"Three Books ..." is a series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.
Hi. My name is Marc, and I'm addicted to politics. I admit I'm powerless over campaign news. But I need not fear. For starters, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. What's more, if I need an election fix, there are enough books on the subject to last me four more years. Here are my three favorites.
'What It Takes'
What It Takes, by Richard Ben Cramer, paperback, 1,072 pages
The best election book out there is probably Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes, an exhaustive — but never exhausting — analysis of the 1988 presidential race. That's the one that began with Sen. Gary Hart aboard the aptly-named Monkey Business and just went bananas from there.
Cramer's book weighs in at over a thousand pages, yet you can't put it down — mostly because you'd throw your back out if you tried. What impresses me most is how it presents the disconnect between the candidates' images and the candidates themselves. You learn how the first President Bush's awkwardness on camera — "not gonna do it," "wouldn't be prudent" — belies his gift for building relationships in real life. (In actuality, Cramer writes, George and Barbara Bush's Christmas card list was so long that an entire team of volunteers in Houston began writing the cards in May.) Or, you see how the true grit of a disabled war hero failed to translate to the campaign. I'm speaking, of course, of Sen. Bob Dole, who managed to distance himself from himself by constantly referring to "Bob Dole" in the third person.
Election, by Tom Perrotta, paperback, 208 pages
There's something strangely familiar about Tom Perrotta's satirical novel Election, and it's not just because the book was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Tracey Flick, the junior class president, assistant editor of the school newspaper and star of last year's musical, is the presumptive winner in the campaign for senior class president, until she is completely overshadowed by a handsome, charismatic and — most infuriating to Tracey — inexperienced male rival.
For Flick, it's a simple choice of "Competence versus Popularity. Qualified versus Unqualified." But the campaign gets complicated by sex scandals, dirty tricks, vote tampering and, most notably, another female candidate, this one even less qualified, who captures the student body's imagination with her populist message. Sophomore Tammy Warren seems like one of them, the kind of candidate other students would like to have a beer with. "Vote for Tammy," her campaign signs read. "She's inexperienced and kind of lazy."
Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell, paperback, 272 pages
Perhaps the most intriguing analysis of the presidential personality comes from Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation, a bizarre travelogue of sites associated with the assassinations of presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. It's morbid reading, but Vowell fascinates with her geekily obsessive historical details: For instance, did you know that John Wilkes Booth, an acclaimed actor, knew to mask his fatal shot in Ford's Theater with the biggest laugh line of the play — but failed to understand that killing Lincoln on Good Friday might invite some comparisons come Easter Sunday? Booth also failed to anticipate his own place in history, seeing himself — as did the assassins of Garfield and McKinley — as a patriot who'd slain a tyrant.
Homicidal psychosis aside, these killers understand one thing that most Americans do not. That no matter how hard presidential candidates try to convince us otherwise, they are not like us. Presidential candidates are all elites, the kind of people who turn themselves into brands and myths, and refer to themselves in the third person. They raise millions of dollars, make thousands of compromises, and point and wave a lot. Because that is what it takes to be the man — or woman — at the top.
Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.