03
Jul
12

Thoughts on a Book: 1920 The Year of the Six Presidents

The presidential election of 1920 was among the most dramatic ever. Six once-and-future presidents – Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt – jockeyed for the White House. With voters ultimately choosing between Wilson’ League of Nations and Harding’s front-porch isolationism, the 1920 shaped modern America.

Women won the vote. Republicans outspent Democrats by 4 to 1, as voters witnessed the first extensive newsreel coverage, modern campaign advertising, and results broadcast on radio. America had become an urban nation: automobiles, mass production, chain stores, and easy credit transformed the economy. 1920 paints a vivid portrait of America, beset by the Red Scare, jailed dissidents, Prohibition, smoke-filled rooms, bomb-throwing terrorists, and the Klan, gingerly crossing modernity’s threshold.

AUTHOR: DAVID PIETRUSZA

David Pietrusza has written or edited more than thirty books. His previous book, Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series, was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award in the Best Fact Crime category. An expert on the 1920s, Pietrusza has served on the Board of Directors of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation and lives in upstate New York.

  1. Crackling fun is not the usual description most people use for historical accounts but David Pietrusza is not most historians. He sure does like the 1920s and presidential campaigns. In this book, he was able to do both. Interestingly, the 1920 U.S. election features a cast never before seen in politics. Six men including incumbent President Woodrow Wilson, former President Theodore Roosevelt and future Presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt figured in the electoral contest. It is not so much about the election itself but the men who, for better or worse, would shape the beginnings of modern America.
  2. Having read 1948: The Improbable Victory of Harry Truman and the Year that Transformed America, I have become acquainted with Pietrusza. He delightfully combines the personal, the social and the political threads with heaping of humor. 1920 is no exception and it helps a lot a number of the characters involved are quite entertaining. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore, provides a number of memorable zingers throughout the campaign. (On finding out the extra-marital affairs of his cousin Franklin: “He deserves it. He’s married to Eleanor.” Nan Britton, the not-so-discreet mistress of Harding, is introduced as an infatuated teenager scribbling “Warren Gamaliel Harding” on the margins of her notebook. Infatuation turns into full-blown affair. She reminds me of Michelle Williams’ character in Dick who had a serious crush on – of all presidents – Richard Nixon. Fortunately, Nixon is too busy covering things up to reciprocate the admiration.
  3. But Warren Gamaliel Harding reciprocates female admiration. The eventual winner is quite the Lothario that right after the ballots have been counted, he met with his mistress a few blocks from his home. In her memoirs, Britton wrote, “After affectionate greetings, I exclaimed softly, ‘Oh, Sweetheart, isn’t it wonderful that you are president.’ He held me close, kissing me over and over again.” Classy. Harding should thank high heavens tabloid journalism and social media were light years away during his time because his candidacy would have been struck down immediately because of his extra-curricular affairs.
  4. Race and gender played huge roles in the 1920 presidential elections. The Blacks are still searching for equal opportunities but with segregation still rearing its ugly end, their search remained futile. Most of the candidates, except Coolidge were hemming and hawing on the issue. To make matters worse, some of the Black leaders are not right in the head. Yes, Mosiah Marcus Garvey, going back to Africa and declaring yourself king of the continent is not a good idea. Pietrusza concluded his chapter on the Blacks, “The only thing that could be worse was if the next president of United States was black.” Times do change. Equally exciting is the fight of the suffragettes. It came to an end when twenty-six year-old Republican Representative Harry T. Burn – supposedly solid anti – voted to pass the Nineteenth Amendment. Reading a letter from his mother to explain his surprise vote, “Dear Son: Hurrah and vote for suffrage! I noticed some of the speeches against. I have been watching to see how you stood but have noticed anything. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.” Mrs. Febb Burn, bless her soul for raising an obedient son!
  5. The six presidents cannot be more different from one another. Wilson is a cold stubborn broken man still pushing for his League of Nations despite opposition from both the House and the Senate. Harding is an unremarkable politician and a womanizer but patient enough to implode to capture the Republican nomination. Theodore Roosevelt is a one of a kind former president who seems unfamiliar with the term retirement. Coolidge is a good man who does not cling to power when he felt he has lost his will to serve when his son died. Hoover is also a good man but his presidency proved disastrous when the Great Engineer faced the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt is ambitious and not even polio can stop him. The man unable to stand up unaided told his people the only thing they need to fear is fear itself before leading them out of an economic depression. The presidency either strengthens or breaks men. Some pass and some fail the test. After all, as Hoover puts it, “Democracy is a harsh employer.”
RATING: A-
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