Reading List

Conventional Wisdom

What to read to get ready for the Democratic National Convention.

See Slate’s complete Democratic Convention coverage.

H.L. Mencken

Asking candidates what they are reading has become a staple of political coverage. They may once have answered honestly, but now they present a list that feels like it was approved by committee. As a political reporter, I could easily fall into this, putting forward an accumulation of titles I may or may not have read in the hopes that you’ll find me wide-ranging, thoughtful, and worthy of a talk-show invitation.

To keep myself honest, I read H.L. Mencken, who punctured professional wind machines with nearly each paragraph (he wrote a lot of them). Most of his targets were politicians—”on furlough from some home for extinct volcanoes”—and he loved political conventions, which he described as “fascinating as a revival or a hanging.” On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe is my favorite Mencken volume. (He’d filet me for making it seem like I’ve read all his books.) The collection of essays covers the period from 1920 to ‘36, but you’ll be amazed at how little the theater and posturing have changed. Given that political conventions are even less substantive than they were in Mencken’s day, I’ll also suggest Benchley at the Theatre, a collection of the famous New Yorker writer’s criticism.

One nice surprise about both current presidential nominees is that they have written (or in McCain’s case co-written) extremely readable biographies. This isn’t to say that we haven’t had nominees who have published books before. We have. It’s just that their books are dreadful. McCain’s Faith of My Fathers and Obama’s Dreams From My Father both include passages of regret, confession, self-analysis, and other acts of candor you may have thought were banned from politics. You encounter plenty of fascinating parallels reading about two young men searching for identity in worlds pre-planned for them, particularly as both fight charges of excessive self-regard.

Once you’ve acquainted yourself with Sen. Obama’s pre-political voice, you can sample his evolution as an elected official. Start with his 2002 announcement opposing the Iraq war, then move on to his 2004 DNC speech, his announcement speech from 2007, his speech on race, and his recent July 4 speech on patriotism. Of all the primary day speeches he gave, the one after New Hampshire gives insight into how he accepts a loss, and his speech on the night he won the nomination offers some of the themes he’ll reprise at his nominating convention. Obama can be deeply analytically detached, and yet these speeches have brought people in the crowds to tears.

If you’re in New York, you should spend a little time in the Paley Center for Media. The viewing room is open to the public, and you can watch past political conventions. My favorite is the CBS coverage of the 1960 Democratic Convention (and not just because one of the gutsy floor reporters would become my mother). In one scene, Eleanor Roosevelt makes a surprise appearance to campaign for Adlai Stevenson. Kennedy doesn’t have the experience, she says. Kennedy is captured making his famous pitch to the Texas delegation about why it was necessary to keep Lyndon Johnson in the Senate. “The old pro Lyndon Johnson isn’t going to fade away,” reports Edward R. Murrow, but not long after, a CBS correspondent files a report from in front of the smoke-filled room where the Pennsylvania delegation is meeting. The door opens, a slip of paper is handed to him, and Murrow reads that Kennedy has won the nomination. 

Other famous convention moments worth watching are Bill Clinton’s “Man From Hope” video, perhaps the best use of biography to frame a campaign. Ted Kennedy’s 1980 “The Dream Will Never Die” speech makes for particularly poignant viewing this year as Kennedy battles cancer. Other speeches worth reading and watching at include Ann Richards’ display of searing wit in 1988 and Goldwater in 1964. Will Joe Lieberman’s crossover speech at the Republican Convention this year include as much spittle and as many roundhouse punches as Zell Miller’s attack on John Kerry did in 2004?

If you would prefer convention-themed theater over a theater-themed convention, my two favorites are from Gore Vidal. The first is his raucous debate during the 1968 convention with conservative commentator William F. Buckley. The two traded personal insults while veteran war correspondent Howard K. Smith sat between them, no doubt having combat flashbacks. The second is Vidal’s play The Best Man, which turned into the 1964 film staring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. The drama includes hidden peccadilloes, drinking, and power plays, and it comes to a thrilling conclusion at a political convention. We can only hope we’ll get one frame’s worth of such potent stuff in Denver.

A version of this article also appears in the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section.