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.

I love a campaign

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory by David Plouffe
Maybe it was growing up in Iowa that did it.
I can’t resist political campaign memoirs. I love, love, love them.*
And this one is fantabulous.
David Plouffe was Barack Obama’s campaign manager, and he’s got a great story to tell.
The first part of the book is the lead-up to the Iowa caucus, and it reads like a love letter to my home state.
And it was only then that the story really picked up… Of course, we know how it ends, but this book tells us what plans were being hatched (and foiled) to produce those results.
One of my absolute favorite lines from the book is this one, and I intend to borrow it for frequent use: “Something funky clearly happened here.” (p. 150)
That was a quote from David Axelrod, speaking with Obama after receiving the surprising results of the New Hampshire primary. For some reason, this line completely cracks me up. Though I realize it wasn’t funny to those present at the time.
Plouffe writes well, and he captures the moments that made the Obama campaign the phenomenon that it was. Even as he describes the lack of glamour—the sleep deprivation, the run-down hotels, the distance from family, the omnipresent concern about blindsiding political attacks—the very intensity of the campaign absolutely seems… glamorous.
Perhaps the appeal of these books is like the appeal of those scaling-Everest memoirs. Someone’s got to do it. Glad it ain’t me, but dang, it’s thrilling to read about. Here’s the guy himself, in one of the minimalistic videos (described by one of his friends as resembling hostage videos) that provided updates to the campaign’s volunteers:

* Other rip-roaring good campaign memoirs: All’s Fair: Love, War, and Running for President by Mary Matalin and James Carville, and All Too Human by George Stephanopoulos
Hey! Election day is Tuesday! Set your alarm clock just a little early, and go vote, dear people.

Political geek rejoices

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
Perhaps the reason that I sighed with great joy when reading page 3 of this book was that I was sitting in the massage chair at the beauty shop (as we called the salon when I was a just a little girl), getting my hair returned to its natural color (my natural color when I was just a little girl).
But probably it had more to do with the fact that this book is everything I adore: a behind-the-scenes account of a presidential campaign, filled with all kinds of details provided by insiders.
I am sitting here, grinning, at the mere thought of such a book.
If you wish to abandon this blog immediately to avoid further contact with such a one, I do not fault you.
But I do not apologize. I can’t help it: I’ve been a campaign news geek ever since I was just a little girl.
(First political memory: At age 4, I told the other preschoolers who my mom voted for in the presidential election. I don’t recall that anyone present particularly cared; I also recall thinking, “Oh… I don’t think I was supposed to tell.”)
This book is way the heck more recent than that, as you can tell from its big long subtitle. It’s about that most addictive of all presidential campaign seasons: 2008. And also about the couple of years leading up to it, when the candidates were getting their stuff together.
And it’s written in a wonderfully lively style that is a delight to experience. I tell you, it’s lively!
Heilemann and Halperin move effortlessly from using words (several of them) that I had to look up in the dictionary (including this word, which ain’t even in my collegiate dictionary: tsuris*) to a conversational tone like we see here:
“Some days later, Bill received a phone call from George W. Bush. The current and former presidents spoke more often than almost anyone knew; from time to time, when 43 was bored, he would call 42 to chew the fat.” (p. 227)
So—since this is behind-the-scenes stuff—we get to hear the candidates saying snide things and getting all frustrated with their staffers and using very bad language.
And then there’s the whole John Edwards fiasco. And the Palin thing. That’s the prurient stuff.
On a higher plane, we get to see how national and international events affected the strategies of the candidates. And we see the maneuverings that led to certain endorsements. And it all unfolds like we know it will, but we get to hear the story behind the story.
For narrative nonfiction junkies, this book is pure pleasure. For political junkies, same thing.
*found it in the Big Dictionary I got here; it means “trouble” (with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool)

White House Intern. No, not that one.

Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House by Stacy Parker Aab
I didn’t know what to expect when I began reading this book. I often look forward to a book’s publication, and then I’m disappointed by the writing, or the tone, or the attitude of the author.
This was not one of those times.
Thank all goodness.
Stacy Parker Aab can write. So we can put a checkmark next to that requirement. She writes very nicely, in fact.
And her tone and her attitude are frank and honest and overall quite positive, even though she writes about some situations that were crummy. So we’ve got a big checkmark there, too.
Meaning: this is a darn good book that I found un-put-down-able. (And that hasn’t happened in a little while for me.)
Stacy Parker Aab worked for George Stephanopoulos and Paul Begala during the Clinton years, and yes, she knew Monica Lewinski. And yes, she, too, was a White House intern during that same timeframe. And guess what? She did not have a fling with the president.
There are, however, some creepy, icky moments she describes; in some situations, she names (real) names, and in others, there’s some vagueness.
The most mysterious thing about this book is the blurb on the front from Andrei Codrescu, who says something about how this book will spur other young people into public service. OK, that’s not what I took away from this one. What I got was: If you’re female and young, and if you’re in a setting where there is a lot of power, you need to be nothing but careful. Not because of yourself, but because of others.
OK, sighing now.
It’s depressing, you know?
Anyhow, very good book… anyway.

The Supremes

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffery Toobin

When I first heard of this book, my initial impression was that it would be dull. This displays my occasional utter idiocy, because what book with the word “secret” in its subtitle is ever dull? I should have suspected it would be titillating!

Well, this book is neither dull nor titillating. It’s better than that: it’s compelling.

Toobin’s great gift is in humanizing the justices. He provides details about the way they interact with each other (which is surprisingly minimal) and with their clerks, about their background, and about their interests (opera, Salzburg, NASCAR, etc.) He shares information about which justices are congenial, combative, reclusive, or sunny in disposition. (How can a person not be wildly fond of a sunny justice? I mean, honestly!)

And, having recently quit a book that failed at this next bit, I can truly appreciate Toobin’s approach to introducing the justices to the reader: he weaves their individual stories into the narrative about the final years of the Rehnquist court (the latter years of which he claims were actually the O’Connor court, in terms of influence) and the first year or so of the Roberts court. None of that simple, lazy method of devoting a chapter to each person, thank all goodness. The result is a richer, more complex and rewarding book for the reader, and I am thankful for it.

Here’s my favorite anecdote of the book, and I think it’s perfectly lovely. Apparently people have often confused David Souter and Stephen Breyer. In one instance, Souter was driving home to New Hampshire from Washington, and he was recognized in a restaurant by a couple who approached him and addressed him as Justice Breyer. Being a kindly sort of person, Souter nodded and continued the brief conversation, which included this question: “’Justice Breyer, what’s the best thing about being on the Supreme Court?’ The justice thought for a while, then said, ‘Well, I’d have to say it’s the privilege of serving with David Souter.’” (p. 246) I love this!

Snap quiz: Can you name all nine justices?* If so, buy yourself a giganto treat from the DQ: you deserve it, dagnabbit.

I really should have read this book before visiting the Supreme Court during oral arguments (which is one doggone fascinating thing to do; I highly recommend it. I was darn near stunned when they appeared from behind that curtain; there was a moment of, “Is that really them?” and it was then that I realized just how much of a dork I really am. Starstruck by the Supremes.)

So at least now I’ve read it, so on my next visit, I’ll be cleverer. And, yes, I’ll admit it: I’ll be even more agog than before.

*Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Roberts, Alito, Sotomayor

LBJ (again)

A Very Human President by Jack Valenti

A view of Lyndon Baines Johnson from one of his key advisors. Valenti was there in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated, and he accompanied Johnson to Washington, D.C. that evening. Johnson invited Valenti and some other advisors to stay at the Elms (the Johnsons’ Washington residence) that night, and Valenti didn’t leave Washington, D.C. until April 1966, when he resigned his position as special assistant to the president. This book was published in 1975, a couple of years after Johnson’s death. Still, Valenti was very protective about his former boss’s legacy; for example, he addresses the rift between Johnson and Robert Kennedy, but his explanation is a bit pat.

This book is full of LBJ tales, most of which are larger than life—no surprise there. I love the story of Johnson calling Truman, to get some support from a man who had been in his shoes. Valenti confesses to listening to the conversation on the other line a little longer than was necessary, and I just loved the humanness of that moment. And he writes that the phone conversation with Truman was like a tonic for Johnson.

Valenti also included a section specifically about the press, which was much more interesting than I would have expected. He describes how journalists would become vexed by Johnson’s unwillingness to reveal his schedule until the last moment, and how that gradually undermined the president’s credibility.

The section about Vietnam surprised me, too—because when I read it, it seemed that escalating the conflict was inevitable. Valenti says that most of the advisors at the time were still “Kennedy men,” and he makes the argument that even if Kennedy had lived, the U.S. still would have sent more and more troops to southeast Asia. (Again, I wondered if Valenti presented the situation in this way to protect Johnson’s legacy. I am a skeptic. And I don’t think we’ll ever wholly understand how that whole situation went so wrong.)

Valenti was a lovely writer. This book is easy to read, and it contains some delightful turns of phrase. Interestingly, though, the most memorable line comes from a letter written to Valenti by David Halberstam. Referring to Lyndon Johnson, Halberstam writes, “He reeks of human juices.” Amen.

Spies Like… Them

Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House by Valerie Plame Wilson

Two confessions:

Confession #1: I read the last part of this book first! I never do this. But here’s the situation: The Afterword (by Laura Rozen) provides some necessary context for Wilson’s story, because Wilson herself was prevented from sharing some key details about her experiences in the CIA. More about this later… after I reveal…

Confession #2: I got the idea to check out this book when I heard the Decemberists’ song “Valerie Plame” a couple of times on The World Café. First, let me declare that I feel bad for Ms. Wilson: she had built a career, and it was destroyed due to some nasty political wrangling that had little to do with her personally. That’s rotten. And I also feel kind of bad that I like the song, which seems to make light of her plight. (How about that rhyming there?) But here’s the thing: the song led me to the book, where she relates her own version of events, and I’m glad I read it. The prose is not stellar (neither is it flawed), but the story—yikes, what a story—carries a reader right along.

Here’s the reason to read the Afterword first: One tantalizing, frustrating, fascinating element of the book is that Wilson has left the blacked-out text in place—so the reader can see the sections (sometimes a word or two, sometimes two consecutive pages) that were disapproved for publication by the CIA. There are some surprising gaps in her story, which I imagine would have appeared in the blacked-out sections. And some of the gaps appear to be fairly innocuous information, based on their context—but truly, what do I know?

The true oddness of my reading these books about espionage is that I am truly chickenhearted and would pass out cold if I were in any situation that was even remotely as treacherous as the ones encountered by CIA case workers.

By the book’s end, I was even more fully on Wilson’s side in this whole debacle. She, her husband, and their children had moved to New Mexico by the time the book closes, and I have this sad vision of these two active, involved former Washingtonians in exile, slowly going stir crazy in the beautiful desert. Here’s hoping I’m completely wrong and that they’re living their dreams in the Southwest.

Deep Throat

The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat by Bob Woodward

Last week the world should have learned the answer to one of the best-kept secrets in Washington, D.C. history: the identity of Deep Throat. But the cat was let out of the bag early: in 2005, W. Mark Felt himself revealed that he had been Bob Woodward’s secret source during the Watergate investigation. When I woke on December 19 to learn that Mark Felt had died the previous day, it was strange to think of the news day this would be, if he hadn’t told the news during his living days. When I first read All the President’s Men as a freshman in college, two things happened: I was instantly turned into a political science major, and I actually prayed I would someday learn the identity of Deep Throat. Prayer answered. Bob Woodward has admitted to being stunned when he learned that Felt revealed that he was Deep Throat; Woodward had believed he would be the person to spill the news only upon Felt’s death. I have to confess: I felt a little bit sorry for Woodward, getting scooped by his own source.

The book The Secret Man was released very soon after Felt’s announcement, because Woodward had written it a couple of years earlier and then locked it up. This book is absolutely fascinating: we see the story from the inside—how Woodward met Felt (in the White House, of all places), the details of their meetings, how Woodward kept the secret of “my friend” for so many years, how he had a falling-out of sorts with Felt, and how, in 2000, he communicated with Felt for the first time in decades. The single fact that most tantalized me was the address of the parking garage where they met: 1401 Wilson Boulevard/1820 North Nash Street in Rosslyn, VA. The other amazing revelation is that Felt ordered an investigation into the leak of Watergate details from FBI files—in a brilliant CYA move.

In a manic bout of Watergate Googling, I came across this delightful find: images of Woodward’s notes after each meeting with Felt on the web site of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, which archives the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate papers.

So here’s my question: Is “The Secret Man” Mark Felt—or is it Bob Woodward himself?

Truman. I just adore him.

Harry S. Truman by Robert Dallek

First, before I even write anything about this book in particular, I have to announce the terrific thing I discovered because of this book: There exists something called “The American Presidents” series, and this book is part of it. I opened the book right here in my kitchen and saw a list of all the books in this series, and I confess that I gasped and then uttered a word I will not repeat here (this word was said with great joy and reverence [in the privacy of my own home], but it’s still best not repeated). The other books in the series are written by such notables as Douglas Brinkley (on Gerald Ford), John Dean (on Warren Harding), and H.W. Brands (on Woodrow Wilson). The Truman book is fairly short – just over 150 pages. On the series web site, the editors say they wish to offer books that are “compact.” I tell you, this is just the ticket for learning just enough about some of those less-well-known fellows like Chester A. Arthur and (my own favorite-to-mention, obscure, oft-forgotten president) Millard Fillmore. Excellent!

Now, to the Truman book itself—
While David McCullough’s Truman is my favorite biography of our 33rd president, Robert Dallek’s book does a fine job of highlighting the key parts of his presidency. Interestingly, though I have just praised the concept of this series of compact presidential biographies, it occurred to me while reading Harry S. Truman that Dallek wasn’t able to spread his wings the way he has in his other, longer books. There was nothing wrong with this book; it just didn’t make me hum contentedly the way Dallek’s writing usually does. On the up side, Dallek gives us a grittier view of Truman than McCullough did—and it’s fine to see that Truman really had some serious failings. (I also liked seeing examples of his famously colorful language; other books have glossed over it, and I was edified to see that the man truly could swear.) I would suggest this book to anyone seeking to learn the basics about Truman’s presidency without committing to the very long McCullough biography.

A Young President

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek

First– we have a new president-elect! Without getting all partisan about it, I’ll say simply: champagne toasts have occurred.

So, let’s celebrate with a book about another young senator who became president– and how also inspired a new generation in an unprecedented way…

In An Unfinished Life, we get a glimpse of JFK as we never knew him before. From this book, I gained an appreciation of Kennedy’s humanity and his ability to learn from his mistakes. For example, following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he was devastated by his error in judgment and ceased his unquestioning reliance on the advice of his military advisors. Dallek, professor of history at Boston University and author/narrator of a terrific audio series called American Presidency (part of the Modern Scholar series), reveals new information about the seriousness of Kennedy’s illnesses and the extent to which he was medicated while president, his rampant infidelity (including flings with White House staffers, including– gasp!– an intern), and his innate fatalism. And still I adore JFK; this is vaguely unsettling. This is a large book, and it needed to be lengthy in order to do justice to the man whose complex life it describes. Dallek masterfully circumvents the legend and gives us the man.