The Best Political Books We Read in 2013

The books <em>National Journal</em> staff read this year that had the most to say about politics in 2013.

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National Journal Staff
Dec. 9, 2013, midnight

The “Best of” sea­son is upon us. This year, like last year, we’re of­fer­ing up the polit­ic­al books we loved the most in 2013.

Here they are, in no par­tic­u­lar or­der.

(Far­rar, Straus and Giroux)The Un­wind­ing: An In­ner His­tory of the New Amer­ica

By George Pack­er. Re­com­men­ded by Mar­got Sanger-Katz and Ben Ter­ris

Ben: It’s not very cre­at­ive to pick the Na­tion­al Book Award win­ner as your fa­vor­ite read of the year, but whatever, it’s that good. In his book, Pack­er man­ages to tell count­less stor­ies about the coun­try’s eco­nom­ic trans­form­a­tions from char­ac­ters ac­tu­ally liv­ing through them. I was an Amer­ic­an Stud­ies ma­jor in col­lege, and I feel like I learned as much from this book as any class I took about the shap­ing of the coun­try.

(Henry Holt and Co.)The Love Af­fairs of Nath­aniel P.

By Ad­elle Wald­man. Re­com­men­ded by Adam B. Kush­ner

Adam: One of the most sur­pris­ing things about Ad­elle Wald­man’s first nov­el is that it works even as it ad­vances the second-wave fem­in­ist no­tion that the per­son­al is polit­ic­al. In a less­er writer’s hands, The Love Af­fairs of Nath­aniel P. would be di­dact­ic and mor­al­iz­ing, but Wald­man is broadly sym­path­et­ic to her louche hero, and she does not use him to score points; she doesn’t need to.

Nate, a 30-year-old Brook­lyn writer, re­luct­antly leaves a pretty but un­chal­len­ging girl­friend and even­tu­ally gets to­geth­er with Han­nah, a sens­it­ive, in­tel­li­gent, beau­ti­ful foil — ex­actly the kind of girl­friend an en­lightened boy like him is sup­posed to want. (For the re­cord, he thinks he wants this, too.) Then the fault-find­ing be­gins: Sud­denly he is an­noyed by Han­nah’s over­stuffed closet and oth­er mundane de­tails that make her hu­man. She de­tects his an­noy­ance but, in­creas­ingly ta­cit­urn, he in­sists noth­ing is wrong, deep­en­ing her in­sec­ur­ity by mak­ing her feel crazy and push­ing him away fur­ther. He has in­duced a self-amp­li­fy­ing prob­lem. In this, he is an out­rageously well-ob­served stand-in for a gen­er­a­tion of in­de­cis­ive and con­ceited mil­len­ni­al man-chil­dren. But Wald­man keeps him from be­com­ing a straw man by giv­ing him real emo­tion­al depth: He is self-aware, rue­ful, and still some­how un­able to change. Love Af­fairs is the com­edy of man­ners we need to un­der­stand what ails mod­ern ro­mance.

(Schol­ast­ic Press)The Hun­ger Games Tri­logy

By Su­z­anne Collins. Re­com­men­ded by Emma Anger­er

Emma: Be­cause, ob­vi­ously.

(Touch­stone)En­emies With­in: In­side the NYPD’s Secret Spy­ing Unit and Bin Laden’s Fi­nal Plot

By Matt Apuzzo and Adam Gold­man. Re­com­men­ded by Matt Ber­man

Matt: There’s a wan­nabe ter­ror­ist speed­ing to New York and the NYPD has been too overzeal­ous to know what’s com­ing. That’s the ba­sic tick­ing time bomb scen­ario presen­ted by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Gold­man’s En­emies With­in, a deep, jaw-drop­ping dive in­to the post-9/11 NYPD. Did you know that the NYPD has a Demo­graph­ics Unit, whose re­spons­ib­il­ity is, in part, to track the city’s Muslims? Or that the de­part­ment keeps troves of data on eth­nic groups, just in case a homegrown ter­ror­ist shows up? Or that these in­vas­ive, eth­ic­ally hazy meas­ures have not been proven to dis­rupt a single ter­ror­ist plot?

Gov­ern­ment se­cur­ity over­reach is about more than the NSA. It’s also about po­lice out­side the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment who will do any­thing to pre­vent a ter­ror­ist at­tack, even if what they’re do­ing breaks ba­sic stand­ards of pri­vacy and has no re­cord of suc­cess. No book bet­ter sums up the state of post-9/11 fear.

(Har­per­Collins)The King­dom of New York: Knights, Knaves, Bil­lion­aires and Beau­ties in the City of Big Shots

By The New York Ob­serv­er. Re­com­men­ded by Mar­in Cogan

“There were oth­er pa­pers, but they didn’t seem to be hav­ing as much fun,” writes Peter Ka­plan in the in­tro­duc­tion to The King­dom of New York, a col­lec­tion of the best pieces from The New York Ob­serv­er. After Ka­plan’s death in Novem­ber, at the age of 59, I got to think­ing that if there was one book I would re­com­mend to the writers and read­ers of Wash­ing­ton news, it’d be this one. Ka­plan was not in­ter­ested in merely re­lay­ing te facts, but cov­er­ing his city as “a to­po­graphy of power, with its Man­hat­tan moats and tur­rets, its courts in me­dia, polit­ics, so­ci­ety, its residues of Edith Whar­ton, Wal­ter Winchell, and Wee­gee.” To this day, oth­er pa­pers still aren’t hav­ing as much fun.

(Prin­ceton Uni­versity Press)The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Pres­id­en­tial Elec­tion

By John Sides and Lynn Vavreck. Re­com­men­ded by Steven Shep­ard

Steven: What really mattered in last year’s elec­tions? George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity pro­fess­or John Sides and UCLA pro­fess­or Lynn Vavreck, in a re­mark­ably fast turn­around for an aca­dem­ic work, ap­plied so­cial sci­ence to the de­vel­op­ments of last year’s pres­id­en­tial elec­tion in The Gamble. It turns out that the events journ­al­ists de­scribed in real time (in­clud­ing this one) wer­en’t as im­port­ant as they were made out to be. And Sides and Vavreck provide an im­port­ant real­ity check that ob­serv­ers should heed be­fore the daily do­ings of 2016 con­sume us all.

(Pen­guin Books)Private Em­pire: Ex­xon­Mobil and Amer­ic­an Power

By Steve Coll. Re­com­men­ded by Mike Mag­n­er

Mike: For any­one in­ter­ested in the polit­ics of en­ergy, spe­cific­ally big oil, I would re­com­mend Private Em­pire: Ex­xon­Mobil and Amer­ic­an Power. It is an in­cred­ibly well-re­searched ex­pos­i­tion of one of the world’s largest and most power­ful cor­por­a­tions and provides tre­mend­ous in­sight in­to how big oil gets its way in Wash­ing­ton, Mo­scow, Riy­adh, and just about every oth­er world cap­it­al. It’s a great read.


By Chi­m­aman­da Ngozi Adi­ch­ie. Re­com­men­ded by Jody Bran­non

Jody: This is an in­sight­ful nov­el about an im­mig­rant — and her ac­cul­tur­a­tion as a Ni­geri­an black to the U.S. and her re­turn home as an Amer­ic­an­ized mem­ber of the bour­geois­ie. The au­thor’s life some­what mir­rors her prot­ag­on­ist, who was in­spired by Obama’s 2008 elec­tion. Oh, and it’s a love story too.

(An­chor)Des­tiny of the Re­pub­lic: A Tale of Mad­ness, Medi­cine and the Murder of a Pres­id­ent

By Can­dice Mil­lard. Re­com­men­ded by Ma­jor Gar­rett

Ma­jor: It a won­drous polit­ic­al book. It ex­plores the rise of a po­ten­tially great Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent (the only to this day elec­ted from the House), the tragedy of a pres­id­ency cut short and the mad­ness of Gar­field’s as­sas­sin. If that were all, it would be enough. But wrapped with­in this saga is a sear­ing ac­count of the era’s back­ward, near-mur­der­ous med­ic­al prac­tices and the hero­ic ef­forts of Al­ex­an­der Gra­ham Bell to save a dy­ing pres­id­ent.

(Put­nam Adult)Wilson

By A. Scott Berg. Re­com­men­ded by Matt Cooper

Matt: It’s ir­res­ist­ible to com­pare Wilson, the last and only New Jer­sey gov­ernor elec­ted pres­id­ent, to a cer­tain Re­pub­lic­an in Trenton. Like Chris Christie, Wilson was a polit­ic­al new­comer when he was elec­ted gov­ernor in 1910 and pres­id­ent just two years later. And while his eru­dite style and an­gu­lar fea­tures couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent than Christie’s spher­ic­al bom­bast, the two each seemed suf­fi­ciently dif­fer­ent from the pols of their day to have na­tion­al ap­peal. As the 100th an­niversary of World War I ap­proaches in 2014, Wilson will garner at­ten­tion for tak­ing Amer­ica to war. But his do­mest­ic re­cord, at once pro­gress­ive (pro­mot­ing the fed­er­al in­come tax, ap­point­ing the first Jew­ish Su­preme Court justice) and re­ac­tion­ary (im­pos­ing se­greg­a­tion in Wash­ing­ton, crack­ing down on civil liber­ties in the name of an­ti­com­mun­ism), is worthy of equal scru­tiny.

(Vin­tage)Go­ing Clear: Sci­ento­logy, Hol­ly­wood, and the Pris­on of Be­lief

By Lawrence Wright. Re­com­men­ded by Bri­an Res­nick

Bri­an: Go­ing Clear is a book about power.

Yes, it is also an ex­pose of a money-flushed, lit­igal-happy or­gan­iz­a­tion as told by the people it has steam­rolled. And yes, there are tan­tal­iz­ing de­tails about John Tra­volta (pos­sibly gay) and Tom Cruise (who may have held au­di­tions for the role of his wife).

But cent­rally, it’s about how one man turned an idea in­to a move­ment, and how that idea — like a new life form — sus­tained it­self, pro­tec­ted it­self, and en­sured its longev­ity. Whatever you think about Sci­ento­logy, Go­ing Clear pro­vokes a power­ful ques­tion: How eas­ily could these dis­ciples of Hub­bard have been me? Be­cause ra­tion­al thoughts fall aside in the face of self af­firm­a­tion. And the power­ful know this im­pli­citly. Lawrence sub­titled the book Sci­ento­logy, Hol­ly­wood, and the Pris­on of Be­lief. Strike out the first two and fill in your own blanks. Be­lief isn’t al­ways ra­tion­al. And therein lies the power.

Who Stole the Amer­ic­an Dream?

By Hedrick Smith. Re­com­men­ded by Chuck Mc­Cutcheon

Chuck: This is a well-re­searched and highly read­able over­view of how the haves and have-nots of today’s eco­nomy came to be. People of all polit­ic­al per­sua­sions should pick it up; it’s full of fas­cin­at­ing stor­ies and does a ter­rif­ic job of ex­plain­ing the in­tric­a­cies of the tax code as well as oth­er con­cepts.

(Little, Brown and Com­pany)And Then We Came to the End

By Joshua Fer­ris. Re­com­men­ded by Lu­cia Graves

Lu­cia: You might ex­pect a nov­el about the hor­rors of work­ing in a Chica­go ad agency dur­ing the im­plo­sion of the eco­nomy to be small-minded and mean-spir­ited, but Joshua Fer­ris’s nov­el is neither. Writ­ten in the col­lect­ive voice, Fer­ris’s style is ex­pans­ive and funny. There is no bet­ter edu­ca­tion in the strange world of of­fice polit­ics, the cor­por­ate vacu­ous­ness and power grabbing as well as the some­times sur­pris­ing mean­ing and hu­man­ity — ex­cept maybe ex­per­i­ence.

(Doubleday)Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House

By Peter Baker. Re­com­men­ded by Norm Orn­stein and Matt Ber­man

Norm: This is polit­ic­al journ­al­ism and his­tory at its best. A deep, cred­ible, and com­pel­ling ac­count of the Bush pres­id­ency and the re­la­tion­ship between Bush and Cheney.

(Odys­sey Edi­tions)The Polit­ics of Abund­ance: How Tech­no­logy Can Fix the Budget, Re­vive the Amer­ic­an Dream, and Es­tab­lish Obama’s Leg­acy

By Reed Hun­dt and Blair Lev­in. Re­com­men­ded by Norm Orn­stein

Norm: An ab­so­lutely com­pel­ling and thought-pro­vok­ing blue­print for a 21st-cen­tury policy agenda, which, in a bet­ter world, both Obama and Re­pub­lic­ans could em­brace.

(Blue Rider Press)The In­vest­ig­at­or: Fifty Years of Un­cov­er­ing the Truth

By Terry Len­zn­er. Re­com­men­ded by Matt Cooper

Matt: Terry Len­zn­er’s ca­reer has taken him to a re­mark­able num­ber of in­flec­tion points in post-World War II Amer­ica. A Har­vard law­yer, he served in the Justice De­part­ment as an in­vest­ig­at­or in Mis­sis­sippi in 1965, sleep­ing on the floor of his motel and put­ting the mat­tress up against the win­dow lest he get shot. He was on the staff of the Sen­ate Wa­ter­gate Com­mit­tee, helped the Ber­rigan broth­ers’ de­fense dur­ing Vi­et­nam, helped Bill Clin­ton dur­ing im­peach­ment, and worked for Brown & Wil­li­am­son dur­ing the Jef­frey Wig­and af­fair. Along the way, he got fired by Don­ald Rums­feld dur­ing the Nix­on years, and in­vest­ig­ated Prin­cess Di­ana’s death at the be­hest of Dodi Fayed’s fath­er. His last­ing geni­us was cre­at­ing a new kind of firm — a high-end in­vest­ig­at­ive agency mar­ried to the white-col­lar law. Think of it as K Street meets Humphrey Bog­art.

(Uni­versity of Michigan Press)Get­ting Primar­ied: The Chan­ging Polit­ics of Con­gres­sion­al Primary Chal­lenges

By Robert G Boat­right. Re­com­men­ded by Steven Shep­ard

Steven: It might seem like the 2014 elec­tions are 11 months away, but voters will ac­tu­ally be­gin cast­ing their bal­lots in primar­ies in March. A new book from Clark Uni­versity polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or Robert Boat­right, Get­ting Primar­ied: The Chan­ging Polit­ics of Con­gres­sion­al Primary Chal­lenges (The Uni­versity of Michigan Press), ex­am­ines the past 40 years of con­gres­sion­al primar­ies. Those in­ter­ested in why and how the Ned La­monts, Bill Hal­ters, and Joe Millers of the world can rise to chal­lenge (and in the case of La­mont and Miller, de­feat for nom­in­a­tion) power­ful in­cum­bents should read Boat­right’s book be­fore this year’s primar­ies be­gin in earn­est.

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