Attention all shoppers! Assuming you haven’t already been trampled to death at the usual Black Friday meccas, you’re probably on the hunt for holiday gifts. Maybe someone in your circle is jonesing for a political book, or maybe you’ve voiced that desire to someone else. If you’re up for some recommendations, here’s my thumbnail list of the year’s best:
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. OK, this seminal book is seven years old, but it’s online and on the store shelves in a new paperback edition, a timely tie-in to the Lincoln movie. Steven Spielberg’s film plucks one chapter from the book – Lincoln’s passage of the constitutional amendment banning slavery – but Goodwin tells the complete story of Lincoln’s mastery of the art of politics, his willingness to sometimes employ ignoble means to achieve noble ends. Her book, a celebration of the democratic process at its best, is a great narrative read.
It’s Even Worse Than It Looks by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. If you’re wondering why today’s Congress is so dysfunctional, these authors – two of the most respected political scholars in Washington dating back 40 years – will set you straight. The key passage: “The core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.” Yeah. What they said.
Do Not Ask What Good We Do by Robert Draper. Speaking of Capitol Hill, the well-sourced Draper is the perfect guy to serve up true gossip about the loons who made the 2011-2 Congress such a rat’s nest. Great laugh material about Eric Cantor’s struggles to knock some sense into his tea-party pals (“We’re working hard to educate our guys,” he tells Draper); about Democratic camera hog Sheila Jackson Lee (whenever she rose to speak, which was always, her colleagues put coins in a Sheila Jackson Lee Money Jar); about Anthony Weiner (regarding you know what). One wonders whether even Lincoln could’ve herded these cats.
The Obamas by Jodi Kantor. The private dynamics of the First Relationship have impacted the public ever since John Adams paid heed to Abigail. It’s no different today, with Barack and Michelle. During the first term, she influenced him and he influenced her. Cantor’s book tells us how and why – although, with each passing day, and given the recent uptick in Obama’s political fortunes, the first-term tensions already seem to be receding into the mists of history.
Watergate by Thomas Mallon. This is an historical novel, as a opposed to a straight history. But Watergate resonates anew in this book, because Mallon – one of the rare novelists who lives in Washington and writes about Washington – animates the real people who were sucked into the scandal. Many of history’s villains are made human, and thus sympathetic. Even Richard Nixon. And especially his prime victim on the personal side of the ledger, Pat Nixon.
47 Percent by David Corn. This is an ebook, an autumn quickie authored by the journalist who broke the story about Mitt Romney’s infamous remarks to a fat-cat audience. If you were rightly disgusted by the plutocratic candidate’s dissing of nearly half the American people, you might want to read the inside skinny on how Mitt’s ‘tude was exposed to the world. If you’re still stewing about Mitt’s loss and blaming it on Chris Christie or Nate Silver or greedy Latinos or whatever, then skip the ebook.
Passage of Power by Robert Caro. The fourth biographical volume about LBJ is predictably insightful about Johnson’s manifold contradictions – his compassion, monomania, pettiness, grandeur, and virtually every other adjective in the English language. Hard to imagine this book being a page-turner, but it is. What’s most amazing, from the perspective of 2012, is how corrupt he was – he leveraged his public power to build a private fortune – and how quickly that behavior would be outed in today’s Twitterverse. Yet he frequently induged the better angels of his nature as well, to our betterment. (Vietnam aside.)
The Oath by Jeffrey Toobin. The New Yorker’s legal affairs chronicler has written his second book on the John Roberts court, and, in doing so, he reminds us why a president’s choices are so consequential. Toobin says that the Republicans, and their legal think tanks, have a very specific judicial agenda: “expand executive power, end racial preferences intended to assist African-Americans, speed up executions, prohibit all forms of gun control, welcome religion into the public sphere, deregulate political campaigns and, above all, reverse Roe v. Wade and allow states to ban abortion.” Those priorities were rarely discussed during the election season, but rest assured that if Obama nominates new people during his second term, he will do his best to keep that agenda at bay.
Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power by David Sanger. Republicans used to own the national security brand, but no longer. Sanger, a veteran New York Times national security writer, explains why they’ve lost it: “There was nothing in Obama’s personal history and little in his campaign rhetoric that prepared his supporters or his allies for his embrace of hard, covert power, nothing that suggested he would dramatically escalate America’s drone wars, or secretly launch the country into a new era of cyber combat.” The liberal Democratic wing is discomfited by Obama’s moves – with some justification – but his hard-power assertiveness cemented his commander-in-chief creds and helped him win re-election.
And Unlikely Liberal: Sarah Palin’s Curious Record as Alaska’s Governor by Matthew Yencey. Seriously, check this one out. Zencey, a longtime Alaska newsman (and an affable acquaintance of mine), has penned a counterintuitive examination of the Palin policy oeuvre. Prior to her prime-time makeover, she actually did some good things. Her current acolytes and Foxfans will be horrified by Zencey’s clearly-explicated evidence.
Meanwhile, these books are destined for the remainder shelves at bargain prices:
The Teavangelicals: The Inside Story of How the Evangelicans and the Tea Party are Taking Back America by David Brody. As if. The belly laugh book of the post-election season.
No Apology: The Case for American Greatness by Mitt Romney. Yeah, whatever. Say goodnight, Mitt.
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