Astonishing that in 1999, amid the squawk of online campaigns and videogenic candidates, all of the serious presidential contenders--and a few of the fringe cases--have come to the studied conclusion that writing a book is a good thing to do.

With the publication of George W. Bush's "A Charge to Keep" (William Morrow, $23), scheduled for next week, the fait will be accompli. Bush, John McCain, Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Bill Bradley and Al Gore--along with Jesse Ventura and Donald Trump--will all have books on store shelves.

Distributing campaign literature is an age-old practice. In the 19th century, candidates handed out autobiographical leaflets to crowds. In recent times, the pamphlets have blossomed into books. Dwight Eisenhower's "Crusade in Europe," published in 1948, helped him get nominated in 1952. John F. Kennedy penned "Profiles in Courage" and got the 1960 Democratic nomination. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush wrote self-promotional books before they were elected. Some losers have also written books--Dan Quayle, Elizabeth Dole, Paul Tsongas, Lamar Alexander and Ross Perot, among others.

But in this Web site world, the notion of putting words into sentences, paragraphs and chapters is just so totally quaint. It's: folk tunes at a Megadeth concert, a wooden tennis racket, home-baked bread, water from the tap. Especially given the suicidal quality of such an undertaking. Remember the politician's prayer: "Lord, let my opponent write a book."

Writing a book is letting it all hang out. There it is! Take a whack at it! A book writer--even with the help of a co-author--is just bound to say something stupid. Or something that could be interpreted as stupid.

Consider this from "A Charge to Keep": "I," Bush writes at one point about his days as a Sears, Roebuck employee, "became the leading salesman of Ping-Pong balls."

Or this from Gore's environmental sermon "Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit" (Plume, $14.95): ". . . the sandpile 'remembers' the impact of each grain that is dropped and stores that memory holistically (or holographically) in the physical position of all the grains in relation to one another and in the full three-dimensional shape of the pile itself."

Why would serious challengers provide opponents with such piles of, um, sand? Why would these guys do such a thing? Here are five possibilities:

Vanity. Everybody's doing it. If soul queen Aretha Franklin, swimming goddess Esther Williams and rockin' roly-poly Meat Loaf can wax prosaic about their worldviews, why can't presidential candidates? Penning a book, even a bad book, does take a certain amount of introspection and self-awareness, contemplative traits seldom associated with pro politicians.

There are philosophical moments in some of the works. "Even when you are an adult," writes McCain in "Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir" (Random House, $25), "when passing time and changing circumstances separate you from old friends, their absence seems unremarkable and in accord with the normal course of things."

But by definition the books are self-serving.

Ostensibly about basketball, "Values of the Game" by Bill Bradley (Artisan, $30) is really about running. For president. For someone who played down his jock-star status for years, Bradley has made a dramatic pivot. Basketball, he writes in the book that earned him $137,000 in royalties last year, is almost an essential part of him. The table of contents is a What-It-Takes checklist: Passion, Discipline, Selflessness, Respect, Perspective, Courage, Leadership, Responsibility, Resilience and Imagination. How about an 11th chapter? Self-Promotion.

Insanity. What was Buchanan smoking when he wrote "A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America's Destiny" (Regnery, $29.95), a revisionist rant against U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century? His divisive condemnation of our nation's entering the Last Good War has caused a Buchanan backlash, from both the left and the right.

After the Nazis lost the Battle of Britain in 1940, Buchanan writes, Germany was not a serious strategic threat to America.

"It wasn't planned to come out as a campaign book per se," says Gwen Nappi of Regnery Press. "Pat thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to get away from the politics of personal destruction and focus on something more important?' "

The politics of self-destruction, maybe?

"That's the irony," Nappi says. "People decide to read a very, very small portion of this book and interpret it as what they want it to be. Most people who are criticizing it haven't even read it." Nearly 90,000 copies are in print.

She says, "U.S. foreign policy is a very important issue to him."

Posterity. By and large, the books by the serious office-seekers reveal a group of smart, sane, searching men. Who knew? Our children's children may even learn something from these guys.

"Imagination allows us to escape the predictable," writes Bradley. "Artists, scientists, poets use the power of imagination every day. For those of us who found it in playing the game, it has shaped our joy in countless ways. It has enriched our experience and allowed us to feel the thrill of fresh creation. It puts us in touch with what most makes us human. Above all, it enables us to see beyond the moment, to transcend our circumstances however dire they appear, and to reply to the common wisdom that says we cannot soar by saying 'Just watch!' "

Stump Speech. Why not write a book to crystallize your ideas and get a publisher to pay for a 30-city campaign tour disguised as book signings? McCain and Buchanan both have used bookstores as whistle-stops.

Gore's tome is prose as policy statement. There are some 320,000 paperback copies of his 1993 book in print. (Rule of thumb in the publishing industry: 1,500 books per tree.) Last year he made $15,000 in royalties. There are moments of candor. At one point the veep even admits that he has a tendency to "put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously."

At times you can see Gore giving one of his wrestling-with-the-issues speeches. "Why haven't we launched a massive effort to save our environment?" he writes. "To come at the question another way: Why do some images startle us into immediate action and focus our attention on ways to respond effectively? And why do other images, though sometimes equally dramatic, produce instead a kind of paralysis, focusing our attention not on ways to respond but rather on some convenient, less painful distraction?"

Steve Forbes's "A New Birth of Freedom: Vision for America" (Regnery, $24.95) is every bit as exhilarating as its author. This book--30,000 in print--is a 200-page stupefying stemwinder. Usher in a flat tax, Forbes writes. Beef up the military. Revamp Social Security.

There are pleasant slits of light here and there. For instance, Forbes remembers his mother packing up the kids in the station wagon and heading west for vacations. Education is "a big deal" in his house, he writes, "as you can imagine it would be in a family of five daughters."

But, like many of the candidates' tomes, it's a thinly disguised screed. Forbes ends his book: "And daunting though the obstacles may appear, we shall prevail as we have always done in the past, for the simple reason that we are Americans, born to be free."

All you need is bright bunting, Steve Forbes hand fans and one brassy Sousa march.

Preemptive Strike. If somebody's going to write about you, it might as well be you. "When I discovered that a number of other people were writing books about me," writes Gov. Bush, "I decided to tell my story from my own perspective."

In theory, that's a great idea. In practice, it can have mixed results. For McCain, it's been good. His book about his father and grandfather, both four-star Navy admirals, has received critical praise and popular support. "Faith of My Fathers" has been near the top of several bestseller lists. He's donating profits to charity. For Buchanan, it's been a public-relations disaster. For Gore, Forbes and Bradley--who wrote an autobiography in 1996--the experience has been more helpful than hurtful.

So will Bush's book help or hinder? We'll see. Dubya, who plans to donate any profits to charity, springs from a long line of book writers--his father, his mother and even the family dog have picked up the pen. He doesn't seem too worried, however, about revealing too much personal info.

This book "is not intended to be a comprehensive look at every event in my life," he writes. "That would be too boring."