Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #78: 1920, The Year of Six Presidents
We’re coming up on 2020, and it’s instructive to consider that years ending in zero have provided some of the most momentous presidential elections in American history.
2000: Bush v Gore and the opening act of endless war and unsustainable tax cuts for the wealthy
1980: The Rise of Reagan and the normalization of the poisonous supply-side ideology that enabled him
1960: JFK v Nixon and the bilious marriage of politics and television
1940: FDR’s unprecedented election to a third term
1900: The re-election of McKinley but more importantly the election of his VP, a young dude named Teddy
1860: Abraham Lincoln. Nuf ‘ced.
1800: Adams v Jefferson, the first contested campaign for the top slot in American history and boy, was it contested
I skipped 1920 in the above list because that was the subject of Pietrusza’s book pictured here. I enjoy Pietrusza’s style of history, a single year snapshot that captures, like a fly in amber, the personalities and issues of the time. His 1960 and 1948 efforts are similarly edifying and entertaining, but his 1920 treatment is my favorite. It’s an under-explored time in American history, when as a people we grew fatigued of saving the world with Wilsonian zeal and decided to have some fun and get rich instead. It was a midlife crisis in which we turned a blind eye to Jim Crow and took a break from the wearying effort to rein in our corporate excesses and improve the lot of our most vulnerable neighbors. So we elected Warren Harding, a dissipated womanizer who looked and talked like a president but brought no intellectual curiosity or executive talent to the job, resulting in the most corrupt administration Washington had seen since Grant and would not see again until, well, now. Trump is a lot like Harding.
Pietrusza calls it the year of six presidents. Some, like Wilson and Roosevelt, had a greater impact by their absence. Some, like FDR and Hoover, loom large for their future contributions. Harding and Coolidge were the present, the personification of retrenchment and dilatory negligence while the nation careened toward economic disaster. It’s a great read, fun and brisk and pregnant with lessons for today.