Here are the best 10 portraits of the politicians, performers
and provocateurs, living and dead, published in the newspapers and magazines
of the past year:

Steve Erickson on George W. Bush, “George Bush and the
Treacherous Country,” L.A. Weekly
(February 13). The American
nomad turns traitor in a personal and historical exploration into the theocratic
psyche of a president and a country at once identified and paralyzed by its
own schisms between Cotton Mather and Thomas Paine, traditionalists and secularists,
doubt and belief.

Sasha Frere-Jones on Arthur Russell, “Let’s Go Swimming,”
The New Yorker
(March 8). A review of The World of Arthur Russell
is also the story of the world of the cellist and composer who died of AIDS
at age 40 in 1992, a story that incorporates classical music, the avant-garde,
disco and the other emerging sounds of New York’s downtown scene.

Jeffrey Rosen on John Ashcroft, “John Ashcroft’s Permanent
Campaign,” The Atlantic Monthly
(April). In a year when the
word patriot (as an acronym) appeared most often in front of the word
act, Rosen, the New Republic’s legal-affairs editor, takes the
most extensive and incisive look at the most controversial figure of Bush’s
first term.

Tom Carson on Ronald Reagan, “Death of a Salesman,”
The Village Voice
(June 7). As powerful as he was preposterous, Reagan
is, for Carson, the “man who destroyed America’s sense of reality — a paltry
target, all in all, given our predilections.”

Robert Stone on Ken Kesey, “The Prince of Possibility,”
The New Yorker
(June 14 & 21). In his always-rapturous prose,
Stone tells the tale of the writer, teacher, prankster and “libertarian
shaman” who altered the mindset of the ’60s, in an account that attempts
to correct the record as well as preserve the lore of the counterculture.


Dave Hickey on Waylon Jennings, “His Mickey Mouse Ways,”
Texas Monthly
(June). This beautiful appreciation of the late country
musician encapsulates all of Hickey’s best subjects: making art and making trouble,
surviving and being screwed up, the nature of the pact between a performer and
his audience.

Stanley Kauffmann on Marlon Brando, “Brando’s Lives,”
The New Republic
(August). Not a formal obituary but a provocative
reflection on the brilliant, troubled actor whose struggle with his own gifts
made him the theatrical and cinematic incarnation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “imp
of the perverse.”

Rachel Cohen on William Dean Howells, “August 1860,”
(Prototype Issue, Autumn). In a seven-page excerpt from
Cohen’s forthcoming book of historical sketches, A Chance Meeting, an
American author whom most of us left behind in the classroom springs vividly
to life as he comes into contact with Whitman’s poems and Lincoln’s politics.

Alec Wilkinson on Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, “The
Ghostly Ones,” The New Yorker
(September 20). In this exploration
of the pleasures of music making and storytelling, Wilkinson’s physical and
musical descriptions play against the words of guitarist David Rawlings as he
volunteers to relate the biography of his partner and musical collaborator,
singer-songwriter Gillian Welch.

Greil Marcus on the death of George W. Bush (dateline: October
5, 2018), “Obituaries: Former President George W. Bush Dead at 72,”
Minneapolis City Pages
(November 3). In the most unexpected response
to November’s election results, Marcus reports from a speculative future where,
among other events, three Supreme Court justices have been appointed to the
“Bush Court” by 2005, Philip Roth is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature
in 2008, and, after attempting to run for a third term, Bush is defeated by
a Clinton — not Hillary, but Bill.

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