When Democratic primary voters go to the polls tomorrow in Ohio and Texas, it's a safe bet that few will be casting their votes based on senators Clinton's and Obama's merits as writers. To judge a candidate based on his or her literary ability would be as irrelevant, most people agree, as voting for the better ballroom dancer. It may be a nice talent to have, but it has nothing to do with being president. It even seems a little naοve to judge a politician as the author of a book bearing his or her name. Today, just about every candidate with national ambitions feels the need to publish a book a memoir, a polemic, a 10-point program but such books are not really written; they are issued, such as press releases or position papers. A senator is no more the author of his books than of his bills. In both cases, he just accepts responsibility for a document drafted by a team of experts.
Against this cynicism, however, stands the fact that the greatest statesmen the ones who occupy the most cherished places in our historical memory are the ones who were great writers. President Lincoln and Prime Minister Churchill, to take the most familiar examples, occupy a higher plane than the average president or prime minister, partly because of the events they participated in, but also because of the way they interpreted those events in their speeches and writings. Politics and language, they proved, do not have to be sullen strangers or sworn enemies, as they are in the realm of propaganda that George Orwell wrote about. On the contrary, reading Lincoln's second inaugural or Churchill's 1940 speeches, it becomes clear that the political and the literary converge at the highest levels. In both fields, the ability to imagine and to communicate what you imagine is essential; and both of those tasks depend entirely on language. As long as politics is an expression of human creativity, not just a matter of administering populations, there will be a profound connection between language and leadership.
So it is not as irrelevant as it might seem to look at the candidates as authors. In fact, comparing Mrs. Clinton's books "It Takes a Village" (1996) and "Living History" (2003) with Mr. Obama's "Dreams from My Father" (1995) and "The Audacity of Hope" (2006) sheds a good deal of light on their characters, and on the reasons why they are liked and disliked. This is even or especially the case because the candidates' relationships with their own books are so different. To put it bluntly, Mrs. Clinton's books are patently manufactured, while Mr. Obama's feel genuinely written; as a result, hers are painful to read, while his are mostly a pleasure.
Consider them, to begin with, at the level of the sentence. Mrs. Clinton's are purposefully shorn of anything that might appear gratuitous a surprising metaphor, a striking word choice. It is as though such verbal pleasures, which are what make a piece of writing literary, are inherently suspicious as though any attention to the medium would cast doubt on the earnestness of the message. But if, as the saying goes, style is the man, then a text without style seems to have issued from no human mind, but from a committee or a machine. (This is not too far from the truth about "Living History." As Jason Zengerle recently noted in the New Republic, Mrs. Clinton's own contributions to the book cannot be distinguished from those of her ghostwriter and her speechwriter, not to mention editors and researchers.)
In "Living History," when Mrs. Clinton is excited about experimenting with new hairstyles, she is "like a kid in a candy store." Visiting Yugoslavia, she finds "a world turned upside down." When the expressions aren't clichιs, the sentiments are: Meeting Nelson Mandela, Mrs. Clinton finds him "inspiring and humbling." Yet it would be a mistake to think that, because Mrs. Clinton's prose is armored, her book avoids exposing her at all. Take that description, for instance. Anyone might describe Mr. Mandela as "inspiring and humbling," but Mrs. Clinton finds him so for a particular reason: When he forgives his jailers on Robben Island, she is reminded of the need to forgive her enemies in Washington. "For months I had been preoccupied with the hostility in Washington and the mean-spirited attacks connected to Whitewater, Vince Foster and the travel office," she writes. "But here was Mandela, honoring three men who had held him prisoner."
The reader may feel that one of these examples of turning the other cheek is considerably more Christ-like than the other. But Mrs. Clinton's evident blindness to the bad taste of the comparison is very telling. For this example of self-pity to survive the process of ghostwriting, vetting, and blandifying, Mrs. Clinton must have wanted to include it very much, or else have been blind to its effect on the reader. Either way, such tactical errors become, in "Living History," the equivalent of Freudian slips, betraying the actual mind below the censored surface.
Indeed, whenever Mrs. Clinton lashes out at her political enemies President Clinton's opponent in an Arkansas governor's race, or the editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal, or Kenneth Starr it is always in a tone of self-pity. This is not to pass judgment on her complaints, simply to note that, unlike most politicians, Mrs. Clinton sees political attacks as personal grievances especially when she feels that her good intentions are being questioned. For if self-pity is Mrs. Clinton's major vice, that is only because it corresponds to what she understands to be her biggest virtue: sincerity. While she will admit to losing her temper or to misjudging the consequences of her actions, nowhere in the pages of "Living History" does she admit to a bad motive. She always sincerely means well; and it follows that, if her opponents disagree with her, they must be insincere and mean ill.
The clearest statement of this feeling comes in the scene in "It Takes a Village" where the Clintons try to prepare the 6-year-old Chelsea for the attacks on her father that she might hear during his 1986 gubernatorial campaign. When Bill runs through some hypothetical charges "like how he was really mean to people and didn't try to help them" Chelsea "got tears in her eyes and said, 'Why would anybody say things like that?'" Granted, they are talking to a young child, but the logic of the episode can be found throughout Mrs. Clinton's books. To attack her or her husband is to imply that their motives are bad ("he was really mean"), and such attacks can themselves only be the products of bad motives.
It is not surprising, after reading Mrs. Clinton's books, that one of the most heartfelt and persuasive moments of the 2008 campaign came when she teared up after being asked, "How do you keep going?" Tears, even more than words, are proofs of sincerity, of feelings that lie too deep for words. Indeed, the clumsiness of the writing in Mrs. Clinton's books whether the writing is hers or her ghostwriter's can itself be considered a badge of sincerity, a plea like that of Cordelia, who could not heave her heart into her mouth.
If Mrs. Clinton's books stand under the sign of sincerity, the polestar of Mr. Obama's is authenticity. Lionel Trilling, in his classic study "Sincerity and Authenticity," saw these as the central concepts of modern literature, and argued that, similar as the words appear, they represent two essentially different values. Sincerity "implies a public end": It can only be manifested in relation to other people, because it involves meaning in your heart what you say aloud. Authenticity, on the other hand, is a private virtue, or still more emphatically, an anti-public one, since it regards all intercourse with other people as potentially deceptive. If sincerity is saying what you mean, authenticity is being what you are a paradoxical task, in which instinct and even violence are more efficacious than goodwill and good words. That is why Trilling considered authenticity "a word of ominous import."
Reading Mr. Obama's two books, it is clear that he, too, recognizes the potential perils of authenticity. That is why "Dreams from My Father," published when Mr. Obama was 34 and had not yet run for public office, is considerably freer than "The Audacity of Hope," written when he was already a U.S. senator and had the presidency in his sights. Mr. Obama's first book is a memoir of the quest, which occupied the first half of his life, to construct an unassailably authentic identity, as a bulwark against the cultural and racial ambiguity that were his inheritance. Mr. Obama's need to be authentic also made it unthinkable to employ a ghostwriter; the considerable literary talents displayed in "Dreams from My Father" are his own, and reading it one has the impression that one is encountering an actual human sensibility.
Raised in Hawaii by his white mother and grandparents, Mr. Obama was forced to acquire deliberately the "blackness" that was the legacy of his Kenyan father. "Away from my mother, away from my grandparents," he writes, "I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant." The function of almost all the characters in "Dreams from My Father," in fact, is to offer the narrator better or worse models of blackness. That is why none of those characters seems quite real one would not be surprised to learn that they were simply invented, like the capitalized cast of "The Pilgrim's Progress," to stand for temptations in the hero's way. There is Ray, the high school buddy, whose "rage at the white world needed no object." There is Frank, the wizened old poet, who warns Mr. Obama that "the real price of admission" to college, and to white society, is "leaving your race at the door, leaving your people behind." There is Mark, Mr. Obama's half-brother, also of mixed race, who tries to ignore the whole problem of identity, saying, "I just don't ask myself a lot of questions about what it all means. About who I really am."
Mark's solution to the problem of identity does not suit Mr. Obama, whose powerful need to belong drives his career as a neighborhood organizer, his membership in a black church, and his breakup with a white girlfriend. It leads him to make a pilgrimage to his father's family in Africa, in search of the ultimate validation of origins. Yet if Mr. Obama never quite rejects the notion of authenticity the need, as he puts it, "to be right with yourself" he does reject one after another of its most "ominous" forms. For the lost boys he encounters on the South Side of Chicago, he recognizes, even violence becomes a route to authenticity, a "knotted, howling assertion of self." To balance the self, he decides, some higher moral principle is required "an order of some sort ... something more fundamental and more demanding."
This tension, never quite resolved in "Dreams from My Father," largely disappears in the much more conventional "The Audacity of Hope." Here Mr. Obama's writing remains elegant, and his political arguments are conducted on an unusually high intellectual plane much higher, certainly, than in "It Takes a Village." But the thoroughly personal and vulnerable engagement with race and identity has vanished, a luxury that a presidential candidate cannot afford. The last sentence of the book is "My heart is filled with love for this country" as though Mr. Obama wanted to retract the ambiguity and alienation that gave life to "Dreams from My Father."
Yet even in that phrase, Mr. Obama's obsession with authenticity comes through. As many pundits have noticed, Mr. Obama's efforts to cast himself as a moderate or post-partisan Democrat sit uneasily with his actual policies, which are in many cases more traditionally Democratic than Mr. Clinton's. Instead, what Mr. Obama counts on to transcend party divisions is the force of his own personality his sheer insistence on being himself. As he writes in the prologue to "The Audacity of Hope," he means to avoid "the pitfalls of fame, the hunger to please, the fear of loss, and thereby retain that kernel of truth, that singular voice within each of us that reminds us of our deepest commitments." It follows that he is most angered by people who deny that he is what he claims to be such as Alan Keyes, his Senate race opponent, whose attacks on Mr. Obama's pro-choice position were an "implicit accusation ... that I was not a true Christian."
Conversely, if Mrs. Clinton's favorite anecdotes have to do with demonstrating the sincerity of her feelings, Mr. Obama's have to do with overawing people with the force of his authenticity. He writes that his constituents "tell me that they have great hopes for me, but that they are worried that Washington is going to change me and I will end up just like all the rest of the people in power. Please stay who you are, they will say to me."
As these lines suggest, if the vice of sincerity is self-pity, the vice of authenticity is narcissism the belief that one is virtuous and lovable simply for being one's self. When one of Mr. Obama's supporters, questioned on a television talk show, notoriously couldn't name a single one of the candidate's accomplishments, he was inadvertently carrying to its conclusion the logic of authenticity: the idea that what you are matters more than what you do. The overreliance of Mr. Obama's campaign on his personal charisma is already emerging as the favorite target of his opponents. Ironically, if his books weren't so well written, they wouldn't offer such credible support for the charge.