The best politics books

60 authors have picked their favorite books about politics and why they recommend each book.

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By Adam Goodheart,

Book cover of 1861: The Civil War Awakening

The outbreak of the Civil War was not a single event as simple as the firing on Fort Sumter or reducible to a clear clash of ideologies. In this erudite yet intensely readable book, Goodheart captures with equal brio the grand sweep of events and the maneuvering of political men South and North, and – most compellingly of all – the dawning of the war in the lives of men and women both famous and unknown, from New England Transcendentalists, to the fiery abolitionist orator Abbey Kelley, to the wily lawyer-turned-soldier Benjamin Butler, whose clever legal maneuver early in the war opened to door to the northward hemorrhaging of tens of thousands of black slaves.

Who am I?

Fergus M. Bordewich is an American writer and popular historian. He is the author of eight nonfiction books and a frequent public speaker at universities, radio, and television. As a journalist, he has traveled extensively in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, writing on politics, economic issues, culture, and history, on subjects ranging from the civil war in Burma, religious repression in China, Islamic fundamentalism, German reunification, the Irish economy, Kenya's population crisis, and many others.

I wrote...

Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America

By Fergus M. Bordewich,

Book cover of Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America

What is my book about?

The story of how Congress helped win the Civil War that puts the House and Senate, rather than Lincoln, at the center of the conflict. This original new perspective on the Civil War overturns the popular conception that Abraham Lincoln single-handedly led the Union to victory and gives us a vivid account of the essential role Congress played in winning the war. 

The Great Shark Hunt

By Hunter S. Thompson,

Book cover of The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time

After Carter left office, it was hard to remember what made him so exciting when he first became a national figure in 1976. In his patented “gonzo” style, Thompson’s flattering and entertaining articles on Carter in this collection shed light on what made Carter compelling and cool. Thompson's stature among young journalists was so great at the time that his coverage of Carter helped make him president.

Who am I?

Jonathan Alter is an award-winning author, political analyst, documentary filmmaker, columnist, television producer and radio host. He has interviewed eight of the last nine American presidents and lectures widely about the presidency and public affairs.

I wrote...

His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life

By Jonathan Alter,

Book cover of His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life

What is my book about?

I have long written about American presidents but for decades but I had little exposure to Jimmy Carter. Then, in 2015, my book group in New York was reading Thirteen Days in November by Lawrence Wright. Someone there knew Carter’s grandson, who brought the former president to our group to discuss the Camp David Accords. Afterward, I concluded that anyone who could pull off that virtuoso performance must be a more complicated figure than the easy shorthand: bad president/good ex-president. But my obsession with understanding Carter didn’t fully kick in until Donald Trump became president. For all of his flaws and political failures, Carter is the unTrump: honest, decent, accountable, far-sighted.

All the Shah's Men

By Stephen Kinzer,

Book cover of All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror

The true story of how in 1953, the CIA, aided by the British, conspired to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected prime-minister – an incident which is now considered to have led to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Kinzer has a storyteller’s instinct and this book reads like a thriller, weaving a gripping story around the intrigue, skullduggery and the personalities involved.

Who am I?

Lois Pryce is a British author who has travelled extensively in Iran. Her book, Revolutionary Ride tells the story of her 2013 solo motorcycle tour of the country and was shortlisted for the Edward Stanford ‘Adventure Book of the Year’ Award. Her travels have taken her to over fifty countries and her writing has featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, CNN, BBC, The Telegraph and The Independent.

I wrote...

Revolutionary Ride: On the Road to Shiraz, the Heart of Iran

By Lois Pryce,

Book cover of Revolutionary Ride: On the Road to Shiraz, the Heart of Iran

What is my book about?

Travel writer Lois Pryce sets off alone on a 3,000-mile motorcycle ride from Tabriz to Shiraz, to try to uncover the heart of this most complex and incongruous country. Along the way, she meets carpet sellers and drug addicts, war veterans and housewives, doctors and teachers - people living ordinary lives under the rule of an extraordinarily strict Islamic government.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

By Alfred Doblin,

Book cover of Berlin Alexanderplatz

Berlin is a city that is forever in the process of becoming, never being, and so lives powerfully in the imagination. Döblin's breathlessly innovative 1929 masterpiece — the most important work of literature in the Weimar years, is as hypnotic and unpredictable as the city itself.

Who am I?

Rory MacLean is one of Britain's most innovative travel writers. His books – which have been translated into a dozen languages — include UK top tens Stalin's Nose and Under the Dragon as well as Pravda Ha Ha and Berlin: Imagine a City, "the most extraordinary work of history I've ever read" according to the Washington Post which named it a Book of the Year. He has won awards from the Canada Council and the Arts Council of England and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary prize. He divides his time between Berlin, Toronto and the UK.

I wrote...

Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries

By Rory MacLean,

Book cover of Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries

What is my book about?

Berlin is a city of fragments and ghosts, a laboratory of ideas, the fount of both the brightest and darkest designs of history's most bloody century. The once arrogant capital of Europe was devastated by Allied bombs, divided by the Wall, then reunited and reborn as one of the creative centers of the world. Today it resonates with the echo of lives lived. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful and fallen so low; few other cities have been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations.

Democracy in America

By Alexis de Tocqueville,

Book cover of Democracy in America

And no such list is complete without Alexis de Tocqueville's classic from the 19th century, Democracy in America. Weighing in just two pages short of Don Quixote's 937 (paperback both, the ECCO Grossman Quixote translation and the Penguin Gerald Bevan de Tocqueville edition), Tocqueville ponders a question most of us contemplate and plenty of us act on: "Why Americans are so restless in the midst of their prosperity..."

Who am I?

As a child, I moved with my family. I've moved for school. And I am not sure I could resurrect how many times my family moved for my journalism work. These books help me try to understand my wanderlust. Peter Laufer is an independent journalist, broadcaster, and documentary filmmaker working in traditional and new media. He is the James Wallace Chair in Journalism at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.

I wrote...

Up Against the Wall: The Case for Opening the Mexican-American Border

By Peter Laufer,

Book cover of Up Against the Wall: The Case for Opening the Mexican-American Border

What is my book about?

The book offers a step-by-step blueprint of radical proposals for the U.S.-Mexican border that go far beyond traditional initiatives to ease restrictions on immigration. The book argues that the border with Mexico should be completely open for Mexicans wishing to travel north. Up Against the Wall provides the background to understanding how the border has become a fraud, resulting in nothing more than the criminalization of Mexican and other migrants, the bloating of the mismanaged U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the deterioration of living standards along the frontier, and the enrichment of American employers.

Fire in the Lake

By Frances FitzGerald,

Book cover of Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam

I loved this book because Fitzgerald is a journalist, not a historian, so her writing is vivid, fluent, and readable. This is so much more than a history of the war. She plunges into the complex story of Vietnam’s history and culture, setting the stage for America’s unfortunate involvement and the subsequent tragic events.
Fitzgerald first went to Vietnam in 1966, and, when this book came out in 1972, it was the first history of Vietnam written by an American. The New York Times called it “A compassionate and penetrating account of the collision of two societies that remain untranslatable to one another.” Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the National Book Award, it was a bestseller.

Who am I?

Alice K. Boatwright has lived in the US, England, France, and India – and her career as a writer about public health, education, and the arts has taken her around the world. She began writing short stories when she was young and holds an MFA in Writing Fiction from Columbia University. Her award-winning book about the Vietnam War era, Collateral Damage, was inspired by her own experiences during the war years in the US and the time she spent working on a project in Vietnam in 1993 and 1997. She is also the author of a short story chapbook, Sea, Sky, Islands; numerous stories published in journals, such as Calyx, Mississippi Review Online, America West, Penumbra, Stone Canoe, and Amarillo Bay; and the popular Ellie Kent mysteries, based on her experiences as an ex-pat living in an English village.

I wrote...

Collateral Damage

By Alice K. Boatwright,

Book cover of Collateral Damage

What is my book about?

How many years does it take for a war to end? Collateral Damage is three linked novellas about the Vietnam War era from the perspectives of those who fought, those who resisted, and the family and friends caught between them. Now in a new edition with an introduction about the 50th anniversary of the war and discussion questions for classes and book clubs.

The Haldeman Diaries

By H.R. Haldeman,

Book cover of The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House

There was no one closer to Richard Nixon as Watergate unfolded than his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. Every evening, Haldeman dictated an audio diary that is an essential source for understanding the Nixon presidency and the chain of events that led to its unraveling. While Haldeman admired Nixon, he was also well aware of his faults. He records the triumphs, failures, and personal quirks of his boss on an almost minute-to-minute basis. I think that Haldeman has it right when he concludes that Nixon did not know about Watergate in advance, in the sense that he did not order the break-in, but certainly caused it, in the sense that he created the culture that spawned all the abuses. Ultimately, these abuses led to Haldeman's own resignation and eighteen months in prison for Watergate-related offenses.

Who am I?

As a reporter for The Washington Post, I was responsible for recording what has been called "the first rough draft of history." But I was always aware that there was more to the story--whether it was the collapse of communism or a big political controversy in the United States--than I or other reporters were able to uncover at the time. It can sometimes take decades for the real story to emerge as historians gain access to secret documents, diaries, and other unpublished materials. The secret Nixon tapes provide a unique insight into events that were off-limits to reporters and other outsiders. Writing King Richard, I felt like a fly on the wall of the Oval Office with the reader by my side, as we eavesdrop on conversations we were never meant to hear. For anyone who is curious about how politics really operates, it is a thrilling, sometimes shocking experience that can leave you laughing at the craziness of it all when you are not shaking your head in disbelief.

I wrote...

King Richard: Nixon and Watergate--An American Tragedy

By Michael Dobbs,

Book cover of King Richard: Nixon and Watergate--An American Tragedy

What is my book about?

I wrote King Richard as the Shakespearean tale of the leader who made himself- and then destroyed himself. Another journalist, Theodore White, wrote a series of acclaimed books titled The Making of the President, but how often does one get to tell the even more remarkable story of the unmaking of a president, from the inside, as it happened? In January 1973, Richard Nixon had just been inaugurated after winning re-election in a historic landslide. By April 1973, his presidency had fallen apart as the Watergate scandal metastasized into a full-blown cancer, in the phrase of White House counsel John Dean. I take readers behind the scenes in the White House to relive the tension-packed hundred days when the Watergate burglars and their handlers turned on one another in a desperate attempt to defect blame. At the center of the drama is Nixon himself, a man whose strengths, such as his determination to win at all costs, became his fatal flaws.

The Passage of Power

By Robert A. Caro,

Book cover of The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

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.

Who am I?

I grew up in Massachusetts, which produced four presidents and untold presidential candidates including Mitt Romney, Mike Dukakis, John Kerry, Elizabeth Warren, and Gov. William Butler, who ran in 1884. My first career was as a newspaper reporter and editor, and I worked for papers in Massachusetts, New York, Colorado, and Washington state. I’ve dabbled in politics myself, working as a campaign press secretary for the late Washington Gov. Booth Gardner. Newspapers gave me an abiding hatred for adverbs, the passive voice, and bias in word selection. (No, historians shouldn’t use “patriot” in describing the Revolution’s American rebels, because loyalists and Indian nations were just as patriotic in their own minds.)

I wrote...

After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence

By Don Glickstein,

Book cover of After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence

What is my book about?

The American Revolution was the United States’ first world war. It involved not just American rebels and England, but France, Holland, Spain, the Indian Kingdom of Mysore, Native American nations, and enslaved people. It was fought from the Arctic to South America, from South Africa to the Mediterranean. The war’s last battle was fought in India, where a Muslim co-belligerent of the American rebels battled the British. After Yorktown tells the story of the people and the war that continued long after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

My Promised Land

By Ari Shavit,

Book cover of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

My Promised Land is beautifully written, a story deeply informed by the author’s family history and the body of knowledge he built as an influential Israeli journalist. Shavit loves the place of his birth but doesn’t retreat from hard questions. He tells a powerful, poignant story of a state-created out of tragedy, and the brutal reality of what Jewish statehood has wrought for yet another disinherited group. There are no easy answers and Shavit offers none. But he presents the complexities and frustrations with intellectual rigor and literary grace.

Who am I?

I have spent my working life as a journalist, author and storyteller, aiming to uncover complexity that sheds new light on stories we think we know. I got my training at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times—and from the wonderful editors of my twelve books. An Innocent Bystander, my book that deals with the Middle East, began as the story of a hijacking and a murder of an American citizen. But as my research widened, I came to see this story couldn’t be told without understanding many perspectives, including the Israeli and the Palestinian, nor could the political be disentangled from the personal.

I wrote...

An Innocent Bystander: The Killing of Leon Klinghoffer

By Julie Salamon, Julie Salamon,

Book cover of An Innocent Bystander: The Killing of Leon Klinghoffer

What is my book about?

My book is about the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the killing of Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled American passenger. His murder became a historic flashpoint for the intractable struggle between Israelis and Palestinians and gave Americans a horrifying preview of what it means when terrorism hits home. An Innocent Bystander began as the story of that shattering moment and what it meant to the world and to the Klinghoffers, an American-Jewish family. As I learned more, the book’s scope widened, to investigate the tragic reverberations for the wives and sons of the Palestinian mastermind behind the hijacking.

Running through the core of my book lies the painful history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Through the stories of these families, An Innocent Bystander illuminates the complex web of personal and historic grievances that lay behind the geopolitics of a region that remains in turmoil.

Empire of Liberty

By Gordon S. Wood,

Book cover of Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815

Gordon Wood is the foremost authority on the American Revolution and the Founding. In his contribution to the Oxford History of the United States series, he provides a masterful introduction to the history of the Early Republic. Prodigious research and profound insights deriving from it will enlighten readers for generations.

Who are we?

We have been researching and writing about the Early Republic since graduate school and began collaborating on the period with our first co-authored book, Old Hickory’s War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire. Though we have occasionally ventured beyond the enthralling events that occurred during those years, mainly by editing books on the Civil War and other topics, we always return to them with relish. We hope you will find the books on our list entertaining as well as informative, thus to whet your appetite for the sumptuous banquet that awaits!

We wrote...

Henry Clay: The Essential American

By David S. Heidler, Jeanne T. Heidler,

Book cover of Henry Clay: The Essential American

What is our book about?

He was the Great Compromiser, a canny and colorful legislator whose life mirrors the story of America from its founding until the eve of the Civil War. Speaker of the House, senator, secretary of state, five-time presidential candidate, and idol to the young Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay is captured in full at last in this rich and sweeping biography.

The authors reveal Clay’s tumultuous career in Washington, including his participation in the deadlocked election of 1824 that haunted him for the rest of his career, and shine new light on Clay’s marriage to plain, wealthy Lucretia Hart, a union that lasted fifty-three years and produced eleven children. Featuring an inimitable supporting cast including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay is beautifully written and replete with fresh anecdotes and insights. 

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