What makes a political autobiography?

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Standout works by politicians have the potential to be decisive in grounding a figure in the minds of the nation. Some of the most notable examples in recent times have come from Barack Obama: Dreams from my Father in 1995 and The Audacity of Hope in 2006 – the former published before the start of his campaign for the Illinois State Senate and the latter just four months from the launch of his presidential campaign. In her first speech as Vice-President-Elect, Kamala Harris invoked Obama’s words, describing Joe Biden’s “audacity” in picking a woman as his running mate. Politicians’ books can clearly be groundbreaking and live long in the memories of those they affect; but is this the norm?

Stories of hope have incredible power to speak to readers and compel them to engage with representatives

Much like in political campaigns, stories of hope have incredible power to speak to readers and compel them to engage with the representatives that write them. Much like Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, Kamala Harris’s The Truths We Hold was released not long before she announced her candidacy for President in early 2019. Books like these are released primarily as manifestos for office and, if the author does not possess Obama’s fluency and articulation (as is frequent), the result has the potential to be disappointing. Harris does a good job of highlighting the most impressive of her achievements, especially her 2012 renegotiation of a debt relief settlement with America’s largest mortgage providers – which raised the final payout sum by around $14bn – but is understandably hesitant to discuss in detail the more controversial topics that have defined her career, such as the prosecution of minor drug offences. The book is certainly aimed at voters and tries to assert broad principles without too much divisive detail, with its length at around half the other two titles I discuss, implying that the priority is most likely timing of publication.

When a politician’s book is written from the highest level, rather than in the hope of attaining it, the substance shifts from audition to exhibition and generally allows for a more engrossing read. Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices was released in 2014 and focuses on Clinton’s time as Secretary of State under Obama from 2009-2013. Clinton is open and honest about the issues that dominated her time in office, the most infamous being the 2012 Benghazi attacks, which killed four Americans, including the US Ambassador to Libya. The account also gives interesting insights into the changing nature of US foreign policy, particularly the ‘pivot to Asia’: the recognition that China’s rise in the world cannot be ignored and that the country is the next rival to America’s military and economic global dominance. Though still active in politics at the time of publication and preparing for her presidential bid, Clinton’s book reads not so much as a simple pitch to voters but as a genuine reflection on her time in office, giving the inside story which so compels a reader.

Once a figure has left politics, it arguably gives them the greatest freedom of their life to write frankly

Once a figure has left politics, it arguably gives them the greatest freedom of their life to write frankly about the issues that they have faced during their career, with the most famous recent example of this being David Cameron’s For The Record. The former Prime Minister is able to write in detail about his life from birth to the EU referendum that derailed his premiership, declining to admit any mistake in holding the referendum but conceding that he “failed” in delivering a victory for Remain. More broadly, it is intriguing to find out about the 2010 coalition negotiations with the Liberal Democrats, especially George Osborne advising Nick Clegg not to go into government, negotiations with Ed Miliband over the Libya air strikes, which were eventually blocked by Parliament and even smoking cannabis on an island in the Thames whilst at Eton. If, as Iain Dale says, “at its most basic level [Westminster] is a soap opera”, we certainly discover what goes on behind the scenes with Cameron.

Ultimately, politicians’ books are at their most compelling when they tell us what we didn’t already know: what they genuinely think about an issue, what really happened in a meeting and what their countries actually need to do to combat the pressing issues of their time. This, perhaps unfortunately, can only really happen after their time has passed.

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