Thursday, March 24, 2016

1920 The Year of Six Presidents - David Pietrusza

Thus begins the next wave of books, so brace yourselves for that. But so far, almost none of the ones he's sent are about World War 2. You lucky pups!

Pietrusza is focused on the 1920 Presidential election, as it involved to some extent or another, six past or future Presidents. The initial six chapters are relatively brief biographies of each guy's life up to that point, and then he gets into the actual political wrangling at the conventions. How various hopefuls for the nominations ran their campaigns, who helped them, who didn't, mistakes that were made (a lot of those), on and on. Once he gets into that, he alternates chapters between the Republicans - who ultimately settled on Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge - and the Democrats - who picked James Cox and FDR. He also detours into Eugene Debs' peculiar presidential run from an Atlanta prison, the women's suffrage movement, and the difficulties African-Americans faced in trying to get either party to actually do anything to address the problems they were being confronted with (not to mention simply trouble being able to vote).

Pietrusza writes smoothly, and isn't above interjecting his own opinions or jabs at the people involved. He repeats that old story about Taft sending a letter back from the Philippines about taking a 20 mile horse ride and feeling good, and Elihu Root responding by asking how the horse fared (which I read in a book of President-related jokes and one-liners I got when I was in elementary school), and then makes a fat joke crack of his own about it a sentence later. But it keeps the book from being too depressing, since the crop of candidates is hardly inspiring. The big name guys were either recently dead (TR), or in failing health and mental state (Woodrow Wilson, who does not come off well in this book at all. Complete asshole.). Or, they just aren't ready for primetime (FDR hasn't quite mastered his ability to smooth talk his way out of trouble yet). Hoover can't connect with people, though no one doubts his intelligence, Coolidge is steady but uninspiring, and Harding gets the nomination because his whole strategy was to be as inoffensive to everyone as possible.

Trying to be nice and not hurt people if you can avoid it is hardly a bad philosophy to follow going through life, but I'm not sure it should be the determining factor for a Presidential nomination. But the American public didn't want to deal with world affairs any more, and Harding didn't care much about that either, and he said all the right things, and he won. The campaigns of Harding and Cox, and Harding's election are almost an afterthought in the book, but Pietrusza hadn't bothered to disguise the fact the Democrats were a hopeless mess, because they tied their fates to Wilson's League of Nations, and it dragged them straight to the bottom of the ocean. Plus, you know, Warren G. Harding is one of the six presidents he's talking about, not James Cox, so the result was already known.

'The gathering, or rather series of gatherings - for the participants came and went at will, with no one really presiding (though Lodge was its guiding spirit) - focused not so much on selecting a candidate but on eliminating them one by one. Lowden and Wood had killed each other off. Johnson and La Follette were simply impossible. Borah wasn't any better. Lodge and Philander Knox were too old. Lodge couldn't stand Coolidge. Hoover wasn't even a Republican; Johnson and the Old Guard would bolt if Hoover were nominated. Watson was too conservative. Pritchard, Sutherland, and Poindexter were jokes. The unions hated Governor Allen. Sproul, Knox, and Coolidge hailed from states that were going Republican anyway. Colonel Harvey wanted National Chairman Will Hays, but hays had never held public office, and, unless you were a general, the presidency usually wasn't an entry-level position.

That, Lodge pointed out, left you with Warren Harding.'

No comments: