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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Many of the people running for president are also newly published authors. Republican John McCain was on this program yesterday talking about his new book, "Hard Call." Other candidates are dusting off old books. Democrat Hillary Clinton has published the 10th anniversary edition of "It Takes a Village." There's also Republican Mitt Romney who's written "Turnaround," an account of his time running the 2002 Olympics.

We wanted to find out more about this phenomenon of candidate as author, so we called Jon Meacham. He's the managing editor of Newsweek and author of two historical books. He joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome.

Mr. JON MEACHAM (Managing Editor, Newsweek): Thank you.

YDSTIE: Who reads all these books?

Mr. MEACHAM: That's a very good question. And it's also the question of who writes them, which is a separate issue. This phenomenon goes back to John Kennedy, of course, who published "Profiles in Courage" in the 1950s, which created this aura of intellectual polish around the candidate.

The real beginning of this particular kudzu-like explosion of campaign books really started in 1976 when President Carter, then Governor Carter, published a book called "Why Not The Best?" And he was an unknown, and it was a way of getting his vision of the country out. And since then, it's become a kind of course requirement for a presidential candidate to publish something. How many people read them, I think, is a very open question.

YDSTIE: Do they really write them? How many of the current crop, do you think, actually have sat down and written their own book?

Mr. MEACHAM: That is a very dangerous question. But I think Senator Obama wrote his. He's written two memoirs now. My sense from Senator McCain is he acknowledges that Mark Salter, his longtime aide, I think does the typing, they do the thinking together. I think we all know some famous people who were not only sure that they didn't write them, we wonder sometimes if they've read them. And I don't know if that's true with this crowd.

YDSTIE: To what extent, do you think, we can trust what these candidates have written about themselves in their books?

Mr. MEACHAM: Biography, particularly autobiography, is the most complicated of human literary undertakings, because people only present what they want you to see. So you can trust it in so far as we can trust it as a source for us to then evaluate. And I think that's true of these books.

YDSTIE: Which of the books appears to have been most effective so far?

Mr. MEACHAM: I don't know if there's any question that "The Audacity of Hope" by Senator Obama, which has been the most commercially successful, and his journey, his own life, which is very, very intriguing. One of the most ancient devices in presidential politics is to sell one's life journey as the qualification for high office, whether it's Lincoln in the log cabin or Andrew Jackson standing up as a 14-year-old to the British and having the British officer hit him in the head with a sword. And it was, I think, very astute of Obama to use his own life in that way.

YDSTIE: I know that you have a full-time job. Reading all of these books is probably not in the cards, but give us a quick review of what you know about the books in terms of what might be the best read of the lot.

Mr. MEACHAM: Well, I think Senator Obama's books are very revealing. I think that the Senator McCain book that is just now out, which is moments when leaders or people had to make hard decisions. In that way, McCain's book may be the most useful certainly on the Republican side, because if history has taught us anything, it's that ultimately it's the character and the personality of the man or the woman in a moment of crisis that shapes the destinies and the lives of the rest of us. Any tool we can put our hands on to try to figure it out is useful, and I think these books are part of that tool set.

YDSTIE: Jon Meacham is the managing editor of Newsweek and the author of "American Gospel." Thanks for coming in to talk to us.

Mr. MEACHAM: Thanks so much.

YDSTIE: Hear how that great politician Winston Churchill became a well-known author at npr.org.

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