A Dozen Books To Help Weather The Political Storm

tags: books, political history, American History

John T. Shaw is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. His books include Rising Star, Setting Sun: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and the Presidential Transition that Changed Americaand JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency.   


This is already shaping up to be extraordinary year in the United States. The country is deeply polarized and it is quite possible that Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Donald Trump could ignite a political and constitutional crisis. The endless barrage of tweets, newspaper headlines, and “Breaking News” bulletins on cable television has an exhausting and disorienting effect. It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the important from the mundane, the consequential from the sensational. 

During a recent talk to a group of retirees in Carbondale, Illinois I was asked how to navigate this tense and fraught time. I surprised myself when I urged them to turn away from their televisions (particularly the partisan cable offerings) and toward books. Specifically, books that would allow them to see our country’s political traditions in a fuller and more nuanced way and to provide context to evaluate future choices. I suggested they read a balanced biography of a leader of the party they affiliate with and an equally balanced biography of a member of the opposing party. 

I’m a journalist, historian, and the director of a public policy research institute that is affiliated with a public university. As a dedicated and dogged reader of non-fiction I propose a dozen political books that can guide us through this gathering political storm. 

Let me begin with several caveats. I am not arguing that the following are “the best,” the “most impactful,” or the “most inspiring” books in American history. Nor am I positing that these twelve books provide a comprehensive and coherent framework to view American political life. They reflect my personal preference for history and biography and do not include works of sociology, psychology, spirituality, or literature, all of which also offer critical perspectives that are relevant for this turbulent time. 

I believe these books tell important stories, introduce us to consequential people from our past, describe our best traditions, and demonstrate that positive change is possible but often only after years of hard work and frequent setbacks. They exemplify the fact that America is a creative, and sometimes chaotic, country that tends to get things right, but often only after perplexing and disappointing detours. 

Twelve books that can help us weather the coming political storm:


1. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution by Carol Berkin, 2002.  

Berkin is a professor of American history at the City University of New York and Baruch College. Her book describes how an effort to fix the Articles of Confederation morphed into a negotiation that resulted in a new Constitution. A Brilliant Solution chronicles how chaotic and fiercely contested the drafting of this document was. Nothing was certain when the 1787 Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia, and failure was a distinct possibility. Deep divisions persisted between those who supported a strong federal government and those who wanted the states to retain substantial powers. The final Constitution was an elegant compromise that emerged from a messy and unpredictable process. Berkin also argues that the subsequent battle for ratification was a hard-fought endeavor that could easily have failed. She makes it clear that not everything in the Constitution has worked out as the founders intended. For example, they were determined to create a government in which the legislative branch was more powerful than the executive. This was once the case but clearly no longer is. The founders feared a powerful executive and worried that a tyrant might one day govern the nation. Thus they took care to create procedures for removing such a person from the presidency. “The founding fathers did not expect their constitution to endure for centuries,” Berkin concludes. “They could not predict the social, economic, or technological changes produced by the generations that followed them. Perhaps their ultimate wisdom, and their ultimate achievement, was their willingness to subject the Constitution they created to amendment. With this gesture—a true leap of faith—they freed future generations from the icy grip of the past.” 


2. Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith, 2012.  

Dwight Eisenhower was a solid but unspectacular West Point graduate from America’s Heartland who grew into a world-class military leader, helped win World War II, and served two terms as the president of the United States. Smith, one of America’s pre-eminent biographers and historians, depicts Eisenhower as a man of decency, force, intelligence, moderation and competence. He argues that except for Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower was the most successful president of the 20th century. Smith credits Ike for ending a three-year stalemated war in Korea, resisting calls for preventive war against the Soviet Union and China, deploying the Seventh Fleet to protect Formosa (Taiwan) from invasion, facing down Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over Berlin, moving the Republican party from its isolationist past, balancing the federal budget, and building the interstate highway system. He argues that Eisenhower understood the demands of leadership although he often concealed his political acumen. “All of his life Eisenhower managed crises without overreacting. He made every task he undertook look easy. Ike’s military experience taught him that an outward display of casualness inspired confidence, and he took that lesson into the White House,” Smith writes.


3. Truman by David McCullough, 1992. 

This Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by one of America’s most popular writers introduced President Harry Truman to a generation of Americans.  Few stories are more remarkable than Truman’s maturation from a mostly obscure senator to a mostly obscure vice president to a magnificent president. Following the death of Franklin Roosevelt, Truman became Commander in Chief in 1945, a critical time in American history. He confronted the sternest challenges imaginable and handled them successfully. Truman built the foundation for the United States and the West to eventually win the Cold War with the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the U.S. national security apparatus which includes the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the CIA. Truman was the first president to recommend that Congress take action on civil rights. He also is remembered for desegregating the armed forces. “Ambitious by nature, he was never torn by ambition, never tried to appear as something he was not,” McCullough writes of Truman. “He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear. Yet he was not and had never been a simple, ordinary man. The homely attributes, the Missouri wit, the warmth of his friendship, the genuineness of Harry Truman, however appealing, were outweighed by the larger qualities that made him a figure of world stature, both a great and good man, and a great American president.” 


4. The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947 by Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, 2018

George Marshall was a quiet giant in American history. He served as the Army chief of staff who organized the American victory in World War II and later as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense under Truman. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize. Truman called him “the greatest military man this country ever produced--or any other country produced.” Time magazine named him “Man of the Year” in January of 1948 and wrote that Americans “trust General Marshal more than they have trusted any military man since George Washington.” The China Mission chronicles Marshall’s impossible quest to broker an agreement between China’s warring communist and nationalist forces. Even in failure, Marshall emerges as honorable, creative, and devoted to duty. Kurtz-Phelan, executive editor of Foreign Affairs, offers a meticulous account of Marshall’s diplomacy as he tried to forge a peace deal between two sides, who ultimately did not want an agreement. “It is a story not of possibility and ambition, but of limits and restraint; not of a victory achieved at any cost, but of a kind of failure ultimately accepted as the best of terrible options,” Kurtz-Phelan writes. “Marshall came away with a more limited sense of America’s place in the story. A master of self-control, here he came to terms with what could not be controlled…Yet that did not mean settling into fatalism. Marshall also returned home with a deeper sense of what it would take to succeed in the larger struggle just beginning.” Kurtz-Phelan portrays Marshall as a remarkable man who was respected “not so much for brilliance of insight as quality of judgment.”


5. Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, 1995.  

Abraham Lincoln remains the most towering figure in American political life and our archetypal statesman. Donald, a revered Lincoln scholar and biographer, shows Lincoln’s large spirit, clear intelligence, implacable will, and deep humanity. He describes Lincoln’s striking and inspiring capacity for growth, which enabled one of the least experienced and most poorly prepared men ever elected to high office to become America’s greatest president. Donald sees Lincoln as a man of ambition, vision, and tactical shrewdness. “The pilots on our Western rivers steer from point to point as they call it—setting the course of the boat no farther than they can see and that is all I propose to myself in this great problem,” Lincoln once told a lawmaker who asked about the president’s post Civil War plans for the United States. Donald does not shy away from Lincoln’s flaws such as his sometimes passive and reactive approach to problems. “I claim not to have controlled events but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” Lincoln once acknowledged. However, Lincoln’s wisdom, decency, vision, and persistence ultimately prevailed. Few nations can claim a leader of Lincoln’s stature as part of their historical inheritance. 


6. The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, and the Struggle for Civil Rights by Robert Mann, 1996.  

Mann, a former Senate aide, offers a compelling account of the struggle to enact civil rights legislation, from the bitterly divisive 1948 Democratic Convention when three dozen Southern delegates walked out over the issue of Civil Rights, to the passage of historic legislation in the 1960’s. Years of stalemate, failure, and small advances preceded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Mann hones in on three of the dominant players in this drama: Senator Hubert Humphrey, a passionate and relentless advocate for sweeping civil rights legislation, Senator Richard Russell, a fierce, formidable opponent and segregationist, and Lyndon Johnson, the senator and then president who helped secure the critical legislative victories. Mann details Russell’s unrelenting battle to defeat civil rights initiatives but also makes the important point that once civil rights legislation became the law of the land, Russell implored all Americans to respect these laws. “I have no apologies to anyone for the fight I made. I only regret that we did not prevail. But these statutes are now on the books, and it becomes our duty as good citizens to live with them,” Russell said. Mann argues that passing civil rights and voting rights legislation was important, but they were just a first step. “The easy part was over,” he writes. “Congress had finally enacted powerful legislation to guarantee the civil and voting rights of all black Americans. Enforcing those new rights would be difficult, but not as daunting as the task of creating and nurturing an economic and social environment in which black citizens could achieve the American dream of economic independence and prosperity.”  


7. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, 2010.  

Wilkerson, a former New York Times reporter and journalism professor, chronicles the historic migration of millions of African-Americans from the South to the Midwest, the Northeast, and the West between 1915 and 1970. “Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America,” Wilkerson writes. “The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system.” Wilkerson focuses on three people who illuminate this larger drama: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, the wife of a sharecropper who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in the 1930s; George Swanson Starling, a laborer who left Florida in the 1940s for New York City; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a doctor who departed Louisiana in the early 1950s for Los Angeles. Their stories highlight this critical demographic event in American life and also offer inspiring examples of resilience. The Warmth of Other Suns provides a strong complement to The Walls of Jericho. Wilkerson’sprotagonists benefited from civil rights and voting rights legislation, but also endured discrimination and employment challenges. “Over the decades, perhaps the wrong questions have been asked about the Great Migration,” Wilkerson concludes. “Perhaps it is not a question of whether the migrants brought good or ill to the cities they fled to or were pushed or pulled to their destinations, but a question of how they summoned the courage to leave in the first place or how they found the will to press beyond the forces against them and the faith in the country that had rejected them for so long. By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing.” 


8. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W. Tuchman, 1984. 

Tuchman was one of America’s great narrative historians and in this book she explores why governments throughout history have so often acted in ways that have been harmful to their own interests. She examines four episodes: the Trojan decision to accept a Greek horse into its city, the failure of six Renaissance popes to effectively deal with the Reformation, King George III’s mistakes that fueled the American Revolution, and America’s debacle in Vietnam. Tuchman argues that in all of these cases, leaders were warned against their courses of action, they had feasible alternatives, and critical mistakes were made by groups not just one misguided person. “A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity,” Tuchman writes. “Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?” Tuchman does not find clear answers to her questions, but observes that self-deception “is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs.” Some critics have challenged Tuchman’s use of four very different historical examples as well as her definition of governmental folly but she raises profound questions that resonate today. Tuchman’s final chapter, “America Betrays Herself in Vietnam” is sobering, especially given that the disastrous experience and outcome did not lead to clearer thinking by policymakers when they launched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  


9. Diversifying Diplomacy: My Journey from Roxbury to Dakar by Harriet Lee Elam-Thomas with Jim Robinson, 2017.  

Harriet Lee Elam-Thomas grew up in Boston, studied at Simmons College and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and had a rich and consequential career as an American diplomat.  She represented the United States in Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali, Athens, Brussels, and Istanbul.  In her inspiring and deeply evocative memoir, Elam-Thomas describes the promise of America and the challenge of being an African-American woman diplomat.  “Whenever I encountered colleagues in diplomat settings, there were usually men.  I saw very few women—and even fewer women of color.  Wearing a skirt in the Foreign Service was ten times more difficult than having brown skin.  Few of my colleagues looked like me.  Although I do not profess to have been an effective diplomat because of my race, ethnicity or gender, I believe these elements of my persona paid dividends.  Though I thoroughly prepared for each new assignment, I am certain the key to making a contribution toward a credible articulation of U.S. foreign policy was the fact that I had the opportunity to serve and felt included.  Without inclusion, all of the lip service to diversity would have been suspect,” she writes.  Elam-Thomas argues that the example the United States offers, and the respect she extends, to other countries is a deeply powerful force.  American diplomats are most effective when they are culturally sensitive and modest.  “The best leaders are sincere and humble,” she writes. “Real leadership has to do with integrity and performance; neither one can take a holiday. They reflect on your character and soul.”   


10. The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972 by William Manchester, 1974.  

Manchester, a skilled journalist and historian, chronicles life in the United States from the Hoover and the Depression to Nixon and Watergate. This narrative largely focuses on the politics of this era but includes memorable descriptions of American life from the 30s through the 60s. We learn about the books people read, the clothes they wore, the movies they watched, the music they listened to, trips they took, the celebrities they followed, the companies they worked for, the churches they attended, and the cultural fads that influenced their lives. The Glory and the Dream is a vivid and nostalgic journey through important decades in American history. It transports you back in time, while also raising larger issues about the country. “Change is a constant theme in the American past,” he writes. “The United States is the only nation in the world to worship change for its own sake and to regard change and progress as indistinguishable.” Manchester also detects a periodic “yearning to renounce the present and find restoration in the unconsummated past.”   


11. These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore, 2018.  

A professor at Harvard and staff writer for the New Yorker, Lepore tells the story of the United States from Christopher Columbus to Donald Trump. These Truths is packed with broad assessments, fascinating vignettes, compelling sketches, and provocative questions. She believes the American experience can be understood by exploring three phrases, which Thomas Jefferson referred to as “these truths” - political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. “The roots of these ideas are as ancient as Aristotle and as old as Genesis and their branches spread as wide as the limbs of an oak,” Lepore writes. “But they are the nation’s founding principles: it was by declaring them that that the nation came to be. In the centuries since, these principles have been cherished, decried, and contested, fought for, fought over, fought against.” She believes that it is important for Americans to understand the full sweep of their nation’s history and appreciate the country’s successes, failures, accomplishments, and inconsistencies. “There is, to be sure, a great deal of anguish in American history and more hypocrisy. No nation and no people are relieved of these. But there is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially, of invention and beauty…The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it,” writes Lepore.


12. Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan, 2008.  

A professor of history at the University of Toronto, MacMillan has written popular and highly regarded books on the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919, the British Raj, World War I, and Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. In Dangerous Games, MacMillan argues that history should be read, studied, and savored. But it should be used cautiously when considering public policy. Examining the past is useful and sometimes edifying, she posits, but it does not provide a prescription for navigating the present or predicting future. Studying history allows you to delve into complex situations, evaluate leaders, and render informed judgments. It encourages you to ask hard questions, study evidence, and probe assumptions. “If the study of history does nothing more than teach us humility, skepticism, and awareness of ourselves, then it has done something useful,” she writes. MacMillan is concerned that some people, either through malice or sloppiness, use history in ways that are harmful.  She believes, “History can be helpful; it can also be very dangerous. Sometimes we abuse history, creating one-sided or false histories to justify treating others badly, seizing their land, for example, or killing them. There are also many lessons and much advice offered by history, and it is easy to pick and choose what you want. The past can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present.”


In addition to the specific merits of each of these books the discipline of serious reading helps us slow down, think more carefully, weigh evidence, and respect - and expect - careful argument. I acknowledge that these dozen books will not provide a clear guide to our current challenges. They do, however, offer wonderful stories and introduce us to remarkable people, many who were important, not famous. They remind us that America has endured much and accomplished great things and reinforce the fact that both parties have honorable traditions and have been led by impressive people. Great successes have often occurred when ordinary people have acted responsibly, fairly, and with an eye to the future. We owe it to them to conduct ourselves honorably in these trying times and with concern for those who will come after us.

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