Perspective | Carter, Bernie, Reagan: Who is the best audiobook narrator?

Politicians, especially candidates for the presidency, are judged on matters other than their political views and the grievousness of their sins. There is, for instance, the question of their voices and manner of speaking. A certain president who just passed through the White House boomed as though always using a megaphone; others who preceded him may have been less emphatic, but the tone and cadence of their speech were nonetheless singular.

Benjamin Harrison, the first to be recorded, in 1889, for instance, had a pomposity of delivery that would doom him today. You can listen for yourself in “A Rare Recording of 11 U.S. Presidents” (Listen & Live Audio, 22 minutes). It also features William McKinley, a master of the grand hallooing style later adopted by W.C. Fields; Theodore Roosevelt, who undermines his Rough Rider persona with a weeny, high voice; and William Howard Taft exhibiting his native Ohio’s warmish “r’s” and open vowels. Woodrow Wilson, Virginian though he was, has a fast, mincing way of talking; Warren G. Harding, extolling “Americanism,” speaks at a slow tread; and Calvin Coolidge preaches frugality in a peeved, high-pitched Yankee creak. The transatlantic accent and clipped pacing we know from old movies begins to edge in with Herbert Hoover but is in full cry with Franklin Roosevelt, only to be moderated by Harry “Haberdasher” Truman and abandoned entirely by Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Why some books should not be made into audiobooks

As for our more recent presidents and presidential wannabes, their voices are certainly more familiar, but what is it like to hear them speak for hours, talking about themselves? Not entirely dreadful, I can attest. I listened to a handful of political memoirs voiced by their creators, and here are some of the highlights and lowlights.

Published and recorded in 2015 when he was 90 years old, Jimmy Carter’s “A Full Life” (Simon & Schuster, 7¾ hours) is well organized and scrupulously detailed — just as you would expect from a former naval engineer with a gift for specification. Carter’s voice still sounds pretty much as it did when he was president almost 50 years ago — a somewhat bittersweet sound with the 98-year-old now in hospice care. His accent is Georgian, and he still says “nucular,” despite years of ridicule from all those Northern smarty pants. Carter reads at a fast trot in a book that’s stocked with expressions of his deep Christian faith, his love for wife Rosalynn and smatterings of his own poetry; his book brings us through his life as peanut farmer, naval officer on nuclear submarines, businessman, governor, president, and advocate for peace and human rights.

Carter was unseated by a former movie star and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, whose 700-plus page autobiography, “An American Life,” was published in 1990 and read by him in a tremendously abridged version (Simon & Schuster, three hours). Say what you will about Reagan (and I won’t), he was a great storyteller. Here he shares homey tales from his days as a radio sports announcer and consequential ones from Middle East peace negotiations with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. In Reagan’s genial, sandy voice you can sense the allure of his friendly manner and buoyant, if misplaced, optimism: “One of the great things about America,” he tells us, remembering his inauguration, “is how smoothly we transfer presidential power.”

Barack Obama’s memoir “Dreams From My Father” (1995) — which, read by the author, won a Grammy in 2006 for a much-abridged version — is now available in its entirety (Random House Audio, 14 hours). This superb personal history ends in 1988, before Obama ran for public office and, indeed, before he met Michelle. He reads it with such brio and shows such a gift for portraying other voices and styles of speech that, had he considered becoming a professional audiobook narrator instead of settling for president of the United States, he would have been one of the great ones. The book covers his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia, his work as a community organizer in Chicago, and his trip in 1988 to Kenya to visit his paternal relations. At a deeper level, Obama explores his search for identity as a man of mixed race and split national heritage, as well as the thoroughgoing problems of racism in America.

In “It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism” (Random House Audio, 12 hours) Bernie Sanders takes off the mittens to deliver a volley of punishing blows to “uber capitalism” and the profiteers and gougers who are its main players. He is the man with the facts, delivered in his scrappy, Brooklyn voice. Sanders calls for “real politics,” an undeluded coming together of working people to confront Big Pharma, Big Finance, the insurance industry, the “corporate elite” — the forces that are turning the country into a plutocratic oligarchy. It may be too late, but listening to this pugnacious, indomitable voice, you can almost believe that it’s not.

Katherine A. Powers reviews audiobooks every month for The Washington Post.

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