<B>All the presidents' spin: leaders' lives defined by power of stories</B>Storytelling is one of the primary ways by which we learn about the world and how we relate to it. In American presidential politics, storytelling of different kinds plays a role. Events, issues and ideology are important factors, too, but according to Evan Cornog, "Presidential life stories are the most important tools of persuasion in American political life." <B>The Power and the Story: How the Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush</B> is Cornog's insightful exploration of the story behind the stories.
The book reads like a series of carefully researched reflections on many candidates, mostly the winners. Cornog considers, for example, the role of a candidate's family and the best way for a candidate to convey his story (perhaps a biography if you were Franklin Pierce and a former college classmate of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Rutherford B. Hayes with William Dean Howells at your disposal). Cornog also looks at how a new or re-elected president can define himself with an inaugural address: "Some use it as an opportunity to reaffirm their life stories; others to change them."Cornog shows how certain candidates have life stories that more easily lend themselves to narratives that connect with the public. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Kennedy fit into this category. For others and that includes most presidential contenders it has been a struggle to find appropriate stories that would appeal to the public. These are not arbitrary choices, he writes; they "must fit the politician's experiences and match his personality" while also satisfying the requirements of the era. The author tells us how in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt purposely sought combat against Spain in Cuba as a way to advance his political career. Addressing the businessman as candidate, Cornog shows that although "business failure is not necessarily an obstacle to political success, so a good record in business is no guarantee of a fortunate political career."Cornog, associate dean for policy and planning at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, discusses how journalists and historians make judgments on presidents and their reputations in a chapter entitled "Good and Evil," and looks at how former presidents give their versions of their administrations, and perhaps assume new worthwhile roles, in "Memoirs and Second Acts."Cornog's thoughtful book will help anyone interested in politics to think about what is behind each presidential candidate's story during this election year. He demonstrates, for example, the crucial role the press plays in the process. Each run for the presidency, he writes, "is a great festival of narration," with the press serving "simultaneously as actor, chorus, and audience." Beyond that, stories are interpreted by the press, then reinterpreted by campaign spin doctors, and the press sometimes responds to the public's desire for new narratives.
Cornog notes that this year's race, "like all the presidential elections that have come before it, will be defined by the power of stories." While he recognizes these stories are "an important part of the nation's strength," he also says, "citizens will be less easily misled by stories if they are aware of the ways stories are marshaled to serve political ends." <I>Roger Bishop is a bookseller in Nashville and a frequent contributor to BookPage.</I>