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Unlikely Journeys

Reading the campaign memoirs of a crowded Democratic field

What would possess a candidate for president in the year 2020 to publish a book? Is there any calculus that can justify spending the time and money necessary to produce a 250-page memoir before embarking on a two-year campaign? Are there really any voters a candidate can reach more effectively through a $30 hardcover than a TV ad? Of course not, but nevertheless, every four years these books appear in droves. For a whole election season, they hog the best spots at the front of Barnes & Noble, only to vanish into Goodwill bargain bins by the time the victor has taken the Oath of Office.

This publishing trend persists despite the fact that our current politics are manifestly devoid of the nuance implied by the continued existence of the medium known as “books.” The president is a circus carny who’s mistaken himself for a twelfth-century feudal lord. A plurality of Supreme Court justices share nontrivial portions of their worldview with the Westboro Baptist Church. The country’s most-watched television news network is a nonstop reel of racist conspiracy theories. All of this suggests, and recent events have proven, that  candidates for president need not even be able to express themselves in full sentences, let alone a book’s worth of them. So why write one?

Reading great literature makes us beautiful and wise, but reading campaign memoirs makes us something even better—informed citizens.

Enter the Democrats. The party may have relinquished control of the government while sliding rightward on nearly every major policy issue, but they’re not giving up yet. Quite the opposite: today they stand more united than ever in their mission to restore decency and balance to this country by getting elected president. And what could be more decent and balanced than a political memoir? These books are not intended to change their readers’ lives, or even, one suspects, to be read from cover to cover—indeed, they exist almost exclusively to paint flattering portraits of their nominal authors. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reading. Inasmuch as they concern people who really could be president someday, you might argue these books are the only ones that should be sitting on our nightstand as the Democratic primary begins. Reading great literature makes us beautiful and wise, sure, but reading campaign memoirs makes us something even better—informed citizens. And what could be more important when there are already more than a dozen Democrats and one independent coffee mogul threatening to run in 2020?

But I get it—you do not have time to read thirteen political memoirs, and you aren’t about to spend a combined $390 on hardcover books.

I feel that, I really do. So, I read them for you.

The NowThis Caucus

As a millennial, I thought it prudent to start with the candidates who are pandering most aggressively to my generation. These are the progressive Democratic senators who have positioned themselves since the early days of the Trump administration as heroes of the #Resistance—Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand.

The members of this cohort all have good reason to suppose they have a shot at the presidency: they’ve earned national renown for their criticism of Trump and his lackeys. Clips of their Women’s March speeches and roasts of Kirstjen Nielsen have been beamed onto millions of social media timelines. Among downtrodden liberals at present, there is a limitless appetite for catharsis, however insubstantial, and these senators’ outraged rebukes of Jeff Sessions and Brett Kavanaugh hit the spot. They were no doubt justified in thinking they could get to the Oval Office by swerving left to accommodate a fired-up Democratic electorate. The only problem is that half of their colleagues are doing the same thing.

First out of the gate, and first to reach my mailbox, was Elizabeth Warren. Acting as both memoir and policy statement, her new book This Fight Is Our Fight uses her impoverished upbringing in rural Oklahoma as a jumping-off point to demonstrate how Republican policies have decimated the country’s working people. We first find Warren not in Oklahoma, though, but in front of the television on election night 2016. She’s horrified when Trump wins, likening it to “fires and explosions and bodies flying everywhere,” but not surprised. Warren has seen the signs for a long time, she tells us, and with that, she pulls us back to her childhood—Mom working at Sears, Dad bedridden after a heart attack, young Liz dreaming of college. Their family survives bankruptcy thanks to unions, welfare, and grit, but, as Warren gravely clarifies, the GOP has messed everything up since then, and today’s families aren’t so lucky.

Warren’s life story is drenched in pathos—she discovered her passion for education while helping special-needs kids in her class learn to read; her mother slapped her the first time she said she wanted to leave Oklahoma. But in This Fight Is Our Fight, she’s simply too wonky for her own good, unable to see how this narrative stuff could interest us—Warren rushes through it all, as if anything would be better than talking about herself. She introduces us to the industrious Aunt Bee (“born in 1901 in Indian Territory”) only to bombard us with a history lesson about Glass-Steagall. Her older brother David shows up just long enough for us to learn that he lives off of Social Security, then is buried beneath an excursus about Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. Halfway through the book, Warren loses control altogether, transitioning from infrastructure to Alzheimer’s research to the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike. The individual points she makes are clear enough—there are charts!—but, taken together, they read like a poli-sci term paper composed on Adderall. By the time she brings her daughter to the Women’s March in the final chapter, the story of “Liz” feels like a distant memory, a stump-speech anecdote that’s outlived its usefulness.

Among downtrodden liberals at present, there is a limitless appetite for catharsis, however insubstantial.

This distaste for narrative would be tolerable if Warren didn’t take such pains to convince us that she’s a normal beer-drinking mom and not an angry genius whose main point is this: “regulations matter.” I have no interest in wading into the sexist debate about whether Warren is “likable”—I like her—but I was dismayed to find she had managed to transpose her cringe-worthy slang affectations into a book about income inequality. Trickle-down economics “stinks”; the big banks are “So Big We Can’t Let Them Stub Their Little Toesies”; and every tirade against corporations is peppered with “jeez”s, and sarcastic “woo-hoo”s. Just as these insertions don’t make the book more accessible, printing twenty of her anti-Trump clapback tweets doesn’t make her seem any less a professor. It’s sad that Warren’s team sees her intelligence as a kind of liability, but looking at recent history, who could blame them?

Next to arrive was The Truths We Hold by Kamala Harris. I opened the book with interest, ready to compare Harris’s recently acquired progressive credentials to Warren’s, but soon found the task would be harder than I had expected. Like Warren, the junior senator from California starts with an election-night narrative. She, too, affirms her hatred for corporations, and she frames her own public service around the tautological slogan that “if it’s worth fighting for, it’s a fight worth having.” Harris also tries in vain to prove that she is a regular person—by mentioning that her husband Doug proposed to her while she was ordering pad thai, or that after Trump got elected, she ate a “family-size bag of classic Doritos.” (There is no “classic” flavor of Doritos.) At the surface level, the books were too hard to distinguish. I had to go deeper.

Though it purports to be “the story of the life [she] has built,” each chapter of The Truths We Hold actually focuses on one policy issue—like racial justice, immigration, or LGBT rights. But, happily for Harris, each of these issues just so happens to intersect with a chapter in her own life story. Being a prosecutor taught her about race, being a senator taught her about immigration, her mother’s death taught her about health care, and so on, with the literalism of Pilgrim’s Progress, until it becomes unclear whether she sees her life story as a metaphor for American history or vice versa. (The chapter about gay marriage is, unbelievably, interwoven with the story of her own courtship with Doug.) In the early days of her candidacy, activists have criticized Harris for pursuing tough-on-crime policies during her years as a prosecutor. Harris has limply defended this history—“there is a lot about what I did as a prosecutor that I’m proud of,” she said recently—but reading The Truths We Hold, you might conclude that she’s forgotten most of it. Despite spending most of her career in this role, Harris breezes through it all in less than one chapter. She writes that she stepped into the courthouse “want[ing] to be on the frontlines of criminal justice reform”—but apparently the most progressive things she can remember doing are starting a prisoner reentry program and busting brothels.[1] You have to wonder: what else was going on?

Before I had time to mull the first two candidates’ merits further, a third face arrived in the mail—that of Cory Booker, the quixotic senator from New Jersey. Though I had resolved to be impartial, I must admit I braced myself for United (subtitled “Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good”). The real-life Booker is already a kind of walking memoir, a latter-day Polonius who’s constantly spouting fridge-magnet platitudes. And sure enough, whole sections of the book could have been copied directly from—in the first few pages alone, I learned that we must “find the breakthroughs that come from working together” and that “we are the physical manifestation of the conspiracy of love.” Booker’s middle-class parents speak in page-long italicized soliloquies, while public housing residents dispense koan-like aphorisms. Written before the 2016 election, Booker’s memoir does not even need the scourge of Trump to defend what he calls “our collective values”: everything is morality to him, and everyone he has ever met has something to teach him not just about politics but about life.

The real-life Booker is already a kind of walking memoir, a latter-day Polonius who’s constantly spouting fridge-magnet platitudes.

The book is meant to be universal, but in fact Booker’s story is deeply weird. He shows up in Newark on a whim as a privileged law school grad, moves to the worst block in the city, and through sheer perseverance, convinces the drug dealers on his block not to murder him. With the help of neighborhood matriarch Virginia Jones, he gets elected to City Council, then becomes a national hero for essentially holding a Relay for Life in a public housing project courtyard. He runs for mayor, loses, runs again, and wins, then woos a charter school initiative, cleans up a river, and gets elected to the Senate. What, exactly, is this improbable career arc supposed to teach us about “our most precious ideals”? For all his philosophizing, we finish United no closer to understanding who Booker actually is. For most of the book, he just strip-mines wisdom from whomever is nearby and reappears in new political positions as though he’s just fallen off the back of a truck, having given no account of what led him to pursue higher office in the first place or what he’d like to accomplish now.

The second-to-last photo in Booker’s mid-book photo gallery is a shot of him standing with his “friend and mentor” Kirsten Gillibrand, the fourth member of this clique. Gillibrand is also running for president, and of this group of senators, she was the first to endorse certain progressive positions like abolishing ICE. But during her early years in Congress, Gillibrand was both pro-gun and pro-deportation. It takes a clever person to execute such an ideological pirouette without embarrassment, and Gillibrand is clever indeed: rather than launch her 2020 campaign with a memoir that skates over the ugly stuff like Harris’s does, she wrote in an idiom more suited to our national conversation: a children’s book. Bold & Brave is an anthology of “Ten Heroes Who Won Women the Right to Vote.” She starts with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, establishes her intersectional credibility by paying tribute to Ida B. Wells, and finishes with her own speech at the Women’s March. Unfortunately, Gillibrand neglects to mention that Stanton believed black women like Wells didn’t deserve to vote—oops!—but the book is otherwise informative, beautifully illustrated, and refreshingly short. It’s by far the most enjoyable book discussed in this article.

Still, as I closed Bold & Brave, I was no closer to determining which senator was the one true progressive. Even in the hyper-manicured context of a mass-market memoir, each candidate’s attempt to create a new image for themselves only further underscored the things they’d rather we didn’t think about. Who are these people? I wondered. It’s hard to say, but one thing’s for sure—they’re not who they claim to be. 

The Elder Statesmen

“Wait a second,” I can hear you saying. “Aren’t you forgetting Bernie Sanders, the most progressive senator of all?”

I should probably put my cards on the table: I love Bernie Sanders. But as he gears up for 2020, Sanders faces a similar problem as his fellow septuagenarian (maybe-) candidate Joe Biden: he should probably put out a campaign book, but he’s already written multiple standard-fare political memoirs over the years. Another back-in-Burlington book isn’t going to cut it. For Sanders, the solution was Where We Go From Here, a week-by-week chronicle of all the stuff he’s done since losing the Democratic nomination in 2016—holding rallies, tweeting at Trump, going on TV, all that good stuff. It gives me no pleasure to report that this book is unreadable. Where We Go From Here is aimless, tedious, and ugly. Each of its five-some-odd-page chapters is less interesting than the last, and as a whole, they are somehow even less interesting than the sum of their parts.

Sanders’s labors are recounted in a style familiar to anyone who watched the 2016 Democratic debates: the rhythm that characterizes his oratory is reproduced in watered-down fashion here, with all the King James anaphoras and superfluous “Let me be clear”s. He even replicates the occasional confusion of these debate diatribes, like when he states, for example, that “it was not transgender people who threw millions of workers out on the street as factories were shut down all across the country.” (Thank you, Bernie.) Elsewhere, the book feels as if it were generated by an artificial intelligence trained to scrape Google News. Some chapters reproduce newspaper articles and speeches verbatim, while others seem to have been written in anticipation of a tax audit. Of campaigning for Hillary, he has this to say:

In November, I was in Plymouth and Hanover, New Hampshire; Portland, Maine; Kalamazoo and Traverse City, Michigan; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Youngstown and Cincinnati, Ohio; Raleigh, North Carolina; Davenport, Iowa City, Ames, and Cedar Falls, Iowa; Omaha, Nebraska; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Phoenix, Arizona; and Las Vegas, Nevada.

What? Sanders is the most popular politician in the country and has more name recognition than almost any other 2020 candidate. Americans, by and large, do not need to be reintroduced to his demeanor or his political views. So why did he produce such a venal, empty, useless book? There is only one logical explanation: to bring in a little campaign cash on the side and get his face back in storefront windows.

If Sanders’s gambit was to write a political memoir without the “memoir” part, Biden has produced a book you are encouraged to read as just a memoir—not a political platform, but a story about a regular, feelings-having guy who also happened to be the vice president. Promise Me, Dad covers the year Biden lost his son Beau, a rising Democratic politician who died in 2015 at the age of forty-six, after contracting aggressive brain cancer. Whatever you think of Biden, the loss of his son is undeniably tragic, and for as long as he chooses to write about this tragedy, he does so beautifully. Unfortunately, though, Beau isn’t really the book’s main character. Indeed, his son’s death takes on almost the status of a subplot in a book that is largely about Joe Biden’s accomplishments as vice president. This is more The Final Year than The Year of Magical Thinking, at best a story about balancing personal life with public service and at worst a story about how monitoring an experimental cancer treatment makes it difficult to focus on the siege of Tikrit. Ukrainian premier Petro Poroshenko has about as many lines as any single Biden family member. And why does Biden tell us in painstaking detail about the time he went up to Vladimir Putin and said, “Mr. Prime Minister . . . I don’t think you have a soul”?

In both cases the message is clear: You know who I am already. Now elect me.

I’ll tell you why: because Biden desperately wants to be president. That’s what the book is really about: from start to finish, everyone is constantly telling him he should run, from a stranger in the supermarket to Beau himself, who pleads, with months to live, “You’ve got to run. I want you to run.” Biden’s indecision about whether he should take the plunge turns out to be the engine of the book’s plot: Obama presses him every few weeks to figure it out, and each time he puts off making a final decision. He meets with Hillary and notes that “she did not evince much joy at the prospect of running,” then hones a potential message with his family over the kitchen table. After Beau dies, the book keeps going. Biden builds a campaign team, talks to donors, courts the media— then abruptly decides he can’t do it, and starts a cancer initiative instead.

That’s where he leaves us, and though he doesn’t say this outright, we get the idea: he could have, but he didn’t. Like Sanders, Biden isn’t making an argument for why he should be president, but rather showing, intentionally or not, that he intends to be. Where Sanders’s book is devoid of human interest, Biden’s book provides only a realpolitik depiction of a campaign that could have been. But in both cases the message is clear: You know who I am already. Now elect me.

The Other Guys

This many books I could handle. But my job wasn’t over—not even close. There were still at least a half-dozen candidates out there whose memoirs I had not so much as touched. These were the longshots, the JV recruits, the comic relief—but candidates they still were, and I could not complete my task without reading their books too. So, I soldiered on, determined to give each one a fair shake, but all of their faces began blurring together—here another election-night narrative, there another I’m-a-real-boy anecdote, at the end, another call to action. In mathematics, there are said to be two kinds of infinities: countable and uncountable. The 2020 primary roster certainly figures among the latter. As I read book after book, I started to have doubts about whether it was even possible for any one person to keep track of everyone running. I had erected my own personal debate stage, afforded myself the chance to hear every candidate speak their turn without being interrupted by snide comments or commercial breaks, and it was still too much.

Looking for some refreshment after three hundred pages of Biden’s desiccated sagacity, I turned first to the young guns. Former Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke had been polling at the front of the Democratic pack for months despite not yet formally announcing his intention to run (until today, that is), but Beto’s only book is Dealing Death and Drugs, “an argument for ending the legal prohibition of marijuana” that seems to be out of print. As a substitute, I read a few of his stream-of-consciousness Medium essays about driving around the heartland, but I couldn’t tell if he was kidding. Luckily, he has some contemporaries in the race: Pete Buttigieg, the “millennial mayor” of South Bend, Indiana, and Julian Castro, the Obama-era housing secretary and former mayor of San Antonio. Buttigieg’s Shortest Way Home, it turns out, is decent, which, by the standards of the genre, nearly qualifies it for a Pulitzer. A Rhodes scholar turned consultant turned soldier in Afghanistan, Buttigieg returned to his native South Bend in 2010 determined to fix up the struggling, deindustrialized town. This involves about what you’d expect—he got the snow plowed, refurbished some factories, used big data to repair the sewer system, and held communion dinners where people could work out their differences. As the book goes on, though, you realize Buttigieg is really erudite, data obsession aside—he name-drops Chesterton, Hobsbawm, and Chomsky (perhaps less surprising when you consider that his late father was a noted Gramsci scholar). He even endeavors to throw in poetic asides, as when he writes that snow is “the benefactor of every child, promising canceled school and hot chocolate,” or describes going on a Hinge date with his future husband—“nothing in my life,” he writes, “from shaking hands with a president to experiencing my first rocket attack, matched the thrill of holding Chasten’s hand for the first time . . . the explosions and lit colors unfolded over us.”

I soldiered on, determined to give each one a fair shake, but all of their faces began blurring together.

The nicest thing you can say about Castro, on the other hand, is that he seems not to have used a ghostwriter—An Unlikely Journey is really that bad.[2] Once hailed as an heir to Obama, Castro is now the Democratic Party’s youngest has-been, and this book makes it easy to see why: he hates politics, and confusion is something like his default setting. Castro does not even get to his first run for office until three-quarters of the way through the book, having focused his writing prowess until then on the AP classes he took in high school and the charms of dorm life at Stanford. Often, he fails at establishing even basic facts: he writes his twin brother Joaquin into and out of the story to serve the convenience of the plot, and he jumps back and forward in his life seemingly at random, reliving his losing mayoral campaign at least three times. When Obama calls to offer him a job as Housing Secretary, he’s holding a carton of Panda Express in his car. (What is it with these people and takeout?)

Both Buttigieg’s and Castro’s books left me wondering the same thing: why does this guy believe he should run for president? Buttigieg suggests he’s more practical and innovative than gridlocked Washington politicians; Castro, on the other hand, does not like either campaigning or holding office, and, in fact, seems not to know where he is at any given moment.

I felt a sense of achievement as I finished Castro’s book, but my heart sank almost immediately when I realized I had yet to take on any of the race’s common-sense centrists.[3] I confess it took me a few days to work up the courage to open these next three books. If the progressive firebrands were Ambien, I figured, surely the moderates would be chloroform. The opening pages of Amy Klobuchar’s The Senator Next Door confirmed my fears: Klobuchar, a middle-of-the-road senator from Minnesota, says she wants to return the country to “neighbor-based governing,” a system in which every citizen is on a first-name basis with their congressional representatives. She professes to have “mixed emotions” about politics, but promises “to help people, no matter who they are.” Other candidates have pretended to be normal, but Klobuchar really follows through: hers is the only book I read that proceeds in pure chronological order, allocating proportional time to each chapter of her life—except for the brief moments when she twitches and breaks the mold. Then you remember that this is a woman who launched her campaign in the middle of a blizzard and who, apparently, throws binders at her aides. In addition to the infamous salad comb, the book also reveals that Klobuchar ate at least one raw egg yolk as a child and nearly slurped down a bowl of Thousand Island dressing at a Senate luncheon.

These revolting culinary anecdotes were all well and good, but the candidates kept coming. What was I supposed to make, for instance, of John Hickenlooper, the brewery owner and former governor of Colorado? What does his book, The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics have to tell us? Well, there’s a lot about how you ferment beer, but Hickenlooper is most eager to talk about his college paramours—he writes love letters to a hometown stunner named Angela (“The engine in my chest threw a rod”) even as he chases other girls around Wesleyan. Like any beer guy telling stories at a party, he quickly becomes far more boring than the absence of any story at all would be. Even more off-putting was John Delaney, a Maryland congressman whose book The Right Answer: How We Can Unify Our Divided Nation makes a ham-fisted case for bipartisanship. I could not find this book in any store, but I got my hands on a copy eventually. Delaney criticizes other politicians for making decisions “based not on facts but on politics”; his plan for fixing the country, meanwhile, involves debating Republicans on TV and—get this—delivering a good State of the Union address. The defining belief of his life is that even though one political party is better than the other, everything the parties do is equally good. I think that’s about it.

After closing The Right Answer, I accidentally took a four-hour nap and woke up around 10 p.m. with drool all over my face. Stumbling out of bed, I realized with relief that I had finished off the avowed centrists—I don’t know whether I learned anything from them, but I did give them all a chance. All that remained now was for me to face the final boss: Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks. Schultz has embarked not on a campaign but a kind of ideological hostage operation: if the Democrats don’t nominate a moderate in 2020, he will run as an independent candidate, regardless of whether or not that means re-electing Trump. In the days after his “announcement,” a Change Research poll found that just 4 percent of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents viewed Schultz favorably—but this has not deterred multiple television and radio networks from granting him high-profile interviews and even an ill-fated town hall. Far from being a level-headed problem-solver, Schultz has revealed himself in these interviews as a man driven by a monomaniac hatred of redistributive policies.

But when I opened Schultz’s new memoir, From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America, I found no trace of his bumbling Bond-villain television persona. Instead, I found yet another boring guy who just wants to make things right. But this was boredom of a different kind, boredom in an almost lethal dosage—as I opened to the first page, I wondered for a moment whether the book had not in fact been designed to prevent itself from being read, like some kind of enchanted scroll. The preface finds Howard Schultz walking around his mind palace, recalling the public housing complex where he grew up and thinking about how “aspects of the Starbucks journey reflect aspects of the American journey.” He wants, he says, to “perhaps even inspire a movement . . . by unleashing expertise, ingenuity, influence, empathy, social networks, collaborative spirit, courage, technologies, as well as transforming our common physical and virtual spaces into places where people can connect with civility and respect.”

I wondered for a moment whether the book had not in fact been designed to prevent itself from being read, like some kind of enchanted scroll.

This was simply too much to bear. So, I did the unthinkable: I closed my eyes, flipped about fifty pages ahead, and opened them again. I found Schultz describing his negotiations to buy the Seattle Sonics, adding as an aside, in case you didn’t know, that he is “not ashamed of the wealth [he has] accumulated through Starbucks’s success.” I couldn’t get through more than a few paragraphs about these financial deliberations before my eyes started to cross. I flipped ahead again, hoping for something better, and found him starting some kind of job as a salesperson at Xerox, where he “push[ed] [himself] to know every angle of Xerox’s machines.” No, no, not that either. I skipped a few more chapters, and Schultz was in a boardroom, lamenting that “not enough of us in corporate America see . . . young adults as assets.” My heart rate had dropped to around forty beats per minute; I could barely hold the book upright. With trembling fingers, I paged to the epilogue, where Schultz lays out his plan to save the country. This is what I read:

We already have what it takes to rise above divisiveness and the vitriol of a hurtful few and steer the country toward an even better “us.” Not so we can be great again, but so we can become an even stronger, safer, more fair, prosperous, and inclusive version of ourselves.

My brain ground to a halt; the book slipped from my hands; I lay my head against my desk. I could not go any further, could not read another word. I tossed the book in the trash. I had failed, collapsed just short of the finish line. The task I had set for myself—to take a full survey of the 2020 field—was, in point of fact, impossible.

I don’t doubt that more discerning readers, knowing already that politicians cannot be trusted, saw my project as futile from the start. I can hear them making fun of me as I type this: What kind of naive schmuck actually reads a candidate’s book? It’s just PR. We can’t learn anything from it. This guy is just a bootlicker. He probably reads Nate Silver. Anyway, I’m voting for Bernie.

You may be right on one count, reader: it could be that these books have nothing to teach us. At any rate, it’s true that I could not successfully use them as a means of evaluating the merits of the dozen-odd candidates for the Democratic nomination. Each one is so uniquely unintelligible that, in the end, it doesn’t even make sense to compare them—if Harris is insubstantial, Biden is craven, and Castro is dopey, how am I supposed to pick between them? If anything, the process gave me a newfound appreciation for Jill Stein, since at least she never asks me to take her seriously.

When it comes to electoral politics, masks are often all we have to choose from.

But against another of your criticisms, reader, I must dissent. A candidate’s book may be PR, but so is everything else they touch—their debate one-liners, their Twitter clapbacks, their policy platforms, even their voting histories and signature accomplishments. Anyone who runs for president has almost of necessity lived their entire life as a kind of public-relations campaign, sandblasting their biographies and forsaking their freedom of choice, so that one day, if only for a few sweet years, they might have the kind of Jovian power of which any normal person lacks the temerity to so much as dream. Of such a person it makes no sense to ask the question, “Who are they, really, on the inside?” By the time they hit the campaign trail, there is no longer an “inside.”

A campaign book is the most elaborate, perhaps the most eloquent statement of this problem. A memoir by Cory Booker or Amy Klobuchar is painstakingly constructed to appear “real,” to mimic the contours of human intelligence the same way a Turing Test-passing machine does. We are not stupid, of course: when we hold the mask in our hands, we can hear the wind whistling through its eye-holes. But when it comes to electoral politics, masks are often all we have to choose from. We may feel satisfied with our decision after the fact and cite any number of reasons why—this mask was beautifully patterned, that one bore the horns of bravery—but I doubt whether all of us have not at some point departed the ballot box confused about what kind of choice we have just made, or whether we have made one at all.


[1] At one point she confronts a white prosecutor in the drug crimes unit who wants to convict a defendant of gang membership because he had purchased a rap mixtape. “I’ve got a tape of that rapper in my car right now,” she tells him, then goes back prosecuting similar cases in the same unit.

[2] The biggest giveaway is Castro’s writing style: when he strays outside the realm of cliche, he frequently loses track of which words can go where. This is evidenced by the book’s perplexing subtitle (“Waking Up from the American Dream”) and by other verbal constructions that border on the experimental—when he describes his acne, for instance, he writes of “basically miniature volcanoes bubbling upward with so much pressure that the skin discolored into deep purple patches.”

[3] Luckily or unluckily, Tulsi Gabbard missed the submission deadline for her memoir Is Today The Day?, so I couldn’t get an advance copy from the publisher. Perhaps tomorrow will be the day.