Saturday, December 22, 2007

Favorite Political Books and Biographies

We are only a pebble throw away from 2008, and if you want high political drama, all you need to do is read the newspaper. But if you are just catching the political bug, it wouldn't hurt to take a look at the politics of both the distant and recent past. Here are a few great political reads to prime you for 2008...

1) The Making of the President: 1960, By Theodore H. White. This is one of my favorite books of all time. To understand the primary system we have today, you have to go back to John F. Kennedy's historic run for the Democratic nomination and how he was inspired to seek the nomination through the primaries. Furthermore, the race between Kennedy and Nixon has modern resonance because of the important technological and demographic changes occuring at the time. The thing I loved most about this book is the way that White describes his characters--you truly hear the voice of a 1960's "newsman" as he describes the virtues and flaws of the candidates and describes the humor and intellect of the "Kennedy Brain Trust." It has been twelve years since I read this book, but I plan to dust it off this coming year.

2) First in His Class, by David Maraniss. It's a funny thing how one book can lead you to another. I was reading this book in high school and it mentioned a young Bill Clinton reading "The Making of the President: 1960." Sometime later I was browsing the bargain book table at the library and found "The Making of..." sitting there. I bought it, read it and still own that copy.

"First in His Class" is a rich, well-researched biography of the pre-presidential years of Bill Clinton. While officially "unauthorized", this book is the product of many interviews with associates of Bill Clinton and is quite even-handed. It talks about Clinton's student elections in Arkansas and at Georgetown, his dating Hillary Rodham, his time at Oxford and Yale, his unsuccessful run for Congress, travels and more. Reading this book gave me the sense of thinking I know what makes Bill Clinton tick.

3) All Too Human, by George Stephanopoulos. What a read! I remember when this book came out and some journalists were asking if it was too personal and unfair to the Clintons. I did not feel that way at all. Stephanopoulos not only shows the "human" side of the Clintons but also his own human side, including the enormous stress he bore and the sense he conveys that there were times when he felt out of his league.

4) Kennedy and Nixon, by Chris Matthews. I have never had anything against Chris Matthews, but before reading this book, I assumed you could not be a pundit and a historian at the same time. Matthews' thesis is that Nixon's old rivalry (and never ending paranoia) with the Kennedys shaped his actions all the way through Watergate. Even after Chappaquiddick, Nixon thought that Ted Kennedy might rob him of a second term, and this paranoia was apparently part of what drove him to some of his Watergate sins.

5) The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940 by William Manchester. Speaking of Chris Matthews (and being led to books by reading books), it was in "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think", that Matthews recommended William Manchester as a great American biographer of Sir Winson Churchill. I read "Alone" just after reading Manchester's biography of Churchill's youth ("Visions of Glory") and could not put the book down. This book is about the years when Winston Churchill was a political pariah, but would not stop warning Britain about the Nazi menace. It is the true story of political courage.

6) Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think, by Chris Matthews. Ah, what the heck. I'll throw this one in too. There are many great lessons in this book, but the most salient one is a line that goes something like this: The person who is going to win the presidency is going to be the man with the sun in his face. With Hillary Clinton a major (perhaps the major) contender in 2008, I would like to say that the winner will likely be the man or woman with the sun in his or her face. Matthews is talking about optimism and how winning presidents have always made America feel good about ourselves and them. Strident activists in both parties are usually angry about something or they wouldn't be involved. But the Commander-in-Chief will actually have to stop fighting "city hall" and run it the day he or she is elected. That is why anger-fueled movements can only vault a candidate so far--and probably not to a general election win. I think Obama has the sun in his face and Romney has glints of it too. If Hillary can somehow project the suny optimism that her husband has mastered, I think her chances would improve dramatically.

7) Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I confess, I just started reading this but I am being held in rapt attention. Goodwin makes a departure from earlier Lincoln biographies to also biographize Lincoln's greatest rivals--men who he included in his inner circle because of both his shrewdness and humility. The nation was blessed because of the actions of Abraham Lincoln. What more can I say? Abraham Lincoln: what a man!

8) Thirty Days: An Inside Account of Tony Blair at War, by Peter Stothard. A fascinating read about a man trying to get his party and countrymen to move in a direction that many of them don't want to go. This books is about Tony Blair during the run-up to the Iraq War, told by a British journalist.

9) Big Russ & Me, by Tim Russert. This is ostensibly a book about a father and a son, but is really a book about influential figures in Tim Russerts life--and primarily his dad of course. It is also a book about the events and ideas that influenced a young Russert, a man who grew up in a working-class household and who now holds tremendous political clout himself. In this book are a lot of great anecdotes about people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and other mentors of Russert--most of whom exhibited great wisdom about life or politics.

10) The Choice, by Bob Woodward. I know, you are w0ndering what a book about the 1996 Presidential race has to offer today (I mean, wasn't 1996 about a millinium of dog years ago?). In all seriousness, you can learn a lot about the upcoming presidential race by reading about any one of them from the past. You realize that the same gaffes (like, oops, I guess so and so didn't endorse me after all) happen over and over. Also, whenever a veteran reporter follows an entire race, you begin to get a sense of the human element on both sides of the battle--not just a one-sided run down of the political laundry list.

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