The best political books of 2013

     

    The holiday gift-giving season officially ended today (are you fondling your new Duck Dynasty rifle & bullet T-shirt?), but it’s not too late to treat yourself to the year’s best political books. In no particular order, these were my faves:

    This Town by Mark Leibovich. A funny, dispiriting, and appalling look at the petty political hacks and careerist power trippers who make Washington such a hate-worthy city. You’ll be glad you don’t live there, but the dirty details – about the special-interest hustle, about the fine art of humble-bragging, and much more – are nauseatingly fascinating, like rubber-necking at a car crash. People were networking like crazy, handing out business cards, at Tim Russert’s memorial service, fer chrissake. That kind of thing.

    Days of Fire by Peter Baker. The first comprehensive narrative of the George W. Bush years – great grist for future historians – with special emphasis on the nuanced relationship between W and his veep. It’s no revelation that Dick Cheney’s influence waned during Bush’s second term, but the author gets down into the weeds on why that happened. Plus, you can relive the arrogant, delusional machismo that so marred the first term (Bush to Republican governors, 2002: “Write this down. Afghanistan and Iraq will lead that part of the world toward democracy”) – if you have the stomach for it.

    Wilson by Scott Berg. A seasoned biographer, tackling a president who has long deserved a contemporary biography. Woodrow Wilson, the sole New Jersey governor ever elected to the presidency (so far), was one complex dude – a chilly, reserved babe magnet; a pioneering progressive and vicious racist; a peace-on-earth dreamer and domestic Red-baiter. A high-minded idealist, he had problems working with Congress. Sound like anyone else we know?

    Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. There’s no analysis, no attempt to explain What It All Means, the writing style (viciously satirized in a New York Times review by Michael Kinsley) is only servicable, and why should we care anymore about, say, Herman Cain’s five minutes of fame? Still, this buzz-and-heat recap of the ’12 campaign is page-turning porn for political junkies. Watch the insiders go ballistic over every poll and ad and gaffe…it’s a lot like the HBO show Veep, dramatizing what the authors rightly call “the freak show.”

    The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck. The perfect complement to Double Down. Sides and Vavreck are political scientists who contend that the polls and ads and gaffes – the buzz and the heat – barely influenced the election. They argue that the big picture was virtually static from start to finish. President Obama had a five-point lead in the late ’11 polls, and a year later he won by four points; the economy stayed in sluggish uptick mode; Romney lost a little ground at the margins when he dissed the “47 percent,” and Obama lost a little ground at the margins when he blew the first debate. The high-priced strategists should hope that this book doesn’t sell (it won’t, it’s too dry for a mass audience), because it shatters the conventional wisdom that strategists make a difference.

    The New Democrats and the Return to Power by Al From. The author, who ran the centrist Democratic Leadership Council for nearly a quarter century, played a key role in bringing the Democrats out of the wilderness after five losses in six presidential elections. The Dems lost almost every race in the years from 1968 to 1988, mostly because centrist voters saw the party as too beholden to its left-wing ideological base. Bill Clinton, a DLC leader who worked with From, changed the template in 1992. This book should be assigned reading for today’s Republicans (popular vote losers in five of the last six elections) – a primer for a wilderness party that can’t shake the grip of its right-wng ideological base.

    The Big Dog Barks Again! My Plot to Get Hillary into the Big Chair by Bill Clinton. Key passage: “Remember when my wife said in 1992 that if you-all elected me, that you’d get ‘two for the price of one’? Well, it’ll be the same thing next time around, just with the roles reversed – and doggone it, I can’t wait to have the run of the place.”.Just kidding, of course. Bill has not penned a ’16 blueprint, but rest assured that it’s stored in his mental hard-drive.

    ——-

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.