The Best-Written Political Biographies

Don Glickstein Author Of After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence
By Don Glickstein

The Books I Picked & Why

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

By Robert A. Caro

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

Why this book?

Imagine you’re Vice President Lyndon Johnson on Nov. 22, 1963. The Secret Service just hustled you into a secure room at the Dallas hospital where doctors are desperately trying to keep President John F. Kennedy alive after an assassination attempt. What’s going through your mind? If Kennedy dies, what are your next steps? Robert Caro found out. Pulitzer-winner Caro is the greatest historian of our lifetime—and a brilliant, accessible writer who makes it impossible to put down a 700-page nonfiction book. The Passage of Power is the fourth of a planned five-volume biography of Johnson, the man who helped turn Martin Luther King’s dream into reality, and then self-imploded with the Vietnam War. Caro’s final volume will be an instant best-seller.


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George C. Marshall, Vol. 1: Education of a General, 1880-1939

By Forrest C. Pogue

George C. Marshall, Vol. 1: Education of a General, 1880-1939

Why this book?

Few Americans remember the Marshall Plan that helped make western Europe the economic powerhouse it is today. Fewer still remember the man behind the Marshall Plan, who led the U.S. military during World War II, and later became Secretary of State. Pogue’s four-volume biography isn’t your usual military biography with a long recitation of battles, dates, and minutiae about guns and ships. It’s about how an obscure career officer who never went to West Point became the confidant of two presidents and the mentor of a future one, Dwight Eisenhower (who later betrayed him during the Trump-like McCarthy era). When political integrity is in short supply, Pogue reminds us of a time when a politically astute general kept his.


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Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory

By Edward G. Lengel

Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory

Why this book?

If there’s a common trait of Republican and Democratic politicians, it’s that George Washington is always fair game to hijack. We’re told that Washington was devoutly religious or that he was a deist; that he was a true democrat or a slave-holding aristocrat; that he single-handedly smote the British; that he believed in states’ rights or supported a strong federal government. Washington is anything you want him to be. Lengel, who helped edit the Washington papers, begs to differ. His short book tackles many of the Washington myths with an easy writing style for general readers and endnotes for those who want to double-check his debunking.


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Cleopatra: A Life

By Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra: A Life

Why this book?

Cleopatra a politician? Why is a book about her on this list? She was Shakespearean and Liz Taylor in the movies and a sultry siren. What more is there to know? Pulitzer-winner Stacy Schiff mined the distant evidence and built a poetic portrait of Cleopatra based on what we know of her reality: “A capable, clear-eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine.”


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Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945

By Barbara Wertheim Tuchman

Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945

Why this book?

General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, the American liaison to Chiang Kai-Shek’s China during World War II, was the opposite of a politician. Blunt, profane, disrespectful, and sarcastic—he called Chiang the “peanut”—Stilwell was incapable of being politic, which makes Tuchman’s book the ultimate political biography. Like many great biographers, including three of the five authors on this list, Tuchman came to history from journalism or publishing, not from academia, something she felt was an asset in helping her write in a style that produced both a Pulitzer and best sellers.


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