Biden, Harris, Castro: Do Their Books Have Literary Merit?

Do we need our candidates and public officials to be John Updike or Joan Didion?

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Tolstoys and Voltaires? Or politicians and poll-takers?

Part of the ritual of the presidential election cycle is dealing with the proliferation of books by prospective candidates. With upcoming primaries on people’s minds, the presses start humming, big time.

I don’t customarily read books from this limited literary sub-genre — although I enjoyed Barack Obama’s elegantly written Dreams from My Father in the run-up to the 2008 sweepstakes. This go-round, however, on the suggestion of CFR Executive Editor Leonard Jacobs, I decided to look at works by some confirmed or likely 2020 contenders. But here’s the deal: I read them not as glorified campaign brochures, but as works of literature.

I decided it was best to choose books with a good amount of autobiographical content, rather than ones that are, primarily, political discourse. I looked for books that involve the creation of a first-person protagonist who — like a fictional protagonist — captures the attention and sympathy of the reader. I also considered the authors’ diction, voice and narrative structure. And I asked myself: How would I absorb this story if I didn’t know that the author had an eye on the Oval Office? Does the book have merit as an extended personal essay, or is it just a glorified pitch to win my vote?

So, here they are, in the order in which I read them: recent titles by Julián Castro, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden.

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An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream, by Julián Castro

With one big narrative cliché (the journey) in the title and another (the American Dream) in the subtitle, Castro’s book didn’t have me anticipating a literary juggernaut. But the 225-page book turned out to be a rather pleasant surprise. Of the three books I considered, this one comes closest to a standard autobiography. It’s a straightforward, detailed look back at the author’s life so far. Castro keeps his presidential ambitions under wraps, for the most part. His inclusion of policy positions tends to be incidental. One clue that this book will be more personal than political is that there’s no index.

The author’s five-page introductory chapter finds him on Father’s Day of 2018, driving through South Texas to the Mexican border to meet a group of activists protesting the separation of immigrant children from their parents under the immigration policies of Donald Trump. As he travels, Castro ponders the life of his maternal grandmother, Mamo, who crossed the American border as an orphaned child in 1922. Mamo — the acknowledged centerpiece of Castro’s keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention — will be both a boisterous character in Castro’s story and a symbolic figure, embodying the complexities of the Mexican-American experience.

The author-protagonist takes his time describing his childhood and youth in San Antonio. This isn’t a particularly grueling bildungsroman, though it contains considerable conflict. Castro, of course, has an identical twin brother, Joaquin, whose existence provides some interesting and occasionally humorous anecdotal material, although Comedy of Errors–style antics are in short supply. The brothers were at times brutally competitive, but they could also be loyal teammates. Their parents were political activists whose relationship was brief and complicated. Their father already had a wife and five kids by the time he became involved with their mother. Later, Dad would move out and into a tiny apartment, having limited contact with his sons. Another source of anxiety was the ongoing tension between Castro’s mother and Mamo, who lived with the family. Mamo was beloved, but she also had some fairly severe emotional issues — not surprising, considering her traumatic early years.

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Despite all of this, Castro’s memories of his early life seem largely happy ones. And he describes them with gusto. The following passage, describing his home life before his father’s departure, gives a sense of his talent for nuanced, unpretentious description:

Even though the house was cramped, it felt like a home. Stacks of Mamo’s sordid romance books and Agatha Christie paperbacks were leaning against the walls in our room. Dad would recline in his chair, reading and smoking a cigar next to his recycled wine bottle that now acted as a candleholder. I’d sit and watch the wax melt down and harden over the bottle as we listened to music by the Rolling Stones or Carole King on the record player.

Later chapters fly by more quickly. We see the twins head off to Stanford together and on to careers as lawyers and politicians. Julián is elected member of San Antonio’s city council and then mayor. There are hurdles and setbacks along the way, but he overcomes them handily. He marries and starts a family of his own. And then comes the fateful day when he walks out of Panda Express, takeout in hand, climbs into his car, and answers a call from Barack Obama, inviting him to take over as director of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Castro describes his tenure there, and then — in an epilogue — writes briefly about being considered as Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016.

Throughout An Unlikely Journey, we come to know Castro as a relatively modest and self-aware narrator-protagonist, one who does not shirk blame when he feels he deserves it. His vulnerability is most comically disarming when he describes the day he and Joaquin first leave San Antonio for Stanford:

We both emotionally collapsed at once, and boy, was it ugly. Hiccups, snot bubbles, sobbing. We didn’t care. We didn’t even know what we were crying about. We’d never spent more than a few days away from home, and we missed our family already.

Bawling like a lost calf may not be the most presidential thing, but in terms of storytelling, this is a nicely rendered scene.

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The Truths We Hold: An American Journey by Kamala Harris

Yes, we’ve got another “journey” (yawn). But this time it’s relegated to the subtitle.

California’s junior senator outlines the scope of her 318-page book in her preface. It’s not meant, she says, “to be a policy platform, much less a fifty-point plan. Instead, it is a collection of ideas and viewpoints and stories, from my life and from the lives of the many people I’ve met along the way.”

So, while it’s got plenty of autobiographical content, it’s not a memoir. And it seems, much of the time, as though policy is, in fact, Harris’ main concern. Her roots as a prosecutor — specifically, her skills at laying out a case — are visible. She proceeds to produce evidence of her prowess as a political actor. And she has source citations! Not only does she include an index, she also lays out 20 pages of chapter notes.

The first few chapters, though, are devoted mostly to biographical matters, and Harris takes a much more fleet-footed pace than Castro. In a mere 45 pages, she zips through the story of her childhood, her college days, law school, her early prosecutorial work, and her election as San Francisco district attorney.

As I read about her early years, I was struck by the parallels to Julián Castro’s beginnings. Like him, she was the child of activist parents. Harris’ mother was born in southern India, and her father in Jamaica, but they met in Berkeley. Both were steeped in academia. As with Castro’s parents, the relationship was short-lived. “They didn’t fight about money,” Harris explains. “The only thing they fought about was who got the books.”

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Kamala-as-protagonist is self-assured, headstrong and driven. Though she touts her talents and her braininess, she finds occasion to knock herself down a notch or two. She’s Superwoman, maybe — but she’s also human and self-critical. In this passage, she describes the humiliation she felt when she failed her bar exam the first time out:

[T]o my utter devastation, I had failed. I couldn’t get my head around it. It was almost too much to bear. My mother had always told me, ‘Don’t do anything half-assed,’ and I had always taken that to heart. I was a hard worker. A perfectionist. Someone who didn’t take things for granted. But there I was, letter in hand, realizing that in studying for the bar, I had put forward the most half-assed performance of my life.

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In later chapters, Harris blends her life story into discussions of her political positions, and this hurts the book’s coherence. For instance, in the chapter “Wedding Bells,” she writes about her credentials as an LGBTQ ally. (As California’s attorney general, she refused to defend the state’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8, which had been overturned by a federal judge.) But Harris also uses the chapter to describe meeting and marrying lawyer Douglas Emhoff. It’s a fairly clumsy juxtaposition — and it’s especially out of character because, up to this point, she has breathed not a word about her romantic life. She falls hard for Emhoff, and her prose takes on a giddy, confessional quality. Her description of Emhoff’s marriage proposal is wittily self-deprecating. Seeing him on bended knee, she breaks into an unexpected crying jag, not unlike those poor Castro twins on the plane to California:

Mind you, these were not graceful Hollywood tears streaming down a glistening cheek. No, I’m taking about snorting and grunting, with mascara smudging my face.

In another chapter, Harris disrupts the chronology of her narrative, telling us that she’s postponing her description of her mother’s cancer diagnosis and death until a later point in the book. It indeed turns up later, in a chapter on healthcare policy. Her organizational strategy is understandable, I suppose, but it’s not especially artful. She closes the book with a chapter that elaborates on a series of maxims that she’s followed over the years: “Test the hypothesis”; “Embrace the mundane”; “Show the math.” She makes good points, but the chapter feels more like a tacked-on coda than a rallying conclusion.

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Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose, by Joe Biden.

To be fair, Joe Biden’s memoir, published more than a year ago, is not the book of a declared presidential candidate. As I write this, the former vice president has not yet entered the 2020 race, although it seems only a matter of time. Biden, in this 290-pager, writes about the emotionally harrowing last year in the life of his eldest child, Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015. And he explains his subsequent indecision about whether to enter the presidential race in 2016 as he and his family coped with their deep grief. (Biden has long been acquainted with personal tragedy. He lost his first wife and their daughter in an automobile accident in 1972, when Beau and his brother, Hunter, were young boys.)

Promise Me, Dad was recently reissued in soft cover, with an afterword that assures us that post-VP Biden is still politically engaged. But this is a much different sort of book than Castro’s and Harris’. For one thing, the guy has been squarely in the public eye for decades. He doesn’t need to delve deeply into his origin story (like Castro) or to continuously display his credentials and policy stands (like Harris). There are perks in being a political fixture. Unlike the others, Biden never once mentions the name Donald Trump. It’s as if, by including such a reference, he would sully the memory of his beloved Beau.

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Biden’s prose here is unquestionably eloquent, and he certainly understands how to craft a story. Occasionally, however, he runs the risk of over-telling it. He begins in medias res, at a Biden family Thanksgiving trip to Nantucket in 2014, 15 months after Beau’s diagnosis. He then flashes back and recalls how the traditional Nantucket Thanksgiving tradition originated, in 1975 when his sons were still kids and he was dating his future wife, Jill. That year, and every year thereafter, he and his family would have a group photo taken in front of a ’Sconset Bluff house on which hung a sign with the motto “Forever Wild.”

Exiting the flashback, Biden tells us that now, almost four decades later, the ‘little saltblock house” where the photo ritual had taken place had unexpectedly been destroyed:

‘Forever Wild’ had finally run out of safe ground, and run out of time; it had been swept out into the Atlantic. The only thing left behind was a piece of the foundation.

As foreshadowing symbology goes, the description of the demolished house is potent and relatively subtle. Unfortunately, a couple of pages later, Biden beats the symbol like a dull gong:

I kept seeing the little ‘Forever Wild’ house, undermined by the powerful indifference of nature and the inevitability of time, no longer able to hold its ground: I could almost hear the sharp crack as its moorings failed, could envision the tide washing in and out, pulling at it relentlessly and remorselessly until it was adrift on the water, then swallowed up by the sea. No Thanksgiving would ever be quite the same.

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In later chapters, Biden alternates between scenes in which he cleaves close to his family during Beau’s fight for his life and scenes in which he’s on the job as Barack Obama’s vice president, valiantly striving to hold things together in Ukraine, Iraq, and Central America’s Northern Triangle. He presents himself as master multitasker, equally insistent on helping to vanquish his son’s glioblastoma and in eliminating ISIL. These alternating scenes speak for themselves. But, just in case they don’t, Biden explains it all to us: “Keeping the faith about Tikrit, like keeping the faith about Beau, was an act of will — a kind of house-to-house fight against doubt.”

Nicely phrased, but not really needed.

Many of the scenes of family life that run through Biden’s book are beautifully rendered. One anecdote, from the 2014 Thanksgiving trip, provides a crisp, in-focus snapshot of who Beau Biden was. We see Beau riding in a car with dad Joe and son Hunter (named after his uncle). Little Hunter has just exclaimed, “Hey, driver, you missed your turn!” Beau asks the driver, Ethan Rosenzweig, to stop the car.

Ethan pulled onto the shoulder and Beau got out and opened the back door so he could talk to his son. ‘Look, Hunter,’ Beau said, and he was firm, ‘That’s Ethan and he’s our friend. You never ever address somebody as ‘driver.”  You never address somebody by the job they do. That’s not polite. Okay? You understand? Love you, buddy.’

As if to counter the Trumpian qualities of emotional detachment and empathetic deficiency, all three of the authors I looked at present themselves as people unafraid to show their feelings. As in the Castro and Harris books, there is a scene in Promise Me, Dad in which we see a vulnerable Biden break down emotionally. Only in this case, there’s no humorous dimension to the incident. It takes place not long after Beau’s death. Biden is alone (save for the omnipresent Secret Service agents) on a North Carolina beach:

I got off my bike and found myself standing at what felt like the edge of the earth — just ocean and beach and woodlands. It was magnificent. I found myself suddenly overwhelmed. I could feel my throat constrict. My breath came shorter and shorter. I turned my back to the agents, looked out at the vastness of the ocean to one side and the darkness of the woods to the other, sat down on the sand, and sobbed.

Here, blessedly, Biden closes the chapter without another syllable.

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My final conclusions about this trio of books? On the whole, I found Castro’s and Biden’s efforts mostly successful. In An Unlikely Story, Castro takes time to paint himself as an earnest, likable persona. Biden’s assured and impassioned voice, along with his skills for description and for re-creating real-life speech, especially impresses, despite his tendency toward overwriting. Harris’ book, in contrast, seems rushed and unwieldy, though it certainly has its moments. Of course, the success of any of these books depends in part on the contributions made by their editors and/or unacknowledged ghostwriters. But in the end, each writer-candidate is responsible for every paragraph and every word that makes it into print.

But the real question is: Do we need our candidates and public officials to be John Updike or Joan Didion? While we value, and currently pine for, eloquence from our Commander-in-Chief, other qualities may be even more important. Truthfulness, anyone? Industriousness?

Harris’ book made me take interest in her as a candidate in a way that the books of the other two contenders didn’t. She’s shrewd: she knows how to shape an argument. She recognizes and counters in advance what will certainly be a major criticism of her record: that she was not progressive enough in her work as a prosecutor. So I’m tempted to declare The Truths We Hold the big winner.

At the same time, considering the long parade of presumed presidential aspirants who’ve yet to declare (including possible GOP challengers to Trump), there are bound to be plenty more books to sift through in the next year or so. So be it. Just let me rest my eyes a little.