Nixon, we hardly knew ye

Reflecting pool at the Nixon Presidential Library…
for the man who was totally *not* into self-reflection
Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
3 words: psychological, fascinating, insightful
So this was a weird one. I read a review of this book last year, thought I might like it, saw the page count (619), and thought, “Yeah, I think I’ll pass…”
Then it showed up on some “best books of the year” lists, and I felt bad for skipping it. But still not enticed.
Then one day we were in a bookstore and I picked up a copy and told the Dear Man, “Yeah, I’m feeling guilty about not reading this book…”
And as soon as I opened the book, I was hooked.
It was the typeface.
And here’s the thing: I’m not a typeface snob. 

I’ve always found it weird when books announce their typeface at the end of the book. But in this book’s case, man, it made a difference. (In case you’re wondering, the typeface was Sabon.)

There was also really beautiful spacing on the pages.
And a photo at the beginning of each chapter.
My friends, I read this book.
And from page xi, on which the author describes Nixon’s adoration of the movie Around the World in 80 Days and the way he’d get all enthusiastic about the scene with the elephant… I was a goner.
But the thing that most delighted me about this book is how sad it made me.
I know that sounds nuts. But stay with me, guys.
Because of my mild Watergate obsession, I’ve read me a book or two about Nixon. And many of these books have explored his psyche.
But none of them were like this.
This book delved deep into the contradictions in Nixon’s character, ambitions, and view of himself. And man, it’s nothing but fascinating.
He strove to be inspiring and positive and joyful.
And mostly he just wasn’t any of those things at all.
It kind of breaks my heart.

I have new sympathy for the man. 

This book breaks new ground, and it’s that rarest of rare things: a true original in a packed field. 

Supremely fun

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

3 words: smart, inspiring, fun

I’m pretty sure Shakespeare was anticipating Ruth Bader Ginsburg when he wrote, “And though she be but little, she is fierce.” 
This woman is tough, people.
One of my favorite anecdotes from this book shows RBG, only days after having a stent put in her heart, saying, “Tell them I’ll be back doing pushups in a few days.”
(Her workout includes 20 pushups. No joke.)
Gotta admire that.
This book is like a playground for Supreme Court geeks. And if you’re inclined to like Justice Ginsburg even before reading this book, afterward you’re probably gonna want to tattoo yourself with her image.
(Or maybe not.)
So: playground!
Beyond zippy, fascinating stories about RBG’s life (and she’s led a fascinating one; I especially love reading about her nearly 60-year marriage, which was a true partnership), this book contains tons of color photos, entertaining illustrations, timelines, and annotated court decisions and dissents.
It’s the kind of book that makes you smarter while you’re having fun.
Seriously, the book’s format is happy-making. All that visual interest really makes it a lovely book to hold in your hands, and then it’s packed with stories like the one about RBG wearing her special dissent collar when she’s going to read an oral dissent from the bench.
And you can keep on living the dream on Tumblr, where the book’s seed sprouted.

Totally inspired, and also perfectly entertained. A wonderful reading experience.

New Year, old scandal

Watergate tourist. I know: sad.

The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward
3 words: fascinating, strange, bitter
My Watergate obsession rages on.
And when Bob Woodward releases anything linked to those days, I get truly a little bit scarily excited.
So this book made me bliss out (even though it made me sad to see the word “Last” in its title — Bob, don’t let the well dry up!)
It’s the story of Alexander Butterfield, the person who blew the whistle on the taping system in the Oval Office.
I’d always wondered why he spilled the beans, and this book basically answers that question. 
Dude was ticked. 
He’d given up an important position in the Air Force to work for his old buddy Haldeman in the White House, only to discover his boss’s boss had severe social anxiety and was too nervous to meet him for weeks. (We’re talking here about the President of the United States, people.)
And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.
One of my favorite lines from the book: “The Nixon inner circle sounded like both snake pit and kindergarten.” (27)
Oh, boy.
So, yeah, some dirt is dished here. Seems like Butterfield’s still kind of holding a grudge, which could cause a person to take this book with a grain of salt, except: Woodward pre-salted it. He acknowledges Butterfield’s lingering anger and knows it’s part of the reason he consented to share long-concealed documents he removed from the White House when he left.

Fascinating stuff.

The year after a presidential campaign: almost as good as the thing itself

Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the
Future of Elections in America
by Dan Balz
My heart was happy
when I saw that it’s already time for the presidential election recap books to
begin appearing.

Me and Joe — we go way back

I know. It’s sick.

The thing is, this
book—and heck, this election—had a lot to live up to. Because my benchmark for
this type of thing is the spectacular Game Change: Obama and the Clintons,McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime.
That 2008 election
was probably the best I’ll ever see, and Heilemann’s and Halperin’s take on it
was so blasted fun to read.
So Collision 2012 had its work cut out for
it. And, given the material offered by 2012, it was unlikely to reach the level
of bliss-inducement offered by Game
Change
. And, sure enough, it just didn’t get there. But it wasn’t the fault
of the author; the 2012 election just didn’t get as thrilling as 2008, and the
cast of characters was way less quirky. We can blame history, guys.  
There were moments
when this book almost seemed dry. But then, I was glad about its serious
approach to the topic, once I began reading Mark Leibovich’s This Town—because I needed to cut his
snark with some solemnity. I craved hard data about election returns, and Collision 2012 offered it up. 
These two
books actually pair quite well, if you’re into this kind of thing.
Not that Collision 2012
is all seriousness. Call me shallow, but the thing I’ll most remember is this:
On the morning of election day, Mitt Romney cleaned out the refrigerator
because it was trash day. I find that completely endearing.
This book offered some great behind-the-scenes coverage of the campaigns, but I just kept thinking:
2012 was no 2008. And without the zippy material, the story just kind of loses its oomph. 

There you have it: the technical analysis from a poli sci major — that election cycle lacked oomph. 

Nevertheless, I’m on the waiting list for Halperin and Heilemann’s Double Down: Game Change 2012. (Due out November 5! [I confess: my stomach just did a little flip of anticipatory joy. I know: sick.])

Washington gossip

This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus,
Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s
Gilded Capital
by Mark
Leibovich

Yeah, I know we’re all ticked off about the government shut-down, but even as it raged on, I was reading delightedly about Washington, D.C.

Real-life motorcade I saw with my own eyes as it
rolled through Georgetown; I almost passed out from joy.

When I started
reading this book, I was completely blissed out. Even though it starts at a
funeral. Turns out, Tim Russert’s funeral was the social event of the year.

This book goes down
easy, like a hot fudge sundae. The tone is light and funny, even though much of
the content (politicians and journalists are in bed together, and really,
they’re the only ones who benefit) is not.
Mark Leibovich is a
funny guy. He’s also a complete smart-aleck. Sometimes the irreverence is
almost a bit much. But then I’d read a sentence like this: “Romney seemed to
acquire an instant lightness after his Ryan selection—like a shy eight-year-old
transformed by a new pet turtle.” (p. 316) And then I’d be all: That’s priceless.
Along those same
lines: “It was for this reason hard to dislike Biden, a joyful campaigner
who—unlike the introverted Obamneys—was not someone you imagined reaching for
the Purell as soon as he escaped the ropeline.” (p. 296)
I savored these
sentences.
But there was a
whole big long chapter about a congressional staffer who got himself fired and
re-hired, and Leibovich was involved in the situation, and I got so darn bored
by all the details. It was too much. And I didn’t care. It was a relief when
that chapter (finally) ended.
And after that, I
found myself feeling the slightest bit like the book was too much, and it
didn’t feel like it was really very good for me. It felt a bit self-indulgent
and a little flip to be reading it, and I fled back to my other
political-book-in-progress, Collision
2012
, for some whole wheat goodness. 
In the end, reading
This Town felt like eating a large
hot fudge sundae when I should’ve gone for a small. It was deliciously decadent, but there was a bit too much of it. 

Watergate: more truths emerge…

Leak: Why Mark
Felt Became Deep Throat
by Max Holland
So yeah. We all now know that Mark Felt was Deep Throat.
But the question remains: Why’d he do it?
There’ve been various theories: he was appalled at Nixon’s
flagrant snubbing of the law; he was ticked because Nixon didn’t name him
director of the FBI after Hoover’s
death; he didn’t like Nixon’s interference with FBI business; he thought it was
the right thing to do.
Well, Holland
posits that Felt did all that leaking because he was attempting to discredit
his rivals for the top job at the FBI. He makes quite a good case for this
argument.
So, in addition to the new analysis of Felt’s motivation, here are
the facts I learned that completely blew my mind:
– Felt was leaking not only to Woodward, but also to Sandy Smith
at Time. Who knew?!
– Nixon knew Felt was the source of the leaks by late 1972. Again…
(say it with me now) Who knew?!  And Nixon didn’t dare fire him, lest Felt
spill even more secrets. (Oh what a tangled web we weave, Mr. Nixon.)
– Robert Redford suggested to Woodstein the style of All the President’s Men: that the book
be the story of how they discovered
the truth, rather than simply what they
discovered. The result: a literary masterpiece.
The dauntless Unruly one, in the
*actual parking garage where
Woodward and Deep Throat met*
Each man—Woodward and Felt—was, of course, using the other for his
own purposes. But it’s never before been so baldy stated as it is in this book.
The thing I find the most haunting, though, is this: 
“In 2002,
Roger L. Depue, the former chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, studied
the depiction of Deep Throat in All the
President’s Men
for NBC’s Dateline program.
Depue concluded from the way Woodward wrote about Felt that he had very mixed
feelings toward the man… ‘I detected that not only was Felt an angry man,’
Depue said, ‘but that Woodward didn’t particularly like him. It seemed like
more of a utilitarian relationship…. There wasn’t much mutual respect there.’”
(p. 157)
For some reason, this makes me feel kind of sad. The romance is
all shot to hell, you know?
I feel like I’ve finished this book, only to find myself sadder
and wiser. I’ve kinda had enough of that for a while.
P.S. Hey! You, too, can do the self-guided Watergate tour. I highly recommend it. 

Happy humming

Tension City: Inside the Presidential
Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain
by
Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer. I really like this guy. 

And since this book of his is
about presidential debates (one of my most favorite things upon this earth),
we’d really be expecting that I’d be over the moon about it.

Well, guys, I liked this book just fine. But for me, it didn’t
really take off until the very end. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)

The bulk of the book analyzes the debates from 1960 to 2008. And
since Lehrer moderated several of those debates, he can provide some really
great insight. 

One of the things that surprised me is that the moderator gets
all jittery before the debate, too. I’d always thought of the candidates being
all keyed up before a debate, but it turns out the moderators are also “shaking
like a leaf,” as Bob Schieffer put it.

So that stuff’s all
interesting enough, but it’s the book’s final chapter that really sings. It’s a
wonderfully congenial treatise on the importance of both freedom of speech/press
and civility in public discourse. (I liked it so much, I read it twice.)

Here’re some
beautiful sentences:

“The more voices
and views, the better. Always, the better. I do not want anybody shut up. The
addition of new and varied and multiple voices in the public mix is terrific
for our democracy. I am, in fact, a purist on the First Amendment guarantees of
everyone’s right to speak, no matter how disagreeable or ridiculous the words
may be.
But.
The First Amendment
is about a right, not a requirement. It says nothing about requiring people to attack or inflame others to get ratings or to
be notice, or to take positions only for votes or to insult people for
entertainment value.” (p. 194)

And here, even more
succinctly: “… I believe as a moderator and as a citizen in the virtue of civil discourse as strongly as
I believe in the right to uncivil
discourse.” (p. 198)

Truly. I’d like to
just shake that man’s hand. 

Do you doodle?

Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, Squiggles and Scrawls from the Oval Office from the creators of Cabinet Magazine
Quick! Name a president who’s a known doodler.
If you named darn near any president, you got this one right.
But the big names in this area are Hoover, FDR, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, and Reagan.
For the lover of random presidential trivia (me, me, me!) this book is pure gold.
Some of the doodles are unsurprising; for example, one would guess that FDR and JFK would be prone to draw sailboats, given their love of the sea—and Reagan drew horses (especially when he was super bored, apparently).
But who’d’ve thunk that Hoover would be such a doodler? I gotta say: I was shocked.
And he was known as a doodler even in his day. In fact, his doodles were transferred onto fabric and sold as “Hoover Scribble Rompers.” That is crazy, dude. (And actually, the rompers are frighteningly cute.)
The authors/compilers of this book stretched the definition of “doodle” a little bit, and I’m glad they did. Here’s what I mean: they also include illustrated notes and letters sent by presidents to their loved ones. And the notes written by Ronald Reagan to Nancy just about break my heart, they’re so cute. Like him or not, that man loved his wife.
This is the sort of book you can pick up and open to any random page and find something interesting. Hugely browse-able… if you can put it down.

CartoonistCrush

Herblock: A Cartoonist’s Life: Self-Portrait and Views of Washington from Roosevelt to Clinton by Herbert Block
I adore Herblock. His cartoons have made me laugh out loud. Often. And still. Even some of the cartoons I’ve seen oodles of times crack me up every time.
I swear: I started smiling broadly and had to work hard to prevent the laugh-out-loud thing—probably seeming like I had some serious issues or was newly madly in love—the other day at the grocery store, when thinking about this one. It’s my most favorite.
In this book, as in his cartoons, Herblock pulls no punches. In fact, he’s pretty darn scathing about those he didn’t like (we’re looking at you, Reagan, Eisenhower, Carter). And pretty gentle toward those he thought were OK (Humphrey, Kennedy).
So, since this is the more eye-widening-with-delight stuff, here’s one sample of the harsh (yet/therefore wildly entertaining) statements:
“Since his 1974 resignation, there have been periodic Nixon rehabilitations, often advanced by magazines and TV programs that apparently found they could tap a public fascination similar to the interest in chainsaw massacres and bloodsucking bats.” (p. 234)
There’s a fair amount of political commentary here, so this book suited me just fine. But there’s also enough info about Herblock himself to qualify this puppy as an autobiography.
And, being something of a muckety-muck himself in Washington, Herblock rubbed shoulders with lots of Names. He drops them gently.
He seems like a modest sort, which is impressive given his own stature as a Name.
The other thing a person can forget is this: Herblock was smart as all hell. Cartoons seem like they’re fun and games, but his stuff really sings… and stings.
Let’s be happy: There’s Herblock stuffall over… the interwebs.

44th President

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick
Because I could check it out as an eBook, and because I’m doing the U.S. Presidents Reading Project, I did something I don’t usually do: I read a biography of a current president.
Usually, I like to wait a while.
Sure, I’ll read the books about the campaign, but I usually wait for a decade or so after the presidential years before reading an actual biography of a president.
But, against all odds, I read this 600+ page eBook, and I enjoyed it.
The thing this book really does is give a person a clear sense of Barack Obama’s background and his ambitions. It also gives a great sense of context about President Obama’s significance in the civil rights movement.
Before reading this book, I knew his general bio, sure. But this book filled in the details. It’s filled with information derived from interviews with many people from his inner circle, and I love that stuff.
But, I know in 10 or 20 years or so, I’m going to want to read a book about his presidential years. That’s the stuff I really, really like.