On the books beat, August usually means beach reads. Not this year. This year, as Charlotte prepares to host the Democratic National Convention, we’re all about politics.
In recent weeks, I’ve been asking political junkies, elected officials and readers about their most-loved political books. I now have a reading list that will keep you busy through the 2014 midterms.
Mostly, people suggested nonfiction titles. There’s good reason for this, I think. When it comes to politics, truth is usually better than anything you could possibly make up.
There are notable exceptions, including Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1946 fictional account of the rise and fall of Huey Long. Several people mentioned it, including UNC Charlotte historian David Goldfield.
Goldfield’s favorite line, which summarizes “not only Southern politics,” he says, “but political campaigns in general,” is the advice Jack Burden gives candidate Willie Stark:
“Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, pinch them in a soft spot, but for God’s sake don’t try to improve their minds.”
Another memorable political novel: Joe Klein’s “Primary Colors,” about a flawed Southern governor who seeks the presidency in the 1990s. It’s thinly veiled Bill Clinton. Because, really, how could you create a better character than William Jefferson Clinton?
If you’d rather stick with nonfiction, don’t worry about sacrificing story. The best political nonfiction reads like novels.
For starters, check out Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President 1960,” the groundbreaking account of John F. Kennedy’s campaign and election.
This work made Observer political reporter Tim Funk’s list. White is the guy, after all, who revolutionized presidential campaign coverage.
“He was the first to go behind the scenes, the first to focus on the political operatives, the first to make the campaign a thrilling narrative with a protagonist and supporting players,” says Funk, who started covering politics here in 1985.
White kept writing “Making of the President” books through the 1972 election, probably longer than he should have. While I was researching this story, I stumbled on a Nora Ephron essay parodying White’s style. I can’t resist sharing:
“It was a hot, muggy day in New York” when White finished the book, “or perhaps it was a cold windy night; there is no way to be certain, although it is certain that Theodore H. White was certain of what the weather was like that day, or that night, because when Theodore H. White writes about things, he notices the weather, and he usually manages to get it into the first paragraph …”
If you want an author with a less reverential voice, Funk recommends Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.” Thompson describes that year’s Republican National Convention, for instance, as “an ugly, low-level trip that hovered somewhere in that grim indefinable limbo between dullness and obscenity. …” That’s one of his less critical observations.
Jim Morrill, who’s been covering politics for the Observer since 1984, told me he recommends anything by David McCullough, especially “Truman,” which recounts how the man from Missouri “virtually came from nowhere to be one of our great presidents.”
Exhibiting typical modesty, Morrill didn’t put Rielle Hunter’s “What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter, and Me,” on his list, even though he appears in the tell-all memoir as the curly-haired reporter who bangs on her door.
Biographies profiling two modern-day North Carolina politicians made Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx’s list. Gary Pearce’s “Jim Hunt: A Biography” gives an insider’s look at North Carolina’s longest-serving governor. In “Terry Sanford: Politics, Progress and Outrageous Ambitions,” by Howard Covington Jr. and Marion Ellis, we learn, Foxx says, “how this very progressive Southern governor navigated a conservative South.”
Another suggestion for a North Carolina-focused book comes from Jim Warlick, who’s bringing a presidential memorabilia exhibit to Charlotte during the convention. He recommends Rob Christensen’s “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics.” Christensen, political reporter for Raleigh’s News & Observer since 1973, explores North Carolina’s rich yet schizophrenic political history.
Christensen is a fan of Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” a portrait of the man who shaped New York City’s politics for nearly half a century.
“Caro opened my eyes to how politics really works,” Christensen says.
Until I reached U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick’s office, I wasn’t getting many – make that any – recommendations for books featuring women. Myrick offered a couple of good ones – Margaret Thatcher’s “The Downing Street Years” and Cokie Roberts’ “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation.”
“Founding Mothers,” also one of my favorites, is full of fascinating anecdotes about the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters who shaped our young country in behind-the-scenes roles.
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