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Fascinating Books About American Politicians

Reading underappreciated books about American politicians will give you an entirely different perspective about the types of people that led this great country.

By Fred Eugene ParkPublished 5 years ago 8 min read

In the two-century history of American democracy, there have been many influential and pivotal political actors that forever changed the course and narrative of American politics, sometimes in a positive manner, though often in ways far more complex. From Abraham Lincoln to Franklin D. Roosevelt, many presidents and other holders of political offices have used their power and influence to make profound change, for better or worse.

With such a rich history of dynamic, interesting, and problematic political figures such as JFK, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Richard Nixon, the Roosevelts and many others, there is no real shortage of excellent books about American politicians that offer superb historical accounts of the lives of our nation's most impactful public servants. In the age of information technology, many gifted educational writers like Michelle Alexander, Colin Woodard, and many others can take a more detailed and honest look at the past. Of the many such informative books about American politicians out there, here are a few titles that will prove to be especially enriching and informative.

While there is a great deal of writing about national political figures such as presidents, congressman, and senators, there have been a number of more regional political actors in history who have made a considerable impact on all of our lives. Winning honored book awards as the Pulitzer Prize, this book is the authority on Robert Moses in New York. Long before President Eisenhower commissioned the construction of the interstate highway system, Robert Moses was revolutionizing automotive transportation in New York City. The definitive biography of modern New York's grand architect, The Power Broker chronicles the laundry list of bridges, parks, parkways, and other public works that Moses had his hands in.

Despite the many titles he held and projects he oversaw, Moses held no elected position, making him one of the greatest shadow figures in American political history. Though responsible for critical infrastructure and public space improvements like the second deck on the George Washington Bridge, the 1939 and 1964 Worlds Fairs, the great lawn of Central Park and much more, Moses was also known for such negative developments as the Cross Bronx Expressway (which plowed straight through many working class neighborhoods in the borough). While Robert Moses was not as well known as a president or a senator, his impact on modern New York and transportation at large makes The Power Broker one of the most important books about American politicians.

There are few politicians in the history of the United States that have garnered as much deserved attention as Abraham Lincoln. Though his motives and beliefs may not have been as noble as we would like to remember, Lincoln's stand to reunify the country from the division of the Civil War has allowed him to retain the respect of historians. While there is an exhaustive list of biographies and historical accounts of Lincoln's life, one book seems to stand above most of the others.

Written by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals tells the story of Abraham Lincoln's rise to power from his humble poor upbringings to the throws of the Civil War. To add to this book's reputation, the hit Stephen Spielberg film Lincoln, starring the great Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln. Team of Rivals captures the brilliance of Abraham Lincoln's political strategy and his skill for speech.

In the twentieth century, few United States politicians were as controversial and corrupt as Richard M. Nixon. Known mostly for his involvement and likely the orchestration of the Watergate scandal, Nixon was also known for a number of accomplishments ranging from positive ones like the founding the Environmental Protection Agency to decidedly negative ones like expanding the bombing campaigns in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia after promising to scale back the war. Managing American politics during wartime was no easy feat.

To best understand the troublesome nature of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, it is best to look to the two men who broke the news of the event. Famous for finding and exposing the President's involvement in the scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein tell all that they came across in this classic expose. The book delves into Nixon's divisive politics, ultimately offering insight into the origins of our current binary political divisions. Of all the notable books about American politicians, few are as relevant to our current political climate.

Though many United States politicians throughout history have made attempts to paint themselves as rugged frontiersmen and individualists, few, if any, took the task to heart with the same passion as Theodore Roosevelt. Though he came from a very wealthy family, Roosevelt had a passion for the outdoors and what he referred to as "the strenuous life." Overcoming physical maladies like asthma in childhood, Roosevelt proved he was no poser, working as a rancher for a time and, of course, charging up the wrong hill in the Spanish American War. If there's someone who understood the working class, it was Roosevelt.

Founding the National Park Service and many of the first and most iconic national parks, Roosevelt was always drawn to nature and adventure. In fact, after leaving office, he took up the opportunity to map an uncharted river in the depths of the Amazon. Though Roosevelt and his son would survive the agonizing ordeal, he came close to death several times from disease and injury. In The River of Doubt, Candice Millard tells the story of this harrowing expedition, a crazy but little-known footnote in the life of an American folk hero who survived near death scenarios many times in life.

One of the more surprising and interesting books about a prominent United States politician, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik's New York Times bestseller Notorious RBG tells the life story of the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court from early life to present day. While the book recognizes and documents the many events and accomplishments during Ginsberg's eight plus decades, it also takes an interesting look at some newer phenomena that are rather strange.

The book is titled Notorious RBG, a nod to the rapper Notorious BIG and the nickname that many people have adopted for Ginsberg, underlining her tough, no-nonsense personality and approach to her career. In a time when American politics are so polar and divided, Ginsberg has been celebrated as a champion of liberal values and an essential member of the court and has been championed by more than one social movement. Consequently, Ginsberg has become an internet meme sensation, largely thanks to the Biggy Smalls inspired Notorious RBG image, featuring Ginsberg's likeness.

Though his brief presidency was tragically cut short by his untimely death, John F. Kennedy was a very important figure in American history. Being one of the youngest presidents to date and since, second only to Theodore Roosevelt, Kennedy represented the hope, youth, and ambition of the United States during the Cold War. While many biographies focused on mostly the positive aspects and accomplishments of the Kennedy administration, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy's own special assistant chose to offer the public an unbiased and unsanitized look at Kennedy's life and time in office.

Choosing to show readers what life was really like for the ill-fated president, Schlesinger was one of the first biographers to fully address Kennedy's litany of health problems and prescription dependencies. A Thousand Days offers a more well-rounded look at an important and complex political figure. If you're still hungry for more history after finishing this book, you can read about how John F. Kennedy became a cultural icon.

Having worked intimately as a part of the Kennedy White House as special assistant to John F. Kennedy and writing an excellent biography about him, it is not surprising that Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. also wrote a biography of the fallen president's brother, Robert F. Kennedy. While reading books about American politicians like his brother, it is important to recognize the accomplishments and adoration Robert Kennedy garnered as the Attorney General and a presidential candidate. After all, Robert Kennedy was deeply immersed in American politics as well.

Appointed the Attorney General by his brother, Kennedy rose to political prominence after John's death. A serious contender in the 1968 presidential election, Robert Kennedy was himself gunned down following one of his campaign speeches that same year. As it is generally believed that RFK would have been elected president if he had not been killed, he is a critical figure to study the climate and outlook of the voting democrats and the turbulent, chaotic year that was 1968. Written to the same standard as Schlesinger's book on JFK, this book is a must have companion work.

Get action. Do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt

Though all presidents are entrusted with the same nominal power, certain events in the country and the world ensured that some presidents have wielded more true power than others. Presiding over much of the Great Depression and the majority of WWII (until his death in 1945), no president has wielded as much power as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

For similar reasons in England, Winston Churchill is undoubtedly the strongest post-colonial leader of England. In his 2004 work Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, historian John Meacham tells how one of history's most important alliances of necessity became an interesting and lively friendship. The book explores how the two architects of the Allied victory spent extensive time together during the war and became close friends in the process.

Like many of the books on this list, Goodwin's book is another New York Times bestseller. When thinking of politicians in the 1960s, most Americans probably will think of John F. Kennedy first, despite his tragically short tenure. Though Lyndon Johnson was president for the majority of the 1960s, his complicated legacy caused him to be largely overshadowed by Kennedy's assassination and Nixon's corruption. Due to JFK's untimely death, Johnson arguably had far more impact on United States history and politics.

Though Johnson has been given due credit for strong-arming the Voting Rights Act into effect and ambitious attempts at creating social movements, reforms, and services for the poor, the actions of our military in Vietnam left a black mark on Johnson's legacy. Another excellent work by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream tells the story of Johnson's unlikely rise to power from his days as a school teacher to the White House. Having worked on Johnson's staff, Goodwin offers an intimate insight into Johnson's presidency.

While it is typically prudent to judge most politicians with the perspective and hindsight of time, a precious few have behaved in such a manner as to warrant thorough and immediate scrutiny. From one of the men who helped to break the Watergate scandal comes a study of the most controversial president since Nixon himself. This is absolutely one of the books about American politicians that you should get your hands on. It's already a New York Times bestseller.

Written by Bob Woodward, one of the authors of All The President's Men, the historic Watergate expose released this book in September to attempt to document the publicly noticeable corruption and dysfunction of the current administration. With accounts from former White House and Trump insiders as well as many crucial documents, Bob Woodward presents the most detailed and comprehensive account of a sitting first-term president published to date. Whether you're wondering what it would take to impeach Donald Trump or if you agree with him on some points, this book is an interesting read.


About the Creator

Fred Eugene Park

Fred Park is a writer, singer and guitarist with a deep passion for music, sports and history. Fred graduated from Purchase College in 2016 with a BA in history.

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