Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Great Reporters, Great Books

Very sad today about the loss of Richard Ben Cramer, as I mentioned in the links post this morning. Since I may have an Oy Bai post in the works for later, I figured that I should write something nice about political journalists, first. I wrote in more detail about What It Takes a while ago, in which I called it "by far my favorite campaign book ever," and Seth reposted his appreciation today.

So in the spirit of that, how about a list of great books by reporters about American politics? Especially books not about presidents. We have lots of great books about presidents. But I am looking here for books about politicians, electoral politics, government...that sort of politics. There are, of course, any number of wonderful books which are very much about "politics" in a broader sense, and I fully agree that a proper treatment of politics would include those; they just aren't my list here. No particular order, but the top two are particularly wonderful.

Richard Ben Cramer, What It Takes.

Garry Wills, Nixon Agonisties. Okay to count Wills as a reporter here? I think so. This is, by the way, the same top two that James Fallows mentioned today...he wasn't narrowing it to books by reporters, by the way. I haven't read anything by Wills that wasn't worth it yet, but this is perhaps his best: 1968, mostly through the presidential election. And, of course, Nixon.

Alan Ehrenhalt, The United States of Ambition. Local politicians. Great reporter, great topic.

Robert Caro, The Power Broker. Well, you know about this one.

John Barry, The Ambition and the Power. Jim Wright and his House. Dated, I suppose, but still a great story, well told.

Fred Emery, Watergate. Had to include this one, no?

John Jacobs, A Rage for Justice. Another House one -- a biography of Phil Burton.

David Marannis and Michael Weisskopf, "Tell Newt to Shut Up!" Much lighter (and shorter!) than Barry's book on Wright, but still with plenty of great stories.

That's eight; I'll stop there, I think.

I want to say something smart about reporters, political scientists, and Richard Ben Cramer, but I think I'll just leave it at saying that What It Takes is absolutely terrific, and that after twenty years of watching the six candidates, I still see them more than anything through his descriptions -- and still haven't detected a false note in those descriptions. Even if it didn't have any larger lessons to tell, and I think it does, that's an amazing accomplishment.

10 comments:

  1. As far as campaign books go, I don't know how any could be more entertaining than Michael Lewis's "Trail Fever," about the 1996 campaign, based on his New Republic dispatches. (He once told me that it was by far his least successful book; I apologized on behalf of the American people.)

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  2. I recently read a great autobiography of Richard J. Daley (the elder of the two Mayor's of Chicago) by two long time reporters called "American Pharaoh." While set in Chicago it also has a lot to do with American history in the 20th Century and especially the course of the Democratic Party. I'd also add Rick Perlstein's "Nixonland."

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  3. I strongly recommend The Great Game of Politics (1924) by Frank R. Kent, whom I believe was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. It's a truly great discussion of machine party politics, and a subsection of the book on the need for "humbuggery" (lying) in every campaign is quite brilliant.

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    1. (Forgive me, it's the editor in me.)

      . . . who I believe was a reporter . . . (not whom)

      It's the subject of "was a reporter," not the object of "I believe" (which is parenthetical).

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    2. Sigh. You are correct. And I will never be a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

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  4. Theodore White's The Making of the President 1960 was a big part of how I came to love politics--there is a reverence for elections there that, reading it as a freshman in high school, I found very inspirational. For the exact opposite readings, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 was also seminal in my political upbringing.

    More recently, Rebecca Traister's Big Girls Don't Cry was an amazing take on the '08 campaign that told a very big story (feminism and the '08 election) in a personal and relatable way.

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  5. Theodore White's The Making of the President 1960 was a big part of how I came to love politics--there is a reverence for elections there that, reading it as a freshman in high school, I found very inspirational. For the exact opposite readings, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 was also seminal in my political upbringing.

    More recently, Rebecca Traister's Big Girls Don't Cry was an amazing take on the '08 campaign that told a very big story (feminism and the '08 election) in a personal and relatable way.

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  6. The book I keep referencing in memory is about how the media cover politics: THE BOYS ON THE BUS by Tim Crouse. He was the guy that Rolling Stone employed to report on the 1972 campaign in the event that Hunter Thompson went completely off the rails. He came up with a treatise on pack journalism that still--even in this era when so much of it has changed--defines how the media covers campaigns and Washington in general, including government.

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