The Books Briefing: What Is a Political Memoir For?

What we can learn from books by politicians and their family members: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Michelle Obama speaking.
Doug Mills / The New York Times / ​Redux

Memoirs by politicians and their family members are in a strange genre that must balance compelling storytelling with personal aims. Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough is better written than most, Megan Garber argues. (Mary has a master’s degree in comparative literature.) But the book’s resonance is strongest when it sees the president’s niece, a clinical psychologist, take on the work of so many other Americans: that of struggling to understand the president’s psyche.

Mary’s memoir breaks from the Trump family’s tradition of self-promotional texts, such as Donald Trump’s self-aggrandizing The Art of the Deal. His daughter’s Women Who Work “is premised on the notion that women would be better off” if women were more like Ivanka Trump, Megan writes. His ex-wife Ivana codifies this narcissism into a family philosophy of being better than everyone else in her book Raising Trump.

Such ego is common in campaign books (a subgenre of political memoirs), such as Kamala Harris’s The Truths We Hold, written before her unsuccessful presidential run. Despite its self-promotion, the book, Hannah Giorgis writes, failed to deliver a cohesive message or reconcile her work as a prosecutor with her efforts to establish a progressive image.

Memoirs from those who have left political life, however, can offer more honesty. Hillary Clinton’s What Happened analyzes the failings in press coverage of her presidential run, and also takes responsibility for her role in Trump’s victory. Barney Frank’s memoir gets even more personal, chronicling the challenges he faced as the first member of Congress to come out as gay. Michelle Obama’s surprisingly intimate Becoming shines brightest when it reveals the fear and frustration behind the former first lady’s composure.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading


How Americans became part of the Trump family
Too Much and Never Enough, by Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, is both a memoir and a manifesto … Mary Trump, chastened by her own, earlier silence about her uncle’s unfitness for office, is sounding a belated alarm. People have suffered, she writes, because her uncle is incapable of understanding other people’s suffering. People have died because her uncle cares more about the illusion of competence than its realization.”

📚 Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, by Mary Trump

Ivana Trump
Ivana Trump attends the Fashion Institute of Technology’s annual gala benefit at the Plaza Hotel in New York, in 2016 (MICHAEL ZORN / INVISION / AP)

The biggest winners: what Ivana reveals about Trump family values
“By virtue of its core characters—a man who becomes the American president, a daughter who becomes his adviser, a son-in-law who becomes responsible for criminal-justice reform and opioid-crisis management and bringing peace to the Middle East—Raising Trump is less a straightforward memoir than it is a teasing exploration of the workings of the presidential family. Here are the oft-discussed ‘Trump family values,’ as explained by the woman who helped create them.”

📚 Raising Trump, by Ivana Trump

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris’s political memoir is an uneasy fit for the digital era
“Unlike Harris’s many viral #resistance moments and meticulous snapshots of relatability, the memoir itself is a meandering work that lacks verve. More significantly, given far more than 280 characters to deliver a cohesive message, Harris doesn’t meaningfully reconcile her punitive track record as a California prosecutor with her more recent activist-adjacent positioning as a national Democratic darling.”

📚 The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, by Kamala Harris

Hillary Clinton at a book signing

Why Hillary Clinton’s book is actually worth reading
“Most books by politicians are bad … But What Happened is not a standard work of this genre. It’s interesting, it’s worth reading, and it sets out questions that the press, in particular, has not done enough to face.”

📚 What Happened, by Hillary Clinton

Barney Frank

The cross-generational politics of Barney Frank
“Since, in his usual way, Barney Frank gets right to the point in his new memoir, I will too: the most engaging—and indeed occasionally heartrending (not an adjective I ever thought I’d use in writing about Frank)—parts of this book are those in which he discusses his long struggles with his sexuality and relationships.”

📚 Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage, by Barney Frank

Michelle Obama

The uncommon, requisite resolve of Michelle Obama
Becoming is satisfying for the quiet moments in which Mrs. Obama, the woman who supported a black man named Barack all the way to the presidency, gets to let down her hair and breathe as Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side.”

📚 Becoming, by Michelle Obama

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong.

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