Why Jeb Bush’s New Book Was a Mistake From the Beginning

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March 6 2013 12:35 PM

Death of the Campaign Book

Jeb Bush’s immigration book has had a rocky start. But books by future candidates are useless anyway. Let them die.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Whether Jeb Bush's new book can influence the debate over immigration policy remains to be seen, but the publication of Immigration Wars has quickened the death of the campaign book. A grateful nation thanks him. Books written by people thinking about becoming president are nearly as weightless as the press release, but because they take the shape of a respected medium, they claim more attention. Using a venerable form to peddle mush fools voters, ties down critics, and enlists candidates in a protracted exercise to become even less forthcoming than they might otherwise be. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

In Immigration Wars, the former Florida governor tried to take a bold stance on a seemingly insoluble issue. Good for him, and Bush is a good candidate to inject new ideas. He has a healthy supply of at least two laudable instincts: He is willing to break with his party, which suggests an independence of mind, and he prioritizes hard-won compromise, another useful quality at a time when lawmakers in Washington seem incapable of progress. 

But the book has had a rocky launch. In it, Bush wrote that he does not support a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers in the United States. That was a reversal of his previous support for that position. Commentators immediately interpreted this switch as a move to court conservatives in advance of a 2016 presidential run. But upon publication of the book, Bush vacillated again, returning to his previous position, saying that he would support a pathway to citizenship under certain circumstances. That second head fake brings him in line with an increasingly popular position in the Republican Party, which is trying to find new ways to court Hispanic voters. Commentators immediately interpreted Bush’s flip-flopping as a rerun of the types of the mistakes Mitt Romney made in the 2012 campaign. Conservative columnist John Podhoretz wrote, “Jeb Bush’s clear discomfort with his own book reminds me of Charles Barkley complaining about what was in his memoir.”

This is not the first time a member of the Bush family has been lost in translation. Whether Jeb Bush was trying to prepare the way for a presidential run or simply influence the debate, he has not improved his chances to do either. It's the book's fault. Potential candidates who write books are trying to hit an impossible target. They have picked a medium that expects bold declarations and truth. A book is supposed to be something above the normal prattle. But presidential campaigns do not reward bold declarations of truth. A campaign requires a book of comfortable truths, nothing too abrasive you'll have to answer for later.

We saw proof of this in the 2012 election. At the Harvard campaign manager's conference after the election, Rick Perry's campaign manager Rob Johnson told the truth about the Texas governor's 2010 book Fed Up! When asked for proof that Perry wasn't thinking of running for president until just before he announced in the summer of 2011, Johnson pointed to Perry's book published six months earlier. No one who was running for office would ever write a book like that, said Johnson, because the book actually delineated what Perry believed. Romney’s chief strategist “fell in love,” with the book, according to the Romney campaign manager, because it was such a trove of opposition material. Most damaging was Perry’s claim that Social Security was a "Ponzi scheme." Romney clobbered him repeatedly with the charge.

Unlike Perry, Mitt Romney had been running for president for six years. He knew how careful he needed to be when he wrote No Apology. There's a rule of thumb with these books: The more declarative the title, the less declarative you'll find the statements inside. True to form, the book was not a high-calorie meal, but even the first edition of No Apology wasn't insubstantial enough. When the political landscape shifted between publication of the hardback and the paperback, Romney watered it down further. In the original edition, Romney seemed to suggest that his Massachusetts health care plan was a model for the nation. In subsequent editions, printed after that view became toxic in Republican circles, he asserted an opposite view.

Romney was trying to keep up with the changing political landscape, which doesn’t track with the book publishing schedule. Many people think that was his campaign's signature flaw. He didn't know what he truly believed. That is the problem Bush faces with his book. If his immigration book is to be considered a bold declaration of principle, then either his principles in the book are out of step with the emerging GOP consensus, or by changing his view now to keep up with that consensus, he demonstrates that he lacks principles.

Neither of these is good for a politician. This isn't really Bush's fault. How could he know that influential voices in the Republican Party would shift their principles on illegal immigrants so much in the short time between when Bush submitted his manuscript and when it went to press?

Bush's book assumes the conservative principles involved in immigration are more solid. It attempts to build a bridge between principle and the political moment. This is what the Republican Party needs right now: a man who advocates for time-honored truths in a new context and adapts them to changing times. But if that's your pitch—I can find the new ground—then you have to actually hit the new ground. The confusion about where Bush actually stands muddles this pitch. 

Normally the writing process forces the writer to grapple with ideas. If done honestly, it makes the author feel naked and exposed until he builds himself back up again to a coherent worldview. If this were what candidates actually did, a book could be weaponry. They could brandish its ideas, hard-won from the process. That is not what campaign books are. Instead, they engage the author in a trimming exercise, an extended cogitation on how to package their ideas for public consumption. That's what campaigns are for! Books should not be campaign propaganda, or they risk become another casualty of “progress.”

The closer to a campaign a book gets, the worse it gets. That was true of Barack Obama's books. His first one, Dreams From My Father, was carefully crafted to present a specific image, but it was far more candid and authentic than the gently-gently-all-things-to-most-people Audacity of Hope produced ahead of the 2008 race. 

If you find yourself in the boiler basement where any respectable second-hand bookshop stores its collection of candidate campaign books, there are a few that will help you pass the time less desperately. Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative and John McCain's Faith of My Fathers contain ideas that don't slip out of your hand the minute you try to take hold of them. You could argue that they were written long enough before their campaigns to keep the campaign taint at bay. This loose definition of campaign book would allow you to include John Kennedy's 1957 Profiles in CourageYes, says the conservative, but Kennedy didn't write that. Fine, says the liberal, Goldwater didn't write Conscience of a Conservative either. Which book is more authentic? Does it matter?

If Bush simply wanted to influence the debate over immigration, he didn’t really need a book. The press hangs on his every word. Lots of conservatives like him. He’s got a huge platform. As a former governor who accomplished things in office, he has standing. He’s had to do more than just kibbitz. But candidates need to create physical books (no e-books, please) because they allow for book signings and book parties where potential voters can gather in primary states or potentially crucial swing states. Republican clubs can hold events. We all have something to give Dad for Father’s Day. They are a useful tool, but that’s not the same thing as a good book.