the country's institutions; and Generation Xers who are so cynical about public involvement that they don't bother to vote.

Peterson's diagnoses of the problem are more persuasive than his proposed remedies, which range from reform of the federal budget and political processes to a call for larger mindedness among the greedy geezers, selfish yuppies and young slackers who thus far have not come to grips with the red-ink problem. We may not be as bad as Peterson thinks. Even the Greatest Generation wasn't great until forced to action by crisis. Nonetheless, his "Repent, for the end is near" warning is entirely appropriate.

Former senator Gary Hart attempts to do for foreign policy what Peterson does for the homefront. His The Fourth Power: A Grand Strategy for the United States in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford Univ., $22) is an extended essay lacking anecdotes or other changes of pace. But it is worth the effort required to read it.

Hart questions notions of preemption and preventive war that he charges the Bush administration with employing since 9/11. Beyond that, he says, "There is a vast difference between advocating, as I do, that America live up to its own principles and advocating, as the Bush administration does, that the rest of the world live up to America's principles." Hart offers a conceptual framework in which a "fourth power" -- "the power of principle" -- must be added to traditional American economic, political and military power as a major strategic asset internationally. Hart's fourth power, a cousin to Harvard professor Joseph Nye's "soft power," would be based on a redefined domestic security, expansion of domestic opportunity and promotion of liberal democracy abroad.

Hart, who ran as a candidate of ideas in his 1980s campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, has since worked and reworked those ideas. In their current formulation, they could prove important as soon as next year. An active Kerry for President campaigner, Hart could be a senior appointee in a Kerry administration.

Garrison Keillor's Homegrown Democrat: A Few Plain Thoughts From the Heart of America (Viking, $19.95) is a graceful, loving celebration of the old-time Minnesota liberalism of the heart that is so sorely missed in today's politics. His book is dedicated, appropriately, "to all of the good Democratic-Farmer Laborites of Minnesota."

Homegrown Democrat reads like a personal letter from an incorrigibly idealistic old friend. It is filled with personal stories, observations on people and events and unquenchable hopefulness.

But there is more in it than what we are accustomed to hearing from Keillor on his "Prairie Home Companion" radio show. Describing himself as "an old Democrat, who takes a ground view of politics," he says that the operative question for politicians considering their policy choices should be: "What is the actual effect of this action on the lives of real people?" "We Democrats," he says, "are at our worst when we lose touch with our principles -- the protection of the powerless, paying attention to real consequences in the lives of real people and not flying on slogans or glib phrases. . . ." The words are Keillor's, but they could just as easily be those of Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Orville Freeman, Walter Mondale, Don Fraser, Paul Wellstone or other Democratic-Farmer Laborites of yore.

Keillor's is the authentic voice of an upper Midwest that backslides occasionally but, in the end, has always represented the country's most progressive instincts. While reading Keillor's book, I chanced to view an hour-long film chronicling the Humphrey-John F. Kennedy Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary contest of 1960. The two candidates, though opponents, campaigned positively and on the issues. They displayed respect for each other and for the process in which they were engaged. Their decency, as Keillor's does, shone through.

Inside the Pentagon Papers, edited by John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter (Univ. Press of Kansas, $29.95), and The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action, by Terry H. Anderson (Oxford Univ., $35), properly will be added to many libraries this summer. Even those of us who were personally involved in the civil rights and Vietnam debates of the 1960s and '70s will find that they fill gaps in our knowledge.

At the core of Papers are transcripts and interviews with persons in government, the media and the legal community who in one way or another were involved in the preparation and eventual publication, in 1971, of what became known as the Pentagon Papers. The papers were part of a secret research project commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara into the origins of the Vietnam War. They "dropped like a huge stink bomb," the editors correctly state, into an American society already wearied and dispirited by a war it wished ended.

The papers, along with the war itself and President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal, contributed to a distrust of the presidency and cynicism about government that persist to this day. They put into the public domain what Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administration officials had seen privately from the inside: that the American involvement in Vietnam rested on a dubious rationale and that success never was in the cards. Scholars, students and journalists unfamiliar with the papers will find useful background here.

In The Pursuit of Fairness, Terry Anderson, a Texas A&M history professor who previously has written about military issues, takes on the difficult task of writing "a lucid text explaining affirmative action" with "no ax to grind, no agenda, just a fascination at how this contentious policy developed and changed over the years." He misses much of the drama of the early civil rights movement and in many places omits people and events that were central to it. But, utilizing official documents and published sources, he succeeds in presenting a dispassionate examination of affirmative action -- not easy to do.

Readers who thought affirmative action began with the Nixon administration's Philadelphia Plan of 1969, which mandated jobs for minorities in the construction industry, will be surprised to learn that the concept had its origins in a 1934 initiative in the Franklin Roosevelt administration to devise a proportional hiring system for skilled black workers in the Public Works Administration. Congress cast its first formal vote on affirmative action in December 1969, but every president from FDR onward had used the term in some way before then. The 1969 vote, however, was pivotal. Many liberal Democrats who had passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act saw affirmative action as a retreat from Title VII's provisions prohibiting any kind of discrimination in employment and, thus, a departure from the law's underlying rationale.

Since then, Anderson points out, affirmative action has become subsumed in other debates having to do with political correctness, culture wars and wedge politics. Anderson's dispassionate treatment of his subject flows from his seeing it as part of a narrow pursuit of economic fairness rather than as part of the broader pursuit of social justice. *

Ted Van Dyk, presently editorial-page columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, served in the White House and State Department in the Johnson and Carter administrations, was a senior adviser in numerous presidential campaigns and was founding president of the Center for National Policy.