If a great book is a sumptuous meal, the campaign book is a bottle of Soylent.
A novel by Nabokov, a play by Shakespeare, even a pulpy airport crime novel — these satisfy the basic urge to read a story with beginning, middle and end; to watch characters interact and to understand their complex motivations. These stories are there for the joy of consumption.
The campaign book is not that. The campaign book is a delivery device. It’s there to supply you with something: the case for Candidate X. If you laugh or cry at Candidate X’s book — well, that’s great, but did you come away thinking X would be a good president? That is what matters.
Well, that and how much buzz the book creates. Aside from convincing readers, the campaign book is also straight-up marketing, it’s there to give a candidate a temporary news cycle boost, as reviewers end up essentially writing Candidate X profiles, almost exclusively sourced from Candidate X’s own words.
It is therefore with a near-crippling dose of self-awareness that I review Kamala Harris’ new book, The Truths We Hold. The book, not coincidentally, comes as Harris is expected to launch her presidential campaign in the coming weeks. Harris spoke to NPR about the book Tuesday.
As with many campaign books, The Truths We Hold reads as a memoir-but-not-really. Harris does tell her life story, but she uses it as a vehicle for telling us what she really wants us to know about her.
Her childhood shows us the values that she received from her mother. The section about her time as a district attorney and then as California’s attorney general allows her to tout her accomplishments and lay out her policy positions. Talking about her time in the Senate allows her to further expound upon her positions — and also to contrast herself with President Trump, whom she presumably hopes to face in a general election.
To read a campaign book is to be on your guard, because every detail has an ulterior motive. Let your guard slip, and you can get lost in the hard turns from personal anecdote to policy speak.
… a line that practically begs to be read as a political TV ad voice-over.
It’s that courtroom experience that may inform exactly how Harris approached writing The Truths We Hold. Toward the end of her book, she explains how she advises young lawyers to write their closing arguments:
“Their job was to get up there and show the jury that two plus two plus two plus two leads, categorically, to eight. I’d tell them to break down every element. Explain the logic of their argument. Show the jury how they reached their conclusion.”
Reading this book, one does get a sense of being in a jury box, patiently listening as a lawyer methodically — if tediously — lays out a case.
Which is to say: It’s not quite that the bar is lowered with the campaign book. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that the bar is replaced with a series of hoops. In her opening argument for 2020, Harris jumps through them.