BookReviews

Campaign lit

Books to boost coffers and confidence.

Reviewed by John Barron

A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters
By Newt Gingrich
Regnery Publishing
Washington DC 2011

This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House
By Herman Cain
Threshold Editions
New York 2011

Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington
By Rick Perry
Little, Brown and Company
New York 2010

No Apology: The Case for American Greatness
By Mitt Romney
St Martin’s Press
New York 2010

For several months in 2011, Newt Gingrich was widely accused of running for president just to sell books. But that claim got it around the wrong way; in fact Gingrich was selling books so he could run for president.

Before his November surge from cellar-dweller to frontrunner, Newt Gingrich was often criticised for skipping campaigning opportunities in early-to-vote states for book-signings in less politically important places like Georgia and Kentucky.

But after five months of campaigning, Gingrich had sold just 12,000 copies of A Nation Like No Other. That’s a very time-consuming and expensive way to make $36,000, and if that’s really Newt’s way of making a buck these days, Tiffany’s won’t be seeing Callista and him again for a while.

Herman Cain was also accused of being on a political book tour. In his case, This is Herman Cain! came out just as interest in his unlikely campaign was peaking and sold 30,000 copies before Cain’s spectacular implosion amid claims of sexual harassment and a 13-year extramarital affair that made the book’s subtitle, My Journey to the White House, seem rather deluded.

Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry all had freshly written books in 2011—although Perry’s Fed Up! was more of a liability than an asset, famously describing social security as a “Ponzi scheme”. And clearly when he asked Newt Gingrich to write his foreword, Perry wasn’t expecting both of them to run for president.

Still, books by presidential candidates can serve a number of useful purposes. Most obviously perhaps, they get their life story out and their worldview better known. Less obviously, they can generate excitement and support on the campaign trail, earn significant campaign finance, and gain free media coverage.

These books usually come out before the launch of an official campaign—and provide a means to raise a candidate’s profile and war chest without having to form an exploratory committee or file paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. That also means less scrutiny of the generous speaking fees of many tens of thousands of dollars the authors can attract before they become official candidates.

For candidates starting out with smaller bank balances like Cain and Gingrich, a campaign book provides them with crucial free venues. Every meeting room or town hall in Iowa and New Hampshire costs money to rent if you want to hold a rally—and if you are only attracting 100 or so people you can end up paying a lot of money to look quite unpopular. Add to that the expense of staffing five events a day, providing security, coffee and biscuits, and it can be a real drain on the coffers.

But if you make that campaign event a book signing at a retail store, it costs you nothing—security and any catering is the store’s problem—and suddenly that 100 or so supporters can create quite a buzz. In a public place crowds attract crowds and people out doing their shopping will gravitate to a hub-bub surrounding some presidential candidate—all the better if local or network TV turns up.

But campaign books aren’t just for long shots.

In March 2010 when Mitt Romney’s No Apology came out, it went straight to the top of The New York Times best-seller list—although it should be noted that that heady debut was pump-primed by bulk orders that earned his sales figures an asterisk. But just as crowds at shopping malls attract more people, getting on The New York Times best-seller list attracts more sales and, more importantly, more interest in the candidacy: “Gee, Romney must be doing well, his book’s a best seller!”

Romney’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press announced its first print run of No Apology would be a whopping 200,000 copies, but according to Nielsen BookScan just over half of those—106,000 copies—were sold over the next 18 months, more than double that of his rivals. The other side to those sales figures is of course that almost 100,000 copies of Romney’s book have gone unsold, which is why my hardback copy of No Apology was being remaindered in Sydney last June for AUS$2.95 (US$3).

Still, 106,000 sold is a lot of books, and a lot of money for your average writer who gets maybe $3 per copy depending on their publishing deal. But of course Mitt Romney isn’t an ordinary writer—he’s a candidate for president with a personal fortune of around $275 million.

After six months of seeing the frustratingly handsome Mitt smiling at me with deep-set yet somehow understanding eyes from the front cover of No Apology, I began to understand how the 75 per cent or so of Republicans who hadn’t committed to vote for Romney felt. He was still there, waiting patiently for me to come around, yet I kept finding other campaign books to read first. I even listened to Mike Huckabee’s CD of Christmas stories for old times’ sake as I shifted Mitt’s unopened 323 pages from bedside table to coffee table to desk.

It wasn’t because I didn’t think Romney had a good chance of getting nominated or that I thought I knew all there was to know about him, it’s just that I wasn’t really sure I wanted to hear what he had to say. He wasn’t really interesting. That was until last December, when I finally decided to find out what it was Romney wasn’t apologising for.

Turns out, no, he isn’t “not apologising” for his expensive yet soulless 2008 presidential campaign or even his $275 million bank balance, made largely from buying struggling companies, streamlining (i.e. sacking people) and selling the pared-back remnants to the highest bidder. It is America’s case for enduring greatness in the face of a rising China, resurgent Russia and lurking Islamic-terrorism for which he is making No Apology.

Romney’s reasons for writing a book are set out in the introduction. After the 2008 campaign, he felt he’d failed to communicate his vision for America in 60-second debate answers and 30-second TV ads: “This book gives me the chance to say more than I did during my campaign.” More in a 100,000-word book than in an 18-month presidential campaign? Okay, bring it on.

It soon becomes apparent Mitt Romney isn’t writing a personal story along the lines of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. While his wife Ann is mentioned in line four of page one and his father George is quoted before the end of the first paragraph, Romney doesn’t set out to tell his readers who he is or where he’s come from. His Mormon faith is mentioned just four times (Nazism gets seven mentions and Ronald Reagan nine).

Much of No Apology reads like a catalogue of policy positions: the economy, defence, education, the environment and health all get a chapter. What piqued my interest most though was what amounts to Romney’s guiding philosophy: his own analysis of why other great nations have suffered decline and what America must do to avoid the same fate. Here Mitt dusts off his business hat to compare those empires with market-dominant corporations— Sears, Kmart, United Airlines, and General Motors—who have been knocked off their perch.

Like once-great empires, all of those eclipsed businesses, Romney asserts, became inward-looking, complacent, and failed to embrace technological changes. Written largely in 2009 as America slipped deep into the abyss of the Global Financial Crisis, Romney still offers a Reagan-esque vision of a new dawn; “The good news is that America also possesses the qualities that have allowed great nations in the past to reverse course and to overcome challenges.”

But that will take strong leadership, Romney says, and politicians who will make the tough calls, tell it like it is, and not just say what the people want to hear.

It’s enough to give you the impression Mitt Romney sees America as a prime target for a corporate-style raid.

This is an article from the American Review issue "The right candidate" available as an iPad app. Download the app from the iTunes Store.