Politics on the page

    Here’s a wild guess: I’m betting that you haven’t spent the holidays curled up with a stack of political books. Why would you? Virtually any other leisure pursuit, even an Adam Sandler man-child movie, scores higher on the fun meter. But just in case the mood hits you, I do have some book recommendations – a top 10 for 2010.First, a caveat. My list doesn’t pretend to be all-inclusive. I have no interest in the mindless diatribe genre, those books with titles that all sound like How to Bash the Brains of the Commie Fascist Socialist Who Gets Up In Your Face. I have no interest in the partisan celebrity genre, which automatically eliminates anything by the likes of Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann. And I have no interest in the self-serving politician genre, which means that I won’t spare precious free time to hunker down with The Good Fight by Walter Mondale (who’s best known for losing in a landslide to Ronald Reagan 26 years ago), or Leadership and Crisis by Bobby Jindal (a book that, last I heard, was ranked #4359 on Amazon).And so, counting down to number one:10. The Pledge, by Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer. This slim history of the pledge of allegiance should be required reading for all the tea-partiers who tout their patriotism and fulminate about “socialism.” Turns out, the pledge was written in the late 19th century by Francis Bellamy, a committed socialist. Turns out, Bellamy’s mission in life was to popularize an agenda by which “the government apportions the gross national product equally among all.”9. Interesting Times, by George Packer. A collection of The New Yorker writer’s best work during the first decade of the new century. Post-9/11, he has enlightened American readers about complex foreign events. No easy task. He writes: “Long-form narrative journalism, that luxury of an earlier, slower time, like the three-volume novel or the three-martini lunch, turned out to be the means by which much of the reading public at the start of the 21st century started to understand what had been done to America and what America was doing in return” – at least “until we grew weary of the bad news, and set up real and mental barriers to the world.”  8. Poisoning the Press, by Mark Feldstein. You think relations between presidents and the press are bad now? Check out the early ’70s blood feud between Richard Nixon and muckraking newspaper columnist Jack Anderson. The latter is barely remembered today, but in his pre-Internet era, Anderson led the league in scoops. He zapped Nixon so often that Nixon’s men seriously plotted with the CIA to kill Anderson with untraceable poison. This book is a primer on power and how it corrupts.7. Game Change, by John Heillmann and Mark Halperin. All the dish that’s fit to print about the ’08 campaign, featuring the pretty-boy Democrat whose mistress put their sex on video; the foul-mouthed and bitter Republican nominee who desperately chose, as his running mate, a pretty-girl lightweight; the seemingly inevitable Democratic nominee who blew her bid in part because her top aides were too busy knifing each other. This isn’t the civics-book version of politics. This is the flesh and blood, with a stress on the blood. The guilty pleasure read of the year.6. The Backlash, by Will Bunch. Yes, Philly guy Bunch is a self-described progressive, so in theory that ill suits him to write about the tea-party movement. But he is first and foremost a reporter. In this book, he travels far and wide to interview the tea-partiers, and provide them with ample opportunity to articulate their concerns. The hitch, however, is that sometimes those concerns aren’t very articulate. To wit, Kentucky tea-partier John Grant: “I today carry a loaded firearm, which I would not have done 10 years ago. What am I afraid of? I do not know.”5. Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. Teddy was a piece of work. He hunted lions, wrote 40 books, and transformed America into a global naval power. He took an assassin’s bullet in his chest, and proceeded to deliver an 80-minute speech before allowing the doctors to treat him. If he were alive today, he’d be the king of Twitter. Actually, thanks to this final volume in the Morris trilogy, Roosevelt is alive today. In fact, what TR said in 1910 seems relevant in 2010; while railing against the power of corporate money in politics, he said that the Constitution “does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation,” and that America should ban “the use of corporate funds, directly or indirectly, for political purposes.” Imagine what TR would be tweeting today about John Roberts and his pro-corporation allies on the high court.4. Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, by Andrew Bacevich. Who better to update Dwight Eisenhower’s 1960 warning about the “military-industrial complex” than an ex-Army officer? Bacevich was once, by his own admission, a soldier trained to accept institutional authority; today, he’s prominent national-security scholar and independent thinker. He argues here that America “has been heedlessly thrust into an ill-defined and open-ended ‘global war on terror’ without the foggiest notion of what victory would look like, how it would be won, and what it might cost,” and that the military-industrial complex will perpetuate it, regardless of which party holds the White House, thus dooming us to the risk of “insolvency and perpetual war.” Not the fun read of the year, but food for thought.3. Athwart History, by William F. Buckley Jr., Roger Kimball, and Linda Bridges. Conservative columnist Buckley is well served by this copious posthumous collection of his writings. I was always a big fan of his erudite tone and obtuse style, if only for the entertainment value. Sometimes he was prescient. In one of his last columns (reprinted in the book), he suggested that ’08 candidate Barack Obama, while touting himself as a successful role model, was creating expectations that could not be met. The verbiage was classic Buckley: “To suggest to his listeners that any active intervention by the government would increase ‘the chance for that same success’ for ‘every American child’ is mischievous. To imply that such careers are open to most people, let alone every American child, is to foster frustration and to stimulate disillusion.”2. Idiot America, by Charles Pierce. A number of books have lately examined the epidemic of ignorance in contemporary America; this one is arguably the best. Pierce, a longtime journalist who writes for Esquire magazine, got the idea when he heard about the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where anti-science visitors are taught that our forebears used dinosaurs for transportation. The last straw was when he visited the place, and saw a dinosaur with a saddle on its back. Idiot America, writes Pierce, “is the development of a collective gut at the expense of a collective mind. It’s what results when politicians make ridiculous statements and not merely do we abandon the right to punish them for it at the polls, but we also become too timid to punish them with ridicule on a daily basis, because they’re popular anyway. It’s what results when leaders are not held to account for mistakes that end up killing people.”1. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. This is ostensibly a novel about black maids in segregated ’60s Mississippi, but in its raw and painful truths about the human condition, about the pressure of conformity and the power of oppression, it is political to the core. I avoided this book for a long time, assuming that anything that sat on the bestseller list for 85 straight weeks had to be middlebrow, but I was wrong. It’s a profound page-turner, and I especially recommend it to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the GOP presidential hopeful, who says of the segregation era, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.” Deal with it, dude.

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