What to Read Next: Inauguration Day Special
Ya’ll know I love presidential history, and given that today marks the inauguration of our 46th president and our 49th vice president, I just had to send out a special email featuring books about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. I also had the chance to interview Harris’ biographer, Dan Morain.
Biden and Harris each have memoirs, but I’m not generally one to read a political memoir (though there are rare exceptions). Those books are too often written by ghostwriters and/or aides, and they too often just spout affirming life stories and political accomplishments. So more traditional bios are the focus here.
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Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now by Evan Osnos
Published: 2020 | Pages: 164
“I thought you could defeat hate. You can’t. It only hides. It crawls under the rocks, and, when given oxygen by any person in authority, it comes roaring back out. And what I realized is, the words of a president, even a lousy president, matter. They can take you to war, they can bring peace, they can make the market rise, they can make it fall. But they can also give hate oxygen.” —Joe Biden
Obviously, Biden has been around a looong time. He’s made appearances in some books, but he’s not the sole subject of many. Osnos, well-respected New Yorker journalist, has provided a well-done, albeit short, primer-type biography on our oldest POTUS yet.
It starts powerfully, bringing the reader to the hotel room where Joe Biden nearly died of an aneurysm in 1988, shortly after dropping out of that year’s presidential election. It’s a story I was not familiar with and served as the perfect illustration to what Osnos called the “defining pattern” of Biden’s life: “improbable turns, some spectacularly fortunate and others almost inconceivably cruel.”
The most interesting parts of the book have to do with the more recent campaigns, though. In 2008, Biden reluctantly accepted the #2 spot behind Obama (Jill Biden had to tell him to “grow up”), but then spent a transformative eight years under an important president.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton was of course the darling of the Democratic establishment (and Obama), which miffed Joe. So he sat out to see where things would shake out.
And of course, in 2020, he decided to make one last run, easily clinching the nomination, and then winning the presidency as well.
Osnos’ book was well done and always interesting, but felt more like a collection of magazine articles than a single narrative (which may have in fact been the intention). It seems like this book was pushed to press for folks like me who wanted a primer on the man. But, I definitely wanted more about Joe—especially his early years.
A fuller biography, now that Biden is POTUS, is certainly to come. In the meantime, this is a good place to start.
Kamala’s Way: An American Life by Dan Morain
Published: 2021 | Pages: 225
I didn’t know much about Harris before she became a presidential candidate. After reading Morain’s book, I came away with a deeper understanding of not only our first woman elected on a presidential ticket, but the forces that shaped her life and career too.
From young protester (her mom brought her to peace protests while still in a stroller), to Canadian misfit (she was in Montreal for her middle and high school years); from ambitious student at Howard U in DC, to young prosecutor in the Bay Area; from California’s Attorney General, to presidential candidate. Morain covers it all pretty objectively—though the positives are given more attention than the negatives, which I wish would have been explored a bit deeper.
Along the way, the reader gets a really interesting inside look at the unique makeup and politics of California itself, and especially of the Bay Area. Titans of the state’s power structures who pop up include Jerry Brown, Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, Gavin Newsom, and ex-boyfriend Willie Brown (which was a weird relationship and I wish it would have been given more real estate in the book).
As with Osnos’ book on Biden, the intention here is definitely to be a short primer on the woman elected to one of the most powerful positions in America, for people who are now trying to get to know her as she takes office. The books seem similar in form and intent, though Morain covers Harris’ early life better than Osnos does Biden.
Again, I’ll just say that I just wish there was more. That book will come someday, though there’s certainly additional chapters to be written. To repeat what I said above: in the meantime, this is a good place to start.
A Few Bookish Questions With Dan Morain
Dan was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions I had not only about Kamala’s reading, but also books about California, and writers he takes inspiration from.
1) Is Kamala Harris much of a reader? If so, do you know of any favorites or books that especially impacted her?
I don't know much about Vice President-elect Harris's reading. . . . I am told that she is steeped in the history of the civil rights movement. I know she read Jim Newton's great book on Earl Warren, Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made. She often talks about Warren. I asked one of her past campaign managers what she reads and he said briefing papers. It was his impression that cooking books and recipes were a diversion for her, as well.
2) California politics plays a big role in the overall narrative. Any there indispensable bios of California politicians that you recommend?
A Rage for Justice, by the late John Jacobs, 1995.
The Browns of California, by Miriam Pawel, 2018.
Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown, by Jim Newton, 2020.
3) What about books on the Golden State in general? Are there particular titles, either fic or non-fic, that would give broader America insight into what makes California what it is?
The Dreamt Land, by Mark Arax, 2019
Dancing Bear, by Gladwin Hill, 1968
Anything by Carey McWilliams, especially California: The Great Exception, 1949
The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Time of Harvey Milk, by Randy Shilts, 1982
Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America, by Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney, 1999
4) Are there journalists or writers you look to for inspiration, or whose work has informed your approach to writing?
Steve Lopez of the LA Times (his book, The Soloist, is terrific)
I’m not in their league.
5) What do you read in your spare time? Any favorite authors or genres for comfort/entertainment?
When I retired from daily journalism on March 6, 2020, I vowed to read all the books I meant to read in the prior 44 years, and then I got a contract to write Kamala's Way. In 2021, I will return to my long list of unread books. But here are two authors who I have made a point of reading for fun: Michael Connelly and Carl Hiaasen.
That’s all for me today. Thanks so much for subscribing, and please consider sharing or gifting What to Read Next.