Book review: “Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill” by Luis Gutierrez with Doug Scofield

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Book review: “Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill” by Luis Gutierrez with Doug Scofield

gutierrez -- dreamingOn March 20 — just as I was finishing Still Dreaming, the surprisingly readable memoir that U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez wrote with the help of Doug Scofield — the Chicago Tribune reported that the two men were under investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

The story said that, over a ten-year period, Gutierrez paid more than $500,000 to The Scofield Company for staff training and publicity. The contract had been approved each year by the Ethics Committee until Gutierrez canceled it last year.

Doug Scofield was a senior partner of that firm. In 1992, he ran Gutierrez’s first campaign for Congress and then served as the Congressman’s chief of staff for a decade. In Still Dreaming, published last year, Gutierrez describes Scofield as his partner in authorship.

In his other work, the Tribune reported, Scofield was a campaign aide to Rod Blagojevich’s two successful runs for Illinois Governor, and worked for a time as deputy governor. The disgraced Blagojevich is now serving a prison term for corruption.

Kinda murky

It all seems kinda murky, even though — or maybe because — the Ethics Committee has promised to tell more by May 5.

The implication seems to be that Gutierrez might have been paying Scofield with tax dollars to write the memoir for him. Yet, the fact is that public officials often use consultants and even staff members to create a book that will bear their name — sometimes with payment in tax dollars.

In 1988, when I was doing a great deal of reporting about education for the Tribune, I wrote a review of Our Children and Our Country by William J. Bennett, the U.S. Secretary of Education. I pointed out how superficial the book was, and I concluded the piece with this observation:

It should be noted that Bennett, who leaves office on Sept. 20 to lecture and prepare another book, didn’t actually write this one. As an aide said in a recent interview, that work was done by “a speech-writing staff and a senior staff” — at Bennett’s direction and with the benefit of the secretary’s hand-written notes.

“My friend…”

There are ghostwriters, and there are ghostwriters. No one is astonished when some politico like Gutierrez brings in a wordsmith to hammer out enough text to fill the pages between the covers of a book that a publisher thinks can sell enough copies to make a profit.

Still Dreaming, though, isn’t your usual politician’s book in which programs and policies are spelled out, victories over the dread opponents are detailed, and every present or potential ally is “my friend…”

At least, Still Dreaming isn’t like that during its first 300 pages.

The last hundred fit the stereotype to a T, even down to all the “my friends….” I found my eyes starting to glaze over as Gutierrez and Scofield described efforts at immigrant reform in Congress, focusing on the failures of President Barack Obama to follow through with campaign promises.

And then he did (at least a little bit), with Gutierrez taking credit for being such a pain in the ass on the issue that the President eventually had to act.

Well, yeah, maybe.

“Treasure maps”

The first 300 pages, by contrast, are filled with delectable anecdotes, such as a teenage newsboy Gutierrez being handed a $5 Christmas tip at City Hall by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

These sections tell the story of Gutierrez growing up as a Puerto Rican in Chicago, of being taken by his family to live in Puerto Rico (and suddenly needing to learn fluent Spanish), and of becoming an ally of reform Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first black chief executive. His tales of the City Council, especially after Washington’s sudden death at his City Hall desk, are fascinating.

And these pages are filled, as well, with trenchant descriptions.

Consider this observation from the time when Washington hired Gutierrez as the second in command at the Northwest Incinerator:

I looked around the warehouse and the yard, filled with guys sitting in trucks reading newspapers and studying take-out menus like they were treasure maps.

Wow, that’s a line I wish I’d come up with. But that’s not all. The paragraph continues:

Teamsters seemed to move vehicles around aimlessly like they were playing some sort of game of tag with their trucks. This was where tax dollars went to die.

What a great line.

Wondering

It was lines like that which got me wondering who this Scofield was.

I wondered if maybe he was someone who had a lot of novels and other books to his credit — not just any sort of books either, but ones with high literary quality. That might explain the entertaining, self-deprecating, witty voice that Gutierrez was using on the pages of Still Dreaming.

But, no, Scofield was a political lifer, a less heralded version of David Axelrod or Bill Daley, the son of Mayor Richard J. and brother of Mayor Richard M. A political technician with a way with words.

So that left me with this: Either Scofield is a lot more talented as a writer than he’s given himself a chance to show, or the Gutierrez in Still Dreaming is the real Gutierrez.

Well, at least, a real Gutierrez.

Fabricating lives

An autobiography or a memoir is never a wide-open look into the writer’s soul. In fact, I’d argue that every autobiography or memoir is a mask.

leibowitz --- livesWhich isn’t to say it’s a false image. But it’s not a full image. It’s the image that the writer wants to portray.

If you look at the autobiographies of Ben Franklin and Gertrude Stein and Richard Wright and Louis Sullivan, you see some radically different ways of approaching the creation of that image of the self.

In 1989, Herbert Leibowitz wrote a wonderfully interesting book about the self-portraits of those four, plus four other literary luminaries, and its title says much about the practice of telling one’s own story: Fabricating Lives, Explorations in American Autobiography.

Any life story is a fabrication — any biography, any autobiography. It’s attempting to capture decades of events and experiences in a few hundred pages. And that’s especially true when the writer is the subject and has so much more at stake.

The Obama effect

In a way, I guess, it doesn’t matter if the main writer of Still Dreaming was Gutierrez or Scofield. After all, the information about his life had to come from the Congressman, and, in the end, he had final say about what went into the book.

And the reader is lucky that Gutierrez was willing to let so much good stuff go into those first 300 pages.

Dreams_from_my_fatherThe reason? I’m certain that the Congressman was more open with his story in those 300 pages because of another book with the word “dream” in the title: Dreams from My Father, the 1995 memoir by Barack Obama.

The beauty of the Obama book was that he wrote it when his claim to fame was being the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. He had never run for office and wouldn’t until 1997. Eleven years after that, he would be elected President of the United States.

The problem with most political autobiographies is that they are written to be published while the writer is running for some major office. That’s why they end up so clunky and dull. There’s too much on the line.

By contrast, Obama was able to write an interesting and thoughtful book about himself because very little was on the line.

He could mention youthful drug use because, well, so what? He could write about his awkward and uncomfortable straddling of the white and African-American worlds. He didn’t have to worry about fallout.

The Gutierrez strategy

Still Dreaming seems to be modeled on Dreams from My Father. Are other lower-level political figures writing their own memoirs with the same model?

I don’t know, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t.

Does this mean that Gutierrez, after 22 years in Congress, is hoping to run for some higher office? Could he be jockeying for a Vice Presidential nomination? Or are his hopes even higher?

What do you think?

All I can say is that Crown Books made very little profit on Obama’s memoir initially. Later, when Obama ran for the U.S. Senate and then for the presidency, the publisher took in a gazillion dollars from the book. And it’s probably still making money hand over fist.

What do you think Norton, the publisher of Still Dreaming, is thinking?

Patrick T. Reardon
3.22.14

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