David Lawson made a personal sacrifice as a public service: He read 10 campaign books, all but one by current candidates for President of the United States. From his reading, he has fashioned an hour-long show that should get wider exposure than the one-shot performance last night as part of the 2019 Gotham Storytelling Festival at the Kraine Theater. He’d be a natural as a correspondent for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Trevor is Lawson’s middle name, literally.
In “The 2020 Book Report,” Lawson presents some funny trivia gleaned from his reading: Mayor Pete had trouble finding a photograph for his OK Cupid profile because all of his were of him in a suit surrounded by people clapping; the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team moving to Los Angeles taught Bernie Sanders “how corporate America works”; Kamala Harris claims she always preferred Tito Jackson over his brother Michael.
But there is enough serious analysis to make his show enlightening. On the plus side of Andrew Yang: He is “the only candidate who brings up how the rising costs of college isn’t tied to increased teacher salary or shiny new campus buildings but an administrative shell game that benefits the rich.” On the minus side: “Yang often comes across as the exact type of out of touch tech bro millionaire that he is claiming to try to save us from….For a book called ‘The War on Normal People’ he often talks about normal people as if we are hypothetically real. He describes New York City…as “the bubble,” and talks about New Yorkers as if we are all like the people within five blocks of his Upper East Side property.”
In the show, Lawson spends about five minutes on each candidate – and on Stacey Abrams (“Abrams is not running for president. But after reading her book I wish she were”) – dividing each segment into five parts: 1. The good stuff, the things he likes about the candidate judging by their book. 2. The rough stuff, things he doesn’t like based on the book. 3. One funny thing. 4. An anecdote from Lawson’s life that came to mind while reading each book. 5. He then asks each member of the audience to rank each candidate from zero to 10.
Within that framework, Lawson occasionally slips into the role of superficial literary critic – Cory Booker “is a great storyteller.” Pete Buttigieg “tells his story pretty well, in particular a great story about him having to Skype into city meetings as Mayor after driving all day, armed with a gun, in a war zone.” Julian Castro “is a bad storyteller. He dwells on insanely mundane details in his life.”
But Lawson more often functions as a political analyst, though closer to a political columnist than political reporter. He’s not shy about expressing his personal views, albeit vaguely, which sometimes makes his analysis less useful. On Joe Biden: “He’d be better than what we have now at least….While I don’t always agree with him, Biden did talk about foreign policy more than anybody else in any of these books I read.”
Lawson admires that in her book Elizabeth Warren comes off as a “wonk” who “respects the intelligence of the average American,” and writes “in a way that makes me think she’s not only has a plan for that, but the know-how to execute that plan.” The rough stuff: “Warren spends a majority of this book talking about the past: FDR’s New Deal, the GI Bill, stuff like the Eisenhower Highway System. Yet in mentioning all these things, putting the past on a pedestal constantly, she starts to sound tone-deaf on how many people were excluded from those things, mainly on racial lines.”
Lawson devotes his last five minutes to a book by Trump that came out in December 2016. The good stuff? “Trump wrote a very small book. A very easy book to read out in public, pressed against my lap, hiding the cover.” If there is nothing really besides rough stuff — “so much of his awful character on display in this book” — Lawson also points out the man’s strategy for winning, and Lawson’s fear that the book “reads like how he wins again.” Most interestingly, he details how Trump “used pop culture to soften the image of his hateful worldview,” and points out “for this softening of his image that played no small role in him being the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, our president gets a yearly pension from the Screen Actors Guild of $110,000.”
Choosing the president of the United States strikes me as such a crucial test of our democracy this time around that I feel a burden of responsibility just in reporting on David Lawson’s show. I feel like stamping on a warning sign: Do not make your judgment based just on this. At its best, “The 2020 Book Report” has encouraged me to do something I’ve been meaning to do – read at least one or two of these books.
Also check out: “Confessions of a Presidential Candidate. How the political memoir evolved” by Jill Lepore in the May 13, 2019 edition of the New Yorker magazine
The list of books discussed, in the order in which they are discussed on The 2020 Book Report, with links to each book’s Amazon page.
Where We Go from Here: Two Years in the Resistance by United States Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders
An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream by former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
The Truths We Hold: An American Journey by United States Senator from California Kamala Harris.
United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good by United States Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker
Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change by former Minority Leader of the Georgia State House of Representatives Stacey Abrams
The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future by Venture for America founder Andrew Yang
Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future by South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg
This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class by United States Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren
Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose by former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden
Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again Hardcover Donald Trump by the 45th President of the United States Donald Trump.