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What to read (and gift) now: Capitol Hill insiders share their picks for 2021

Books are the ultimate power gift in political Washington

(Courtesy Penguin Random House and Hachette)

It’s that time of the year again, when you need to impress someone with a gift that is really about showing off how smart you are. That’s right, it’s time for a holiday book-giving guide! 

Heard on the Hill asked a bunch of impressively well-read and important people in and around Capitol Hill for the best new(-ish) books they read this year. Some recommended light-hearted fiction, others thick policy tomes. A few of our recommenders couldn’t limit themselves to just one pick, like they were pieces of peppermint bark or something.   

The responses are below in no particular order, most sent by email and lightly edited. We didn’t try to confirm that anyone actually finished these books, so please do feel free to grill them if you happen to see them at a holiday party. Send their replies to your probing questions to hoh@rollcall.com

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., Senate president pro tempore and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee 

“Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb” by Chris Wallace and “Presidents of War” by Michael Beschloss, “because I like history that’s well-written and meaningful,” Leahy said.

The retiring senator also recommended “Hour of the Witch” by Chris Bohjalian, “because I like everything written by him, and it’s great historical fiction.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee

“Churchill: Walking with Destiny” by Andrew Roberts. “This is the best biography I have read — ever,” Moran said. 

Robert Creamer, partner at Democracy Partners

“Fiber Fueled” by Will Bulsiewicz. “The book makes the case for, as the jacket says: ‘The plan-based gut health program for losing weight, restoring your health and optimizing your microbiome,’” Creamer said. “As a result both I and my wife, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, have moved to a primarily plant based diet. The book is heavily based on the science of the microbiome — and is very compelling. I’m still eating some meats, poultry, fish, cheese, eggs, etc. but now 90% or so plant based.”  

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., chair of the House Republican Conference 

“Perestroika in Paris” by Jane Smiley. “I first read Jane Smiley for a reading assignment in high school, and I loved rediscovering her work as an adult in this unusual book, which tells the fantastical tale of an incredible racehorse, Paras, that escapes its home and finds itself in Paris and befriends wonderful characters both animal and human on her adventures,” Stefanik said. “This book is a perfect holiday gift! Truly escapist and magical.” 

Stefanik also recommended “The Company I Keep: My Life in Beauty” by Leonard Lauder. “Years ago, I gave Leonard Lauder and some of his family a West Wing tour of the White House during the Bush Administration,” she said. “I have admired the Lauder family ever since. This memoir is amazing to read about Mr. Lauder’s upbringing helping jar makeup potions as a child as his mother, Estee, built one of the 20th century’s most recognizable brands on the planet. This book is chock-full of astute business acumen, interesting discussions on his extraordinary art collections, and great life advice.”

Nick Bunker, economic research director at Indeed

“The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World” by Patrick Wyman. “The book’s an interesting take on the question of the ‘Great Divergence,’ or why Western Europe ended up becoming richer than the rest of the world,” Bunker said. “Wyman tells the story well, explaining key trends through the lives of historical figures, both famous (Christopher Columbus) and those less well-known (an English wool merchant).”

Alex Conant, partner at Firehouse Strategies

“The Master: The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer” by Christopher Clarey. “I read this book as I watched Novak Djokovic pursue the grand slam this summer and it made me even more impressed with the stress and scrutiny under which elite global athletes constantly perform.”

Paul Thornell, principal at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas

“The Underground Railroad Records” by William Still. “Still was a conductor on the Underground Railroad and helped as many as 800 people escape slavery. This collection of letters and other primary documents tells the story of many of those and has a compelling arc,” said Thornell. “It’s tone is both emotional as well as tactical in terms of the people executing the tasks to gain their (or others’) freedom. My great-great-grandfather George B. Vashon was an abolitionist and one of the leading players in the Pittsburgh anti-slavery movement, collaborating with William Still as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.”

Lauren Fine, communications director for House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.

“Not All Diamonds and Rosé: The Inside Story of The Real Housewives from the People Who Lived It” by Dave Quinn. “I’ve been a Real Housewives fan since my early high school days, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I went on to work in the one place that has more real-life drama than a Bravo show: The United States Capitol,” said Fine, who occasionally sprinkles reality TV references among the Republican whip’s “Lay of the Land” emails. “For those like me, who have been watching these women for nearly 15 years, it’s a great behind the scenes look into how the franchise operates and into legendary Housewives moments from table flipping to puppygate to Scary Island. If you’re looking for an escape from the world of reconciliations and CRs and debt ceilings, I would highly recommend this entertaining read.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee

​​“American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears” by Farah Stockman. “‘American Made’ is a compelling account of how bad trade policy has torn apart families and communities,” said Brown, who frequently waxes eloquent about “the dignity of work” on the Senate floor. “Farah Stockman shows us in vivid detail what too often gets papered over — the devastating impact of corporate greed and years of bad policy decisions from the workers’ point of view. You can trace a direct line from NAFTA, through permanent normal trade relations with China, through decades of corporate tax breaks, to the experiences of workers in towns in Indiana and Ohio and all over the country. It’s a call to action to put workers at the center of trade policy — one I’m encouraged that under President Biden, we are finally starting to heed.”

Howard Mortman, communications director at C-SPAN

“When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill” by Howard Mortman. “It’s a first-ever historical examination of the enduring congressional tradition of opening each legislative with a prayer — focusing on the hundreds of rabbis who have been guest chaplain in the House and Senate,” said Mortman, who had the commendable chutzpah to recommend his own book. “Perfect for lovers of congressional history, American political history, and people interested in how faith and religion intersect with governing and politics. Over 630 times a rabbi has opened a session of Congress in prayer. This is their never-before told story: Who they are and what they said.” 

(Courtesy Penguin Random House and Hachette)

Rep. Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., assistant speaker

His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope” by Jon Meacham. “[Lewis] created a roadmap for us all on how to put kindness and justice ahead of all else, even in the toughest of times,” she said. “There’s so much we can learn from his life and his legacy.”

Jacob Wilson, communications director for Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and co-founder of the Congressional Progressive Staff Association

“Orwell’s Roses” by Rebecca Solnit. “What happens when you discover that the politics of the left’s and right’s favorite antiauthoritarian writer sprouted from a flower garden in 1936?” Wilson said. “Solnit finds Orwell in a place you might not expect him by weaving together a new understanding of antifascism and its relationship to the natural world.”

“The Jakarta Method” by Vincent Bevins. “A jarring reexamination of U.S. foreign policy in the post-war era,” Wilson said. “What did the foreign policy establishment believe were necessary sacrifices abroad to ensure democracy at home, and were they right? Bevins travels the world to uncover much-needed answers from the people who lived through the effects of U.S. foreign policy for better, and for worse.”

Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif.

The Man I Knew: The Amazing Story of George H. W. Bush’s Post-Presidency” by Jean Becker. “Jean Becker’s position as post-presidency chief of staff to President George H. W. Bush afforded her the opportunity to know him in a way no one else could,” said Valadao, who told Heard on the Hill earlier this year that this book put him on a Bush biography kick.

Jason Dick, deputy editor at CQ Roll Call and host of the Political Theater podcast

“What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era” by Carlos Lozada. “I thought to myself, this is a good way to end the Trump era,” Dick said via Slack after Heard on the Hill got worried that not enough people were responding to the request for recommendations. “I dig Lozada’s nonfiction book reviews for the Washington Post, and god bless him for reading all he did about the Trump White House and all its never-ending drama. It didn’t disappoint. He has a great organizing principle and uses those themes (“Heartlandia,” “Beyond the Wall,” “True Enough,” “Russian Lit,” and etc.) to construct well thought-out essays. I read it and thought: Perfect. What a great way to close the book on a tumultuous few years.” 

“Then Jan. 6 happened,” said Dick. “Then I started reading the William Gibson ‘Jackpot’ books, about a dystopian future.”

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.

“Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead” by Jim Mattis and Bing West. “I have had the pleasure of working with Secretary Mattis over the years, and time and again am impressed with his leadership, insight and ability to cut straight to the heart of any matter at hand,” said Newhouse. “This book is an accurate portrayal of the man he is — candid humor and all — as well as a riveting look into our nation’s military. I highly recommend this book to anyone who cares deeply about our nation and what it takes to lead it.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Republican deputy whip 

“The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz” by Erik Larson. “A new, more intimate look at the first months following Britain’s entry into WWII,” said Wicker. “Larson provides insights into both the Churchill and Hitler inner circles, helping us understand the personal strength that helped Britain manage to stand alone until the Americans arrived.”

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