Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Documenting a Presidential Campaign Through Contemporary Publications

Frank Boles

Within the Clarke Historical Library is a group of books particularly relevant every four years, on Election Day. The Presidential Campaign Biography Collection was begun in 1964 to document how presidential candidates portrayed themselves and how they were portrayed in print. The object was to document the continuities and the changes in the origin stories and values candidates believed would resonate with the American public (or persuade voters to vote against someone). The collection is in a very real sense a mirror, reflecting how politicians perceived what personal characteristics and values the public wanted, or did not want, in a president.

During the current presidential campaign, additions to the collection began in the last days of 2019 and the spring of 2020. Many of the Democratic Party presidential hopefuls issued, or re-issued books they authored, such as:

  • Joe Biden. Promise Me Dad: A year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose.
  • Corey Booker. United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good.
  • Pete Buttigieg. Shortest Way Home: One Mayor's Challenge and a Model for America's Future.
  • Kamala Harris. The Truths We Hold; An American Journey.
  • Amy Klobuchar. The Senator Next Door: A Memoir for the Heartland.
  • Bernie Sanders. Where We Go from Here: Two Years in the Resistance.
  • Elizabeth Warren. This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class.

The point of each book was to give primary voters a way to differentiate one candidate from another. These books reflect the best in American politics – the fundamental democratic belief that candidates should articulate values and objectives, and that voters care about the life and ideas of a candidate  and will take the time to educate themselves on these matters before they cast their ballot. The heart of a democracy is found in these sometimes slender, and often well illustrated, volumes.

As is frequently the case when a party has an incumbent president in the White House, the Republican Party primary season generated very few publications. Everyone knew who the Republican presidential nominee was going to be. However, once the two major parties had selected their respective nominees, the Republican silence ended. As the campaign season began, so too did the war of words about the candidates.

Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden quickly found themselves praised and panned in print. Praise came from authors like Conrad Black, A President Like No Other: Donald J. Trump and the Restoring of America, which was matched by David Hagan, No Ordinary Joe: The Life and Career of Joe Biden. Pans of Biden came from books such as Branko Marcetic, Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. But anti-Biden titles paled against several critical tell-all books about Trump, such as John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened: a White House Memoir, Michael Cohen, Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump, or Mary L. Trump, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.

These books also say interesting things about democracy in America. If a candidate’s own publication is often high-minded and issue-oriented, these books often are neither. In some, a candidate can walk on water. In others, the same person is vilified and abused.

Tell-all books published just before an election are a particularly important sub-genre of presidential biography. Their objectivity is often subject to question. They can, for example, be an unsubtle way to settle an old score. Tell-alls also sell very well just before an election, and more than one author has cashed in on that fact, even if the tell-all they penned didn’t tell very much at all. For all their potential shortcomings, the authors are usually people who were at the right place at the right time to make important observations about the candidate.

Around the edges of these often interesting but also sometimes suspect books are volumes making much more extreme claims. Perris Jackson’s Joe Biden and Kamala Harris: Two People within the USA Government Who Are Laboring to Destroy the USA Constitution and Replace it with an NWO Government Which “They” Already Created Within China lays out a deeply conspiratorial view of Biden and Harris, but it is kinder to them than Lawrence R. Moelhauser is to the president in The Fourth Beast: Is Donald Trump the Anti-Christ?

Some would dismiss the fringe biographical literature as unimportant. There are not a significant number of voters who believe Joe Biden is scheming to create a New World Government based on a Chinese model or that Donald Trump is the anti-Christ. But voters can be placed on a spectrum of ideas and opinions, which moves over time one way or another. Fringe literature describing a candidate, although it often has little immediate impact, can exercise a subtle pull in one direction, or, conversely can create a revulsion that moves the electorate in the opposite way. If the fringe biographical literature often plays to America’s deepest fears, it also can arouse an opposition based on the nation’s noblest instincts. It is important, even if it is, on the face of it, very unbelievable.

Campaign biographies date back to the 1820s, when the genre as we understand it today was invented by the campaign of Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a polarizing figure with a serous image problem. His campaign tried to quiet criticism with titles such as, An Impartial and True History of the Life and Services of Major General Andrew Jackson. The book was neither impartial nor necessarily true, but it was favorable. When criticism continued to come, Jackson’s campaign addressed their opponent’s literature with titles such as Henry Lee’s A Vindication of the Character and Public Services of Andrew Jackson: In Reply to the Richmond Address Signed by Chapman Johnson and other Electioneering Calumnies. 

In the days since Andrew Jackson’s presidency, candidates have continued to be praised and panned in print. The Presidential Campaign Biography collections defines what the American people believed about the candidates for president. Those beliefs may be based in fact, spin, or fiction, but they are the beliefs that selected the president of the United States.

Begun by a gift from the CMU Class of 1964, today it is supported by a small endowment. If you would like to help the collection grow, we welcome gifts of 2020 presidential campaign literature or political literature from earlier presidential contests. In addition to literature from the two major parties, we also collect biographical material about third-party candidates, although we use a threshold of a candidate obtaining one percent of the total national presidential vote to distinguish a “serous” third-party effort that we try to document from truly fringe candidates.

We also welcome financial gifts to support the endowment for our quadrennial presidential “buying spree” as well as the purchase of important relevant items that appear in between presidential elections.