Kamala Harris' 'The Truths We Hold' Demonstrates What's Wrong With Campaign Books

Jan 8, 2019
Originally published on January 8, 2019 1:10 pm

If a great book is a sumptuous meal, the campaign book is a bottle of Soylent.

A novel by Nabokov, a play by Shakespeare, even a pulpy airport crime novel — these satisfy the basic urge to read a story with beginning, middle and end; to watch characters interact and to understand their complex motivations. These stories are there for the joy of consumption.

The campaign book is not that. The campaign book is a delivery device. It's there to supply you with something: the case for Candidate X. If you laugh or cry at Candidate X's book — well, that's great, but did you come away thinking X would be a good president? That is what matters.

Well, that and how much buzz the book creates. Aside from convincing readers, the campaign book is also straight-up marketing, it's there to give a candidate a temporary news cycle boost, as reviewers end up essentially writing Candidate X profiles, almost exclusively sourced from Candidate X's own words.

So.

It is therefore with a near-crippling dose of self-awareness that I review Kamala Harris' new book, The Truths We Hold. The book, not coincidentally, comes as Harris is expected to launch her presidential campaign in the coming weeks. Harris spoke to NPR about the book Tuesday.

As with many campaign books, The Truths We Hold reads as a memoir-but-not-really. Harris does tell her life story, but she uses it as a vehicle for telling us what she really wants us to know about her.

Her childhood shows us the values that she received from her mother. The section about her time as a district attorney and then as California's attorney general allows her to tout her accomplishments and lay out her policy positions. Talking about her time in the Senate allows her to further expound upon her positions — and also to contrast herself with President Trump, whom she presumably hopes to face in a general election.

To read a campaign book is to be on your guard, because every detail has an ulterior motive. Let your guard slip, and you can get lost in the hard turns from personal anecdote to policy speak.

In one section, for example, Harris talks about crafts she made as a kid. So you might think (as I did): She's into crocheting! What a fascinating insight into her hobb- gaaaaah. Nope — she's using this to tell us about the dignity of work.

This is just one way the core aspects of a good book arguably work against a campaign book.

Similarly, the best protagonists have flaws. They struggle against something. And it's easy to see why a person who might soon launch a presidential campaign might not be excited to publish their struggles.

Harris does indeed gloss over hers. Her retelling of failing the bar on the first try, then passing it on the second, happens in the course of three paragraphs. Her "tough, determined" Senate runoff opponent, Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez, gets less than three sentences.

There's also some careful elision of facts. For example, Harris talks about her frustration with immigration policy in 2014, when "a big push was coming out of DC to expedite the decision-making process so that they could quickly turn undocumented kids and families back."

Readers who have paid close attention to history might remember that in 2014, the president was Barack Obama. And while in other parts of her book Harris approvingly name-checks Obama — a popular guy whom she might want to deliver a stump speech or two — she forgets to name him here.

There are plenty of platitudes. She describes where she grew up: "It was a close-knit neighborhood of working families who were focused on doing a good job, paying the bills, and being there for one another" — and no one could blame you if your mind started wandering halfway through that sentence.

There's plain old awkward prose, as in her description of the Women's March: "There were so many people that cellular networks had gone down, yet the energy was electric."

So is it a great book? No. No, it is not.

But that's not a particularly interesting question, as campaign books are rarely great reads. The question is whether it's an effective book.

On that count, Harris is more successful. In The Truths We Hold, Harris presents herself as a potentially formidable presidential candidate. Which is to say: She efficiently makes her case, like the prosecutor she is.

Harris ticks through her résumé and her policy positions. And this is where one of Harris' biggest strengths becomes clear: anticipating critiques and batting them down.

For example, Harris has spent much of her career in law enforcement — a period that she largely uses in the book as a way to show that she is tough and decisive. But she also anticipates that this might be off-putting to some liberal voters who believe the justice system is broken. And so she frames herself as a sort of inside woman: "When activists came marching and banging on the doors, I wanted to be on the other side to let them in."

Which is to say: She presents herself as prepared to deflect the barbs that will certainly come her way.

And while the prose may not be Pulitzer-worthy, there are regular sentences that sound particularly crafted to elicit roars at a campaign rally ("The American people have not given up on the American Dream. ... But when you can't sleep at night, how can you dream?" "Prescription medicines are not luxury goods. Quite the opposite. We don't want to need them!").

Readers even may see the birth of a campaign slogan, as Harris tells the story of her first time trying a case in the courtroom:

"When my turn came, I rose from my chair at the prosecutor's desk and stepped up to the podium, saying the words every prosecutor speaks: 'Kamala Harris, for the people.' "

... a line that practically begs to be read as a political TV ad voice-over.

It's that courtroom experience that may inform exactly how Harris approached writing The Truths We Hold. Toward the end of her book, she explains how she advises young lawyers to write their closing arguments:

"Their job was to get up there and show the jury that two plus two plus two plus two leads, categorically, to eight. I'd tell them to break down every element. Explain the logic of their argument. Show the jury how they reached their conclusion."

Reading this book, one does get a sense of being in a jury box, patiently listening as a lawyer methodically — if tediously — lays out a case.

Which is to say: It's not quite that the bar is lowered with the campaign book. It's perhaps more accurate to say that the bar is replaced with a series of hoops. In her opening argument for 2020, Harris jumps through them.

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