In “Read, weep, and vote,” Andrew Ferguson considered several books that appeared under the names of this season’s presidential candidates. Ferguson’s article inspired me to reflect on John McCain’s and Mark Salter’s Faith of My Fathers here and here.
Joe Biden’s Promises to Keep is the first in the line of books that come under Ferguson’s gaze. Ferguson finds it “a nearly flawless specimen of the traditional campaign book–as perfect as the whitened teeth and Photoshop-blue eyes that gleam from the portrait on the cover.” What can a discerming reader learn about Biden from the book? Ferguson writes:
Perhaps not much, if you’re a regular watcher of C-SPAN or a longtime resident of Delaware. But there is something unforgettable about watching the man emerge on the page. His legendary self-regard becomes more impressive when the reader sees it in typescript, undistracted by the smile and the hair plugs. Biden quotes at great length from letters of recommendation he received as a young man, when far-sighted professors wrote movingly of his “sharp and incisive intellect” and his “highly developed sense of responsibility.” These qualities have proved to be more of a burden than you might think, Biden admits. “I’ve made life difficult for myself,” he writes, “by putting intellectual consistency and personal principle above expediency.”
Yes, many Biden fans might tag these as the greatest of his gifts. Biden himself isn’t so sure. After a little hemming and hawing–is it his intelligence that he most admires, or his commitment to principle, or his insistence on calling ’em as he sees ’em, or what?–he decides that his greatest personal and political virtue is probably his integrity. Tough call. But his wife seems to agree. He recounts one difficult episode in which she said as much. “Of all the things to attack you on,” she said, almost in tears. “Your integrity?”
This lachrymose moment came during Biden’s aborted presidential campaign in 1988, when reporters discovered several instances of plagiarism in his campaign speeches and in his law school record. Biden rehearses the episode in tormenting, if selective, detail, and true to campaign-book form, his account serves as the emotional center of the book. The memoir of every presidential candidate must describe a Political Time of Testing, some point at which, if the narrative arc is to prove satisfying, the hero encounters criticism, most of it unjust, but then rallies, overcomes hardship and misfortune and the petty, self-serving attacks of enemies, and emerges chastened but wiser–and, come to think of it, more qualified to lead the greatest nation on earth.
In Biden’s case, the ritual also allows him to dismiss these old charges by placing them in the least clarifying light possible. It’s true that he was disciplined for plagiarizing a paper in law school, he says offhandedly; but those long paragraphs taken verbatim from other people’s work were simply an oversight–a matter of not knowing how to cite sources properly. (A fun-loving student, he had skipped the class in which the rules of citation were taught.) As for the lines he’d lifted from others and dropped into his own speeches–these were misunderstandings. In at least one instance, a speechwriter had inserted a quote from Bobby Kennedy into Biden’s speech without attribution, meaning that while Biden was delivering remarks he knew he hadn’t written, he was also delivering remarks that he didn’t know his speechwriter hadn’t written.
It’s confusing, yes, but Biden’s explanations serve a dual purpose: He appears forthright even as he tries to bury once and for all the accusations that forced him from presidential contention 20 years ago. Now, officially, they are “old news,” the settled stuff of history and memoir. To any detailed questions about them that might arise from young reporters covering his current campaign, he can say: Just read my book.
That’s a lot to ask, however. Like most conventional campaign books, Promises to Keep is so light in tone, so breezily written, that it becomes, paradoxically, extremely difficult to read. Its superficiality and general insincerity may explain why the traditional campaign book has become a dying genre. In the stack in my office, none of the other campaign books looks like a campaign book. They look like everything but campaign books. I’ve got a self-help manual, a business book, a sociological tract–nowadays, a candidate will do whatever it takes to disguise his campaign book. It’s as if our politicians, knowing the low regard in which the public holds them and their craft, feel they can only advance their politics by stealth. This lays yet another complication onto what is already a slippery business.
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