Knox Student Researches Books by Presidential Hopefuls

Helen Schnoes '11 examines why so many are written

July 22, 2011

If you've stepped inside a bookstore lately, you've probably noticed the telltale signs of an emerging trend that Knox College student Helen Schnoes researched for her College Honors project: the explosion of books written by potential presidential candidates.

Schnoes worked part-time for years at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in her hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and she noticed that books by politicians regularly occupied a large amount of display space. She wondered why.

"You cannot walk into a bookstore during an election season -- or even right now, in the buildup to the primaries -- and not see these books," said Schnoes, who just finished her senior year at Knox, graduating summa cum laude. She also received the E. Inman Fox Prize for academic achievement and the John W. Burgess Prize in Political Science.

"They've become a prominent aspect of American politics," she said about the books. "And because who is president and how someone becomes president have a fundamental effect on our politics and society, we need to understand how these books work to understand how our politics works."

Helen SchnoesSchnoes spent months examining more than 30 books, written by Republican and Democratic candidates and published during the 2000, 2004 and 2008 presidential election seasons. She selected 10 of the books for closer analysis, including: A Charge to Keep by George W. Bush, Faith of My Fathers by John McCain, A Call to Service by John Kerry, Character Makes a Difference by Mike Huckabee and The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama.

Her work culminated in a 175-page manuscript, "'To Never Allow Others to Define Me': Why Presidential Hopefuls Publish Books."

"As I started to look at the existing research, I found that not that much had been written about them," she said.

The existing research often examined the literary aspects of books in the "presidential hopeful" genre and generally dismissed them as vanity projects.

In designing her research project, Schnoes wanted to concede the books' primary purpose isn't literary -- that is, they're not written for the purpose of being well-written. Instead, she considered the books as a strategic component of a politician's budding presidential campaign.

"I focused on what purposes these books serve," said Schnoes, who drew on her background as a double-major in creative writing and political science to conduct her research. She concentrated on three overarching ideas:

  • The political sphere. How do candidates present their political philosophy and views?
  • Sub-propaganda. How do candidates "prime the public" in advance of a political campaign? Candidates often release a book before declaring a presidential run, so the book provides a chance to gain publicity, name recognition, and political support.
  • Self presentation. When candidates present themselves in a book, who do they say they are? What do they say America is?

Schnoes analyzed the books as "strategic, political texts that often attempt to utilize the memoir form." Her analysis revealed that most of the books fit her theory: that each politician/author would try to present himself and the nation "in a manner in which the two align," thus illustrating that he ought to be elected president of the United States.

Of the books that Schnoes studied, she feels that two of the best were the ones written by the most recent presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain.

Obama's The Audacity of Hope "was the most engaging," she said. "He pairs personal issues with political issues more effectively than many others."

McCain's Faith of Our Fathers was compelling and "really moving," she added. "He traces his father's and grandfather's careers in the Navy and then discusses his conflict as an adolescent -- in not wanting his life to be pre-determined, but also in really being attracted to the honor and legacy of the naval family," Schnoes said.

Her Honors advisor, Knox Assistant Professor of Political Science Andrew Civettini, suggested that Schnoes present her findings at the Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting in Chicago.

"At the conference, I had to describe my project and answer questions on the spot," Schnoes said. "It was a big confidence-builder and helped prepare me for the final stretch of the project."

Schnoes received support from the Paul K. Richter and Evalyn E. Cook Richter Memorial Trusts to attend the conference and for other project-related expenses. She began work on the project when she received a Ford Foundation fellowship as a Knox sophomore.

"These books are so understudied. They're so new," she said about her research project.

"What I tried to do is establish that they should be part of academic literature and they should be incorporated into political science literature. To understand presidential elections and communications, these need to be understood. I tried to make the first steps toward that."

Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 48 states and 51 countries. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.