Wanted: US Politics Reading List

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?

Speaking as a lifelong student of political science, I’d recommend the following two books:

William Safire’s Dictionary of American Politics
and Stefan Lorant’s Glorious Burden: the American Presidency

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.)

All of Garry Wills’s books on American history and politics.

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.

The Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton. A very insightful book on the era of the American revolution as well as the American financial system.


For the great American political novel, you’ve gotta read Advise and Consent, a 1959 book about the inner workings of the U.S. Senate back then: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advise_and_Consent. Skip the sequels.

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?

Oh, yes. His best line (paraphrased): Giving power and money to politicians is like giving booze and car keys to teenagers.

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.

Barone has drifted steadily rightward in recent years. Not sure I’d take him as a nonpartisan source any more.

Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine is a wonderful book on the U.S. Supreme Court today - a great mix of law, politics, history and gossip. Highly recommended.

And, again, speaking as a lifelong student of politics, this is a very good recommendation.

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.

Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1960 was the first in that series, and is also very good.