Conventional wisdom: 5 great political books

1. Team of Rivals

By Doris Kearns Goodwin

(Simon & Schuster, 2005)

How did Abe Lincoln defeat his far more prestigious foes to win the 1860 Republican nomination? Doris Kearns Goodwin chronicles Lincoln's path to national stature, including his narrow 1858 Senate loss to Stephen Douglas and a speaking tour through the East that culminated in his famous speech at New York's Cooper Union. She also details the miscalculations of the favorites – New York Sen. William Seward, Ohio Gov. Salmon Chase and Judge Edward Bates – that gave Lincoln the running room he needed to win the nomination. Best of all is her account of the convention's deal-making and gallery-packing (the event was held in Lincoln's home state of Illinois) and the effort to position Lincoln as the safe alternative to the favorites. “Team of Rivals” shows that even the grubby side of politics can produce a great president.

2. Five Days in Philadelphia

By Charles Peters (PublicAffairs, 2005)

“Five Days in Philadelphia” might trigger a feeling of nostalgia for the days of brokered conventions with multiple ballots. Certain readers might even be led to skip the upcoming conventions and watch C-SPAN's newsreel footage of the Good Old Days. Wendell Willkie – a small-town Indiana boy turned utility-company executive – seemed an unlikely possibility for the 1940 GOP nomination compared with Sens. Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg and the New York prosecutor Thomas Dewey. But with the assistance of Republican media outlets such as the New York Herald-Tribune and Time magazine, and with chants of “We Want Willkie!” echoing through the Philadelphia convention galleries, the internationalist-minded Willkie took the nomination on the sixth ballot. Charles Peters, founding editor of Washington Monthly, describes the convention in compelling detail and, along the way, provides a fine account of the Democratic convention, where an ostensibly reluctant FDR – who “wanted it made clear that he was not actively seeking a third term” – was nominated over the strong opposition of many in his party.

3. The Making of the President 1960

By Theodore H. White

(Atheneum, 1961)

By pulling back the curtain on the engine rooms of presidential campaigns, Theodore White changed the way American politics is covered, encouraging two generations of political reporters to concentrate more on strategy than on what a potential president might actually do. What makes his convention accounts so fascinating is how archaic they now seem. To anyone under age 50, “The Making of the President 1960” will feel like looking at your great-grandmother's stereopticon slides.

4. Miami and the

Siege of Chicago

By Norman Mailer

(Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968)

Norman Mailer's over-the-top convention narratives – Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is “a fat and aged version of a tough Truman Capote on ugly pills” – capture a tumultuous time. It's a time that has been covered to death, but in Mailer's hands the past really does come alive. He is especially worth reading for his account of the Miami convention that nominated Richard Nixon. Though overshadowed by the pandemonium in Chicago, the Miami convention – demonstrating what war, race and generational conflict had done to America's traditional optimism – prefigured the party's growing appeal to what Nixon later called “the silent majority.” In his writing, Mailer shows a respect for Nixon, even an affection.

5. The Race

By Richard North Patterson

(Macmillan, 2008)

Political novels often appear to take place in some bizarro alternate universe. “The Race” is quite different. It depicts modern politics as they actually work. Richard North Patterson sketches a plausible road to a contested, brokered GOP convention, where stand-ins for John McCain, Pat Robertson and George W. Bush battle through multiple ballots. Patterson has gone to school on the 1976 Reagan-Ford rivalry – the last really contested convention, even giving a rendering of the Rule 16C floor fight that effectively decided the outcome. You don't know Rule 16C? Hint: It involves the vice-presidential nomination. But to grasp the rule's full seductive charm, you'll want to read “The Race.”