I begin my review of my favorite reads from 2015 by fulfilling a promise. Last year, I vowed I would begin with Age of Clinton, by Gil Troy, a book that looks at how Clinton and the 1990s were seemingly made for each other. This retrospective is valuable because it provides fresh and enjoyable reflections on both the culture and the politics of the 1990s. Such reminders provide us with perspective on how things were and how they’ve changed, giving us a healthy sense that politics and culture are, even now, evolving quickly. As Troy puts it succinctly in his introduction, “At the start of that transformational, final decade of the twentieth century, Amazon was only a river and a rain forest, Google was only a very big number with lots of zeroes spelled with no e’s, googol and ‘pay, pal’ were something you said to someone who owed you money.” Since I am not exactly an unbiased source on my own brother’s work, I will instead share what the AP‘s Beth Harpaz wrote about the book: “It’s a fun romp through the decade and an intelligent way of understanding the cultural context and legacy of Bill Clinton’s era.”
Given that we are going into a presidential-election year in 2016, I have read a lot of books about modern politics. Big Money, by Politico‘s Ken Vogel, analyzed how the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance legislation, supposedly designed to limit the influence of money in politics, brought even more money into the political system. Vogel also discusses the Citizens United Supreme Court case, which Obama rudely criticized in front of the Justices during his 2010 State of the Union. Despite the fact that he made such a big deal about Citizens United, “President Obama — a former constitutional-law professor who once taught campaign finance — badly misjudged its impact,” Vogel writes. The case did not lead to more foreign money in American politics, but to more large-dollar Super PAC donations from wealthy American contributors. Vogel also considers how the campaign-finance changes affected some of the foot soldiers of political money, such as my friends Charlie and Lisa Spies, who emerged as “the power couple of Republican Jewish money in politics.”
A good book about the language of politics is David Mark and Chuck McCutcheon’s Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes, which defines what politicians really mean when they say, for instance, “as you know.” The authors decode: “In politics this often means ‘as you SHOULD KNOW,’” and it’s “a subtle way of either reminding people of an accomplishment of yours.” The book is a handy guide to have during the upcoming presidential debates.
Although I may not yet know who will be our next president, I learned a lot more this year about many of our earlier presidents. From Ken Adelman’s Reagan at Reykjavik — which both Scott Walker and Chris Christie also read in 2015 — I learned that Henry Kissinger could not understand Reagan’s success: “Reagan is different, not like the others. He’s sui generis. I cannot explain him.” From James Mann’s George W. Bush, I learned, to my surprise, that George H. W. Bush “gave Goldwater’s book The Conscience of a Conservative to George W. with instructions to read it.” From John Sununu’s score-settling The Quiet Man, I learned that the late Bush political operative Lee Atwater used to tune in to professional wrestling not to watch “the half-naked guys grappling each other with armlocks and choke holds” but to watch the audience, which he felt was “a big part of the swing vote in America.” And from Jonathan Darman’s fascinating Landslide, which juxtaposes Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan in the period from 1963 to 1965, I learned the following great story about how sensitive LBJ was to public criticism: Senator Frank Church once tried to defend some of his criticisms of the LBJ Vietnam policy by saying, “Mr. President, what I’ve been saying isn’t much different from what Walter Lippmann has been writing.” Johnson’s response was cutting: “Walter Lippmann is a fine man. Next time you’re in trouble in Idaho, Frank, you ask Walter to come help.”
When it comes to presidents and the Middle East, I wasn’t sure I could dislike the foreign policies of Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama any more than I already do, but two books proved me wrong and deepened my concerns about their similarities and their near-constant missteps. First, Lawrence Wright’s 13 Days in September highlighted just how hostile Carter was to Israel and its prime minister, Menachem Begin, during the Camp David negotiations. According to Wright, who is no Begin fan: “Begin’s main fear was that Carter and Sadat were conspiring against him. He had reason to be concerned.” Later, when Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize, Carter cattily noted in his diary: “Sadat deserved it. Begin did not.”
Second, and pertaining to the current administration, fans of Israel will find much to be angry at in Michael Oren’s Ally, his memoir of his time as Israel’s ambassador to Washington, when he had to cope with the Obama administration’s overt hostility to Israel. As Oren warns us, “An America that slanders the democratically elected leader of its ally is one that is respected neither by its friends nor its enemies.” Oren can also be quite funny. He characterizes Tom Friedman as “so rarely right on Middle Eastern issues.” When he had to pull George Will out of a baseball game on an urgent matter, Oren compared it to “yanking Hemingway out of a bar.”
Getting out of the realm of politics, Roger Kahn’s Rickey and Robinson tells us the inside story of how Branch Rickey cultivated Jackie Robinson to be the first African-American major-leaguer in the 20th century. Kahn’s book has a great quote from former Dodgers executive Al Campanis: “Only twice in my life has the hair on the back of my neck literally stood up straight. The first time was when I saw Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The second time was when I saw Sandy Koufax’s fastball.” Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free, a compelling look at how new technologies ended the old model for the music business, is marred by unnecessary potshots at conservatives such as Bill Bennett and Alan Greenspan. It’s perfectly possible to tell this story without giving one’s unsought (and incorrect) opinion that Bennett is an “a**hole.”
I found a surprising reference to another legendary conservative in Norman Lear’s Even This I Get to Experience, where Lear reports that he “was proud and happy to have convinced Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism (and father of current Fox News contributor William Kristol), to consult with me” about a conservative character on Lear’s show All’s Fair. I knew Irving was multitalented, but this was news to me. And speaking of uber-talented conservatives, I will close my review with this observation from Buckley and Mailer author Kevin Schultz on the late, great, and still lamented NR founder William F. Buckley Jr.: “You don’t write 40 odd books, thousands of newspaper columns, and boxes and boxes of letters by sipping coffee too long, pondering the sports page.” So fellow readers, for 2016, do not sip coffee and ponder the sports page too long, but go out there and read lots, write lots, and don’t forget to vote.