2 Good Books About Politics
How do we end up with the kinds of people whose names we see on the ballot? Two brisk, fast-reading books on two very different U.S. senators offer clues.
Here are two recent books that make important points about politics, history, culture, and human nature via fast-moving vivid narratives.
1) The Cynic, by Alec MacGillis. Everyone in politics-world knows that Mitch McConnell matters. If he holds on through his current reelection race in Kentucky, and if enough of the other likely-Republican Senate races go in the expected way, then McConnell will end up as Senate majority leader early next year.
Not as many people have a clear idea of who McConnell is, or how he evolved, or why he does the things he does—notably including his conversion of the Senate from a majority-rule body with occasional filibusters to a paralyzed system in which a 60-vote "supermajority" is required to get even routine chores done.
This is the story Alec MacGillis tell in his concise, fast-moving ebook about McConnell, The Cynic. It's full of things I hadn't known, for instance that McConnell began his career as a decidedly moderate Republican, initially keeping arm's length from Ronald Reagan and his conservatives, supporting abortion rights, and styling himself in the inclusive, bridge-building tradition of Kentucky's great mid-20th century senator John Sherman Cooper.*
Mitch McConnell's reputation now amounts to more or less the opposite of John Sherman Cooper's, and MacGillis tells how and why McConnell changed course. He also helps explain how someone without the obvious political gifts of speech-making or glad-handing has stayed in national office for 30 years and is favored to be there at least six years more. And if you'd like even more first-hand evidence of what has happened to the Senate, you'll find it here—all in less than two hours' reading time.
2) All the Truth Is Out, by Matt Bai. If you read the highly publicized NYT Mag excerpt from this book last month, you probably think you know what the whole book is about. That is: the myth and reality of what Bai calls "the week politics went tabloid," the time in 1987 when reporters from The Miami Herald, The Washington Post, and elsewhere turned Gary Hart's presidential campaign into a lurid inquest into the nature of his relationship with Donna Rice and potentially other women.
That's what I assumed too, before I read the book (in preparation for a recent talk with Hart) and learned that I was wrong. The book's ambition is broader than I assumed, and it tells a more important story than that excerpt might suggest.
Bai mentions several time the great Moby Dick-like work of modern political reportage, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer. And while All the Truth doesn't aspire to the same scale—Richard Ben Cramer told the life stories of six candidates through almost the whole sweep of the 1988 campaign; Matt Bai gives us just one—it is clearly informed by Cramer's determination to present the candidates as real people.
That is: real people as opposed to larger-than-life world historical figures, which was the tone Theodore White's seminal Making of the President books often took. But also, real people as opposed to crooks, villains, and liars, in the way Hunter S. Thompson popularized and that is the default approach in much of today's political journalism. To paraphrase a point Bai makes in the book: Modern reporters start out knowing that politicians are guilty of something. They just have to figure out what. Richard Ben Cramer gave a critical but sympathetic view of how the world looked through the eyes of Bob Dole or Joe Biden or Dick Gephardt or George W. Bush in 1988, and Matt Bai does that with Gary Hart.
This book will tell you a lot about what politics asks of and takes out of people, and about the highly imperfect ways in which we now assess "character" and "substance" when choosing our leaders. It probably will, and certainly should, make you think more highly of Gary Hart as a figure of consequence in our politics.
And among other questions it raises this one: Bill Clinton (who once worked for Hart during the 1972 McGovern campaign) is known to have committed sexual indiscretions far grosser than anything even alleged about Hart. Yet Clinton is now America's beloved grandfather/neighbor/explainer/philanthropist/first-gentleman-in-waiting, while Hart has been consigned to public-policy limbo. Life, as they say, is not fair.
But you should give these books, and their arguments, and their authors a fair shake by buying and reading both of them.
* In an email exchange about the idea behind his book, MacGillis wrote:
At bottom, [the book] is an attempt to understand, through this one very consequential and representative yet oddly under-scrutinized figure, how we've arrived at the point we have. I've never been really satisfied by the explanation that things have gotten the way they have in Washington because the Republican Party has changed; I wanted to get a better grasp of why and how it changed, and taking a closer look at McConnell seemed a good way to go about doing so.
I was pretty startled to find just how far he has traveled over the years—I found women's-rights activists in Kentucky praising him to the skies for his pro-choice conniving in Louisville government, an aide who recalled sending McConnell bowling with the local AFL-CIO chieftain to get his endorsement (after promising to back public-employee unions), and plenty other flashes of long-lost moderation. Most amusing might be the pro-moderation letter he fired off to a Ripon Society leader after reading his essay in Playboy. (If there's anyone who read Playboy for the articles ...)