Earlier this week, a student of mine in the Tikvah Scholars Program asked if I had any advice for aspiring journalists. The first thing I told her was to read. Not only does reading furnish the background for news gathering, reporting, and opinion. It also makes you a better writer. Indeed, in my experience as an editor, the best prose stylists are invariably well read.
In earlier columns, I've recommended books and resources for wannabe wonks and pundits. The following paragraphs are for young people who want to enter the world of political journalism in Washington, D.C. Adults interested in U.S. history and literature may find them worthwhile too.
I visit two websites every morning: Arts & Letters Daily and RealClearPolitics. They are a great way to catch up on pressing issues in the realms of culture and policy. Still, there's no substitute for a great book. Here are six that every youthful D.C. journalist should read.
Out of Step by Sidney Hook. The philosopher and polemicist Sidney Hook (1902-1989) was a student of Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey and an early 20th-century socialist who influenced two generations of anti-Communists. Out of Step is the story of his intellectual and political development, but it also serves as an introduction to the history of the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union. Hook interacted with everyone from Bertrand Russell to Albert Einstein to Ronald Reagan, and learning about his arguments and exchanges with these eminences is a treat. He also has some withering observations about Herbert Marcuse, the guru of the cultural New Left. I can only imagine what he'd have to say about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.).
Making It by Norman Podhoretz. Podhoretz's memoir is a propulsive tale of smarts and ambition. The longtime editor of Commentary magazine recounts his youth as the child of immigrants in Brooklyn, his education under literature professors Lionel Trilling at Columbia and F.R. Leavis at Cambridge, his military service, and his membership in the community of New York intellectuals who wrote for liberal anti-Communist publications such as Partisan Review, Encounter, the New Leader, and Commentary. Podhoretz describes his involvement with Commentary, and how he came to edit the magazine beginning in 1960. (He stepped down as editor in 1995.) Though Making It doesn't delve into Podhoretz's break with the left—that's covered in his 1979 book Breaking Ranks—the reader does get a sense of the intellectual independence, courage, and brilliance that he continues to exhibit at age 93.
The Prince of Darkness by Robert D. Novak and Right from the Beginning by Patrick J. Buchanan. These two conservative authors, who disagreed vehemently with Norman Podhoretz on foreign policy and support for the state of Israel, were D.C. fixtures during the second half of the 20th century. Novak (1931-2009) was a legendary journalist who specialized in insider political reporting. He also pioneered television punditry. He appeared on Meet the Press more than any other reporter, became famous on The McLaughlin Group, and was a longtime host of CNN's Crossfire and Capital Gang. His autobiography is filled with details from a half-century of covering politics, and through close reading you learn how Novak operated at the highest levels of government and media. Take notes.
Buchanan, who retired from writing earlier this year at age 84, went from composing punchy editorials for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat to advising Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. His stints in campaigns and government were interspersed with column writing and radio and television punditry. This first memoir covers his youth in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., his time at the Columbia School of Journalism, and his early years as a writer. It culminates in his joining Nixon's political operation in 1965. (Buchanan discusses what happened next in The Greatest Comeback and Nixon's White House Wars.) Above all, Right from the Beginning is a personal narrative that longingly evokes a distant past. The book only hints at the conspiratorial direction Buchanan would take in his three campaigns for president, and his formulation of the "America First" ideology that would come to dominate the GOP. It also has one of the best first lines ever: "'Let the bloodbath begin!'"
The Controversialist by Martin Peretz. Born in 1938 in the Bronx, Peretz went to Brandeis University and Harvard, where he remained as a lecturer for several decades. An anti-Communist, Zionist liberal Democrat, Peretz's involvement in politics grew when he married heiress Anne Devereux Labouisse. In 1974 he bought The New Republic, the venerable journal of Progressive liberalism, and slowly began to transform it from a sleepy and predictable magazine into a crackling destination read. Peretz has an incredible eye for talent, bringing on editors Michael Kinsley, Hendrik Hertzberg, Leon Wieseltier, and Andrew Sullivan, and writers such as Charles Krauthammer, Mickey Kaus, and Fred Barnes. In the 1980s, Peretz's New Republic was known as the "inflight magazine of Air Force One"—an oddity, considering that the president at the time was a conservative Republican. Peretz's editors understood the best periodicals are unpredictable, slick, intelligent, and stylish, no matter who occupies the Oval Office. This memoir is a gripping read filled with insight. It restores to life a Washington that is gone.
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell. This collection of writing by the 20th-century New Yorker journalist may seem out of place on this list. It is neither a memoir nor political. Yet anyone who wants to write needs to find this book. Mitchell (1908-1996) was a newspaper writer who joined the New Yorker in its heyday under founding editor Harold Ross. He specialized in long character profiles that start on the surface and delve deep into history, psychology, and the nature of cities. His sentences are hypnotic. They are simple, direct, and clear, and they somehow draw you into a subject until you can think of nothing else. You may not want to emulate Mitchell completely—his characters often speak in monologues that last for pages, and he suffered from the worst cases of writer's block in history. But you will learn something imperishable from him about language and empathy.
So what are you waiting for? Start reading. And perhaps, as a first assignment, you will let this writer know what you think.