Obama and McCain: In their own write

We know how they shape up in front of the cameras, but how do they fare in print? Our experts have read their autobiographies – so you don't have to
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Dreams from My Father By Barack Obama

It doesn't matter how you dress it up – the idea of another political autobiography hardly thrills, especially one portentously subtitled "a story of race and inheritance" and clad in a sepia-toned jacket to look all vintage. Start reading, though, and you will be gripped. If he is elected, Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father, first published in 1995, will be required reading. And it won't be a chore.

Obama can write. He can also think, and he express his feelings. Those inspirational speeches that have galvanised a whole new generation of American voters did not come out of nowhere. His life story is a stylish and considered account of where he came from and where he might be going. In fact, readers have been fortunate. His original intention, he says, was to write a more theoretical, more conventionally political book – in other words, a book like all the other political autobiographies.

But when he started writing, it turned out rather differently: the life history of a young man who was mixed up in every sense. He was brought up in the outwardly exotic surroundings of Hawaii. The son of a Kenyan and a white American of hippie-ish inclinations, he was aware of his ethnic difference from an early age. But his white relatives impressed on him that it should not matter.

The early chapters delve into the confusion of his early life and the rare place he inhabited between white privilege and blackness. In the final section, he charts his Roots-style journey to meet the Kenyan relatives – an account in which warmth, resentment, family rivalries and an all-consuming desire to understand jostle with each other. In the middle are the Chicago years, where Obama, now a Harvard graduate and lawyer, is forced to confront the difference between himself and so many poor black Americans – he can escape any time he likes, they are trapped. He comes under the influence of Rev Jeremiah Wright, who was to prove such a liability during this year's campaign.

Is this is a self-censored account? Did Obama keep half an eye, as he wrote, on his ambitions for the future? Perhaps. But it's a cracking good tale, and even if it's not the whole unvarnished truth, it shows the man and the politician as he wants you to see him. That's as much as any canny leader is going to tell. Mary Dejevsky

The Audacity of Hope By Barack Obama

Clearly, if Obama hadn't gone into politics he would have made a fine writer. Like Dreams from My Father, Audacity, published last March, succeeds well as literature.

Especially impressive is the chapter on race, his moving account of the funeral of the heroic Rosa Parks in 2005, and his reflections on how that event showed the progress America has made over a half century – as, of course, does his own career. Yet perhaps only a politician with his background could also write that the collapse of the two-parent black household is "a phenomenon that is occurring at such an alarming rate when compared to the rest of American society that what was once a difference in degree has become a difference in kind, a phenomenon that reflects a casualness about sex and child rearing among black men that renders black children more vulnerable – and for which there is simply no excuse." Audacious indeed.

How did Obama come so far? A big clue is the way he sees opponents. Compulsively, he wants – needs – to know how Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W Bush took votes from the Democrats, and to learn from them instead of hating them. Yet Obama is short of solutions, on his own admission, to problems such as Iraq.

On the evidence of this book, Obama's weakness will not be analysis but action – the exact opposite of the Bush regime. In any event, should he prevail tonight, his presidential memoirs will make a fascinating read. Sean O'Grady

Faith of My Fathers By John McCain

In this memoir, co-written with Mark Salter and published in March, John Sidney McCain III tells of a life in the shadow of two admirals: his alcohol-soaked father, "Junior" McCain who commanded US forces in the Pacific during the Vietnam war, and his much admired grandad "Slew" McCain.

McCain had volcanic temper as a toddler. "At the smallest provocation," he writes, he would hold his breath until he passed out: "I would go off in a mad frenzy, and then, suddenly, crash to the floor unconscious."

His enlightened parents had their own version of water-boarding to cure their blue-in-the-face baby. They would drop him into a bathtub of ice-cold water.

Born in the Panama Canal Zone and always runty, McCain writes that "My small stature motivated me to fight the first kid who provoked me." He was called "McNasty" at boarding school and "a mean little fucker" by one of his friends.

At the military academy he would blow up at officers, but was untouchable. He came fifth from the bottom – 894th out of a class of 899 after a "four-year course of insubordination". As a pilot he would wreck four fighter planes. In Spain, flying low and fast, he sliced through a power line, but never lost his wings. He once pulled his family's rank coming in to McCain Field, demanding: "Let me land or I'll take my field and go home!"

In the Bay of Tonkin, in 1967, a Zuni rocket from stationary American plane inexplicably ripped through the fuel tank of his aircraft. The explosion killed 134 on his carrier. But by next day he had befriended RW "Johnny" Apple of The New York Times, who came to cover the calamity. Then it was off to Apple's villa for "some welcome R&R".

He was soon shot down over Hanoi and his tale of mistreatment created the McCain brand. "Thanks to my prisoner-of-war experience," McCain writes, "I had, as they say in politics, a good story to sell." And sell it he would. Leonard Doyle