‘So many that are so bad’: The 2020 book primary is on

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‘So many that are so bad’: The 2020 book primary is on




Kamala Harris

Sen. Kamala Harris’ memoir, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” debuts next month, with sell-out appearances booked in Washington and Los Angeles. | Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images

2020 elections

Great literature? Not exactly. But that’s not the goal for Harris, Sanders or Castro, to name a few of the politician-authors.

Kamala Harris has a book coming out in January. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Julián Castro are already hawking theirs.

Great literature?

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Not usually. But in a quadrennial rite of presidential politics, the 2020 book primary is in full swing.

Harris’ memoir, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” debuts next month, with sell-out appearances booked in Washington and Los Angeles. Her offering follows a similarly wayfaring title by Castro, “An Unlikely Journey: Waking up from My American Dream.” Last month, Sanders released “Where We Go from Here: Two Years in the Resistance.”

Both Harris and fellow Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have books for children — and their politically minded parents.

The genre is hardly new — and not without successes. John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” and Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father” have been widely praised. But more often, the remainder bin beckons. And the unusually large number of Democratic contenders in 2020 is forcing booksellers to brace their shelves.

“It’s hard to see them as anything other than a fact of life,” said Mark LaFramboise, chief buyer at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington. “It used to be kind of a novel thing if a candidate had a book. And now, everybody has one.”

As for whether the books are any good, LaFramboise said, “Good for sales.” His store ordered 1,600 copies of Harris’ book ahead of an event with her in January.

However, he said, “I’ve never read one … I read mostly literature with a capital L.”

For presidential aspirants, the advantages of penning a book are plain. A memoir can help a lesser-known candidate introduce elements of his or her biography, while a policy tome can demonstrate one’s heft. And regardless of the content, the accompanying book tour — and related promotional appearances — give candidates a pretense to tease audiences about their ambitions.

It was at an event promoting his book “Promise Me, Dad” that former Vice President Joe Biden declared himself “the most qualified person in the country to be president.” Readers of Gillibrand’s children’s book about 10 suffragists learned that women in the New York senator’s family had “taught me to be bold and to believe there was nothing I couldn’t do.”

“They’re a platform for you to just go around and go on book tours … Everybody understands what’s actually going on,” said Mathew Littman, a Democratic strategist and former Biden speechwriter. “You’re not going to see, for example, Pat Leahy’s children’s book, because Pat Leahy is not running for anything other than his Senate seat. Dianne Feinstein is not putting out a book for kids. It’s only people who have other ambitions, and their ambition is not to be an author.”

None of which means the content of candidate books is insignificant or without signals to the Democratic Party’s base. In his memoir, Castro, who might end up the only Latino candidate in a sprawling field, focuses on his family history in an effort, as he writes, to “help show how inextricably woven the immigrant experience is with the American experience.”

And in his 2016 book, “The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a moderate Democrat, puts down a marker on a threshold issue for many Democrats, the death penalty, while acknowledging that his position has evolved.

“I am against the death penalty,” he writes. “Well, first I was for it. But now I am against it.”

Bob Shrum, a longtime political strategist who served on multiple Democratic presidential campaigns, said books by Obama and Kennedy stood apart for the quality of their writing and “a certain level of insight and perception.” But most candidate books, he said, are “boilerplate.”

Asked for the worst example he could think of, Shrum sighed, “Oh, God. I don’t know. There are so many that are so bad.”

Ronald Goldfarb, Sanders’ literary agent, said it’s unreasonable to expect literary feats from politicians. Of politicking and writing, he said, “The two talents don’t necessarily go together, and the lifestyle doesn’t permit it for most busy politicians to sit down and write a book.”

But Goldfarb said that for the rare politician who does write his or her own book without assistance — including Sanders — the value for a reader is “you get what’s real, no focus groups.”

And you get a lot of it — 579 pages of policy-heavy reading in Sanders’ case, with a sprinkle of sensible style. Recalling the threat of rain on the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Sanders writes that, while “Senate staff distributed plastic ponchos,” he had already come prepared.

“I had my all-purpose, super-warm hooded Vermont coat,” Sanders writes. “It didn’t look quite formal or senatorial, but it did the trick.”

David Kipen, a former book editor and critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, said books by politicians “don’t fly off the shelves” at Libros Schmibros, the lending library he founded in Los Angeles.

But Kipen, a former director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts, takes a sympathetic view of books by presidents and presidential aspirants — so long as the politicians write them themselves.

“It’s Sturgeon’s law: Ninety-five percent of everything is garbage. As long as Ulysses Grant is in the other 5 percent, I’m not going to dismiss them out of hand,” he said. “In a way I’m glad for it … I understand the reasons for striking while the iron is hot, and I’m a sucker for the personal stories that drive somebody or compel somebody or curse somebody to a career in politics.”

Kipen has a new book out himself: “Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters.” But don’t read anything into that.

“I’m not running for bupkis,” he said.

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