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Where the Evidence Leads, by Dick Thornburgh (University of Pittsburgh Press, 386 pages, $35) Four Trials, by John Edwards with John Auchard (Simon & Schuster, 237 pages, $24) As a general rule, politicians’ memoirs are the last place to look for insights about their careers. Unfortunately, new autobiographies by Dick Thornburgh and John Edwards are no exception. Neither man — one whose political career is seemingly behind him, the other still clawing for the White House — provides any new revelations. In the course of his three decades in public service, Thornburgh has been a district attorney, a U.S. Attorney, a governor, an attorney general, and a United Nations fix-it guy. Yet in “Where the Evidence Leads,” Thornburgh, who is now of counsel at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, manages largely to reinforce the image he has spent much of his career trying to dispel, that of the colorless man in a gray flannel suit. To be fair, Thornburgh is the model of a decent public servant. But the sad truth is that a career of honorable government service doesn’t necessarily translate into an exciting read, particularly when your autobiography is nothing more artful than a catalog of campaign stops and cases won. Those unfamiliar with or uninterested in Pennsylvania politics may find whole chapters sleep-inducing. Thornburgh had a front-row seat for some of the biggest moments of the last quarter-century. Yet, in this telling, most don’t merit more ink than a Scranton highway improvement project. He brushes off Iran-Contra as overblown. The selection of David Souter and Clarence Thomas for the U.S. Supreme Court earn as much space as a description of his gubernatorial Cabinet. Three Mile Island is treated like a technocratic policy exercise. Even completely uncontroversial moments that could have made for great stories — such as his visit to the KGB headquarters while attorney general — come out flat. The closest Thornburgh gets to a “tell all” moment is when he admits to having gone “hooking,” or shoplifting, in high school or when he recounts a conversation he once had with a prostitute near Times Square before starting Yale. Only discussions of his son, left severely brain-damaged by a car accident that killed his first wife, generate real passion. Although Thornburgh spends little time stepping back to reflect, he seems generally revolted by how contentious and scandal-driven Washington politics has increasingly become, and he criticizes what he considers Congress’ insatiable appetite for investigations. Yet the media earn his sharpest criticism, particularly “60 Minutes” and New York Times columnist and fellow Republican William Safire. But he sees no irony in his feeding the culture of scrutiny he abhors by becoming a talking head on the cable news channels during the O.J. Simpson trial and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Thornburgh is forthright about his failings in 1991 as a Senate candidate. In fact, he is almost in awe of his broadsiding by the tag team of Paul Begala and James Carville a year before his former boss, the first President George Bush, received similar treatment at their hands. Also give Thornburgh credit for writing the book himself — there’s no evidence here of any ghostwriting, though some expert advice might surely have helped bring some punchiness to “Where the Evidence Leads.” Unlike Thornburgh’s overly detailed account of his career, Edwards’ “Four Trials” focuses on just one chunk of his. Don’t expect any chapters dedicated to his first term in the Senate, or to winning millions in class actions, or to becoming one of Congress’ 20 richest members. Instead, Edwards portrays himself, narrowly, as a heroic personal injury lawyer, tirelessly working against all odds on behalf of the Little Guy. He describes four clients victimized by negligent doctors, reckless trucking companies, and a villainous pool filter that sucked out a little girl’s intestines. Not only do Edwards and his associates win their clients millions, they also fix their plumbing and empty their urine bottles. “Four Trials” is carefully crafted to highlight his humble roots as the son of working-class parents. So poor were Edwards and his wife that, after their graduation from the University of North Carolina’s law school, they couldn’t afford a $22 motel room on their second night of marriage, according to this account. Mixed into the narrative are trite lessons about lawyering like “listen to every word” and “a good lawyer never stops learning.” Yet the book can be surprisingly gripping at moments, presumably benefitting from the presence of its co-author, University of Maryland English professor John Auchard. But where Thornburgh drains his career of almost all emotional content, Edwards goes overboard. For example, the going gets a little heavy-handed when Edwards explains how he recovered from the pain of his own son’s death in an auto accident by representing a child who had lost his parents in a car crash. It’s hard at such times not to feel a little manipulated. As far as Edwards’ presidential aspirations are concerned, it’s too bad he isn’t as good on the stump as he has proven to be in front of juries — or, for that matter, in selling himself in print. Seth Stern is a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor.

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