The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote, "There is no Frigate like a Book, to take us Lands away." She got that right; not even a 40-inch high-definition TV can compete with the pleasures of the printed page, although I suppose that such an observation dates me.
So today, in the holiday spirit of making lists and checking them twice, I'm tallying my favorite political and history books of 2008. This is a somewhat eclectic list, as anyone's list would be. Four of these books were published this year; the rest are newly-issued paperbacks. In alphabetical order:
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham. "Old Hickory" was the first populist president, an ex-frontiersman who fought the money establishment and identified with the little guy. (Or, more specifically, the little white guy.) Jackson used to argue that government should "shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor." But as author Meacham (who edits Newsweek) points out in this colorful new biography, which depicts its subject warts and all, "Jackson...was blinded by the prejudices of his age, and could not see - or chose not to see, for other Americans of the age did recognize the horror of the way of life Jackson upheld - that the promise of the Founding, that all men are created equal, extended to all."
An Army at Dawn and Day of Battle, both by Rick Atkinson. These World War II tomes, on the North African and Italian campaigns respectively, should be read in tandem. The North Africa book won the Pulitzer Prize; the Italian book is just as compelling. They put you in the middle of the horrific action, and you come away with a heightened respect (if that's even possible) for the bloody sacrifices of our soldiers in that war to save western civilization. Thanks to the brilliant research and writing, these books make Band of Brothers look like child's play.
Angler, by Barton Gellman. I mentioned this new Dick Cheney biography on Monday. Gellman, a Washington Post reporter, unearths all kinds of new information, and his nuanced verdict on Cheney draws its credibility from the sheer cumulative weight of the reporting. The first chapter alone - which details how in 2000 Cheney rigged the Bush vice-presidential search process to benefit himself; and how he apparently leaked damaging information about one of the finalists, using background material that the finalist himself had helpfully provided - is worth the hardcover price.
Journals 1952-2000, by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The liberal historian and Kennedy courtier kept a private journal for five decades, and this thick volume, edited by his sons, is filled with juicy contemporaneous insights. One random entry, from summer 1960: The liberal Adlai Stevenson movement, led by "the nicest people in the Democratic party," nevertheless "was not tough enough" and "lacked the basic instinct for power necessary for success in a hard world." In another random entry, from November 1998, he refers to Joe Lieberman as "a sanctimonious prick."
Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein. A kaleidoscopic look at the 1960s, a time when the cities burned and national political leaders were cut down by assassins - and an important reminder that our own domestic era is tame by comparison. Great writing, great documentary detail on everything from cinema to sex to the new suburbia - and starring Richard Nixon, who, acccording to the author, successfully crafted the politics of polarization, the notion "that there are two kinds of Americans. On the one side, the 'Silent Majority'...the middle-class, middle-American, suburban, exurban, and rural coalition...On the other side are the 'liberals,' the 'cosmopolitans,' the 'intellectuals,' the 'professionals.'" Sound familiar?
Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Yeah, I know, the book is trendy now because of the supposed Lincoln-Obama parallels. But, actually, the book's best asset is that it is a veritable writing clinic. Goodwin's story-telling talents, her strong narrative skills, and her eye for small but vivid detail, all serve to make Lincoln come alive as a fully-dimensional human being. Ditto for rivals William Henry Seward (you can almost smell the flowers in his garden), Edward Bates, and Salmon Chase.
The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane. This is actually an historical novel, grounded in the tumultuous Boston of 1919, when the city was gripped by a fear of foreign terrorists, a fear that prompted the local police and the federal government (led by the young J. Edgar Hoover) to overreact and stomp on people's civil liberties. Plus, the flu epidemic ran rampant, the cops went on strike, and Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees. Author Lehane, the bard of Boston, is best known as the mystery writer who penned Mystic River. This new work is a major leap forward.
The Magnificent Catastrophe, by Edward Larson. This new paperback, which chronicles the Adams-Jefferson presidential election of 1800, should be required reading for anyone laboring under the delusion that negative politics is a new phenomenon. The Federalists circulated pamphlets warning that Jefferson, if elected, would close the churches; and that if Jefferson won, Americans would no longer be able "to guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence." Jefferson (unlike Barack Obama in 2008) ultimately decided that it was futile to try to rebut all the slanders. As he told one of his colleagues, "It has been so impossible to contradict all their lies that I have determined to contradict none; for while I should be engaged with one, they would publish 20 new ones."
The Second Civil War, by Ronald Brownstein. The author, one of our very best national political writers, traces the roots of the partisanship and polarization that have come to dominate contemporary Washington. And although Brownstein finished the book in 2007, he anticipated Obama's ultimate challenge: "All of the men and women auditioning to succeed Bush may sincerely intend to promote reconciliation, yet constructing a more pragmatic, productive, and unifying politics will require not only sincerity but fortitude. No one should underestimate the difficulty of taming the powerful forces in each party, and in the underlying workings of the modern political system and the mass media, that now feed on division. A president committed to political peace will earn the scars to prove it."
The Woman at the Washington Zoo, by Marjorie Williams. She was only 47 when she died in 2005, but, as a profile writer and columnist for The Washington Post and Vanity Fair, Williams was already a legend. This anthology, edited by her husband, features her most shrewdly-observed writings - especially the profiles of Jeb Bush and Barbara Bush; and the joint profile of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, entitled "Scenes from a Marriage." Williams spared nobody - including herself, as evidenced by the painful, eloquent chronicle of her own illness. This book proves that death can't dim a great writer's voice.
Oh, and here's a political book, published in 2006, that you need not bother to read:
One Party Country, by Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten. I'll merely quote from the book jacket: "Is the United States becoming a one-party country? Republicans control every branch of government in Washington...Republicans remain firmly planted in the driver's seat of national politics...This book's rigorous examination of the GOP machine suggests that a Democratic resurgence faces steep barriers...The 21st century GOP is the New York Yankees of national politics. And like a dominant sports franchise, the Republicans have put in place the advantages they need to ensure an automatic edge in every foreseeable cycle."