Guides to Congress
Members Reject the Notion of the Salacious, Tell-All Memoir By Instead Embracing Their Inner Academic
It’s little secret that many Members of Congress like to write. Some begin working on their books while in office, churning out pages in between committee meetings or trips back to their districts. Others don’t even contemplate writing a book until the twilight of their careers or years removed from it.
Regardless of when they start, the process of writing the book can be a therapeutic exercise, as legislators, both past and present, reflect about their time in Congress and how best to portray it in prose.
The tenor of the book can vary depending on how wide the gap is between what publishers and agents might prefer juxtaposed with what Members want to write about.
Former 9/11 commission Co-Chairman and Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) confronted that dilemma when he was writing “How Congress Works and Why You Should Care,” published in 2004.
“I was approached, as I guess other Members are when they’re retired, by various agents and others who wanted me to write a book about the Congress. What they really wanted was a tell-all about the nefarious activities of Members of Congress. And that really kind of turned me off. I was not interested in that at all,” Hamilton told Roll Call.
Eventually, Hamilton partnered with Indiana University Press to produce a book high on the nuts and bolts of Congress and low on personal drama and intrigue.
The 17-term Congressman found a perfect match in the publisher.
“We’re much less interested in political memoirs than in books that have an academic focus. And naturally, political science is a key target market for such books,” said Janet Rabinowitch, IU Press’ director.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) made it explicitly clear in his 2004 book “Congress from the Inside: Observations from the Majority and the Minority,” written while he was still serving in the House, that he wanted to steer clear of the kind of salacious page-turner that might land a Member on the New York Times best-seller list but doesn’t necessarily educate the public.
“This book is about politics, elections, governing and people … powerful people. Not a kiss-and-tell, it’s an instructive book of what my first terms in Congress were like and what has transpired since,” Brown wrote at the time.
Rep. David Price (D-NC.), the one-time Duke University professor turned politician, has written four books revolving around Congress as an institution.
Three were written before he was elected to Congress. His last book, “The Congressional Experience,” was written in 1991, five years after he was first elected.
Price took umbrage at the idea of tell-all memoirs, casting them more as the work of journalists than Members.
“I don’t know if Members have written those things so much as journalists have sometimes,” he said.
Still, even if Members take the academic approach to writing books, their time spent in the institution can sometimes work against creation of a complete portrait of the legislative body.
Indiana University political science professor Margie Hershey praised Hamilton and other Members who pen books that are informative and explain the functionality of Congress. But she added a caveat, warning that some Members’ partisan allegiance can water down the overall value of the book.
“I think they just have a different perspective on it. Each of us sees our own part of the world,” she said. “Granted, Members of Congress see a very important part of the world and they have a different and more in-depth perspective on it than people outside Congress. But a Member of the Democratic Caucus in the House is not going to have a real clear view of what goes on in the Republican Conference in the Senate.
“[Scholars] have the great blessing of being able to step back a little bit and look at concrete indicators without a lot of personal investment in what we find,” Hershey added.
Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who joined the professorial class at George Mason University after retiring from Congress in 2009, highlights the lack of “academic thrust” in Members’ books. Though he cites Price and Hamilton as exceptions, Davis reasons that the anecdotal tone of some Members’ books renders them better reads outside the classroom than in it.
“Members will write books about their experiences or something, but it doesn’t quite have the academic edge, in my experience, that would be useful in a classroom,” Davis said. “So much of what politicians do — we function, sometimes, as ward bosses. And we kind of know what’s going on in the street, we have that ward boss’s feel for it, which is an important piece of the puzzle, but it’s hard to define it really in scientific or academic terms.”
For Price, academics and politicians bring their own unique set of qualities when writing about Congress. And in “The Congressional Experience,” he strived to bridge the personal with the academic, with the hope of producing a textbook-suitable volume.
“‘The Congressional Experience’ is kind of a hybrid work in a way,” Price said. “It has some of the characteristics of a memoir, a personal recounting of my experience. But it clearly is written with some political science. It’s informed by some political science studies and concepts. And it aims to be useful in a classroom.”