As a former presidential speechwriter, I’ve long frowned upon political staffers who, trusted to be discreet, leave their jobs and spill the beans about their bosses in tell-all memoirs. I make an exception, though, for Barton Swaim, whose book, The Speechwriter, is one of the most entertaining and illuminating political books of the past few years. Swaim wrote speeches, op-eds, and letters for Mark Sanford when he was governor of South Carolina and a rising star in the Republican Party (he is now a Congressman). During Swaim’s tenure, Sanford fell from gubernatorial grace after revelations that he had vanished for days from the state to conduct an adulterous affair with a mistress in South America. Swaim’s book reveals the tortured, and often comical, relationship between the politician and his staff. But it is Swaim’s ongoing self-education in how to write “well” for a linguistically-challenged pol that is the most amusing part of the story. Somehow Swaim manages to convey the absurd rhetorical demands of his boss, and the general unpleasantness of working for him, with humor, grace, and a very deft writer’s touch.
One of the best books in recent memory to address the politics of race in America is Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons, and the Racial Divide (Morrow, $27.99) by MSNBC national correspondent Joy-Ann Reid. A smart, rigorous reporter and an eloquent writer, Reid combines keen journalistic insight with excellent historical research in examining how race has influenced American politics. Focusing primarily on the relationship between Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton, Reid exposes the challenges that race poses for the Democratic Party along the historical continuum, and what racial politics might mean in the 2016 election. This much-needed and highly original book leaves the reader with the sad realization that, even after the election of our first black president, America still has a long way to go to repair the political fracture and close the racial divide.
The Presidency in Black and White: My Up-Close View of Three Presidents and Race in America (Rowman and Littlefield, $24.95), by April Ryan, looks at the ways in which race and racial issues play out at the White House, from the Oval Office on down. A veteran White House reporter for American Urban Radio Networks and one of the few African-Americans on the presidential beat, Ryan has spent nearly two decades observing and interviewing presidents and policy-makers whose decisions have enormous impact on her largely urban audience (her reports are broadcast on 300 stations nationwide and reach millions of listeners and readers, many of them African-American). Much of the material in her book comes from her tenure covering Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama and is infused with her own thoughtful impressions of the men who occupy the highest office in the land. Few reporters today have done as much as Ryan to ensure that the interests of urban communities are on the president’s radar and that the voices of African Americans are not lost in the static of Washington’s policy debates.