on January 17, 2007
Once again David Pietrusza has produced an outstanding work of history and biography, this one dealing with the fascinating machinations that went into the presidential election of 1920. The author of numerous works on the history of baseball and major biographies of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and gangster Arnold Rothstein now returns to his favorite era to bring us the wisdom, the wit, the follies and the foibles of not only the six once and future presidents, but of a supporting cast that includes the colorful and the quirky, the lovable and the loathsome, the brilliant and the batty of the political and social world of 1920.
In many ways it was a time not unlike our own, but in many others so completely different that the America of 85 years ago seems barely recognizable.
This is a story so well-told that only the duties of life kept me from reading its 544 pages straight through. This is no plodding tome. Every page is alive, every chapter a well-constructed gem. He begins with sketches of the major players, then masterfully weaves them into the events of the day: the peace negotiations ending World War I, the battle over the League of Nations, prohibition, the women's suffrage amendment, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the peculiar hobby of lynching, the effect of the Bolshevik Revolution on domestic radicals, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Boston Police Strike.
We see a young (38) and vigorous Franklin D. Roosevelt, pre-polio, dashing across the street from his own driveway to the home of the Attorney General, on whose front steps a domestic radical has just accidentally blown himself up. We find a calm and rather dull Warren G. Harding promising the country a return to normalcy in foreign and domestic affairs (with domestic affairs of his own anything but normal). There's the genuine world hero Herbert Hoover who toys with the idea of running for president and manages to win several primaries both as a Republican and a Democrat, and who is presented with the enticing possibility of joining forces with FDR in a kind of fusion candidacy.
Then there is the sitting president Woodrow Wilson who has lost nearly all his grip on the presidency and quite a bit of his grip on reality as he vainly attempts from his sick bed to engineer a third term for himself. And, larger than life, looms the all but annointed obvious candidate and odds-on favorite for 1920, Theodore Roosevelt, whose sudden death in 1919 suddenly throws the race wide open. The story of his old friend, and sometime opponent, former president William Howard Taft attending TR's funeral should bring a tear to your eye.
And Calvin Coolidge. A man of few words, perhaps, but the ones he chooses are sheer poetry, and a collection of his speeches distributed at the Republican convention leads to a stampede to nominate him for Vice President against the choice of Harding and the party bosses. A look ahead at his ascendancy on the death of Harding, being sworn in by his notary public father in the old family homestead at Plymouth Notch, Vermont in the middle of the night beneath the flickering light of a kerosene lamp, then walking alone to his mother's grave is one of the book's many highlights.
But then, every sentence is a highlight.
on June 16, 2007
This is a splendidly written chronicle of the contest to succeed President Wilson in 1920. For a person not steeped in the era, there are many unexpected twists and turns. Among the most surprising: the zeal with which the ailing, wildly unpopular Wilson pursued a potential third term. Another: the vigorous courtship -- equally ardent among Dems and Reps alike -- of Herbert Hoover, the Great Humanitarian hero of WWI. One scenario had Hoover at the top of the Democratic ticket, with, of all people, FDR as his runningmate. Talk about ironies of history!
Harding emerges as a sympathetic, but flawed figure, with a penchant for personal risk-taking that makes Bill Clinton or Gary Hart seem cautious by comparison. His serial affairs nearly undid his candidacy. Instead, we learn how fellow Ohioan Harry Daugherty brilliantly engineered Harding's nomination by not alienating anyone at the Republican convention. Daugherty would later meet an ignominous end as Harding's AG. Another tragic figure, Interior Secretary Albert Fall, might have avoided infamy -- and spared the country the Teapot Dome scandal -- had Harding's first choice for the cabinent post not been shot dead in a lover's quarrel. This is one of many eye-opening revelations -- too numerous to recount -- for anyone who thinks that salacious affairs are only the stuff of modern politics.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Pietrusza is a gifted wordsmith who's penned well paced, highly accessible popular history.
on March 2, 2008
The Election of 1920 is unique in American history. Never before had so many men who either had been, or one day would be, President vied for the office at the same time.
But for an untimely death, Theodore Roosevelt would have been the presumptive Republican nominee and, given the political conditions of the time, probably would have returned to the White House. In the White House, Woodrow Wilson remained felled by a stroke but stubbornly held onto power and the idea that he could run for a third term. From New York, a young, vigorous Franklin D. Roosevelt laid the groundwork for what would become the longest Presidency in history. Herbert Hoover, the hero of wartime procurement and post-war famine relief, struggled to with the idea of whether he was a Republican or a Democrat. Up in Massachusetts, a mild-mannered Calvin Coolidge was on the verge of shocking everyone. And, in Ohio, Warren G. Harding, a man with a past so checked that he couldn't possibly be considered a viable candidate today, was convinced by party insiders that he could in fact be President of the United States.
In 1920: The Year Of The Six Presidents, David Pietrusza tells the story of this election, but, more than that, he tells the story of what was happening in America in the years after World War One and on the cusp of the Jazz Age. Through it all, Piestruza weaves together a compelling narrative that brings to life events whose consequences reverberated through the 20th Century.
There are plenty of surprises here. The stubbornness with which the ailing Woodrow Wilson, who probably should have been removed from office to begin with, pursued the idea of a third term in office (to the point where he was willing to sabotage the campaigns of Democratic rivals) was rather shocking, but it was also consistent with the unbending, uncompromising zeal with which he pursued the doomed League of Nations. Similarly, the star power of Herbert Hoover, who is remembered by history as one of America's great failed Presidents, is something that is missing from the version of history that is popular today. There was even, at the time, a suggestion that Hoover would run as a Democrat on a ticket with Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man who would replace him in 1932.
Pietrusza also writes about the great social issues of the day and how they impacted the Presidential election. Prohibition, once the cause of religious leaders and gadflys, had become so popular that even previously "wet" politicians felt compelled to support it and, in Harding's case, vote for the 18th Amendment in the Senate. Women's suffrage, which had been largely ignored by the Wilson Administration, picked up steam; but nobody really knew how it might affect the 1920 election. And, of course, race was an issue. Not just in the South but everywhere and, at one point, a crackpot Ohio college professor, aided by state Democrats, published several anonymous tracts claiming that Harding was 1/8th negro.
There are other stories throughout the book that bring the era to life. William Howard Taft meeting his old friend and rival Theodore Roosevelt in a Chicago hotel dining room and then crying publicly at TR's funeral in 1919. Eugene Debs sitting in an Atlanta Federal Prison while running what would prove to be the last Socialist Party Presidential campaign. Warren Harding having at least two affairs prior to running for office, one of which resulted in a child, and Franklin Roosevelt doing the same including one incident that resulted in the woman in question sailing to Europe, never to return.
I should also mention Calvin Coolidge. Silent Cal has generally been derided and dismissed by historians, but this books brings him to life and shows him to be a decent, honorable, hard-working man of the people.
There's more, of course, but you get the idea. This book is well-written, well-researched (except for a few mis-statements that clearly were missed by the editor such as when the 17th Amendment is mistakenly referred to as the 16th Amendment) and flows much faster than its 438 pages might indicate. It's well worth the time of anyone interested in American political history.
Imagine this: a never popular President is coming to the end of his second term. The public is tired of the bad economy, tired his failed war policies and tired of him.
In November, the incumbant's party is handed a decisive defeat and loses the presidency and along with it Congress.
Though to be sure, the two elections have many differences, what unifies them...apart from the forgoing...is the sense of drama they had and the ardent and very modern way in which they were fought.
As promised, 1920 is the story of six presidents: Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, it's also the story of so much more.
But first...as to the presidents...
On Teddy Roosevelt, this book makes the important point that but for his death, Teddy Roosevelt probably would have won the election of 1920. As already indicated, Wilson was thoroughly detested by the public and the Repulican's were the seeming and sure winners. Though TR had squandered some of his party good will by bringing about a Replubican defeat in 1912 (TR bolted from the Republicans to head up an independent party ticket referred to as the Progressives...which actually outpolled the Republicans that year), TR was more than ready for a comeback. He'd mended his fences and seemed certain to be the standard bearer but for his sudden demise in 1919.
As to Woodrow Wilson, this book touched on some important Wilson ground like the fact that Wilson initially opposed women's suffrage (he argued that they were by dint of gender subject to snap judgments), he resegregated the military (which was originally desegregated under Lincoln and had to be re-desegregated under Harry Truman), and he also pushed a League of Nations which would have ostensibly placed American military forces under the command of an international organization (and an ineffectual one at that too). Amazingly, Wilson actually wanted a third term in 1920. Not so amazingly, he only garnered two delegate votes in some forty four ballots at that year's Democratic convention.
On Warren Harding, this book did a lot to rehabilitate the image of President who's suffered under history. Though by no means was Harding ever a great president, at least he was never guilty of the intentional wrong his predecessor did. And interestingly enough, Harding probably would have agreed with much of the his contemporary criticism like of his bad appointment of cronies whose corruption caused the Teapot Dome scandal.
As to Calvin Coolidge, this book demonstrated that for all his bad appointments, Coolidge as vice president was not a bad Harding administration official. And for all the verbosity in politics...both then and now...it was hard not to like at least Coolidge's terse verbiage. One example cited in this book was where Coolidge observed that in running the Senate one had to understand "The Senate has one rule which is that is does whatever it wants whenever it wants with basically no exceptions." Interestingly, the author didn't note another couple Coolidge favorites like when he was told by a reporter that the reporter would win a bet if he got Coolidge to say more than two words to which Coolidge replied: "You lose" and also this one:
Coolidge and his wife were touring the same farm separately when someone told Mrs. Coolidge that a hen copulates some two thousand times a day. She said: "Tell Mr. Coolidge that." When informed, the President asked: "Same hen every time?" to which he was told no, that it was with a different hen every time.
"Tell Mrs. Coolidge that" he said.
On Herbert Hoover, this book noted that until 1920, neither party was certain whose nomination he'd be seeking. In fact, Hoover won more votes in Democratic contests that year (he carried New Hampshire) than he did in the Republican party. Also, very interestingly, owing to the uncertainty of which party he was in, Hoover was even approached with the idea of a Hoover-Roosevelt candidacy. Imagine how different history would've been if he'd said yes instead of no to that.
Finally, as to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the book noted the obvious. In 1920, FDR's resume was pretty short: he'd been a New York state senator, a defeated candidate for the NY Democratic Senatorial nomination in 1914, and his only executive post was as Woodrow Wilson's ASSISTANT Secretary of Navy. In short, he'd never even served as a full cabinet officer. But be that as it may, he still made a good appearance (even then he was charming and jubilant) and of course he had the Roosevelt name (which figured prominently in that year's 1920 Democratic nominee James Cox wanting him as his running mate).
Concerning the so much more, this book also discusses significant also rans from 1920 like William Jennings Bryan (the perenial Democratic nominee and loser), Al Smith (who would go on to become the first Catholic major party nominee from president) and Eugene Debs.
In 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920, Debs was the Socialist party candidate for president. Though ultimately quixotic, those Presidential bids helped ultimately inspire the progressive movement and contribute to the Democratic party's leftward movement.
All in all, this book is both great history and a great story.
This rather shallow, miscellaneously detailed - even to the point of tedium - book looks at the many flawed, mediocre individuals who vied, or were otherwise involved, for the 1920 Presidency - both Republicans and Democrats. Some details of their backgrounds are provided, but most important to the author are their personality quirks and shortcomings, the various antagonisms that existed among them, and, how they did or did not cope with political forces, including the media. The title of the book well overstates the prominence of those involved in the election of 1920. The two actual presidents exerted minimal influence on the process: Theodore Roosevelt died well before the conventions and Woodrow Wilson, after suffering several strokes, was bed-ridden during the entire election cycle. The others, FDR, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Warren Harding were relatively unimportant politicians at the time and were more or less dragged along by the course of events.
Both party nominating conventions and the election are subject to detail overkill by the author: all manner of meetings with every attendee noted, whose standing is now up or down, manipulative strategies and deals of the moment, statistics of trips taken and speeches made, etc. The winners at those conventions, Republican Warren Harding and Democrat James Cox were both second-rate, second-tier candidates. It is only partially clear as to why Republican front-runners Leonard Wood and Frank Lowden and, to some extent, Democratic leaders William McAdoo and A. Mitchell Palmer faded so badly. The author's supplying of the vote totals of each round of balloting, while unnecessary, does explicitly show the change of fortunes.
The author's focus on political personalities and considerations relegates the many important issues in the post WWI period to mostly cursory and fragmented treatment, such as the tough economic times with high inflation and unemployment, the flagrant suppression of the labor movement and dissent in general, that is, the Red Scare, and Pres. Woodrow Wilson's incessant, insistent pushing of the League of Nations - part of his plan for the settlement of the War. Also, both prohibition and women's suffrage, with an emphasis on political maneuvering, receive some attention.
An example of the author's failure to provide context for issues is his handling of the so-called labor question. While the author does acknowledge Eugene Debs, the imprisoned socialist candidate for president and labor leader, as a champion of the working class, he in no way captures the decades-long labor-capital discord in American industries. Interestingly enough, the Wilson administration's mandate that employee work councils be established within places of work [not mentioned by the author] to ensure labor peace was consistent with his call for "making the world safe for democracy." However, after the War employers and government turned on striking workers with a vengeance capped by the excesses of AG Mitchell Palmer in his indiscriminate roundup of militants and the summary deportation of several hundred of them. While acknowledging Palmer's excesses, the author, ignoring decades-long labor grievances, basically subscribes to the notion of radical, out-of-control workers needing to be curtailed.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the author's detailing of the strange, obsessive, and contradictory personality of Wilson. He trusted no one and was quick to take offence, cutting off friends at the merest hint of a sleight or differences in policy. His inability to relate to others is seen in his tendency to lecture others in most any gathering. His progressivism was at best a thin veneer scarcely concealing his prejudices over race, labor, women's rights, etc. His insistence on personally conducting treaty negotiations in France is a perfect example of his compulsiveness. But his most egregious act was to leave the nation essentially leaderless during the last year of his presidency as a result of his medical condition by creating a façade of being alert and in charge.
While the book is a chore to complete and ignores many important topics, it is not without some interest. The process for selecting presidential candidates is on full display and is not particularly encouraging. Harding was a nonentity whose agenda was merely to return the nation to "normalcy" - a vague notion at best. Cox never developed a coherent stance concerning Wilson's policies or on such matters as Prohibition. Unsurprisingly, Harding's administration was essentially a disaster, with several officials being convicted of crimes of corruption.
The book surely reaches a low point in its considerable discussion of a crackpot professor's claims that Harding was of mixed race. That subject could have easily been dismissed in a paragraph, not an entire chapter. Another distraction about the book is the author's tendency to subscribe to jargon of the day, such as "irreconcilables", "reservationists", "stand-patters", and the like, with insufficient explanations provided. At least labeling a candidate as a "wet" or a "dry" is readily understandable.
1920 is not an unimportant year in U.S. history. The unsatisfactory process for selecting a president that year is bothersome, but ranks well below the willingness of the American establishment to stomp all over the rights of those with whom they disagreed or did not like. That is the story of 1920 that the author does not emphasize. The jailing of individuals under the Alien and Seditions Acts enacted after the War started is dreadful commentary on American justice. The incarceration of Debs has to be one of the low points in American jurisprudence. It would take fifteen years and the Great Depression for the labor movement to rebound from its suppression after WWI. And the tolerance for Jim Crow in the South and the evisceration of the rights of a huge group of people is simple unconscionable in a nation that claims to respect freedom. This huge regime of suppression transcends the machinations of elites in selecting uninspiring candidates for president in importance.
I often wonder where odd phrases originate. "Presidential timber", which is used by many folks in this book obviously means that they believe a certain person is capable of being president. That doesn't, however, explain the root of the phrase, which to me sounds awfully silly. Anyway, this is an extremely well-written book, and gives us history in a most agreeable manner, not bogging the reader down with pedantic observations or footnote-necessary passages. The author tells his story in a breezy style, and the reader learns quite a bit about the men who were, or sought to be, presdient in the early part of the 20th century. There were some shocks for me: I knew that FDR had a "girlfriend" with him when he died, but I never knew he was a serial philanderer from his youth. The fact that his mistress had a bedroom right next to his in the White House blew my mind! Now I know why FDR is Bill Clinton's favorite president. Read this book, and you will learn a lot about politics 100 years ago, and will gain a new admination for Calvin Coolidge, who really is the example of honesty and upright living, both in and out of the presidency.
on September 10, 2009
I'll make this short, since you can read the long reviews elsewhere. I read a lot of history books and this is excellent; it takes what ought to be a drab subject and makes it lively and interesting. There's a premium on personality without sacrificing events and facts. The writing is clear and witty. This is my first book by this author--I'll definitely be reading more.
on May 10, 2009
This informative look at the USA in 1920 is clearly worth your time. Author David Pietrusza provides a broad picture of the USA as it was trading in its horses for automobiles, and as victory in the World War (One) was followed by strikes, race riots, inflation and joblessness. As the author shows, Woodrow Wilson had been a successful President through 1918, then all but collapsed via arrogance, poor health (he suffered a stroke), plus the nation's increasing isolationism. Pietrusza examines the era's major poltical figures, including the late Theodore Roosevelt, William McAdoo, Eugene Debs (in federal prison), Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, etc. Then we see how two Ohio darkhorses Warren G. Harding (Republican) and James Cox (Democratic) triumphed at their party conventions. In the fall campaign the amiable, womanizing Harding successfully wooed voters by promising a return to normalcy, keeping Republicans united with his non-stand on the League of Nations. The stern Cox modestly supported the League, and wore himself ragged trying to stem the coming GOP landslide (Harding won 60-34%). The author finishes with a brief look at the inept Harding Presidency, plus those of his successors Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
This readable book provides a broad look at the USA in an era of political witch-hunts (Palmer raids), domestic disturbances, and increasing isolationism. I'd have liked a bit more detail in spots, but overall this is a solid and winning effort.
on March 10, 2007
Actually, this book tells the story of seven presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Pietruzsa tells an entertaining story about each of them, and how their lives intersected in the 1920 presidential election. Yet somehow Harding emerges as the most interesting character in a story filled with outsized personalities. Harding is the least likely of these presidents (and perhaps of any American president), lacking the family heritage, education, and privileges that most of the others enjoyed. This is a book about 1920, after all, so it is probably right that Harding stands out in the year of his election. Harding was an improbable Republican nominee, but Pietrusza hints that Harding had an Eisenhoweresque ability to downplay his abilities when he was actually fully in control of what was happening. That skill could have served him well as President, except that his friends betrayed him (though that is a story for another book). At the same time, Harding was unimaginably reckless in his personal life, fathering children and pursuing affairs which would likely doom any serious presidential candidate today. We can only hope that our campaigning and electoral processes have improved in the past four score and seven years.
on October 22, 2011
This is my first read of any Pietrusza book, but I have already purchased "1960" ... and now "1948" is next on my list. Pietrusza's writing style brings distant history to life in a way that is both informative and engaging. Warren Harding's election in 1920 yielded one of our more forgettable presidents, in a year when both party conventions had to go to multiple ballots to nominate their candidate, only to settle in both cases on dark horse compromises. Nonetheless, so many big names were very active in this presidential election, and for a lover of presidential history such as myself, this book gives up so many back stories about all of the figures associated with this election that it's hard to put down.
This is the time when the Progressive Era of reform was coming to an end, and this election would do much to put an end to those reforms and end a time of change that was beneficial for working class Americans. Overseas, the Bolsheviks had overthrown the Czar, and there were many fears of socialists during this time in the US. Reform came to be associated with "socialism." While we may not have the same fears about Communism overrunning America today, we hold on to that fear of change, and so many Americans still equate social change and social programming with "socialism." The reader will find many parallels between the themes of the 1920 election and our recent history.
There are so many interesting tidbits of information in "1920," including the possibility that Barack Obama is NOT our first African-American president. Or that the possibility of a Hoover-FDR ticket for the Democratic Party was seen by some as the best possibility for the Dems winning that election, twelve years before the two of them would face off in a momentous presidential election with such opposing views, in the midst of the Great Depression. And, of course, you read about just how ill Woodrow Wilson was (following his strokes) ... and yet he was still running the country in the years immediately following World War I, and was still angling for a nomination to a third term in the White House. Some believed that his wife was pulling his strings and that she was the person really making the presidential decisions in his final years in office. There is a also a chapter on Eugene V. Debs that explains the force of his involvement in presidential politics during those years, and how he and others brought Socialist candidates to national tickets and made them a viable force in American politics.
Pietrusza's book is dense with information, but is always highly readable and very accessible. I'm looking forward to the next volume in what is now a trilogy about 20th century presidential politics