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...

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By William L. Riordan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Plunkitt of Tammany Hall as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A political machine member describes its operations

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

Why did I love 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.

By Robert A. Caro,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Power Broker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro is 'simply one of the best non-fiction books in English of the last forty years' (Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times): a riveting and timeless account of power, politics and the city of New York by 'the greatest political biographer of our times' (Sunday Times); chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time and by the Modern Library as one of the 100 Greatest Books of the Twentieth Century; Winner of the Pulitzer Prize; a Sunday Times Bestseller; 'An outright masterpiece' (Evening Standard)

The Power Broker tells the…

Book cover of A Political Education: A Washington Memoir

Why did I love 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.

By Harry McPherson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Political Education as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This insider's view of Washington in the 1950s and 1960s, of the tumultuous presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and of the conflicts and factions of the president's staff has become a political classic since its original publication in 1972. In this reissue, Harry McPherson adds a new preface in which he reflects on changes in Washington since the Johnson era and on the lessons Bill Clinton could learn from the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Richard Ben Cramer,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked What It Takes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Quite possibly the finest book on presidential politics ever written, combining meticulous reporting and compelling, at times soaringly lyrical, prose." -- Cleveland Plain Dealer

An American Iliad in the guise of contemporary political reportage, What It Takes penetrates the mystery at the heart of all presidential campaigns: How do presumably ordinary people acquire that mixture of ambition, stamina, and pure shamelessness that makes a true candidate? As he recounts the frenzied course of the 1988 presidential race -- and scours the psyches of contenders from George Bush and Robert Dole to Michael Dukakis and Gary Hart -- Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist…

Book cover of Politics and the English Language

Why did I love 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.

By George Orwell,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Politics and the English Language as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Politics and the English Language' is widely considered Orwell's most important essay on style. Style, for Orwell, was never simply a question of aesthetics; it was always inextricably linked to politics and to truth.'All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.'Language is a political issue, and slovenly use of language and cliches make it easier for those in power to deliberately use misleading language to hide unpleasant political facts. Bad English, he believed, was a vehicle for oppressive ideology, and it is…

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