I've covered politics and Washington, DC, for 15 years for MSNBC, ABC News, and as Chief White House Correspondent for CNN. These days, I’m breaking down the big stories in politics every day on Instagram. In my new novel, Savage News, the main character Natalie Savage is a driven young reporter who wants to cover the White House and is struggling to learn the ways of Washington and cable news.
This list of books might have helped her — each offers insight into how DC works, from K Street (insider lingo for lobbyists) to the White House and Congress (VIP society). They also dive into intersections of race, gender, and power politics in our nation’s capital. Here are my top ten books — fiction and nonfiction — to read if you want to understand Washington, DC.
1. Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley
This is a laugh-out-loud satire about a low-integrity tobacco lobbyist who spins for cigarettes and a fat paycheck. He gleefully refers to his friends — lobbyists for firearms and alcohol — as the merchants of death. In the end, he sees the light. The book is dark and cynical and doesn’t even attempt to show that Washington is also filled with idealistic, mission driven people. Still, it’s an incisive and delicious book. I re-read it many times while writing Savage News.
2. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan
This searing portrait of Lt Col John Paul Vann and the tragedy of the Vietnam war is a work of exquisite reporting and reads like a novel. Vann knew the war was doomed to fail and railed against an establishment that wouldn’t hear reason. It’s a striking story of one individual battling groupthink.
3. Political Fictions by Joan Didion
This is Joan Didion on the Clinton era. Her essay collection takes a scalpel to what she calls the “permanent professional political class." You might not agree with her analysis of the politics of her time, but her razor sharp critique of the media’s role in constructing political narratives is trenchant. She observes that the media's focus on scandal and conflict leaves many viewers feeling alienated, and that the strange conventions of campaign coverage require “overlooking the contradictions inherent in reporting that which occurs only in order to be reported.” Didion argues that the storylines that dominate our political conversation are “based at no point on observable reality,” hence the book’s title: Political Fictions.
4. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates was a Washington DC-based journalist for years and was moved to write Between the World and Me in part after meeting with President Obama. The book, written as letters to his teenage son, warns of the “racist violence in American culture.” In Between the World and Me, Coates doesn’t share the eternal optimism of many American civil rights leaders; he argues that racism is embedded in the American psyche. His memoir passes through Washington, DC, and describes a world starkly different from the Washington depicted in the other books on this list.
5. The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate by Marjorie Williams
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Marjorie Williams was a reporter and columnist for Vanity Fair and the Washington Post. She chronicled the personalities of the Clinton and Bush eras, and died at the age of 47. This posthumous collection of her popular articles is filled with entertaining, searing takes on some of the city’s legendary power players — a still, ringing woman's voice in a man's world.
6. The Good Fight by Shirley Chisholm
"If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” is one of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm's most famous sayings. In 1972 she essentially did that, becoming the first black major-party candidate and first woman in the Democratic field to run for President of the United States. What was that like for her? She writes that she ran in 1972 “because someone had to do it.” The book is imbued with Chisholm's indomitable spirit, which remains inspiring today.
7. Personal History by Katharine Graham
A fantastic memoir by the woman who became the accidental heir of the Washington Post. Katharine Graham led the paper through the crises and triumph of Watergate reporting. It’s a book about business, journalism, marital crisis, family obligations, and rising to challenge after daunting challenge.
Originally I was going to list What it Takes, a book about ego and image-making during the 1988 presidential campaign, but that story now seems quaint. In its place? Jane Mayer’s look at the Koch family and other billionaires who shape US politics through largely untraceable campaign donations.
A send-up of the information brokers, influence peddlers, society mavens and lookey-loos who make up the Washington establishment. It’s fun, current, and searing — and the kind of book any aspiring Natalie Savage should pick up to learn the habits of Washington insiders.
10. It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
What if America elected a demagogue president who ran on promises of prosperity and a return to traditional values, and watched as he transformed the US into a fascist state? Imagine if the newspaperman who saw it coming was powerless to stop it. Okay — so this novel doesn’t exactly describe DC, but it is a powerful imagining of what it could be. Most striking, it was published in 1935 as a comment on the rise of fascism in Europe.
Jessica Yellin is the former chief White House correspondent for CNN and an Emmy and Gracie award-winning political journalist reporting for CNN, ABC News and MSNBC. She's the founder of #NewsNotNoise, a fresh voice in media that broadcasts daily news reports on Instagram. The mission: deliver quality reporting and analysis that leaves the audience feeling informed and empowered. Her first novel, Savage News, about reporting-while-female, is available now. Follow her on Instagram @JessicaYellin.