I very much enjoy the type of films that fill the entire screen with an epic tale of people and places that move an audience. The type of film that is sweeping and majestic and requires a large cast to tell the story.
And I like my history books to convey that same feeling.
When I started “1920: The Year Of The Six Presidents” by David Pietrusza it was to read about an election that was far removed from the one that dominates our news today. An election where large historical figures dominated the stage and commanded attention. Some received attention for being highly incompetent and self-serving, while others are noted for being true leaders and national figures to be reckoned with.
The book opens thirteen months before the 1920 election with President Wilson collapsing in his bathroom as the result of a massive stroke. The opening line reads quite bluntly.
The President of the United States lay bleeding on the bathroom floor.
From there Pietrusza weaves the narrative of the powerful power brokers, or those who thought they were, into a fast paced highly readable book. Taking the reader on board the ship that traveled to Europe with President Wilson along with his dreams for the League of Nations, or sitting us next to Eugene Debs in an Atlanta jail cell, we are privy to the grit and humor that made the 1920 election one that still resonates with history buffs. With men who once held power and hope to do so again, or future residents of the White House, Pietrusza examines the connections with the names that dominated the headlines.
There is just enough factual gossip interwoven with those headlines to make any reader pleased to have this book in their hands. As such, I am reminded again while reading of Warren Harding that the GOP has little to preach about when it comes to Bill Clinton. In fact Pietrusza labels Harding as a ‘serial adulterer’, and that is about as kind as one can make it.
Some might wonder why in the midst of an exciting election I would chose such a book to read. Even with all the imperfections and shortcomings that the cast of characters in “1920” possess, the touch of time makes them now more approachable and understandable. We have the long lens of history to assess their steps and gauge if they were wise or deficient in the way they used their time on the national stage. It will be decades before a book of this type will be written about 2008.
If you are searching for a book will transport you back in time to when the first national election returns were broadcast on radio, then this book is for you.