Illustration by Alex Fine for EW

A critical assessment of every major 2020 presidential candidate's memoir

February 22, 2019 at 08:30 AM EST

Virtually every candidate entering the massive 2020 presidential field has published a memoir, arguing why he or she is the best person for the job (or, at least, the best person to defeat Donald Trump). But let’s be honest: Some of these books can be a real slog, filled with empty promises, progressive platitudes, and plain bad writing. So we read 10 of them for you — separating the great from the terrible, the middling from the slightly less middling. Here are our takes on the books, ranked from best to worst.

1: Promise Me, Dad, by Joe Biden (2017)

The rarest of all political memoirs: a literary achievement. The former vice president, 76, who remains undeclared for the 2020 race, writes what amounts to a raw, intimate backstage drama, juxtaposing his civic duties as President Obama’s deputy with his attempts to come to terms with the sudden death of his son Beau from brain cancer. Spanning the year between the Thanksgivings of 2014 and 2015, the book offers a rare glimpse into a major public figure’s inner life, snapshotting Biden and his family while they — as privately as possible — wade through their grief. Biden also weaves in analysis of his tenure as veep; this relatively conventional aspect of the book reads a bit clunky, but the author never writes on autopilot. His voice — and his heart — always shine through. A-

2: The Senator Next Door: A Memoir From the Heartland, by Amy Klobuchar (2015)

The longtime Minnesota senator, 58, made a name for herself as a strong, quietly effective progressive able to work across the aisle; her composure drew national attention in her razor-sharp questioning of then-pending Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. On the surface her memoir hits all the standards: middle-class upbringing, immigrant roots, a call to service. But Klobuchar strikes a folksy, authentic tone that’s immensely appealing, bringing us closer to her writing process (“Nothing like doing a little research only to find out that not one but both of your parents were conceived before marriage!”) and pointedly describing her life as a thriving working mother. The senator also affirms her unifying reputation by detailing her long-standing friendships with her Republican colleagues, and why (and when) she feels it’s appropriate to vote with them. It’s a refreshing change of pace amid a sea of books geared squarely at the Democratic base. B+

3: This Fight Is Our Fight, by Elizabeth Warren (2017)

In the Massachusetts senator’s hands, even the wonkiest passages of This Fight Is Our Fight carry a near-rousing quality. The author’s plucky determination to push back against wealth inequality is conveyed both earnestly and passionately. More than most on this list, Warren, 69, fashions her book as a call to action, using her own life experiences and stories of those around the country to express the need for change. The author’s can-do spirit gets a little monotonous (“We built it once, and we can build it again,” she writes, invoking FDR’s New Deal), but we’ll take it: Hope and genuineness in Washington are in short supply. B+

4: United, by Cory Booker (2016)

Booker, 49, has been criticized for making ill-considered appeals to unity — “put yourself in a white person’s position,” he recently said, addressing racism in America — and it’s easy to see why in his autobiography. Not because he says anything offensive, exactly, but because he can disregard complexity in favor of hackneyed commentary. But United earns points for executing its main premise: criminal justice reform. Drawing on his own advocacy work and extensive data, the New Jersey senator persuasively communicates its necessity — and urgency. B

5: Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future, by Pete Buttigieg (2019)

The Democratic Party’s first openly gay man ever to run for president, Buttigieg, 37, tells a heck of an underdog story, from growing up queer in South Bend, Ind., to becoming a Rhodes Scholar, joining the Navy, and easily getting elected twice as mayor of his Republican hometown. His book nicely details the importance of local politics, but it’s too engineered — an introduction to him as a presidential candidate more than a human being. His commentary on the Iraq war and the response to 9/11 read like a New York Times op-ed from five years ago. B-

6: An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up From My American Dream, by Julián Castro (2018)

Castro, who brings a bevy of qualifications — serving as San Antonio’s mayor and President Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development, among them — satisfyingly outlines his passion for a more inclusive education policy and his Latino family’s inspiring path to reaching the American dream. But the author, 44, crafts his autobiography too preciously, capping virtually every anecdote with a moral — as neatly resolved as a Very Special Episode of Full House. This simplistic approach conflicts with his sobering depictions of race and class in America; his vision for the country doesn’t read as fully formed. B-

7: The Truths We Hold, by Kamala Harris (2019)

Anyone who’s watched clips of the California senator, 54, giving a speech or sparring with a political opponent knows how she commands attention. Her storytelling potential appears here (in meditations on the American legal system’s injustices and her rise as a black woman in a field of white men), but too infrequently. That such a shoddily assembled book — she races through her past, halfheartedly checking off hot-button topics — reads as well as it does speaks to Harris’ natural charisma. C+

8: Off the Sidelines, by Kirsten Gillibrand (2014)

Gillibrand, 52, focuses on gender equality in her book, and maintains a palpable sincerity throughout. Arguing that this generation needs its own Rosie the Riveter and building on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and other women-targeted best-sellers (Gillibrand cracks about forcing her staff to read The Secret), she brings a uniquely feminist point of view. The problem lies in the memoir’s readability, which is riddled with clichés (“I’m a big believer in making your own luck”) and is light on substance, however admirable its intent. C+

9: Where We Go From Here, by Bernie Sanders (2018)

Since emerging as an upstart presidential candidate four years ago, Sanders, 77 — the latest to throw his hat in the ring for 2020 — has published three books, launched a podcast, and completed more tedious cable news interviews than we can count. Perhaps his frantic pace explains why this tome feels so thin; it cobbles together the Vermont senator’s old speeches and interviews, which might have been fine if the subjects — the swaths of wealth owned by a few billionaires, the size of U.S. military spending — weren’t already so well-trod. His supporters will likely be pleased, reintroduced to what so excited them about him as a presidential hopeful in the first place, but that’s the extent of the book’s value. Where We Go From Here offers nothing but a reminder of why people voted — or didn’t vote — for him in the last cycle. C-

10: From the Ground Up, by Howard Schultz (2019)

Look, the former Starbucks CEO, 65, doesn’t need any more bashing; early polling shows the few Americans who are aware of his presence in the race are really against it, and he’s been dragged thoroughly on social media. But it must be said: This book is a dog. It’s a 300-plus-page stump speech that, somehow, still manages to feel wildly out of touch. Schultz’s attempt at a success story glosses over anything meaningful in an effort to lambaste those (like his father, apparently) who have a “lack of a work ethic,” who spend too much on manicures and “pricey” haircuts, and who spend their time “lying on a couch” instead of, say, launching a multinational corporation. Just what America needs: a good scolding. D


A version of this story appears in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday or buy it here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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