American elections are political events, not literary events and, as a result, the phrase “campaign literature” is a bit of an oxymoron in the United States. There is one classic, The Making of the President 1960, by Theodore H. White, a masterpiece of reporting and craftsmanship, and a lot of pretenders written every four years after that and (justly) forgotten shortly thereafter.
So for Canadians contemplating a November weekend reading actual books about U.S. campaigns rather than news dispatches, the pickings are lean – astonishingly so, when you consider the rich literature about, say, the other American game, baseball. For that reason, here’s a reading list of a different sort, one that puts Campaign 2012 in sharp perspective. Toss a log on the fire, kick off your mukluks and crack open one of these three for thought:
Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul
By John M. Barry (2012)
What, you ask, a book about a man born in the early years of the 17th century and whose entire life was played out in colonial times? Yes, if you want to see the roots of some of the bedrock issues that are played out in the presidential campaign that ends Tuesday: the role of religion in the public square, the collision between individualism and community, and, of course, the endless clash over cultural and social issues that is one of the enduring leitmotifs of American civic life. A splendid read and vital background.\
1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs – The Election that Changed the Country
By James Chace (2005)
Right year, wrong century, but 1912 is the election when American politics became recognizable to modern eyes, with the Democrats becoming the party of social activism and the Republicans transforming themselves into the party of business interests. And for all those who find Barack Obama professorial, the 1912 election is the national debut of the ultimate professor in American politics, Woodrow Wilson, late the president of Princeton and once a political scientist at Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan.
The Price of Politics
By Bob Woodward (2012)
The master of Washington investigatory journalism is at it again, with a book out barely two months but released in time to shape the current election. In this volume, an intimate chronicle of budget negotiations at the highest level of American politics, Barack Obama rebuffs the Republican leadership, including Representative Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s surprise choice as his running mate, and to one of his GOP negotiation rivals utters the most memorable line from his administration (and a put-down for the ages): “Elections have consequences.” He’s right about that, which is why what happens on Tuesday is so important – but probably not fodder for a book of enduring value.