1920

The Year of the Six Presidents

[Amazon Link]

I got this book via UNH Interlibrary Loan (thanks, Wesleyan U!) because (back in July) Jonah Goldberg did a couple episodes of his Remnant podcast with the author, David Pietrusza. It sounded interesting, so…

And it turns out the book isn't exactly fresh: it's from 2007. But he's writing about 1920 and that era, and I suppose that subject hasn't changed much since 2007. As we're coming up on the centennial of that year:

Pietrusza's main topic is the 1920 presidential election, but it ranges wide beyond that, as it discusses the issues and personalities that made the year so memorable. The subtitle is "The Year of the Six Presidents", and they are:

  • Woodrow Wilson, the incumbent. Despite being enfeebled and ill, he entertained fantasies of running for a third term, despite his unpopularity in the country and in his own party. Nobody seemed to take him seriously on this.

  • Teddy Roosevelt. Very popular, despite having torpedoed his party's chances in 1912 by running on the "Progressive" ticket. Bad luck, though: he died of a blood clot in his lungs in 1919. (President Wilson's reaction to the report of TR's death was apparently ghoulish. Not a nice guy was Woody.)

  • Herbert Hoover. Very popular due to his feats in relieving famine abroad and at home. As with Eisenhower, it wasn't exactly clear what his politics were, even his party was nebulous. In 1920, though, his desire for the presidency was low, and he managed only 5.5 votes for the nomination on the first ballot at the GOP convention. (He went on to be Harding's Secretary of Commerce, and brought us dreadful regulation of the radio spectrum.)

  • Warren Harding, the eventual winner. He backed into the GOP nomination on the tenth ballot, mainly by being someone that nobody especially hated (unlike contenders Leonard Wood, Hiram Johnson, Frank Lowden, et. al.). As we know, Harding had an, um, colorful personal life. And there's a great story about his wife throwing a piano stool at his mistress.

  • Calvin Coolidge, nominated for veep, and assuming the presidency in 1923 on Harding's death. Probably the best one of the six, but that's me.

  • And Franklin D. Roosevelt, who the Democrats nominated to run on the doomed ticket with presidential nominee James M. Cox. Another "colorful" character, he was dynamic, charismatic, unfaithful, dishonest,… Pretty much the whole deal

Pietrusza has an eye for good anecdotes, and details the issues of the day: League of Nations, women's suffrage, suppression of dissent, Navy scandals in Newport RI and Portsmouth NH (!), Sacco and Vanzetti, etc. There was even a "birther"-style controversy, as Harding was alleged to have an African-American ancestor in his family tree somewhere.

Various kind of socialism were in vogue, and the adventures of Eugene V. Debs are chronicled. A big admirer of the newly-formed Soviet Union, he made Bernie Sanders look like Ronald Reagan! Well, not quite, but…

One quibble: the final section of the book contains a "whatever happened to" concerning the dramatis personae appearing in the text. There's an intriguing entry for Alexandra Carlisle Pfeiffer. Problem: if you want to know what she did, the index won't help you. (I can tell from her Wikipedia entry that she seconded the nomination of Calvin Coolidge for vice president at the GOP convention, but I'm not sure that's in the book.)