9 Books about Tough Campaigns, Political Chaos & ‘Merica

Election 2016: we could all use a literary perspective right now…

Political commentators on both sides of the aisle have used up plenty of ink and screen time decrying the 2016 Presidential Election as the craziest one yet. Clinton v. Trump may very well go down in history as “the election that drove America nuts” and the campaign that definitively steered American politics off the rails and into the abyss of insanity. Truly, the rhetoric fueling this election cycle sometimes seems like it was borrowed from the DSM V.

In times like these, books are there to offer us some comfort and a little perspective. With the constant barrage of the 24 hour media cycle, it’s easy to forget that, hey, American politics has had a lot of dark moments, and we’ve dug ourselves out of deeper trenches before (see #2). We’ve made it through polarized elections (#8), and Joan Didion reminds us that every Presidential cycle seems more improbable than the last. In sum, human nature hasn’t changed, only maybe a few of us have gotten more orange.

1. The Year of Voting Dangerously by Maureen Dowd

Before the victor has even been announced, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Maureen Dowd has tackled the madness of the 2016 Presidential Election. Dowd discusses her personal history of covering both Trump and Clinton since the ‘90s and wrestles with how America ended up with two candidates boasting the lowest approval ratings ever.

2. Adams vs. Jefferson by John E. Ferling

Our current low road politics has a long and winding history. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson liked each other well enough at the founding, but despised each other by 1800. Their campaign was a ruthless collection of fear mongering and insults (sound familiar?). Jefferson claimed Adams had a “hideous hermaphroditic character.” Adams responded by calling Jefferson “the son of a half breed Indian squaw.” Ferling does an excellent job of rendering young America and showing how this turbulent election threatened to irrevocably fracture the country.

3. Political Fictions by Joan Didion

Unsurprisingly, Didion’s collection of essays takes a harsh look at how politics contribute to the demise of American morals. The pieces trace three presidential campaigns — ’88, ’92, and 2000. It includes essays on the Clinton sex scandal and the House’s failed impeachment proceedings. With acute observations and a journalistic edge, Didion scrutinizes how every election year is controlled by a small few who shape “the narrative of public life.”

4. 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents by David Pietrusza

The 1920 election was groundbreaking for many reasons. First and foremost, women’s suffrage was ratified in August that year, which finally made it possible for the other half of the population to vote. Historically, it was an unusual election because six past and future presidents were competing for the Oval Office: Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Theodore Roosevelt. Historian David Pietrusza delves into all of the different personalities and platforms that made up the dash for the White House, confirming the old adage that truth is often stranger than fiction.

5. Primary Colors by Anonymous (later revealed to be Joe Klein)

Joe Klein’s incendiary novel was published anonymously, until speculation and handwriting analyses uncovered his identity. While the book has been presented as fiction, it’s easy to recognize the story of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. The protagonist, Henry Burton, works on the campaign team for Southern governor, Jack Stanton (the fictionalized version of Clinton). Burton becomes disillusioned with the governor’s two-sidedness, and is confronted with the reality of how shady presidential campaigns can appear from the inside.

6. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson

Thompson’s book is a compilation of articles he originally wrote for Rolling Stone while reporting on the 1972 presidential race and doing lots of drugs. The race was between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat George McGovern, but Thompson focuses his attention mostly on the latter. Full of wit and the usual Gonzo adventures, this one makes for a quick, wild read.

7. Losers by Michael Lewis

After the dust settles, most Americans swiftly forget about the losing candidate in the presidential election, but not Michael Lewis. The author is fascinated by what led to the demise of the six failed hopefuls in the 1996 election. In Losers, he deconstructs the political downfall of Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm, John McCain, Alan Keyes, Steve Forbes, and Bob Dole. The title extends beyond the obvious and also contends that everyone involved in the election — from the candidates, to the media, and the voters — came away losers in some way.

8. Too Close to Call by Jeffrey Toobin

Political and Legal Analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, uses his expert eye to assess the Bush Gore Florida recount. The incredibly close election uncovered a tangled web of political questions, in a race ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court voting along apparently political lines. Might be worth taking a closer look in case Trump refuses to concede…

9. The Man by Irving Wallace

When Wallace’s political novel was published in 1964, it was considered groundbreaking. The plot focuses on the unforeseen inauguration of the first black President of the United States, following an accident with the former president and a chaotic succession plan that results in an obscure senator, Douglass Dilman, being named the new Commander-in-Chief. Dilman has to learn to balance his new role and family life, all while facing the pressures and difficulties of being a black president in the 1960s political landscape.

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