Even with the Almighty on your side, it’s smart to keep a Washington power broker on retainer.
Memoirs and policy books by presidential hopefuls morph into extended stump speeches, predictable and dutiful works whose generic titles mirror their insight and originality. But at least one part of these books is consistently enjoyable and revealing: the acknowledgments.
There is still plenty of posturing there, and that’s some of the fun. It’s also where the candidates disclose intellectual debts, hint at political favors and, under the guise of heightened honesty (they’re acknowledging, right?), unwittingly emphasize the very shortcomings they’re seeking to overcome. In a crowded Republican primary field, several of the candidates have written — or at least published — books recently, and their acknowledgments can be more instructive than any policy speech, debate zinger or surrogate’s bark.
Of course, just about all the candidates thank their families right away. There are values voters to win over, people! Rand Paul (“Taking a Stand”), Ted Cruz (“A Time for Truth”), Carly Fiorina (“Rising to the Challenge”), Rick Perry (“Fed Up!”) and Mike Huckabee (“God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy”) all begin their acknowledgments with copious gratitude for spouses, children and/or parents. Paul, however, acknowledges his own greatness as much as his family’s. “To my sons William, Duncan, and Robert,” the senator from Kentucky writes, “I hope the example I set for you in daily life will help you as you become adults.” Ted Cruz, the Texan Cuban American by way of Canada, is quick to praise his parents as “two Americans of grit, passion, and fortitude,” just in case anyone had doubts.
Rubio also expresses gratitude for his family’s support, but not before a giving a lengthier shout-out to Norman Braman, the 83-year-old car-dealer billionaire who has bankrolled Rubio’s past campaigns. The senator thanks Braman “not only for the advice and comments on the book, but for your friendship and wise advice to me over the years.” I suppose mentioning the cash would be unseemly.
Acknowledgments can make plain the candidates’ insecurities and self-perceived weaknesses. After thanking God and family, Scott Walker (“Unintimidated”) tries to buttress his national security credentials, not easy for a Midwestern governor. “First, a salute to Major General Don Dunbar and the ten thousand men and women of the Wisconsin National Guard,” he writes. “It is my sincere honor to serve as your commander in chief.” (Too bad Walker’s bloodiest battles have been against public employees’ unions.) Rick Santorum, forever fighting “electability” concerns, spends much of his acknowledgments still bitter about the 2012 primaries; he complains that the media boxed him in as a “social issues” candidate and failed to see his bond with working-class voters. (Hence his book title, “Blue Collar Conservatives.”) And Perry, often accused of being intellectually unencumbered, emphasizes the historians and legal scholars he consulted for “Fed Up!,” published before his failed run at the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination. (Regrettably, the former Texas governor also writes that thanking his wife is a “no-brainer,” an expression Perry should avoid in any sentence describing his decision-making.)
Although unlikely to have provided assistance other than spiritual or inspirational, Ronald Reagan makes cameos in the acknowledgments of some 2016 Republican candidates. Paul cites the courage of Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in challenging their parties’ orthodoxies, drawing a parallel to his continued efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and fight Obama’s “unconstitutional, lawless amnesty.” And Walker thanks conservative Reagan biographer Craig Shirley for instructing him in the ways of the Gipper’s 1980 campaign.
Cruz, meanwhile, inadvertently echoes a different president. The senator from Texas concludes his acknowledgments by reflecting on his immigrant father. “Only in a land like America is his story — is our story — even possible,” Cruz writes. Sounds a bit like Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, in which the then-Illinois state senator declared that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” Criticize a guy’s rhetoric long enough and you’re bound to start sounding like him.
Some candidates wonk out and list their various policy advisers. (Message: I’m serious). In their 2013 book “Immigration Wars,” former Florida governor Jeb Bush and co-author Clint Bolick highlight the expertise of Emilio Gonzalez, a former immigration official at the Department of Homeland Security, and Tamar Jacoby, head of ImmigrationWorks USA. Also, in what must have been Bush’s pre-“anchor babies” phase, the authors offer “a heartfelt thanks to the many immigrants we have had the honor to meet and know and who inspire and teach us what it means to be American.” Rubio, meanwhile, names 45 “scholars and policy experts” who form his brain trust on domestic and foreign policy, including guys from the reform conservative movement and the American Enterprise Institute. And I do mean “guys” — of the 45, only one is a woman. Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, take a bow.
Like Rubio thanking God and his Washington attorney, other candidates play the inside-outside game in their acknowledgments. Walker recaps his preferred pastimes: “In addition to hanging out with my family” (values, check) “or watching sporting events” (regular guy, check), “one of my favorite ways to relax is riding my 2003 Harley Davidson Road King” (cool guy, check). But he slips in a mention of “my friend Reince Priebus,” chairman of the Republican National Committee and former head of the Wisconsin GOP (establishment, check). Walker skips Rep. Paul Ryan, a fellow Wisconsinite and the party’s veep candidate in 2012. It’s a noteworthy omission for a politician who lists more than 200 people in his acknowledgments, including friends (and yes, donors) Crystal and Jim Berg, who apparently throw fantastic pond parties.
On occasion, candidates drop out of character. In his acknowledgments, Huckabee drips folksiness like sawmill gravy on biscuits. He laments that this is the first book he’s written without Jet, his beloved black Lab, and says his publisher’s enthusiasm has been “better than a bowl of grits with cheese and shrimp.” But when he thanks his son David, “who runs several of the companies I own,” he sounds downright Trumpesque.
The Republican front-runner offers only brief acknowledgments in his 2011 book, “Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again,” devoting a lone paragraph to his publisher and a few staffers. It’s just as well for Donald Trump, because the acknowledgments in his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” showcase the perils of the form. Back then, Trump thanked “the tough and tireless Roger Stone” — the same political adviser with whom the candidate suffered a high-profile break this month.
Relative newcomers Fiorina and Ben Carson (“One Nation”) also skimp on their acknowledgments, missing a chance to suck up, back-scratch and repackage. They’ll learn! Oddly, Sen. Lindsey Graham (N.C.), one of the most experienced candidates of the bunch, omits an acknowledgments section altogether in his recent e-book, “My Story.” In fact, he seems to resent the entire political-book exercise.
“Everyone has a story. Not everyone has to tell it, of course, and most people have the good sense not to,” Graham begins. “But if you’re in my line of work, and the time arrives when you start imagining a big promotion . . . you are by custom expected to give a general account of your life.” With a sales pitch like that, Graham has no one to thank but himself.
These books, meant to distinguish the candidates, often reinforce how small and overlapping the world of presidential contenders can be. For example, two different candidates thank the same ghostwriter (embarrassing!), a former speechwriter for Attorney General John Ashcroft. “Jessica Gavora was a true partner,” Fiorina writes, “helping me think through the structure and the content.” And for Rubio, the help seems to have been even more integral: “I am grateful to Jessica Gavora for helping me craft and organize the manuscript, interview the people who shared their life stories and meet the various deadlines on time.”
Sounds like a lot of work. How about a co-byline, senator? That’s the best acknowledgment of all.
- Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution by Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick. Threshold Editions. 2013.
- One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future by Ben Carson. Sentinel. 2014.
- A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Promise of America by Ted Cruz. Broadside Books, 2015.
- Rising to the Challenge: My Leadership Journey by Carly Fiorina. Sentinel. 2015.
- God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy by Mike Huckabee. St. Martin’s Press. 2015.
- Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America by Rand Paul. Center Street. 2015.
- Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington by Rick Perry. Little, Brown & Co. 2010.
- American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone by Marco Rubio. Sentinel. 2015.
- Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works by Rick Santorum. Regnery Publishing, 2014.
- Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again by Donald J. Trump. Regnery Publishing. 2011.
- Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge by Scott Walker with Marc Thiessen. Sentinel. 2013.