The best books about how American politics really works

David Von Drehle Author Of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America
By David Von Drehle

Who am I?

A journalist and author for more than 40 years, I now write a twice-weekly opinion column for The Washington Post. Which is odd because I don’t have many opinions. What I do have is a lot of curiosity. One very durable question for me, which informed a couple of my books, is this: How does political power actually work in America? How does change happen?

I wrote...

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

By David Von Drehle,

Book cover of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

What is my book about?

In telling the story of the 1911 factory fire at the Triangle Waist Co.—New York’s deadliest workplace disaster prior to 9/11—I tried to account for the profound effect of this event in a time when workers died on the job routinely. That turned out to be a rich and moving story of women’s rights, of labor organizing, of reformist zeal, and of gritty give-and-take inside a notorious political machine.

The books I picked & why

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Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics

By William L. Riordan,

Book cover of Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics

Why this book?

To understand the rise of American cities and urban politics—as I attempted to do in researching and writing Triangle –you must start with immigrant machine politics. Lesson One is this delightful little book. Tammany Hall in New York was the model machine, and George Washington Plunkitt was an unapologetic Tammany man. After he lost his grip on the West Side to a rival, Plunkitt shared his life lessons with an eager journalist. Don’t be thrown by Plunkitt’s oversize character or by author Riordan’s attempts to capture his Irish brogue in print. This is the best primer in practical politics—how things really work instead of how they ought to work—that I have ever read.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

By Robert A. Caro,

Book cover of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Why this book?

When I showed up as a young reporter to cover my first state legislature, a wise old senator told me to read this book. It was time, he said, to graduate from civics class to the real world. As the author of a stunning multi-part biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, Caro has made himself immortal: the best writer on power since Machiavelli. But this earlier biography of Robert Moses, the man who built modern New York, is arguably more instructive, because the connection between people and projects is so intimate—often brutally so.

A Political Education: A Washington Memoir

By Harry McPherson,

Book cover of A Political Education: A Washington Memoir

Why this book?

Here’s Lyndon B. Johnson again. As a bright young lawyer, McPherson left Texas to work for a year with Johnson, thinking the experience might open his eyes—and a few doors—at the beginning of his legal career. McPherson stepped onto the rocket sled of politics and never stepped off. This grand old man of Washington paused mid-career to give us the ultimate learning-the-ropes memoir of life inside politics.

What It Takes: The Way to the White House

By Richard Ben Cramer,

Book cover of What It Takes: The Way to the White House

Why this book?

I won’t kid you: I wish this book were about 200 pages shorter. But then it would not feel as bone-deep exhausting—and exhaustive—as an actual presidential campaign. And before one wields political power in America, there has to be a campaign. No one has taken us inside the psychological demands and personal toll of campaigning at the highest level like Cramer. Indeed, no journalist conceived that such an epic could be written until Cramer wrote it. And since his deep dive into the 1988 campaign, candidates have sworn never to be so exposed. Thus, this book is a revelation unlikely to be repeated.

Politics and the English Language

By George Orwell,

Book cover of Politics and the English Language

Why this book?

A little essay, not a book. It can be found in many collections of Orwell’s work, and it has been my lodestar over many years of writing about politics. At first, it appears to be about politicians and the way they manipulate language to hide their intentions, often with disastrous results. But Orwell is actually addressing those of us who write about politics. Will we allow ourselves to become instruments of propaganda? I re-read this essay yearly—a sort of mental booster vaccine.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson I, and This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral--Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!--In America's Gilded Capital if you like this list.