Oxford University Press publishes an exciting series of books under the general heading of “A Very Short Introduction.” Top scholars in remarkably wide ranging fields of inquiry synthesize big topics with plenty of wallop per page. Three in the series are right in the wheelhouse of the Byrd Center’s mission and I am pleased to recommend them to you.
The first is Donald A. Ritchie, The U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction (2010). The first thing I should say about this book is a disclaimer! Don is a member of the board of directors of the Byrd Center, a former Historian of the Senate and a long-time colleague and dear friend. But don’t draw from this any bias on my part! I am here to praise all three of these titles for their excellent quality and their utility for general readers as well as scholars in the field. Ritchie begins with the Federal Convention of 1787 and traces the Founders creation of a Congress with two distinct bodies, a Senate and a House. There is no such thing as “Congress” other than as a general term for the two bodies. Grasping this important point helps immensely in understanding how Congress works. This book will take you on a historical and political tour of the Capitol, what goes on there, and along the way you will learn the meaning of representative democracy.
The second is Charles O. Jones, The American Presidency: A Very Short Introduction (2016). This is a second edition and has recently been updated, but was published before the last presidential election. It has a useful appendix of all presidents through Barack Obama that include the percentage of popular and electoral votes in each contest. Jones has been a keen observer and student of the presidency for many years. His books on the presidency are of the highest caliber and his insights are straightforward with no nonsense. His respect for this high office is apparent on every page, but as he says in the introduction, when he was younger he thought presidents were superhuman but that “Later I learned it was the expectations that were beyond human.” Jones has a section called “Learning to be president” that offers good advice. I hope someone sent our new president a copy of this book for no other reason than to read this:
It is said that all presidents learn on the job, starting with their first briefing on pending issues. Put otherwise, no one enters the White House fully prepared to go to work. Orientations are essential. Furthermore, newly elected presidents have just experienced to extraordinary ego-centric occurrences—a successful election campaign, followed by celebration and inauguration. There is, at that point, much to learn about being president, and much to set aside from the campaign to get there.