Historically, children across America have been cautioned that talking about politics in polite company is rude. It's a social dictum meant to prevent ire at the dinner table. Of course, later we all realize that gossiping is fun and we’re going to do it anyway. But without any political context, we usually turn to celebrity gossip to fill the void. Who is sleeping with which of the Kardashians? Are Tom and Taylor really together? One day, a Donald Trump figure comes along, and despite the striking similarities to Kardashian-style drama, we’re supposed to pretend we’re better than this. That we’re not going to fall for his brazen attempts at sensationalizing the news, because the news is serious business.
Was Shakespeare not essentially writing soap operas, though? Was Walt Whitman not basically penning fancy Hallmark Cards? Has the news not always been the world’s longest-running reality show?
Though the news of late has been exceptionally salacious, D.C.’s gossip has always been a cut above anything the Kardashians could throw at us. (And yes, I’m following the Blac Chyna / Rob saga, so I get it: drama.) DC’s gossip-worthiness is, in fact, built into the city’s very existence. It takes a certain megalomania to feel worthy of wielding power on behalf of thousands or millions of other people – a desire for attention and a willingness to make sacrifices that will impact people’s everyday lives is essential. Basically, D.C. is filled with attention-loving hams and a higher proportion of flat-out absurd people than your average burg.
Political engagement is important, but considering that many Americans naively believe D.C. to be some fortress of solemn fact-mongering, it’s understandable that much of the public has no interest in the political process. We've been told that the news is boring basically from birth. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. This year's election may be the world's most elaborate reality show, but politics has always been a series of salacious stories about human flaws and foibles, and that’s what makes following the news so great. Here, then, is a list of books that introduce politics via gossip instead of boring facts and figures about votes, troop movements, and trade deals. I’ve included nonfiction and fiction that’s based on real life, and will note which is which.
1. Game Change and Double Down: Game Change 2012 by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin [Nonfiction]
No list of political gossip books would be complete without these two tomes, which cover the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. The original Game Change was turned into an HBO film about the head-scratching John McCain experiment that was Sarah Palin, but the book also goes into detail about the series of Hillary Clinton missteps which led to the unlikely showdown with Obama, not to mention John Edwards’ embarrassing, scandal-plagued end, and so much more. The 2012 edition covers what was, until this year, the most hilarious GOP primaries in history, with plenty of anecdotes about Chris Christie, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and the rest of the clown car. Only 2016’s edition (which is hopefully forthcoming) will top it!
2. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams by John Quincy Adams [Nonfiction] (Edited edition sold under title Memoirs of John Quincy Adams )
Stick with me here, because I know this sounds like a doozy. Adams was a diplomat, the son of our second president, and the sixth president. Most of us probably don’t know any specifics about his legacy, and that’s fine. But he’s exceptional in one way: He left us a trail of gossip unrivaled by any president since. Every morning, Adams awoke at an ungodly hour to read the Bible and write in his diary, where he committed to paper every unfiltered thought he could muster on every person he worked with. Turns out he wasn’t a huge fan of most colleagues and ... people in general. Almost 60 years of those sometimes catty, sometimes downright mean, usually cutting thoughts were saved for posterity. The diaries are available in book form, but they’re also available online here.
3. All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein [Nonfiction]
This OG of political gossip heavyweights offers a full account of the story that put America’s favorite reporting duo on the map. Watergate was such a thoroughly bizarre chapter in American history that it’s worth taking a trip down you parents’ memory lane with these two, as they turn their Washington Post reporting into an impossible-to-put-down, hugely salacious, majorly dramatic read.
4. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell [Nonfiction]
Like all the best gossip, this book about death is funny. Vowell takes a road trip through America’s historical presidential assassinations, driving to the sites of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and JFK’s demises and writing their history, along with anecdotes you probably won’t read in most textbooks. (Sex cults, anyone?) She offers interesting perspective on how American political deaths have been memorialized and commodified, turned into tourist attractions and profit generators. What speaks to America’s political present more than that?
5. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff [Nonfiction]
It’s not only American politics that are fascinating. Drama has been a way of life for politicos near and far since the dawn of time. And no statesman (or stateswoman) is more notorious for shepherding in an era of gossip-worthy drama than Cleopatra. In fact, the myth of Cleopatra isn’t nearly as fun as the real story. Schiff challenges the notion that she was nothing but a beautiful temptress ruling via seduction, and instead portrays her as a witty, charming, extremely mediocre-looking stateswoman with guile to spare and a family-wide backstabbing epidemic to contend with. If the fact that literally every member of her family was murdered by another member of her family isn’t drama enough for you, her politically-motivated love affairs certainly will be.
6. Primary Colors by Anonymous [Fiction]
Like all the best gossip, this tome was written by an anonymous source and is theoretically “fiction,” but press at the time of its release in 1996 described it as, among other things, “uncannily accurate.” There’s something extra enticing about a roman a clef anyway, because we can speculate about the truth in the events it describes. By now, the source of this saga has been revealed as Joe Klein, a Time political columnist.
The book follows a congressional staffer as he joins a presidential campaign for “Jack Stanton,” who is 100-percent Bill Clinton, no doubt in anybody’s mind. The story gives the 1992 presidential campaign a Game Change treatment, and Klein essentially charges Clinton with being an insincere policy wonk, womanizer (Stanton cheats on his wife on the trail), and bon vivant. The staffer slowly loses faith in the candidate and his supposed political idealism in the process. Which is admittedly a downer, but it’s worth it for all the juicy Clinton gossip.
7. American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld [Fiction]
On the cover, this fictionalized account of a Laura-Bush-like first lady’s life looks like generic chick lit, but Curtis Sittenfeld is often deceiving that way. Instead, what he offers is an extremely well-observed history of somebody who seems an awful lot like the mysterious Bush Jr.’s spouse, with all the political and personal insight that her position entails. Though a work of fiction, it’s definitely an interesting perspective on a controversial era and the family at the center of it.
8. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn [Nonfiction]
A seminal work on American history that’s generally considered serious fare, Zinn’s tome is also the largest existing compendium of gossip-worthy anecdotes about U.S. political history. Filled with thousands of sometimes hilarious, sometimes disturbing fact-nuggets that illuminate the real causes behind some of our more boring-sounding yet transformational historical events, this book is a must for the gossip-hungry among us. It’s also an extremely engaging read.
9. Burr by Gore Vidal [Fiction]
Burr is theoretically fiction, but Vidal uses first-person texts whenever possible and openly names who it’s about. Burr is the first novel in Vidal’s excellent Empire Series, which is heavy reading at times, but somehow still fun and gossipy the whole way through (I also recommend his fictionalization of William Randolph Hearst’s story). This edition tells the story of Aaron Burr, essentially relating the story of America's founding through his perspective. As we know, history is usually written by the victors. Burr (through Vidal's pen) tears down our untouchable founding fathers. So it’s a good companion piece to your Hamilton soundtrack.
Oddly, I once heard Michele Bachmann relate the story of how she turned from a mild-mannered Democrat into fire-breathing Republican, and she credited reading this book as her transformational moment. It certainly didn’t change my politics, but perhaps it’s also a warning worth offering.
10. The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy [Nonfiction]
You guys, presidents aren’t just hanging out to do good works after they leave office. They’re involved in their own tiny social ecosystem. Sometimes, odd pairs cooperate (Truman and Hoover? Johnson and Nixon?), and sometimes battles break out. But the modern ex-presidency is essentially a lifelong job held only by a bunch of legacy-hungry, wildly shark-like men who collude when it works for both of them and betray each other when it doesn’t. Gibbs and Duffy trace post-WWII American history through this lens, and it’s fascinating to observe. It's like getting to peek behind the curtain of that girl group from high school that wouldn’t let you hang out with them, only to discover that they’re just as horrible as everybody else.
11. The Making of the President, 1960 by Theodore White [Nonfiction]
The grandfather of Game Change is Theodore White, whose series on U.S. presidential elections began with the Nixon-Kennedy showdown in 1960. This book (and all that follow) is almost novel-like in tone as it creates a startlingly personal portrait of Kennedy through the primary season and into the first general election of the television era. It’s dramatic, it’s informative, and it offers major context on U.S. elections and their players in the process. For those of us born after this era who are still scratching our heads about how Nixon was a thing, it even offers some interesting perspective on his transformation from popular political figure to weird sweaty nobody to popular political figure once again.
12. The Politician: An Insider's Account of John Edwards's Pursuit of the Presidency and the Scandal That Brought Him Down by Andrew Young
This book is just straight gossip. I included it because it’s salacious and relevant to the 2008 presidential cycle, but it’s also kind of stupid. Sorry (not sorry) ‘bout it.