The Best Political Books We Read in 2013

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

National Journal
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.

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.

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.

By Su­z­anne Collins. Re­com­men­ded by Emma Anger­er

Emma: Be­cause, ob­vi­ously.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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