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Political prose at its best Take a break from the pundits and prognosticators to find some true perspective on politics in 2 new releases

For political junkies, already neck-deep at the moment in their favorite subject, here is further bliss: Two new collections of top-flight writing and reporting, arriving just as the presidential campaign season reaches its ear-splitting crescendo.

Both are worthwhile. One is sublime.

That nod goes to "Reputation," a compilation of profiles by Marjorie Williams, the late Vanity Fair and Washington Post writer. Williams died of liver cancer in 2005 at age 47, tragically cutting short a stellar writing career; her husband, Slate Magazine writer Tim Noah, edited this collection and a previous one, "The Woman at the Washington Zoo." Williams' profiles, known for their fearlessness and wicked humor if not for their mercy, are always elegantly written and pitch-perfect.

Consider the first line of her definitive piece on former Secretary of State James Baker and ask whether you've read a better one: "His smile is what the dental hygienist asks you to emulate when she wants to get at your back molars."

One can imagine Baker reading that line, the first stomach-sinking hint of what might be to come. From there, she unspools a devastating piece on this consummate Washington operative who wanted to be a statesman.

She sees Baker as even more driven and ambitious than those around him in the White House under Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and, above all, shrewd about his own career, ever associating himself with success and distancing himself from failure.

"Jim Baker is known as the man who can walk on water. You say he only tries in January, when the water is frozen? So much the better, answers a dazzled Washington; that only proves his wisdom."

Williams turns her penetrating gaze -- she simply sees better than anyone and is unafraid to tell exactly what she sees -- to a wide range of personalities: Columnist Anna Quindlen (too much a good girl to be a great columnist); Independent Prosector Lawrence Walsh (whose endless investigation of the Iran-contra scandal became a job too frustrating for Sisyphus, too pointless for Don Quixote); and Colin Powell (a study in unspent potential).

Rounding out the collection are fascinating profiles of President George H.W. Bush, broadcaster Larry King, socialite Patricia Duff, presidential counsel Clark Clifford, talk-show host Laura Ingraham, as well as consultants, fundraisers and apparatchiks of various stripes: James Carville and Mary Matalin, Lee Atwater and Terry McAuliffe.

These pieces are not current, and one might well wish, mouth-wateringly, for Williams' take on Barack Obama or Sarah Palin or the latter-day Hillary Clinton.

But they are something even better. They're timeless.

For currency, though, we are lucky to be able to turn to the latest in the annual "Best Political Writing" series. 2008 has been an astonishing political year and the collection, reflecting that, is an especially strong one.

Its brightest jewel is Jane Mayer's disturbing New Yorker magazine piece on the harrowing interrogation techniques used at the CIA's secret prisons or "black sites."

Mayer's reporting is deep and searching; what she turns up is chilling. Her 2008 book on this subject, "The Dark Side," is indispensable if unsettling reading for all who care about the harm done to democratic ideas by the Bush administration's War on Terror.

The collection is divided into four parts: "The Race," which takes up the current presidential campaign, including several pieces on Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic nomination; "Who We Are Now," ruminations on American political culture, including playwright David Mamet's provocative self-examination of his own politics; "So Long, Buckaroo," which bids farewell, though not fondly, to President Bush, and includes a searing (and prescient) takedown of Bush economics by Jonathan Chait in The New Republic; and "What We Talk About When We Talk About War," which includes Mayer's piece as well as the late David Halberstam's "The History Boys," his argument (which appeared posthumously in Vanity Fair) that history will in no way vindicate America's decision to go to war in Iraq.

To say we care about politics, after all, really means that we care about the state of the nation, about democracy, about how -- and by whom -- America is governed. If those worthy subjects are mixed here with the juicier ones of personality, the richer ones of wrongdoing, no fan of politics is likely to complain.

An excellent collection, it might have been perfect if only it could have included a Marjorie Williams profile of, let's say, the post-presidency Bill Clinton. That, alas, was not meant to be.

Reputation: Portraits in Power

By Marjorie Williams

Public Affairs

262 pages, $26.95


Best American Political Writing 2008

Edited by Royce Flippin

Public Affairs

376 pages, $16.95 (paper)

Margaret Sullivan is editor of The News.

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