It's a time-honored tradition that puts the lit in politics: Every four years, presidential aspirants pen self-promotional tomes. Who can forget Michael Dukakis' Creating the Future? Bob Dole and Jack Kemp's Trusting the People? Ross Perot's My Life and the Principles for Success? Okay, just about everybody. But that hasn't stopped this year's contenders from tossing their manuscripts into the ring.
Some are personal memoirs, some are glorified position papers, some try to be all things to all readers -- like Republican front-runner George W. Bush's A Charge to Keep (Morrow, $23). This is no surprise coming from the man who coined the one-size-fits-all label ''compassionate conservative.'' Co-written with his communications director, Karen Hughes, the Texas governor's pastiche mixes safe-as-milk stances (''I like people, and I am interested in learning more about them'') with warm-and-fuzzy recollections; a chapter called ''Reading: The New Civil Right'' is followed by one on his marriage titled ''The Best Decision I Ever Made.'' Tellingly, he doesn't recount his life in chronological order, interspersing gubernatorial stories with earlier anecdotes in acknowledgment that the first 40-odd years of his privileged existence weren't all that interesting.
This stands in extreme contrast to his main challenger, John McCain, whose Faith of My Fathers (Random House, $25) focuses solely on his life until the age of 36, when he was released after five and a half years in Vietnamese captivity. The Arizona senator's gut-churning best-seller (written with aide Mark Salter) tells the hellish tale of how the downed naval aviator survived physical and mental torture, including two solid years of solitary confinement. Plainspoken and inspirational, Faith is the only one of the current candidates' books likely to be read long after the election's over. It's also the only one likely to be made into a movie: Robert Duvall is interested in playing McCain's father, a flinty four-star admiral who ordered the bombing of the country where his son was being held prisoner.
On the Democratic side, Bill Bradley is also running on his biography, which is why the basketballer's 1998 ode to the hardwood, Values of the Game (Broadway, $10), has just been republished in paperback. While he's ostensibly writing about sports, it's not hard to read between the foul lines when the ex-New Jersey senator espouses such principles as selflessness and responsibility. The former Knick's prose occasionally descends into postgame clichés (''Courage in sports means...giving 100 percent for your team''), but Values is an effective reminder to voters that despite his deadly dull image, Bradley was once a world-class jock.
Speaking of deadly dull, Al Gore has apparently been too busy being Vice President to write a new book, so somebody else had to do it for him. Joseph Kaufmann's The World According to Al Gore (Renaissance, $23.95) is an unauthorized, alphabetical compendium of the Veep's quotes on topics from abortion to Y2K (what, he never discussed zoos?). This is a true cut-and-paste job it even includes extensive excerpts from Gore's 1992 environmental opus, Earth in the Balance and it's every bit as brain-numbing as you'd expect from the man who once noted that ''a leopard can't change his stripes.''
Would-be Reform party candidate Donald Trump slams Gore as ''confused'' and Bradley as ''a disaster'' in his freshly published platform, The America We Deserve (Renaissance, $24.95). The Donald does have nice things to say about some people most notably himself, whom he often refers to in the third person, as in ''Trump has one financial backer: Trump.'' He defends himself against charges of racism by citing his friendships with Sammy Sosa and Sean ''Puffy'' Combs, but America isn't all name-dropping. Trump takes some very specific, very weird positions: He favors hanging death-row inmates, arresting Fidel Castro, and organizing a ''National Security Lottery'' to fund spies' infiltration of terrorist groups. He also predicts an imminent economic collapse. Here's my prediction: One year from now, Trump's unintentionally uproarious book will rest alongside most of the other candidates' works in remainder bins nationwide. A Charge to Keep: C Faith of My Fathers: A- Values of the Game: B The World According to Al Gore: F The America We Deserve: D+