The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam (Ballantine, $18). I read this book in high school; its depiction of how brilliant, well-intentioned policymakers got us into the Vietnam War taught me that journalism and history can be fused in a big book that stands the test of time.
The Making of the President, 1960 by Theodore H. White (Harper Perennial, $17). The first, and best, of White's election series pioneered a new, more intimate form of campaign reportage. It also shaped my attitudes — and a generation's — toward John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer (Vintage, $25). Compared with 2012, the 1988 campaign wasn't especially important. But Cramer's astonishing reporting lets him paint novelistic portraits of Joe Biden and Bob Dole. He beautifully portrays the humanity behind politics.
Lincoln by David Herbert Donald (Simon & Schuster, $20). My favorite college professor wrote the best one-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, a figure he saw unsentimentally as a passive and imperfect president whose greatness came from his capacity for growth. Donald's narrative thrust and elegant prose are models for all historians.
Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas (Vintage, $20). More proof that journalists at the top of their game can write brilliant history. This one depicts three families — black, Irish, and Yankee — caught up in the emotional racial politics of the 1970s busing crisis in Boston. I chair the board of Columbia University's Lukas Prize Project, which was founded in the author's memory and aims to reward and encourage such narrative nonfiction.
Master of the Senate by Robert Caro (Vintage, $22). The third of (so far) four volumes on "The Years of Lyndon Johnson" unpacks the debate leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, an important precursor to the major civil-rights bills of the 1960s. Caro's account brings congressional sausage-making alive like no other book.