2012 was a pretty strong year for books. That's despite the fact that seven of the top 10 best-selling books on Amazon this year were books from the Fifty Shades or Hunger Games trilogies.
Here, in no particular order, are our favorite politically oriented books that we read this year, complete with recommendations from our staff.
The Victory Lab
Scott: Both parties' data and targeting operations became big features of election postmortem stories. Sasha Issenberg's The Victory Lab explained (several months earlier) what campaigns were accomplishing with social science and data, where the cutting edge was, and why it was so important.
The Passage of Power
Matt: A lot of people have looked at Robert Caro's latest offering in his Years of Lyndon Johnson series as a historical window into the Years of Barack Obama. That's fine. Without a doubt, there is plenty to learn from Johnson's early White House policy blitz, and Caro sketches it out better than anyone. But the really incredible thing about The Passage of Power, as with previous books in the series, is the way that Caro writes about decades-old political drama with the drumbeat of fiction. There are few fictional characters more carefully and complexly written than Caro's LBJ. The 100-plus pages that Caro devotes to Nov. 22, 1963, alone make it well worth lugging around and living with Caro's penultimate door-stopper.
The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia
Cory: The most in-depth look into the decades long rise, fall, and recent resurrection of al-Qaeda in Yemen, a country that now serves as the base for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Despite the general narrative that the U.S. government has decimated Qaeda's leadership and rendered the organization ineffectual, AQAP has grown in Yemen over the last three years to well over 1,000 members. With the recent political turmoil in Yemen, AQAP has increased its influence over the country's communities, aiming to provide public services, education, and governmental institutions for its citizens. This serves as a break from past iterations of al-Qaeda, which were not focused on governing. In The Last Refuge, Gregory Johnsen argues that AQAP will be one of the largest threats to United States national security in the coming years, and that it is a threat not being well addressed by the Obama administration's drone policy in the country.
War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
Adam: This 2002 monograph by an addicted war correspondent might be the best thing I’ve ever read about conflict, with lessons as applicable today in Syria and Congo as in Troy and Normandy. Chris Hedges notes that the awful things he has seen (in a globe- and decade-spanning career) are timeless tropes of humanity that appear in the canon of writing on war—from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to Primo Levi to Marguerite Duras—which he synthesizes with incredible command. The book is leavened with self-aware reflections on combat to develop the theme that even those who hate war, as Hedges does, are fundamentally ambivalent: Thanks to currents in politics and the media, to the inescapable demonization of enemies, and to the clarifying effect they can have on a national identity, the logic of war is too seductive for societies to resist. We depend on strife even when we recognize it as a poison pill. The result is a hypnotic meditation on the psycho-social pathologies—majoritarianism, anti-intellectualism, moral decay—that befall nations at war. Hedges is not a pacifist; as the title suggests, he believes war is sometimes necessary. But his argument about the corrosion of war is, ultimately, a polemic about the corrective power of love.
It's Even Worse Than It Looks
Chuck: It was the best political book I read, and also the most depressing on any subject. It makes a painfully comprehensive case for why Congress has gotten so dysfunctional.
Matt: ABC News White House correspondent Jake Tapper takes a step back from his usual beat and looks into Combat Outpost Keating, a U.S. military post on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Severely outmanned by the Taliban and suffering immense casualties, the U.S. eventually abandons the post. A Pentagon investigation later finds that soldiers should never have been there. Tapper highlights soldiers' bravery in the face of incredible danger and outlines the severe challenges that still face the U.S. mission in America's longest war.
The Making of the President 1960
Sophie: I figured that a presidential election year would be the perfect time to read this classic. Theodore White writes a wonderful account of men seeking power across a diverse and rugged country, and he had access to the candidates that journalists covering the 2012 race would kill for. It’s also full of reminders that—while a lot has changed since 1960-- a lot of the things that bug us about the political process haven’t changed at all.
American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America
John: As one reviewer called him, Aaron Burr was the American Lucifer--the Founding Father, senator, and vice president who fought in the Revolution, almost became president, was tried for treason, clashed with the Jeffersonians, and killed the hero of all Hamiltonians in their famous duel on a ledge above the Hudson, across from Lower Manhattan. He is a truly fascinating individual and a tonic for Founding Father worship. Not since Gore Vidal's fictional ode to Burr have we witnessed the Founders in all their humanity. The trial accounts by Stewart, a lawyer and historian, are spectacular.
The New New Deal
Matt: Time reporter Michael Grunwald makes a convincing case that President Obama’s stimulus, far from being a waste of money, launched a slew of important policy initiatives that helped keep the economy from plunging deeper into recession and have changed federal policy for years to come. From the “Race to the Top” education initiative to expanding broadband and the use of green energy (yes, including Solyndra) the stimulus was unfairly dismissed by critics, ignored by the media, and inadequately defended by the president’s own White House.
The Fiery Trial
Adam: Although Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln was excellent, it did not cast our 16th president as a compromiser or a realist, as many of its proponents claimed. (Spielberg’s Lincoln held firm in pursuing the 13th Amendment, requiring everyone else to bend.) But Lincoln was a realist, and over the course of his life, both his views and his methods changed. Eric Foner’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2010 history, The Fiery Trial, documents an Illinois lawyer’s evolution on the question of slavery. The president who freed America’s slaves had a dim view of black people and wanted them to move voluntarily to Liberia. Foner chronicles how Lincoln’s early life (spent in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, all places with few slaves), his Whig political career (the party thought slavery deadened the demand for, and the price of, white labor), and his late-in-life evangelical rebirth (after the death of his son) shaped and reshaped his outlook. The story is relatively breezy, narrative, and surprising. But Foner’s real achievement is showing that complexity and ambivalence--we can finally dispense with the cartoonish Saint Lincoln of American lore--can still coexist with heroism.
James: A spy thriller that delves into the duplicitous and dysfunctional relationship between the United States and Pakistan when it comes to terrorism, and spares neither side.