7 best political biographies

From insights into the lives of America’s two would-be presidents to tales of triumph over Isis, get stuck into one of these newly published or reissued tomes

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The Independent Online

Political biography is an irregular genre. It’s a genre that lends itself to bias, and most of the authors included on this list have their prejudices. It’s also a genre that demands discipline on the author’s part – especially if the author also happens to be the subject, as is the case with two of the books on this list. (Fortunately, in both cases, though especially with Chavez, both books have a co-author to keep the subject on track).

The books included in this list have all been recently published or reissued, and chronicle the lives of characters as diverse as Donald Trump, whose presidential campaign has been scandalising American politics since last summer, to Farida Khalaf, one of the many Yazidi women captured and enslaved by Isis in 2014. 

1. The Making of Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston: £18.99, Melville House 

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David Cay Johnston’s The Making of Donald Trump is a devastating attack on the Republican presidential nominee. In his book, Johnston – a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has been following Trump’s various business and legal ventures for decades – carefully disentangles the knot of lies that has so far characterised Trump’s presidential campaign. This book reads as a sensible, if occasionally clunky, denunciation of Trump the politician, Trump the businessman and even Trump the person. (Johnston details how allegedly vindictive Trump could be towards his “disloyal” employees. Of one employee: “I go out of my way to make her life miserable”.) A must-read for the months leading up to the November election. 

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2. My First Life by Hugo Chávez/Ignacio Ramonet: £30, Verso 

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Spanish Journalist Ignacio Ramonet interviews former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez on topics such as his history, his philosophy, his motives, his habits and his personal life. The book’s distinctive interview style, in a Q&A format, allows Ramonet to probe where other biographers couldn’t – namely, the young Chávez’s formative years in the military. Though obviously sympathetic to Chávez’s Revolución Bolivariana, Ramonet doesn’t fret at asking difficult questions. In one chapter Ramonet asks Chávez about some of his old friends and their relationships with characters such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, forcing Chávez to acknowledge that not all of his comrades were as palatable as he’d thought. This book offers the reader a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of this century’s most controversial leaders.

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3. Hillary: A Biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Karen Blumenthal: £12.99, Bloomsbury 

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Karen Blumenthal’s biography of Hillary Clinton is a relatively short (300 pages) but comprehensive portrait of the person who could be the United States’ first female president. Blumenthal, who has also written a biography of Steve Jobs, follows Clinton from her Chicago childhood all the way through to her presidential campaign. Her writing is simple and straight to the point, spurning detailed political analysis for the sake of brevity, making this an ideal book for some last-minute reading before the election in November. 

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4. Harold Wilson: The Unprincipled Prime Minister? by Andrew C. Crines and Kevin Hickson: £20, Biteback Publishing 

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This is a detailed and timely study of Harold Wilson, the man who sought Labour’s centre ground and strove to unite the party’s disparate factions – factions that many believed were tearing the party apart. Published as a collection of essays – written mostly by university professors, but with MPs such as Tom Watson and Gerald Kaufman also appearing – the book primarily focuses on Wilson’s time in government, covering his personality, his leadership style, his political and economic philosophies (or absence thereof) and the national context in which he governed. Readers will be reminded that the Jeremy Corbyn drama we are witnessing today is nothing new to the Labour Party.

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5. Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion by Gareth Steadman Jones: £35, Allen Lane

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In his book, Gareth Steadman Jones – a professor at Queen Mary University, London – strives to provide the reader with a sober portrait of Karl Marx, stripped of the “illusions” he mentions in the book’s title. Jones’s biography of Marx, or “Karl” as he insists on calling him, begins in the 1790s with the French Revolution and follows Karl’s emotional and intellectual development amid the tumult of nineteenth century Europe. The book’s foremost theme is the often-overlooked disparity between Marx the man and Marx the idea, or Marx as an “ism”. Coming close to 600 pages, Jones’s book is an enjoyably meticulous overview of Marx and the various philosophies that would later constitute Marxism.

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6. The Girl Who Escaped Isis: This is My Story by Farida Khalaf/Andrea C Hoffman: £16.99, Atria Books

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In collaboration with the German journalist Andrea C Hoffman, Farida Khalaf tells her harrowing story as one of the thousands of Yazidi girls who were taken, enslaved and routinely raped by Isis foot soldiers in 2014. The book poignantly begins with Farida describing her childhood and her ambitions to become a maths teacher. Soon after, she sees her father and brother killed before being taken to Raqqa to be sold into slavery. Farida’s story is a horrifying glimpse into the barbaric inner workings of the caliphate. 

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7. Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson: £16.99, Penguin 

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It seems bizarre that Niall Ferguson would subtitle his biography of Henry Kissinger – a man whose name has become a byword for Machiavellian realpolitik → The Idealist, but it gives an idea of what he is trying to do in his book. He is trying to turn the current Kissinger narrative on its head and retrieve his subject’s reputation from writers (such as Christopher Hitchens) who have argued that that Kissinger’s time in government was chiefly characterised by crimes against humanity. Ferguson, with exclusive access to Kissinger’s archives in the Library of Congress, instead focuses on Kissinger’s more admirable attributes. The first of two volumes, Ferguson follows Kissinger up until 1968 when he secured his first job in government. Published in paperback this September, this book makes for an excellent portrait of both the young Kissinger and the era in which he grew up.

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Verdict

All of these books make for excellent studies of their respective subjects, but our pick of the lot is David Cay Johnston’s ‘The Making of Donald Trump’. It is a timely, thorough, impassioned and scathing indictment of the United States’ could-be president. Whatever your thoughts on Trump, we’d call it a must-read before the presidential election.

All prices listed are RRP

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