NOEL KING, HOST:
2018 was a big year for political nonfiction - exposes from prominent journalists and tell-alls from former administration officials. Many of them had dramatic titles like "Fear," "Fire And Fury" and "Unhinged." I'm joined now by NPR's senior editor/correspondent Ron Elving and political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben.
Hey, you guys.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good with you.
KING: It was a year in which it felt like there was a lot of political nonfiction - but not just that, that everybody was reading it, starting with Michael Wolff's "Fire And Fury" all the way back in January. Was this year unusual, or did it just seem that way?
ELVING: I would say it was unusual - and mostly because there are so many people leaving the White House so quickly so that just within the first two years, a record number of people have left from the president's inner circle - from the Cabinet, from the advisers at the highest level in White House - and several of them have written books.
KURTZLEBEN: And I would add here - it might be a quantity versus quality thing, also. I mean, if you look back, yes, there were some books already out in 2010, two years into the Obama administration, talking about - analyzing Obama's rise to the presidency. So it's not unusual for books to be out now analyzing a presidency. But the tone of these books - you had books with these apocalyptic-looking covers, you know, Trump against a red background; with titles like "Fire And Fury" and "Fear." And not only that but idea books about authoritarianism, books like "How Democracies Die," "The People Vs. Democracy" - I mean, the tone was very scary in a lot of these books.
KING: Let's go through some of the highlights. One of the big ones this year was "A Higher Loyalty" by former FBI Director James Comey. Ron, you reported on that book. You reviewed that book for NPR. What stood out to you?
ELVING: Some of the comparisons that he makes to the earlier parts of his career when he prosecuted Mafia families and the code of silence that they had and the sort of generalized family-based criminal enterprise - that's a shocking comparison to make in the spring of 2018. Now, it may not seem quite as shocking at this stage. But at the time that he was using that kind of language, that really stood out.
KING: There were also a significant number of tell-alls from people close to the president. Some former White House staffers published notable books. Ron, which one was your favorite? Which one was the most notable?
ELVING: Well, Michael Wolff was not really a staffer, but he was really a fly on the wall reporter who was allowed to hang out in the White House inexplicably for a long period of time and write a book. And that really set the tone for the book because it came out fast. He knew exactly what he was doing. He got it out really quickly - so that when Omarosa Manigault, who had also had a brief period on the staff in the White House, came out with a similar book, it didn't have nearly the same sort of impact.
But I think, really, the book that made the biggest difference in reporting on the inside of the White House was not written by a White House insider but by someone to whom many of those insiders had spoken. And that was Bob Woodward.
KING: Tell us about "Fear."
ELVING: Bob Woodward had already had 18 other books, many of which were No. 1 New York Times best-sellers. But the one that everybody remembers is "All The President's Men."
ELVING: That was about Watergate back in the 1970s. People have studied it in school. And he's still doing it in much the same way he was doing then - giving people anonymity, getting people to really download the stuff that they know. And he has apparently done that with most of the important people who have already left the White House, including at least one chief of staff and a strategic adviser and a lot of other people with very high titles. And we don't know for certain who said exactly what because that's not Bob Woodward's style. He writes the book as though he knows everything. And you have to divine who told him what.
But this book has perhaps more impact than any he has written since Watergate because he takes on the president so directly. And the things that he says about him would really have to be described as a form of indictment.
KING: Danielle, you reviewed Michelle Obama's memoir "Becoming." There were some things that really stood out to you in that book.
KURTZLEBEN: Right. So it's not a book where the point is getting juicy tidbits. This is not a tell-all in the sense of Michelle Obama coming out of the White House and giving you the hot gossip on everything that was happening in the Obama White House at all. It's about Michelle Obama's life, starting as a child growing up on the South Side of Chicago and going up through adulthood - through her marriage to Barack Obama and beyond.
KING: One thing that I learned from you in an interview that you did on MORNING EDITION about this book is that the Obamas went to marriage counseling. I had not been aware of that. That was a real jaw-dropper for me.
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. They go to couples counseling. They go through IVF to conceive their two daughters. And it's not that the book is super explicit about all of the troubles they had in their marriage. But you get a sense of, this marriage that we all watched in the White House and that a lot of people admired was certainly not without its problems.
KING: Ron, Ken Starr also had a book published this year.
ELVING: It didn't make a big splash. You pretty much have to explain to people now who Ken Starr was or is. Ken Starr was the president of Baylor most recently. But before that, he also was the prosecutor, the independent counsel if you will, who went after Bill Clinton in the middle '90s and produced the report that resulted in Clinton's impeachment. Ken Starr has more or less maintained his silence ever since. And now that Hillary Clinton's campaign is over and apparently the Clintons are no longer politically viable, he felt it was OK to come out with his book. It's called "Contempt." And that's his way of referring to the way that the Clintons handled many things, including the law, in his view. It could also be a title for his own feelings towards the Clintons, which are extremely hostile, particularly towards Hillary Clinton.
KING: Of all the political books you read this year, which one was the best written?
KURTZLEBEN: I've been telling my friends that one of the best books I read in 2018 is the first half of Michelle Obama's book (laughter), which is not to denigrate the second half exactly.
KURTZLEBEN: The first half of it - when she's talking about her childhood, when she's talking about growing up, when she's talking about meeting Barack Obama - there are some beautifully written, deeply felt, deeply thought-out passages in there about marriage, about growing up, about eventually becoming a mother that absolutely struck me as just gorgeous. Once she gets into the White House with her husband, the shields kind of go up. It becomes a little bit more of a political book. But that first part of the book absolutely had some incredible sections in it.
KING: Ron, what do you think?
ELVING: Probably the best-written book that I've read in the past year is John McCain's last entry in his long series of memoirs. This one's called "The Restless Wave." And it was written with Mark Salter, who is a longtime collaborator with John McCain - wrote a number of speeches for him, collaborated with him on his books. And Salter is particularly a poetic writer, more of a literary writer than I suspect the senator would be on his own and probably more than any of the people who wrote books under their own name this year.
KING: NPR's Ron Elving and Danielle Kurtzleben.
Thanks, you guys.
KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.
ELVING: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN BLADE AND THE FELLOWSHIP BAND'S "SHENANDOAH")
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