The title pretty much sums up my situation. I am a news and current affairs junkie, and I would like to put my knowledge of the American political situation on a more systematic basis. I am hoping for books intended for the intelligent lay reader. I don’t want superficial dumbed-down analysis, but equally I am not sitting a Master’s degree.
To start with I would like books providing the purely factual background information: The branches of government and their respective duties; how, why and when the particular structures of the US were developed; what’s the difference between a senator and a governor and how are they elected; that sort of thing.
After that I will want books that are more analytical. Topics might include the histories of major US political issues (states’s rights, social issues such as sexuality, the judiciary and “activist judges”), biographies of presidents and other major figures, or books dealing with particular turning points in US political history. I should say that any topics I have mentioned are intended as suggestions: if knowledgeable people think that other topics are more important, please feel free to say so.
Aside from the general issue of self-improvement, the idea is that by the end I should be able to read American political journalism with a decent understanding of the issues and the background.
I thank all respondents in advance for the time they devote to my humble request. What can the combined erudition of the SDMB offer me?
The first gives the language of current politics, the slang, the in-jokes, the terms of art. The second gives the history of the country’s politics, viewed through the prism of the presidency, but including relations with the Congress and the Judiciary, the growth of the bureaucracy, the rise of America to international superpower status, etc.
Frankly, I learned more from those two books than from four years taking my bachelor’s in the subject. (Well, maybe not quite, but the two of them cover an amazing amount of ground.)
Not a general history, but I’d recommend The Ferocious Engine of Democracy: A History of the American Presidency by Michael Riccards. It’s a good review of how the power of the American presidency has evolved over the years.
Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers - A great look at the Framers of the Constitution and their relationships - sometimes friendly, sometimes not, but always competitive - with each other.
David McCullough, Truman - A great bio of a long-underappreciated leader.
James Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man - Also a great bio. Read this to see just why Washington was so vital to the cause of American independence, and then practically invented the Presidency.
I’ve heard good things about Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, about the 2008 campaign and how Obama won, but haven’t read it yet.
It’s rather dated, but P.J. O’Rourke’s Parliament of Whores is a great introduction to American Government. You have to love a book that has a section entitled Our Government: What the fuck do they do all day, and why does it cost so goddamned much money?
The Almanac of American Politics by Micheal Barone. It will give you an understanding of every political race in the country. It is expensive but there is no where else that you can get that level of information.
I’ve always been a fan of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a damn good look inside the McGovern vs Nixon contest. It’s wonderfully vulgar at times, but it also has some real good insights on how the convention system works (or worked, anyway). As companions to this you could also try Theodore White’s The Making of the President, 1972 and Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus.