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Excerpts from Books by and about 2008 candidates
Sen. John McCain (R, AZ)
Why Courage Matters
Sen. Barack Obama(D, IL)
Dreams From My Father
Sen. Joe Biden (D, DE)
Promises to Keep
Gov. Sarah Palin (R, AK)
New Energy for Alaska
Rep. Bob Barr (L)
The Meaning of IS
Rep. Cynthia McKinney (G)
Green Party Debate
Ralph Nader (I)
The Good Fight
Alan Keyes (NAIP)
Our Character, Our Future

Sen. Hillary Clinton
It Takes A Village
Mayor Rudy Giuliani
Gov. Mike Huckabee
Character Makes A Difference
Amb. Alan Keyes
Our Character, Our Future
Rep. Ron Paul
Freedom Under Siege
Gov. Mitt Romney

(click a book cover for excerpts and a review or other books by or about the presidency from

Hard Call
Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them
by John McCain & Mark Salter

(Click for Amazon book review)


"Hard Call" might better be called "Hard Reading." My readers know that I enjoy reading political books -- but this one was, well, unenjoyable. I think the reason is that it is, in effect, a sequel -- pretty much the same idea as Why Courage Matters, McCain's 2004 equivalent.

McCain's earlier book, as well as this one, have the same formula: Teach lessons about courage by examples in recent history. Astute readers might be reminded of a much earlier book, "Profiles in Courage," by John F. Kennedy, another book that followed that same formula. I think McCain was well aware of that association, and chose the word "Courage" in his earlier book's title to emphasize the connection. In that sense, this book is the THIRD in a series. A "Hard Call", according to McCain, is where a person faces a difficult decision and makes a courageous choice. Not too much different than "Why Courage Matters" or a "Profile in Courage," in practice.

McCain is more analytically organized in this book: he outlines six characteristics that define courageous hard calls: Awareness, Foresight, Timing, Confidence, Humility, and Inspiration. For each characteristic, he provides 3 or 4 examples of hard calls, mostly from 20th-century American history, but a few from abroad as well.

The reason this book is hard to read is because it is simply too long. There are just too many examples, of too many people, with too little connection to anything relevant about courage or hard calls. McCain might have looked to JFK's book, which had eight -- just eight! -- profiles in courage, all of US Senators. Or he might have looked to his earlier book, which also had a much tighter focus. Nevertheless, McCain did choose to publish THIS version for his presidential run, so we'll outline the Table of Contents, with his 6-part structure, and list some of the exemplary people and incidents he writes about:
  1. Awareness: Jackie Robinson "intruding" into all-white baseball; and Werner von Braun, the rocket scientist.
  2. Foresight: Winston Churchill; Alexander Graham Bell; and Ronald Reagan when standing up to the Soviet Union.
  3. Timing: Boeing's production of the commercial jet aircraft; Gillette's invention of the disposable razor; and Anwar Sadat & Mencahem Begin meeting for the peace process.
  4. Confidence: Civil War General McClellan; the first woman to swim the English Channel; and the Apollo 11 astronauts.
  5. Humility: The founding of Liberia; Harry Truman; and Gerald Ford's pardoning of Richard Nixon.
  6. Inspiration: The white commander of America's first black regiment; Alexander Solzhenitsyn; and Abraham Lincoln.
If some of those groupings seem oddly incongruous, that would be because they ARE odd and incongruous. Sure, it makes sense for a high-profile Senator to talk about Begin & Sadat's historic meeting, which certainly was a "hard call" for both (Sadat paid with his life). And it's certainly appropriate for a presidential candidate to write about former presidents Reagan, Truman, and Ford, as well as former Prime Minister Churchill. But what's up with the rest of that stuff?

I would not complain if the examples were focused on the "hard call." But they're not. McCain feels obligated not only to explain the details of the "hard call" itself, but then to provide a complete background on the history leading up to it, and sometimes on the history leading up to THAT. Do we really want to hear, from a presidential candidate, the historical basis for the movie "Chariots of Fire"? (p. 352) or the biography of the inventor of the Morse code (p. 161)?

When McCain describes the invention of the Gillette razor, he not only provides a biography of K.C. Gillette, but also the full story of Gillete's early boss, the inventor of the soda bottle cap, which inspired Gillette. Why, the reader might ask, does a presidential candidate's book have four pages (p. 270-273) dedicated to soda bottle caps? The best I can say is that it feels a lot like that radio guy, Paul Harvey, who tells us "The Rest Of The Story." But Paul Harvey's shticks only last a minute, while McCain's go on for hundreds of pages.

So, why then did McCain choose this topic, and this length book, as the literary face of his presidential campaign? I don't have an answer for that. The best I can do is answer by analogy: I enjoyed the movie "Jaws" much more than its sequel "Jaws III". I think McCain has the same problem here.

-- Jesse Gordon,, Feb. 2008

Click here for 4 full quotes from John McCain in the book Hard Call, by John McCain & Mark Salter.
OR click on an issue category below for a subset.
Homeland Security
   Immutable principle of war: luck is unreliable.
Principles & Values
   Hard Calls: consider stakes; time; preparedness; confidence.
   Most important part of decision-making is self-awareness.
War & Peace
   Tragic mistake of Iraq: no plan to deal with success.

    Click for quotations from other sources by:
  • John McCain

The above quotations are from Hard Call
Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them
by John McCain & Mark Salter

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