Michael M. Uhlmann
Professor of Political Science, Claremont Graduate University
For Christian ladies and gentlemen and friendly fellow travelers, there is no better Christmas gift this year than Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, the third of three commentaries on the life of Jesus. As with the first two volumes, the text is concise, instructive, and profoundly moving. You can doubly delight your recipients with James Hitchcock's History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium, an exceptionally good one-volume history of the Church from the pen of a well-respected historian at St. Louis University.
For those who worry about the Progressives and what they wrought, this year delivered a library of learning condensed into two wonderfully readable volumes: the CRB's own Charles Kesler produced I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, which, I'm told, is a hot item among the crowned heads of Europe. Meanwhile, Bowdoin College professor and CRB contributor Jean M. Yarbrough has given us Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition, which will soon be widely hailed for what it is: the indispensable guide to T.R.
For the political junkies in your life, it would be hard to beat Jay Cost's Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic and Sean Trende's The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs—and Who Will Take It. Cost and Trende are young political gurus who shame their elders with the vigor and rigor of their analyses. They are sophisticated number-crunchers who know how to write for the statistically illiterate. They also love politics—and their country.
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Senior Fellow, Ethics & Public Policy Center
Simon Gray was among the last Englishmen to comprehend his nation's decadence before the irreparable corruption set in. Like the consummate decadent of the previous century, Gray wrote howlingly funny plays; but where Oscar Wilde was mostly just skylarking about the native preposterousness, Gray cut to the bitter malice and loneliness at the core of British upper-middle-class wit. His portraits of literary intellectuals made his name, with Butley (1971), Otherwise Engaged (1975), and The Common Pursuit (1986). Failed intellectual ambition—not to be confused with amassing renown or comfort enough—and moral degradation are of a piece in his work. Self-loathing is the obverse of self-regard; to enjoy your worldly superiority to those are not sufficiently clever or polished or good-looking, yet to know yourself truly inferior to the very people you despise, rots the soul. Gray examines what is left of life when you cease to be serious, as you might once have hoped to be.
Here is a characteristic turn from Otherwise Engaged. Simon Hench is a well-heeled middle-aged London book editor who wants nothing more than an afternoon listening to Parsifal on his state-of-the-art hi-fi. One unwanted visitor after another interrupts him. His old friend Jeff stops in; then Jeff's latest girl, Davina, whom Simon has never met, pops by to inform her lover that his ex-wife, Gwendoline, whom Jeff is also sleeping with, has just had a failed suicide attempt. When Davina sneers that this failed suicide could be considered successful, in that it has unhinged Gwendoline's current husband and sobered Jeff up, Jeff throws a drink at her and stalks off. As it happens, Davina has made up the suicide story out of spite. Uncomfortable in her wet shirt, Davina strips to the waist, hoping thereby to seal a book deal for herself with Simon's publishing house, and she tells Simon what a flop Jeff, a well-known literary journalist and ladies' man, is in every respect.
DAVINA (sitting on the sofa): To think I thought he might be of some use to me. But of course he's out of the habit, if he was ever in it, of talking to women who like to think and therefore talk concisely, for whom intelligence does actually involve judgement, and for whom judgement concludes in discrimination. Hence the appeal, I suppose, of a pair of tits from which he can dangle, with closed eyes and infantile gurglings. Especially if he has to get them furtively, with a sense of not being allowed. Yes, stupid, don't you agree?
SIMON: Did you really go to Oxford?
DAVINA: Came down two years ago, why?
SIMON: From your style you sound more as if you went to Cambridge.
Simon Gray's plays don't get revival stagings any more, or yet. There is a very fine film version of Butley, available on DVD and starring Alan Bates as the bisexual English professor having the worst day in his life; but reading will have to do for the rest. Some playwrights are as good on the page as they are in performance, and Gray is one of them.
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Ryan P. Williams
Director of Programs, Claremont Institute
The Founders' Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It, by Larry P. Arnn
This beautiful and noble little book, written by the president of Hillsdale College (and former president of the Claremont Institute), should be assigned reading for all public-spirited citizens. It makes the case, succinctly and clearly, for the relationship between the structural framework of the Constitution and the philosophical and moral premises of the Declaration of Independence. The Tea Party should read it for a proper appreciation of what limited government (rather than small government) meant then and what it might mean now under our changed circumstances. Libertarians should read it to get the full measure of America's Founding, as opposed to the incomplete one they may have learned at the feet of Murray Rothbard and the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Professors teaching introductory courses on political philosophy should use it as the finest compressed case for America as the best regime. Finally, politicians interested in the restoration of constitutional government ought to read it as a start to their study of the public arguments they must make to convince the American people not only of the utility of the principles of the American Founding, but of their justice.
The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government, by Will Morrisey
Will Morrisey is one of the most perceptive scholars of American political thought writing today. In this book, he presents three extended essays on the political thought of Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, drawn meticulously from their writings and speeches, before concluding with a penetrating meditation on their similarities and differences. Modern historiography has long maintained that the varieties of progressivism on offer at the turn of the 20th century, both philosophically and politically, make it impossible to talk coherently about "progressivism" as such. While it is certainly true that T.R., Taft, and Wilson are routinely misread, misrepresented, and misunderstood, all were serious men with coherent approaches to politics, each drawing on (or rejecting) the various philosophical, political, and moral strands of progressivism. If we would just take the time to try and understand them as they understood themselves, we might arrive at more considered judgments on this extraordinary time in our history and the long shadow it still casts on our politics today. Morrisey's book achieves that rare (because difficult) feat. His excellent and stimulating introduction—on what Progressivism, as a system of thought, was and was not—would shine even as a stand-alone piece.
The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89, by Edmund S. Morgan
This wonderful little volume on the history and politics of the American Revolution, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution remains essential reading for all students of America. In fact, it perhaps does its best work when taught to freshmen and sophomores in college. The abundance of dull entry-level college textbooks on offer and shocking historical illiteracy amongst graduating high-schoolers combine to make the introductory weeks of American government classes tough slogging. Edmund Morgan's book, with its conversational style and learned non-stuffiness, is just the thing to spur the students to consider the possibility that the study of the origins of this regime, under whose protection they happily exist, may be more than just an academic exercise. Barring that, it will at least bring them up to speed painlessly—a fine and worthy achievement in modern academia.
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Jean M. Yarbrough
Professor of Government, Bowdoin College
Civilization: The West and the Rest, by Niall Ferguson
Another winner from a big picture historian. Ferguson is especially good on tracing the connection between religion and economic/social progress in the West.
The Age of Reagan, by Steven F. Hayward
After the dismal results of the election, it's worth recalling what got the Republican ball rolling. No one tells the story better than Hayward in these two volumes.
Designing a Polity: America's Constitution in Theory and Practice, by James W. Ceaser
A wide-ranging collection of essays by our most astute analyst of American politics, from The Federalist and Tocqueville, to Leo Strauss, the Reagan legacy, and the shape of contemporary conservatism. And while I am at it, Ceaser's Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought remains one of my very favorite books about America. The discussions of Heidegger's America and the Strauss-Kojève correspondence on the end of history are wonderful.
The Writings of Abraham Lincoln (Rethinking the Western Tradition), edited by Steven B. Smith
What makes this new collection so useful is the inclusion of thoughtful essays by Ralph Lerner, Ben Kleinerman, Danilo Petranovich, and Smith himself.
I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, by Charles R. Kesler
An indispensable guide to understanding the progressive challenge to the American constitutional order, told with wry wit and insight.
The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, by Elizabeth Kantor
A charming antidote to the "hook-up" culture that pervades the current college scene.
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Professor of Law, University of California at Berkeley School of Law
I've long been a fan of presidential biography, but the past few years may be reaching the saturation point. When writing my history of the presidency's constitutional powers, Crisis and Command, I was struck by how some of the most recent (and sometimes most popular) writing on important presidents borrows from standard scholarly sources without adding any new research. There are two books that I have been working through, however, that stand out from this recent deluge.
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert A. Caro
This is the fourth volume of Caro's ongoing biography. About a third of the book focuses on Johnson's vice presidency, and tells the story of his apparent fall from power—as "master of the Senate," majority leader Johnson was the most powerful Democrat in Washington; as vice president, he was ignored and even mocked openly by the young members of the Kennedy Administration. A third of the book is about the assassination of JFK and Johnson's leadership during the time of crisis. A third is about his early presidency. Even for close students of the Johnson Administration, there is much to learn here from Caro's painstaking first-hand research as well as his synthesis of existing secondary sources.
Abraham Lincoln: A Life, by Michael Burlingame
A much longer-term project, in which I am still in the middle. Burlingame has contributed something new and exciting to Lincoln scholarship. He has found reservoirs of new material, even after the hundreds if not thousands of books on Lincoln published over the years. What I have found particularly impressive so far is that Burlingame found newspaper accounts of articles Lincoln had written, or interviews he had given, that had gone unnoticed by previous scholars and were not included in the standard collections of his works. Some readers might be put off by the length and expense of this two-volume set, but so far it has proven rewarding and I expect that this will be the definitive biography of Lincoln for years to come.
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