The news from Washington — bickering over the debt ceiling, poor prospects for the economy — hasn’t been uplifting lately. It’s time for some beach reading.
And I have just the ticket. There’s a whole crop of potential Republican presidential candidates who promise to lead us to a better tomorrow, and most of them have written books to spell out their visions, demonstrate intellectual depth and give their fans something to spend $29.95 on.
Writing memoirs and manifestoes has become a rite of passage for politicians, a way to show that they’re up to the job — so much that just one book won’t always suffice. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have each written two. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wins the productivity prize, with his name on no fewer than 23 books, including eight novels. Even pizza mogul Herman Cain has promised a book this fall. If they hope to stand a chance in this field, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. better get busy.
As a public service, I took a pile of these literary works on vacation and dug in. (Now you know one more difference between Washington policy wonks and normal Americans.) And here’s what I found:
In their own telling, all these politicians are fiercely patriotic, devoted to their families and humble.
And they’re all deeply worried about the future of the country, especially if President Obama and the Democrats stay in power.
“They simply don’t believe in America as it was shaped by the founders,” warns Romney in his book “No Apology,” and he’s among the most moderate of the bunch.
Want something stronger? Try Gingrich. In “To Save America,” he says Obama is running a “secular-socialist machine [which] represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.”
The Romney we meet in “No Apology” is earnest, pedantic and, let’s say it, dull. He’s given to leaden statements of the obvious. “It is good for America to be strong,” he advises. And: “To strengthen America’s economy, we must minimize those things that retard economic growth and promote those things that accelerate it.”
Gingrich is at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, furious and hyperbolic. “America is facing an existential threat,” he warns in “To Save America.” Obama “has presided over a political machine that has tried to impose on this country a radical left-wing agenda that is alien to American history and American values.”
In between is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — no less conservative but less confrontational, at least back when he was writing “Courage to Stand” last year. In politics, he suggests, “You never want to punch when somebody’s down. You want to win, but you don’t want to destroy your opponent.” In this year’s Republican field, that measure of civility qualifies as Minnesota nice.
Then there’s Perry, who’s almost as angry as Gingrich. “We are tired of being told how much salt to put on our food, what kind of cars we can drive, what kind of guns we can own, what kind of prayers we can say … [and] what doctor we can see,” Perry writes in “Fed Up!”
And, of course, Palin, who manages to sound both slashing and cheerful at the same time. “We have allowed the left, with its unconstrained vision, to convince us that America’s current woes were caused by too little government involvement,” she writes. “This is nonsense. We got into this economic mess because of misplaced government interference in the first place.”
There’s a long list of issues all these candidates agree on. “We need to have a more limited, more accountable government,” Pawlenty writes.
“The road to success is lower taxes [and] smaller government,” echoes Perry.
But once in a while, a bit of daring comes through, in this case from Romney: “Government can promote opportunity or it can crush it,” he writes. “To a point, even taxes can foster opportunity.” No wonder “tea party” adherents are suspicious.
They all want to repeal Obama’s healthcare law. “It will destroy our nation’s healthcare system,” warns Perry. “This is not hyperbole.”
Even Romney, who signed a healthcare law in Massachusetts that was one of the inspirations for Obama’s plan, now agrees. “Obamacare is an unconstitutional federal incursion into the rights of states,” he writes in a passage that he added to the second edition of his book. (The first edition, published when the healthcare law was still being debated, wasn’t that tough.)
They all believe religious faith should be an explicit underpinning of politics. “Removing God from our conversations, our plans and our actions is not in the best interest of our country,” writes Pawlenty, who laces his memoir with verses from the Bible. In her second book, Palin praises Romney for defending his Mormon faith during his 2008 campaign, and contrasts him with John F. Kennedy, who she says “seemed to want to run away from religion” in 1960. (Of course, Kennedy was trying to answer fears that a Catholic president would take orders from the Vatican.)
And they all believe defense spending is, if anything, too low. “Right now America is, based on its defense spending, well on the road to weakness,” writes Romney.
“Defense spending is now being squeezed out of the budget because of the explosion in entitlement spending,” Perry complains.
The choice for Republican primary voters next year, at least judging by the literary works of the candidates, lies within a remarkably narrow range. They won’t be offered differing approaches to government, only different ideas about how hard and fast to pursue it.
If, after all that, you’re still hoping for a recommendation on what book to take to the beach, here’s this reviewer’s bottom line:
Most readable: Sarah Palin, “Going Rogue.”
Least readable: Mitt Romney, “No Apology.”
Most difficult political tightrope act: Romney, “No Apology.”
Most intriguing new author: Rick Perry, “Fed Up.”
Most appealing life story: Tim Pawlenty, “Courage to Stand.”
Most terrifying jeremiad: Newt Gingrich, “To Save America.”