In mid-December, the Washington Post’s daily “Power Post” reported that a number of Donald Trump appointees and advisers are followers of the writings of Ayn Rand. Remembering “Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” from my high school days, the time may have come to re-read those philosophical and political novels.
But there are three other books that are also prime for re-reading.
In fewer than three weeks, we will have a new president coming in with an aggressive style and a populist agenda. There’s also the likelihood of contentious confirmation battles over cabinet and court appointments; and the possibility of a major tax overhaul as both the new president and the Republican Congress have tax reform on their policy agendas.
So, to get us prepared, three books come to mind: Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “All the King’s Men,” Alan Drury’s first political novel “Advise and Consent” and “Shoot-out at Gucci Gulch” by Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray.
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“All the King’s Men,” published in 1946, is a thinly-veiled depiction of the rise to and use of power by a fictional 1930-era populist governor of Louisiana. Willy Stark (really, Huey Long) comes to power with a strong reform agenda and governs through manipulation and intimidation, surrounded by political loyalists and enforcers. The book is about Stark’s ruthless governing style and its effect on those who come closest to him. Ultimately his tactics cause a key aide to confront ethical dilemmas that challenge his understanding of right behavior, loyalty, obedience and moral courage. In the new year, “All the King’s Men” can serve to sensitize us once again to the use and abuse of power and to the ethical considerations that accompany the exercise of power.
“Advise and Consent” is a fictional story of the controversial nomination of Robert Leffingwell to be secretary of state. Published in 1959, the book portrays the Senate confirmation process and its key players. Initially presumed to face an easy confirmation, Leffingwell’s nomination instead encounters political opposition from a senator who views him as too liberal with a hint of communism in his background (this is 1959). Then tactics turn dirty and human frailty comes to the fore. Leffingwell appears to lie during his confirmation hearing, a key opposition witness is discredited, damaging evidence is found against Leffingwell and a key senator is subjected to political blackmail. The book is a bit of a pot-boiler but is also a cautionary tale of the nomination confirmation process and the high stakes that can be involved.
“Showdown at Gucci Gulch” is the only nonfiction book on the list. It was published in 1988 to chronicle the congressional debates and passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 – the last time there was a major overhaul of U.S. tax policy. It depicts the enormous inter-related complexity of tax law and the resulting difficulty in just understanding tax policy, let alone changing it. The essential power of key individuals and the pivotal roles of the major players – President Ronald Reagan, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, congressional committee chairmen Dan Rostenkowski and Bob Packwood – are described, as are the strategies of the Gucci-clad lobbyists working the Capitol Hill hallways. Looking toward the possibility of tax legislation in 2017, this book explains the how and why of achieving tax reform in 1986 and thus can serve as an instructive primer for the next round.
These three books are enjoyable reading. They also provide some thoughtful and historical perspectives that can inform our understanding of today’s politics.
So, go ahead and dust off those Ayn Rand novels but, for a more direct application of literature to 2017, don’t overlook these three books.
Douglas A. Brook is a visiting professor in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who has served in four presidentially appointed positions.