Jon Sopel Rounds Up the Best Political Reads of 2017
Whether we like it or not, we live in interesting times. Even for those well-versed in the bumper-car ride of politics, 2017 has been a particularly tumultuous year. Thankfully that very climate has also delivered a rich and diverse output of political writing and who better to guide you through the highlights than Jon Sopel? The BBC’s Political Editor for North America and author of the acclaimed new book, If Only They Didn't Speak English: Notes from Trump's America, here he takes a break from the fray to round up the best of the year’s political reads.
There used to be a bumper sticker which read ‘just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re NOT out to get you.’ The double negative of that always made me smile. The two big political memoirs published on either side of the Atlantic have strong elements of that sentiment. It is the lot of most politicians to be paranoid, and often with good reason. Jockeying for power, how to maintain it, how to fend off your enemies aren’t modern themes. Just read Cicero. Or Machiavelli. It’s all there.
Gordon Brown’s My Life, Our Times comes seven years after he left Downing Street ignominiously, and Hillary Clinton’s What Happened was a book she never intended to write. But ignominy would befall her too in the stunning defeat to Donald Trump on that unforgettable night in November 2016. What was it that Enoch Powell observed back in the 1960s, about how all political careers end in failure?
Hillary Clinton, What Happened – is an attempt to make sense of the craziest, most unforgiving, brutal Presidential election campaign – where despite her having a massive war chest, a CV that was a million miles better than her rival - all the things that were her strengths were turned into weakness and vulnerabilities by the street-fighter Donald Trump. Decades of experience? She was the rotten establishment. Money? She was the tool of Wall Street. Clever? Yeah, she was too clever by half. In her book she tries to analyse those forces: the last minute intervention of the FBI director, James Comey who re-opened his investigation into her use of a private email server. There was the misogyny; there were the campaign errors – not doing enough in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, in particular. She was paranoid – and a lot of people were out to get her. But where this book falls short is where Hillary Clinton fell short – the failure to offer America a clear vision of what she would do as President. And whatever his shortcomings, Donald Trump did.
Which brings us to Unbelievable, Katy Tur’s book on the campaign. I met the NBC correspondent on the road a number of times during this grueling marathon, most unforgettably when we flew to Turnberry in Scotland (not your normal campaign stop) with Donald Trump, the day after the Brexit referendum so that he could preside over the re-opening of his famous golf course. As he took us round, it was clear he wanted to talk to her more than any other journalist there – even though in her questioning she was as tough and unforgiving as they came. He seemed enchanted by her, but her toughness wore on him, and soon she was being singled out at his rallies by Trump for particular and personalized venom. By the end she needed her own security detail to keep her safe from the braying, Trump mob. There will be many accounts of the election. But this proximity to the main protagonist makes hers essential reading.
Devil’s Bargain, Joshua Green, charts the rise of Steve Bannon, still one of the most intriguing figures in US politics today. When Donald Trump won the election, Bannon was rewarded with the key White House post of Chief Strategist. He wielded enormous power in fashioning the economic nationalism and populist America First agenda that Donald Trump would champion. What this book does is take us behind the scenes of Bannon’s determined campaign to burn down the establishment in Washington – and how in Donald Trump he found the perfect cipher. Inevitably, perhaps, Bannon was cast aside in one of the White House purges. But his influence has not waned. He is the warrior general; the President his willing foot soldier. It is a characterization the President hates, but the evidence from this book is that it’s not unreasonable.
Gordon Brown was always an enigmatic figure to me as a political journalist. The son of the manse, with supposed granite like integrity, who nevertheless allowed his henchman to engage in some pretty dubious and shameful activities to silence his enemies – invariably Labour ones. I interviewed him countless times as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister. It was never a satisfying experience. He was often sullen and bad tempered. His book is interesting. It shows someone deeply private, wrestling with the demands of the 24/7, hang it all out there news culture. He was paranoid, but I remain unconvinced that people were out to get him. Surely the argument is the other way round. He was indulged by Tony Blair. When most of those around Labour’s most electorally successful politician were demanding that the troublesome chancellor be dispatched, Blair refused. Politics seems a little ill served with towering figures at the moment. Gordon Brown was one of them, and even though he seems profoundly lacking in self-awareness to the point of disingenuity at times, he was an important part of the fractious double act that shaped British politics at the turn of the millennium.
My final choice has politics as its backdrop, and it seems fitting on the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution that A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles should emerge. It is charming and delightful. It charts the life of a member of the aristocracy who is forced to bend the knee to the new Communist masters who’ve taken over, and rather like Steve Bannon today (interestingly he has described himself as a Leninist) want to sweep away the old order. And so our hero, Count Alexander Rostov is put under house arrest in the magnificent – but soon to be fading – Metropol Hotel in Moscow. It is wonderfully observed, and in its own way tells you about power, authority and dignity.