Books for Christmas - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Books for Christmas

Recommendations excerpted from the December 2003 – January 2004 issue of The American Spectator:


Where to begin? There have been some great reads the last year. OK, first Franklin & Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship by Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek. Meacham and I have both married Mississippi women (establish personal link to writer in question), but that’s where the similarities stop (tell truth). This is a fast-paced and impeccably researched story of the rise and decline of the critical relationship. FDR comes off none-too-well. As he should. Great man, great flaws.

The Conquerors, Michael Beschloss. Well, FDR comes across a little better in this one, though there are some surprisingly short-sighted figures in this drama.

You knew it was coming: William McKinley, Kevin Phillips. Art Schlesinger says to himself, who will savage McKinley for me and get the dog-bites-man headline for our series on American Presidents? Of course, Kevin Phillips. Sad for Art, but good for us, Phillips gets McKinley right (or mostly so). Best short biography of a near-great President and even better political leader.

The man who introduced me to the McKinley Phillips captures was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who took me on for a seminar in historical source writing (I was 45 and trying to satisfy the upper division writing requirement for my B.A. — long story).

Now that prof, Lewis L. Gould, has written The Modern American Presidency. The foreword by Richard Norton Smith is worth the price of admission, but what follows should dramatically twist your thoughts on the World’s Most Powerful Office. Who is the first modern President, according to Gould? See above.

I admit it. When I finished Karl Zinsmeister’s Boots on the Ground: A Month With the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq, in one gigantic burst on a cross-country flight this fall, I wept. My apologies to the guy next to me whose cocktail napkin I filched to dab my eyes.

Ah, Venice. Never been there, wanna go there. Originally the desire arose after reading John Julius Norwich’s two volume history of the place. Now the desire has been rekindled by his Paradise of Cities: Venice in the 19th Century, a delicious view of Venice as it slid into decadence and decline as Europe’s pleasure spot.

In sharp moral contrast is God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicholson. King James didn’t write this Bible: an able, eclectic army of high and low churchmen, organized in six companies of “translators,” did. Marvelous!

Richard Brookhiser carries off the black turtleneck, NY conservative intellectual thing better than anyone I’ve seen. The latest proof of his amazing abilities is Gouverneur Morris: The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution, about that constitution-writing, ladies’ man with a peg leg. When’s the mini-series?

Marty Anderson emerged from his cabin at the top of the gully at the Bohemian Grove last summer bearing a wide grin and a sheft of letters. I knew then that Reagan: A Life in Letters had to be on my wish list. Dip into the deep pool of RR’s thoughts in this big volume. There’s plenty to enjoy.

If you’re like me and don’t know good art unless you see it, Paul Johnson’s Art: A New History will help you understand what it is.

Finally, if you’re the kind of person who buys books for friends based on the size, jacket cover, or color of the volume, I offer this simple rule. Buy any book by one of these authors which is pleasing to the eye and the contents will be so, too: David McCullough (must you fall in love with all your subjects, and hey, what about Adams and the Alien and Sedition Acts?), Sir Martin Gilbert (anything by him, anything), Paul Johnson (see above), Gabor Boritt (Hungarian refugee arrives in U.S., goes to Yankton College, the only college in South Dakota that will accept him, becomes leading scholar on Lincoln and Civil War — is this a great country or what?), and Gary Gallagher (what can you say about a Civil War scholar who knows where they buried Stonewall Jackson’s arm? Go figure).

Karl Rove is an adviser to President Bush.



Witness by Whittaker Chambers. I have read it in full a half dozen times, and dipped into it countless times. More than half a century after its publication, it is still food for the soul and must reading for all Americans.

The Way the World Works by Jude Wanniski. Its twentieth anniversary edition, published in 1998, is still in print. This is the primer for supply-side economics, explaining how governments cause so much pain and suffering for ordinary people.

The Illusion of Victory by Thomas Fleming. This is a brilliant description of the U.S. in World War I, the nation’s bloody and unnecessary involvement in a bloody and unnecessary war. If you didn’t like Woodrow Wilson, you’ll detest him after reading this book.

Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders Into Insiders by Tom A. Coburn and John Hart. In three terms as a Republican Congressman from a heavily Democratic district in Oklahoma, country doctor Coburn raised hell with the pork-loving establishment. In this book, he tells what it’s like behind the scenes in Congress where the Republicans are not much better than the Democrats.

A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat by Zell Miller. Arriving in Washington in 2000 as a lifelong moderate Democrat, Sen. Miller describes how his ancestral party’s excesses turned him into a George W. Bush backer. The books tops the liberal hate list for 2003.

Robert D. Novak is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a CNN commentator.



The second to the last scene in Bruce Willis’s film Die Hard has the master criminal with the cool German way of smoking cigarettes falling to his death from a much abused skyscraper. As he falls he screams out in impotent and incoherent rage and it is not quite clear what he is getting at.

One can prolong the sense of listening to impotent and incoherent rage this Christmas season by reading one or all of a series of books apparently part of a general series under the headings “Bush Sucks” and “Conservatives Suck.” Largely interchangeable, the list includes Dude Where’s My Country by Michael Moore, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al Franken, Big Lies by Joe Conason, The Lies of George Bush by Nation writer David Corn, Bushwhacked by Molly Ivins and The Book on Bush by Eric Alterman and Mark Green. Political movements that see themselves as moving forward produce tedious books about their wild hopes and aspirations. The above chroniclers of the decline and fall of the American Left have produced more interesting reading but should not be allowed near sharp objects.

Second, I recommend a classic, The Defense of Duffer’s Drift, by Captain E.D. Swinton, that was originally published in Infantry Journal in April 1905. The book, placed in the Anglo-Boer War, is a series of six dreams by Lieutenant Backsight Forethought (BF) who has been left in command of a 50-man unit to hold Duffer’s Drift, the key ford for the Silliassvogel River. In each dream he tries to hold the Drift against Boers and loses, learning from each defeat and incorporating his lessons in the following dream. The book has been taught for generations in war colleges but it is more than a book on infantry tactics, it is about learning the right lessons from experience.

Third, most novels based on the Civil War are like professional wrestling. They can be very exciting, but you kind of know ahead of time how this is going to end. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstechen have written a very readable novel of the Civil War, Gettysburg, that avoids this problem by refighting Gettysburg so that the South wins the battle and ends the novel in a strong position to threaten Washington, D.C. and promising a sequel. Gingrich avoids the clichéd ways of refighting the three-day battle and argues that the traditionally assumed missed opportunities would not have shifted the battle. Instead, he has Lee’s army head south, forcing the North to confront them on ground chosen by the South rather than fight uphill at Little Round Top. A great read.

Grover Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform.



In his introduction to Hope Dies Last, the indefatigable Studs Terkel writes, “Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.” Not that The American Spectator has any ideologues among its subscribers, but just in case I recommend that they — and all of you — read Studs’s latest ideology-buster. It’s enough to cause you to rethink your stereotypes. It’s enough to give hope!

Victor Navasky is publisher and editorial director of The Nation.

(Excerpted from the December 2003 – January 2004 issue of The American Spectator)

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