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Of ghosts and MacGuffins: why politicians 'author' books in campaign cycles

A political book is just a MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock used the word for the thing that the hero is protecting, or any other plot device that sets a movie thriller into motion.

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    Linda Dunn of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., waits in line before former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 'Hard Choices' book signing at Northshire Bookstore on July 29, 2014, in Saratoga Springs. Book tours have become a fixture of top political campaigns.
    Mike Groll/AP/File
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Several potential presidential candidates have announced plans to publish books in 2015, and a host of current, former, and would-be elected officials will join them. Most of these books will have two things in common. First, practically none of their “authors” will have actually written them. Second, practically none of their buyers will actually read them.

Major public figures seldom write anything by themselves. Candidates and elected officials have staffers to draft their speeches, constituent letters, newsletters, and the like. When it comes to books, they typically contract the work out to freelancers or consulting firms that specialize in ghostwriting. When I tell my students about these practices, they are disillusioned at first, but then they see opportunity: “Hey, maybe I can go to Washington and become a ghost!”

Busy public figures simply don’t have time for writing. After a day of gladhanding, fundraising, and sprinting from meeting to meeting, a typical politician is lucky to get a full night’s sleep, much less the quiet hours necessary for filling a blank page with passable prose.

And a lot of them could not do it anyway. Like so many products of our educational system, most politicians do not know the difference between a split infinitive and a banana split.

So they have others do the hard part. Those with a sense of diligence will at least review manuscripts, making changes and corrections. But some don’t even go that far. When former Senator Trent Lott published his autobiography some years ago, I wrote a review and found that it was full of factual errors. The mistakes involved details of congressional politics that Lott would have easily recalled, and the only plausible explanation is that he did not bother to check his ghostwriter’s work.

Not a lot of people seemed to notice: apparently, few of the book’s purchasers opened it. Columnist Michael Kinsley once did an experiment by placing notes in several important nonfiction books in a Washington bookstore. The notes had his phone number and offered $5 to anyone who called him, which no one did.  “Though hardly scientific,” he wrote, “this tended to confirm my suspicion that people like buying books more than they like reading them.”

A few people do read such books, however. Opposition researchers go over them line by line, looking for controversial passages that their employers can use as ammunition. In a 2012 GOP presidential debate, Mitt Romney vexed Rick Perry by quoting a book in which he had attacked Social Security. (Romney, of course, had not actually read the book himself: He was just reciting what his oppo guys had given him.) The moral of the story is that politicians should hire prudent ghostwriters who write bland, predictable material that will keep them out of trouble.

If such books say little, do not represent the nominal author’s labor, and draw serious attention only from hostile forces, then why do politicians put them out? One answer is that they provide an occasion for press releases and media appearances. If you want to campaign cross-country without announcing your candidacy, publishing a book enables you to call your trip “a book tour.” In city after city, local TV anchors who have not read your book will ask a question or two about it, and then you can shift the discussion to your talking points.

In this sense, a political book is just a MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock used the word for the thing that the hero is protecting, or any other plot device that sets a movie thriller into motion. The actual substance of the MacGuffin is totally unimportant, as he explained:

“One man says, `What's that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, `Oh that's a MacGuffin.’ The first one asks, `What's a MacGuffin?’ `Well,’ the other man says, `It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, `But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, `Well, then that's no MacGuffin!’ So you see, a MacGuffin is nothing at all.”

And so are most books by politicians.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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