Lewis L. Gould names his five favorite presidential election books for the WSJ

Historians in the News

Realigning America
By R. Hal Williams (2010)

Only a handful of presidential elections have become the stuff of political folklore. Prominent among them is the 1896 contest between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, known as the "Battle of the Standards" because the candidates clashed bitterly over monetary policy—Bryan delivered his famous "Cross of Gold" speech at the Democratic convention. The common view of the election was that wealthy businessman Mark Hanna engineered McKinley's election. But legends often mask reality—the campaign involved much more than "Cross of Gold" and Mark Hanna. In "Realigning America," R. Hal Williams got the story of the '96 campaign right at last. As Williams shows, the true architect of the GOP success was not Hanna but the candidate himself. "All of us want good times," McKinley said, "good wages, good prices, good markets, and then we want good money too." His program of sound money and tariff protection ended a generation of stalemated national politics and created a durable Republican majority. Williams's lucid retelling of the story of McKinley's triumph is a bracing reminder of the intellectual pleasures of synthesis. In a brief but compelling narrative, the author illuminates how and why Gilded Age Americans voted as they did, but he also shows us how much campaigns have changed in the long sweep of the nation's history.

Before the Storm
Rick Perlstein (2001)

In November 1964, Lyndon Johnson bestrode the American political world while Barry Goldwater appeared destined for the ranks of other badly beaten presidential candidates, such as John W. Davis (1924) and Alton B. Parker (1904). Half a century later, Johnson seems an archaic anomaly of a discredited liberalism. Goldwater's losing campaign invites continued scrutiny as the harbinger of the modern world of conservatism. There is no better place to start than Rick Perlstein's "Before the Storm," a lavish re-creation of the 1964 campaign with a focus on Goldwater and conservatism. Perlstein's judgments are sharp and his prose telling: "The Eastern Establishment had no clothes. But to many it was still garbed in the cloak of limitless power." Fair and judicious to all the subjects of his narrative, Perlstein achieves the difficult feat of evoking human sympathy for most of the participants in the events of 1964....

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