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Capitol Hill insiders share their favorite books to read in 2023

Put these recent (and not-so-recent) titles on your gift list as the year wanes in Washington

Readers in and around Congress give these books a thumbs-up for your year-end reading list.
Readers in and around Congress give these books a thumbs-up for your year-end reading list. (Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

Oh, hello! I didn’t see you standing out there! Come in! Come in from the cold, warm yourself by the fire! Here, have some hot cocoa and a candy cane to stir your marshmallows with. I’ll put some Vince Guaraldi Trio on the ol’ record player. Ahh, isn’t that nice and cozy? Now, if only we had a nice book to read…

What’s that, you say? We can simply look at Heard on the Hill’s annual gift-giving/book recommendation guide to help us pick a real page-turner, verified by political insiders? Well, why didn’t you say something earlier?

We asked more than 100 people with impressive-sounding job titles to name the best books they read this year. Only 10 of them replied. Infer what you will about the intellectual curiosity and/or literacy of our elected officials and their aides.

Here are those responses, sent by email and lightly edited. Happy (holiday) reading!

Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind.
“The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink” by William Inboden

“This was a welcome arrival as Republicans debate whether to embrace or move on from Ronald Reagan’s legacy. By documenting how the 40th president helped America win the Cold War, Inboden’s book provides an answer: Conservatives should revive Reagan’s leadership and character while remembering how he broke with the past to forge his own path, remaining true to his principles along the way.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio
“King: A Life” by Jonathan Eig

“Many of us — and I include myself here — naively believed that historic victories for civil rights and women’s reproductive rights, rights won by activists years ago, would be permanent. Coretta Scott King tells us that freedom must be won in every generation. Jonathan Eig’s ‘King: A Life’ came out just at the right time.”

Philip Bennett, Congressional Workers Union co-founder and aide to Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa.
“The Big Break: The Gamblers, Party Animals and True Believers Trying to Win in Washington While America Loses Its Mind” by Ben Terris 

“Quintessential reading for anyone trying to understand the outsiders who make their way in an insider world.”

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla.
“The Law” by Frederic Bastiat

“Before entering politics, this book enlightened me and helped shape my ideological outlook. I didn’t grow up in a political family, especially not a Republican-leaning one, and this book opened my eyes to conservative ideals and principles that led me to adopt this as my world view.”

Joe Calvello, communications director for Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa.
“All the Pretty Horses” by Cormac McCarthy

​​”When Cormac McCarthy passed away this June, America lost its greatest author since William Faulkner. In this novel, McCarthy not only tells a coming-of-age story, but he paints a picture of the fading dream of the American West in the late 1940s, which deeply reminded me of how the American dream is waning today. This book makes you grapple with the question if all beautiful ideals will ultimately be defeated.”

Darin Miller, communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas
“Nelson: Britannia’s God of War” by Andrew Lambert

“Lambert tells the story of arguably the greatest naval commander of all time. In the leadup to Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon,’ read about the man who ensured British dominance at sea, kept Bonaparte from invading England, and gave his life to destroy the French navy.”

Matthew Green, professor of politics at The Catholic University of America
“Built from the Fire: The Epic Story of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, America’s Black Wall Street” by Victor Luckerson

“This well-written and powerful book provides a comprehensive history of the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was subject to one of the most infamous anti-Black pogroms in American history. Luckerson not only tells the story of the race massacre of 1921, but also explains how Greenwood first became a center of African American life, and then recounts the ways that its residents have tried to restore the neighborhood’s vitality ever since.”

Annelise Russell, assistant professor of public policy at the University of Kentucky
“Backdoor Lawmaking: Evading Obstacles in the US Congress” by Melinda N. Ritchie

“Ritchie takes on the common perception that Congress is a do-nothing institution by looking at the ways members of Congress work around policymaking obstacles to coordinate with agencies and bureaucracy. She illuminates what it means to be a policy wonk in today’s Congress and the realities of getting things done.”

Danielle Deiseroth, executive director at Data for Progress
“Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future” by Elizabeth Kolbert 

“Kolbert explores some of the fascinating ways scientists and engineers around the world are attempting to mitigate climate change. The optimism of learning about the brilliant humans who are dedicating their lives to saving our planet from ruin — coupled with the deep irony of realizing the same power structures that enabled climate change to get to this point are now responsible for avoiding total catastrophe — is a perfect encapsulation of the tensions that embody today’s climate politics in a post-[Inflation Reduction Act] world.”

Jason Dick, editor-in-chief, CQ Roll Call

“Some of my favorite stories are the ones told amid big, consequential events by a slightly offbeat storyteller. I considered myself fortunate in this topsy-turvy year to read an ersatz trilogy of capital tales, written by three very different writers in three very different decades: Ben Terris’ ‘The Big Break,’ from this year; Elizabeth Drew’s ‘Washington Journal’ from 1975; and Nora Ephron’s ‘Heartburn,’ from 1983.

I’m not the first person to praise Terris for putting together such a funny, and sad, tapestry of what makes Washington tick nowadays. But here goes: When people want to know what it was like to be here in years to come, this will be one of the books that shows them. I might be biased. I worked with Ben at National Journal and in addition to being a great journalist, he’s a solid human being. 

Speaking of giving you a sense of what life was like: Drew’s ‘Washington Journal’ is a priceless portrait of the nadir of the Watergate scandal. Her observations about life in the capital, the people in Congress tasked with determining Richard Nixon’s fate, the voices outside Washington and even the weather are a pleasure to read. It’s an outsider’s tale of the inside.

For good measure, Ephron’s ‘Heartburn’ landed on my reading list, fresh on the heels of a 40th anniversary re-release. It’s a novel, a thinly disguised one, of her doomed marriage to Watergate reporting trailblazer Carl Bernstein in the post-Watergate years. How Ephron packed so much humor, tragedy, observation and even recipes into a svelte volume of under 200 pages shows how talented she was. This combo plate of books is a heavy meal, but a rewarding one.”

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