How Justin Trudeau's memoir is a political 'rite of passage'

With the release this fall of Justin Trudeau's memoirs, the Liberal leader will join the ever-growing ranks of political candidates penning autobiographies to use as campaign tools to shape their political narrative.

'There's a veneer of respectability of being a published author,' analyst says

Justin Trudeau's publisher, HarperCollins Canada, has promised that his book will be a 'candid memoir' that 'will reveal to its readers the experiences that have shaped him over the course of his life.' But it is also well-timed ahead of next year's federal election. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

With the release this fall of Justin Trudeau's memoirs, the Liberal leader will join the ever-growing ranks of political candidates penning autobiographies to use as campaign tools to shape their political narrative. 

"Everyone does it. It's a rite of passage, almost, for political leaders," Toronto-based political strategist Marcel Wieder said.

"A book has the penumbra of authority and expertise even if, as is the case with most candidates' books, it was ghost written by somebody else," said Steve Ross, a former publisher at Crown Publishers, which published U.S. President Barack Obama's best-selling books.

As Ross points out, there's a range of types of books by politicians, "some of which are very obviously campaign books — they don’t try to disguise themselves as something else."

But Trudeau's publisher, HarperCollins Canada, has promised that his book, Common Ground: My Past, Our Present and Canada’s Future, will be a "candid memoir" that "will reveal to its readers the experiences that have shaped him over the course of his life."

While many political memoirs are written after a politician leaves the public stage, candidates are now releasing these campaign books as a precursor for a run for higher office. 

It's not a new phenomenon. Freelance writer Casey N. Cep points out in a recent article for Politico titled "Why are politicians' books so terrible" that Jimmy Carter may have actually started the campaign book trend with the publishing of his pre-presidency volume Why Not the Best? But nowadays, there certainly seem to be more of them. 

It may also be more of an American trend. Although former prime minister Jean Chrétien wrote Straight From the Heart before he became prime minister, most Canadian politicians have waited until after they have retired from politics to pen their memoirs.

Yet that trend may be slowly changing here. Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow recently released her memoirs to coincide with her run, and now Trudeau is prepping the electorate with his narrative before the fall 2015 federal election.

Both may have taken their cues from Obama, whose personal memoir Dreams From My Father and the more political tome The Audacity of Hope certainly helped his successful path to the White House. 

"Although it came out with the beginning of his campaigning for president, and it does have some similarities with traditional campaign books, I believe it transcended the genre or at least defines the highest form the genre can create," Ross said.

'Political memoirs have become political strategy'

Obama's success may have also been responsible for prompting other politicians to flood the market with their own personal stories. In the 2012 presidential race, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain all had books out leading up to the Republican presidential nomination race. 

Most recently, Hillary Clinton, a potential Democratic presidential candidate, has been hitting the stump with her book Hard Choices (a follow to her Living History memoirs). 

"Clearly now these political memoirs have become political strategy designed to really help develop a political brand for the candidates," public relations strategist John Crean of National Public Relations said. 

"It's all about a way to create a brand or a narrative around the candidate that will start to inform their campaign once it hits the road."

It also allows candidates to have exposure without the political campaigning, Wieder said.

"There's a veneer of respectability of being a published author, and that's why people do it, to show a little a more substance than what the general press would write about them in their political capacity."

Most importantly, books like these humanize the candidate and show a different side than what's portrayed in the media on a day-to-day basis, Wieder said.

But the books also run the risk of attracting criticism. Generally they tend to be very vanilla flavoured, not likely to offend anyone, offering no shocking revelations, Wieder said.

As Cep wrote in her article for Politico, the move to control the narrative "points to the reason these campaign books make for such lousy reading."

"Any politician who is popular enough to attract a publisher’s attention already has too much to jeopardize with personal candour or political complexity," she wrote. "Mostly, these books provide the candidates the chance to say nothing at all for pages and pages and pages."

Striking the right balance between writing something that is interesting, candid and real versus something that is clearly designed to create and establish a brand image can be a difficult balance to achieve, Crean said.

"It's striking that balance. Hillary Clinton's book is thought to be too public policy-oriented and less about her own personal observations of what it was like to do the job that she did."

Trudeau has already been knocked by some critics, who question whether he has sufficient life experience to fill an autobiography. 

"You kind of have to wait and see the book before you really judge whether this is supposed to be life lessons for us or whether this is simply a life in progress and [Trudeau] is just sharing with you a little bit more about who [he is]," Crean said.


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