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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Great Political Reads


A Top Ten List

Legislatures are in session, the president is poised to deliver the State of the Union and we just marked the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inaugural. All politics all the time.

So…writing recently about Richard Ben Cramer’s political classic What It Takes got me thinking about some of my favorite political reads. Here, in no particular order, is a Top Ten List of Political Reads – or a Top Eleven counting Cramer’s tome, which has to be on any list of mine. Here goes.

1. Truman by David McCullough. Certainly among the greatest political biographies, McCullough won the Pulitzer for his great writing and research and this booked helped rehabilitate the reputation of the Man from Missouri.

2. They Also Ran by Irving Stone. This is the fascinating story of the men who ran for president and lost. In chapter length profiles, Stone groups these “losers” into categories like “Generals Die in the Army” and “Wall Street Lawyers.” This classic was published in 1943, so it ends with the story of that “loser” Wendell Willkie who, with the full benefit of hindsight, seems to have been a remarkable man. In fact, Stone makes a compelling case that many of those who ran for the White House and lost were every bit as able – and often better – than those who won.

3. Shooting Star by Tom Wicker. There are many, many good books about controversial Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, but if you read just one you will find none better than Wicker’s little volume. The great one-time New York Times writer establishes McCarthy in his times with all his well-documented excesses, but also offers a nuanced view – too nuanced for some critics – of McCarthy’s troubled personality. This is a critical book, but also fair and full of color sustained by the perspective of a political reporter who knows politics and politicians.

4. Huey Long by T. Harry Williams. Another biography, this one exhaustive, of another demagogue. Long was a brilliant Louisiana communicator/politician who rose from humble beginnings to command a virtual state dictatorship. Williams’ book is highly readable and, some would argue, more sympathetic to the Kingfish than it should be, but it is also a classic work of political history. By 1935, Long had become a national figure – his radio speeches were powerful, funny and frightening. He also became a threat from the left to Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election. Long’s life ended in September 1935 in a hail of gunfire in the hallway of the capitol building he had built in Baton Rouge, but the Long dynasty survived. The Long family produced another governor, a congressman and Huey’s senator son Russell who, like his papa, was one of the great political figures in the history of the United States Senate.

5. Advice and Consent by Allen Drury. Drury was a Congressional correspondent when he wrote his classic 1959 novel about a bitter Senate confirmation battle. The book has lasting appeal as a look inside the exclusive club, complete with deals, double crosses, sex, scandal and statesmanship.

6. Senator Mansfield by Don Oberdorfer. Montana’s Mike Mansfield was a great Senator and perhaps, with apologies to Lyndon Johnson, the most constructive Senate Majority Leader in history. In former Washington Post reporter Don Oberdorfer’s masterful biography, Mansfield emerges as a great thinker and a profoundly decent man; the model of a modern senator.

7. The 103rd Ballot by Robert K. Murray. It is hard to believe these days, with our national political conventions little more than carefully choreographed TV commercials, that years ago the conventions were great political theatre where presidential candidacies were both born and buried. In 1924, Democrats took an unbelievable 103 ballots to nominate a compromise candidate John W. Davis who, not surprisingly, took the horribly divided party to disastrous defeat. That convention – one observer noted that Democrats had taken a week to commit political suicide – is detailed in Murray’s colorful history, complete with the KKK, prohibition, religion and, did I mention, large doses of bare knuckle politics.

8. Five Days in Philadelphia by Charles Peters. There have been, I think, two absolutely pivotal presidential elections in American history: 1864 when Lincoln was re-elected and thereby able to prosecute the Civil War to its ultimate end and 1940 when Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term and a chance to lead the country away from isolationism. Peters’ great little book centers on the GOP nominating process in 1940 and the convention in Philadelphia that nominated Wendell Willkie. Willkie was the last true “dark horse” to win a presidential nomination.

9. Mick – The Real Michael Collins by Peter Hart. I’m both fascinated and repelled by the complex and frequently awful history of modern Irish politics. Any effort to understand the complex tale of modern Ireland must include the story of the great Irish Republican leader Michael Collins. Collins was both general and politician, but mostly brilliant political strategist and manager. He was also clever, ambitious, brave and brutal. He lost his life during the Irish Civil War in 1922. Collins had a pivotal role in the negotiations with the British – the British delegation included Winston Churchill – that resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The treaty helped secure Irish independence, but was so unpopular with some that it also precipitated the civl war. As a practical, pragmatic peacemaker, Collins defended the treaty and knew that in doing so he might well have written his death warrant. Nearly 90 years after his death, Collins’ grave in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery is still every day festooned with fresh flowers.

10. Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro. Caro’s monumental, multi-volume biography of LBJ is notable for the vast reach of his research, but also for his unrelenting (and at times unfair) critique of Johnson’s remarkable career. Still, the third volume on Johnson’s years as Senate Majority Leader, is as good a portrait of the Senate as any every crafted. The publication of the final volume of Caro’s nearly life-long work on Johnson will be a major milestone, but who knows when he’ll be finished with it. Caro took 12 years to write Master of the Senate. It is a huge book and hugely important. There you have it – a Top Ten list for a political junkie.

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