04.21.09

Paul Begala's Book Candidates

The former Clinton adviser and political commentator says he has argued about the great American novel with James Carville for 25 years, and he shares some of his favorite reads.

North Toward Home
by Willie Morris

“Like so many Southerners who grew up in a racist culture but knew in their bones it was wrong, I was drawn to Willie Morris’ journey.”

I first read North Toward Home when I was a student at the University of Texas. Willie Morris was a hero to our small band of Longhorn liberals in the Age of Reagan. Like so many Southerners who grew up in a racist culture but knew in their bones it was wrong, I was drawn to Willie Morris’ journey from Yazoo City, Mississippi, to New York City, by way of Austin, Texas, and Oxford England. As an adult, I became friends with Willie. Got drunk with him, stayed in his home in Jackson, and when he visited the White House, I watched him spin yarns for his old friend Bill Clinton while deftly pocketing some fancy Italian cookies Yasser Arafat had left in the Oval Office. When Willie died, they put one of his corneas in the eye of a 42-year-old African-American forklift driver in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and the other in the eye of a 74-year-old white Mississippian. I like to think that when Barack Obama was inaugurated, one of Willie’s eyes bulged in wonderment, while the other filled with tears of joy.

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The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power. By Daniel Yergin. 928 pages. Free Press. $22. ()

The Prize
by Daniel Yergin

“From the first oil well to the dominance of the House of Saud, Yergin spins a compelling—and cautionary—tale.”

Right now I am reading the new edition of Daniel Yergin's classic The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book, first published in 1993, has a new, 21st-century epilogue. From the first oil well drilled by "Colonel" Edwin Drake in Pennsylvania to the dominance of the House of Saud, Yergin spins a compelling—and cautionary—tale. Why study oil when it's down from $150 a barrel to just $50? Well, like Grandpa used to say, the time to fix the roof is when it's sunny outside. For me, the book is motivating. I can't imagine thousands of people killing each other over solar power.

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The Clinton Wars. By Sidney Blumenthal. 822 pages. Diane Publishing Company. $30. ()

The Clinton Wars
by Sidney Blumenthal

“As important today as it was then… A must-read for current White House staffers.”

As I contemplated the increasingly hysterical right-wing response to President Obama last week, I was drawn to re-read Sid Blumenthal’s Clinton Wars. I knew the story well; Sid and I are friends and we started working in the White House on the same day. But Sid’s attention to detail, his historical perspective (likening Ken Starr’s threats to prosecute White House aides who criticized him to the Sedition Act of 1798), and his rigorous lack of self-pity make the book as important today as it was then. Bill Clinton fought off an attempted right-wing coup d’etat. Al Gore was the victim of another. It’s a certainty Barack Obama will face the same threat as well. That makes The Clinton Wars a must-read for current White House staffers.

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The Gay Place. By Billy Lee Brammer. 672 pages. Bantam Books. ()

The Gay Place
by Billy Lee Brammer

“If you liked Robert Penn Warren’s masterpiece, you’ll love The Gay Place.”

For 25 years, James Carville and I have argued about the great American political novel. As a Louisianan, he loves All the King’s Men. A great book, to be sure. But if you liked Robert Penn Warren’s masterpiece, you’ll love The Gay Place. Billy Lee Brammer was a former speechwriter for Sen. Lyndon Johnson. He used LBJ to create Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker, the powerful, profane, and complicated governor of Texas. The Gay Place, like All the King’s Men, is about ends and means. How much evil can you use in order to do good? Every great politician has an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other. I’ve spent my adult life in that wrestling match, but I’ve never seen anyone write about more truthfully than Brammer.

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