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From political stage to the page

Sen. Barack Obama is the latest vote-getter to manage the tricky leap successfully, but many others have fallen short.

October 25, 2006|Hillel Italie | Associated Press

NEW YORK — As adoring crowds turn out nationwide for the book tour of Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat has not only reaffirmed his standing as a potential presidential contender but also as the rare politician whose appeal carries over into print.

"There's a difference between a politician and a folk hero, or rock star," says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. "In large part because of his books, Obama has become a rock star."

Presidents, vice presidents, governors and members of Congress are constantly turning out memoirs and policy books, virtually all in service to themselves and virtually all remembered no longer than the average campaign ad. Even politicians who have thrived at the podium, such as President Reagan and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), have failed to match that success as authors.

Already known for his 1995 memoir, "Dreams From My Father," Obama has been a sensation with "The Audacity of Hope," an unusually reflective policy work that has more than 500,000 copies in print and received a warm reception from critics. The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani praised Obama for an "elastic, personable voice that is capable of accommodating everything from dense discussions of foreign policy to streetwise reminiscences."

"It's all about the authenticity of the voice," says Jonathan Karp of Warner Twelve, a Warner Books imprint that will release a book next spring by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another politician who has fared well in publishing. "If readers believe that the politician is giving it to them straight and has something of legitimate value to say, they buy the book. If they think it's a self-propagandizing, self-promotional book, it's straight to the remainder bins."

If the politician's ideal is a bestseller that makes the author appear more presidential, then the standard remains John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage," a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of essays about those who took great risks for a higher cause. Published 50 years ago, "Profiles" helped transform Kennedy's image from boyish senator to mature young statesman, even as doubts emerged -- and still persist -- over whether Kennedy actually wrote it.

"A book provides a forum, an excuse for getting out there and talking about yourself," says David Rosenthal, executive vice president and publisher at Simon & Schuster, which has published several books by former President Carter. "It also implies a degree of substance on the part of the author."

Carter, who makes a point of saying that he writes his own books, had a "Profiles in Courage" moment with the 1975 memoir "Why Not the Best?" -- a surprise bestseller that helped turn an obscure Georgia governor into a presidential contender.

None of Carter's books has created the sensation of former President Clinton's million-selling "My Life," but no politician has enjoyed such sustained popularity as an author, from poetry and fiction to policy critiques and memoirs, like Carter's "An Hour Before Daylight," a Pulitzer finalist in 2002.

"Carter has got moral authority. I also think because there is a feeling he's got nothing to lose at this point in his life, the books have an honesty about them," Karp says.

Former Vice President Al Gore doesn't claim to have Obama's charisma, or the stature of Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. But few politicians have sold as many books simply by sticking to the issues.

His "Earth in the Balance," an ecology book published in 1992, helped establish him as a serious policy thinker. His current bestseller, "An Inconvenient Truth," proved that he could attract readers with the most dire of subjects, global warming.

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