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Hillary's Bio Is A Hard Slog, But These Political Memoirs Are Well Worth Your Time

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HILLARY CLINTON
Copies of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's new book are ready for sale at the Barnes & Noble store on June 10, 2014, in Fairfax, Virginia. | PAUL J. RICHARDS via Getty Images

NEW YORK -- Hillary Clinton launched her book tour here amid the screeching of partisan spin and the collective yawn of would-be literary critics in the national political media.

On one level, the initial reception is unfair. Most of the spinners, pro and con, and critics, good and bad, haven’t read the book.

But even those who adore Clinton will have admit that, like the genre of pre-campaign “autobiography” itself, Hard Choices is a hard slog. It’s as engaging and revealing as an up-armored Humvee, which isn’t surprising since the book serves essentially the same purpose, protection.

Which raises several questions: Are there any presidential autobiographies worth reading? How about other writings by presidents? How about good autobiographies by other American politicians? Or books about them and their breed?

Fortunately, good literature and good reads are not totally separate from the topic of U.S. presidents and politics.

There's even one pre-campaign autobiography that is not only a terrific read but the true launching pad of a presidency. It is, of course, Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama. He presold the entire story of his life as a narrative of why he was the One We Were Waiting For.

That not all of it was literally true, as we have come to find, is another issue. But it's still a good book.

Here, in no particular order, are some others:

Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. His two-volume autobiography is widely considered the best by a president. Written as Grant faced death from throat cancer -- and with Mark Twain as its salesman and perhaps its behind-the-scenes editor -- the book is both respected by historians and admired by critics for its lean, spare style. Among its fans: Gertrude Stein.

George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation; The Journal of Major George Washington. The former contains precepts on how to build character, as copied down by a young Washington. The latter was his report to Virginia Gov. Robert Dinwiddie on his explorations of western Virginia and Pennsylvania. His report not only was useful to the powers that be in Williamsburg; it served as Washington’s advertisement of himself as a man of the West.

The Reagan Diaries. Anyone who thinks Ronald Reagan was an empty-headed actor parroting the scripts of others should read these absorbing, thoughtful, yet unaffected ruminations on the great issues of the time.

The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt; Rough Riders. Roosevelt was a journalist by nature, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has shown. The man could write, and he was an omnivore when it came to history and adventure.

Memoirs by Harry Truman. Truman was a ferocious autodidact with a gift of gab in person and in print. He was also a serious man at a serious time whom his foes made the mistake of underestimating all too often. There is a reason David McCullough became famous writing about Truman: He was a colorful, crucial character.

La Follette's Autobiography: A Personal Narrative of Political Experiences. No one reads it now but they should, since Robert La Follette, the great progressive from Wisconsin, was an eloquent writer whose ideas and career are echoing loudly -- or should -- in today’s politics.

Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties, by Harris Wofford. As the title indicates, this unassuming but brilliant observer and politician was close to John F. Kennedy (he was a top leader of the Peace Corps at its creation) and to Martin Luther King Jr., whom he served as an aide and adviser. The book is less about Wofford than about what he saw, which was pretty much everything in that decade. He later became a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary. The late Democratic senator from New York was a professor before he became a politician, and he was incapable of writing or speaking a boring sentence. His academic ideas were influential and controversial -- particularly those about the sociology of poverty -- but his real talent was in applying his encyclopedic sense of history to current events. He never wrote an autobiography, but his letters do the trick.

The Letters of John and Abigail Adams. Still the best inside story of a presidential family. Abigail in particular was a pointed, mordantly observant and vastly influential writer.

Witness, by Whittaker Chambers. Not an elected official, Chambers nevertheless was a central figure in the rise of modern conservatism. His book, which centers on the Alger Hiss spy case of the 1950s, mixes the intensity of detective fiction with spiritual, almost theological ruminations.

Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks. The Great Emancipator did not live to write an autobiography, but contemporary journalist Noah Brooks' dispatches, letters, and personal reminiscences constitute a classic that historians and writers have been mining ever since it was published.

The Prince of Darkness, by Robert Novak. Novak was a reporter in Washington who wrote about politicians for 50 years. He was a conservative, and an ideologue as he grew older, but he was also perhaps the best political street reporter the city has ever seen. His brutally candid autobiography is a gem.

Personal History, by Katharine Graham. Graham wasn’t a politician either, but her newspaper, The Washington Post, made and broke politicians and policies for decades. Her autobiography, which she labored over for years, is the real deal. Anyone who thinks there wasn’t a liberal establishment should read it.

More Political Nonfiction: A Good Life by Ben Bradlee, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer.

Political Fiction: Democracy by Henry Adams, The Congressman who Loved Flaubert and Other Stories by Ward Just, Advise and Consent by Allen Drury.

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