The Passage of Power by Robert Caro—Sometimes reality exceeds the hype. Robert Caro’s magisterial portrait of Lyndon Johnson hit new heights as this fourth volume chronicled his rise from a much-disrespected VP to a president capable of greatness and uniting the nation in the wake of tragedy. What emerges is as complex and textured as any novel while providing a primer on the use of power in a democracy. It also doubled in the Obama era as an extended memo to the president on the virtue of muscular politics—the art of getting things done. Johnson’s reputation will only grow in future decades, in large part because of his biographer.
Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson—I was blown away by the opening chapters of this biography of Hemingway through the life of his boat, the Pilar. I reread pages for enjoyment as well as the workman-like effort to unpack the prose—I wanted to understand how Hendrickson created the lyrical reported voice, walking the reader into the past while freely admitting the undocumented and unknowable. The writing is lush and seamless. It is a beautiful and brilliant work, something to savor.
Defender of the Realm by William Manchester and Paul Reid—Churchill fans have been waiting for this to be completed for decades and many feared it would never appear. The first two volumes of the Last Lion trilogy are exemplary epic biography and after Manchester’s death it seemed like the story would always be incomplete, a phantom limb on the bookshelf. But Manchester’s designated successor Reid picked up the mantle and the first chapters were so good that I decided to go back and read all three volumes in sequence—a welcome indulgence that will define my reading life for the next nine months or so.
It’s Even Worse Than It Looks by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein—The only contemporary political book on my annual list out of the many I read this election year, Mann and Ornstein’s work is the definitive look at our dysfunctional divided Congress—how it got that way and what we can do about it. Driven by data and the sweep of historic perspective, the bipartisan duo comes to the unflinching conclusion that we are experiencing “asymmetric polarization”—namely that Republicans have objectively moved much further to the right that Democrats have moved to the left, creating a crisis of representative government and self-government. The book provides answers to instincts—yes, hyper-partisanship is worse than at any time in our recent history, and no, it doesn’t need to be this way.
Deadline Artists: Scandals, Tragedies and Triumphs, edited by John Avlon, Jesse Angelo, and Errol Louis—Yes, I’m biased because I co-edited this second collection of America’s Greatest Newspaper columns. But besides the shameless plug, I can say without ego that it’s my favorite book of the Christmas season, because I didn’t write it. Read the best of Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton, Mike Royko, and many other Deadline Artists from the 19th century to the 21st and you’ll see why columns are an American art form. Scandals, Tragedies, and Triumphs are the stuff of breaking news, and in the hands of literary journalists, they resonate decades later. This is a book of short stories that really happened, celebrating the classic reported column and giving readers a chance to view history written in the present tense.
Honorable Mentions: Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley; Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas, and Me the People by Kevin Bleyer.