Monday, May 20, 2013

1790s: Jefferson

A temporary break from my chronological exercise, I read Jon Meacham's new biography of the third president, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.

The author builds upon a theme of Jefferson's attempt to balance being an ideal visionary and a pragmatic politician.  This provides a format for explaining the inconsistencies contradictions in Jefferson's words and actions over time, especially from today's perspective.  While overly simple, it is a fair approach to Jefferson, who was a key player in over many years of dynamic change.  In fact, this same theme is probably applicable to most people who were influential or in power over any length of time in those eras--from Washington, to Adams, to Hamilton, and even later with figures such as Andrew Jackson (one of Meacham's other biographical subjects.)

The history lessons of elementary and high school do not capture the fragility of the country after the revolution, and can even give a sense of ultimate American destiny during the Colonial era.  The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are amazing documents that emerged and unified philosophies for building a nation, but the divide in opinion for how to apply them to actual governing was much wider and more fundamental than today.  Jefferson was able to lead the country forward during this time, adapting and changing as the situation warranted.  Comparing him with the other presidential biographies and political histories that followed over the next 100 years, he certainly is deserving his legendary status for his endurance and impact across eras.  And this was possible because of this balance of strong ideals and pragmatic action at a time that required someone with this possibility.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

1920s: Presidents of the '20s--Hoover

History 101 teaches that Herbert Hoover was one of the biggest failures as President, with the term "Hooverville" probably a correct answer on a test in every high school history class.  But aside from his presiding over the economy's crash and sudden plummeting into depression (and as a song in the musical "Annie"), I did not know much about him.  In fact, he is most known in contrast with FDR, who used unprecedented actions to try to reverse the slide.

As Hoover actually took over from Calvin Coolidge at the beginning of 1930, after the stock market crash, I read William Leuchtenburg's short biography to learn more about the Hoover of the 1920s, and how the nation would choose someone destined for infamy.  Was he simply the obvious safe answer to continue the string of Republican administrations?  I was surprised the answer was no. 

Harding was the transition from Wilsonian Democrats to Republican governments at the beginning of the 1920s and Coolidge was the accidental hands-off administrator that let the decade roar.  Harding only had minimal prior experience in Washington and his strategy was to offend no one.  Coolidge had even less experience and used a strategy of saying nothing.  And both were clearly in the conservative camps.  In contrast, by the time Hoover was the nominee at the end of the decade, he was a dynamo, a strong personality, known for taking strong actions, offending many, and not fitting neatly into the political parties.

The first part of Hoover's public career reminded me a lot of Robert Moses, the infamous "Power Broker" (and subject of Robert Caro's great biography), who at this time was just getting started in his role as the great mastermind and behind the scenes engineer of New York City who consolidated and wielded power to transform the city from a base of seemingly minor appointed positions.  While not elected, as head of the Food Administration under Wilson and then as Commerce Secretary for Harding and Coolidge, Hoover consolidated power and responsibility, creating mini empires out of previously lower level administration positions.  He had tremendous ego and ambition and defended his actions in the name of public good.  I don't know when the term was first used for a powerful person in our government, but his description as a Czar seems very appropriate.

Upon review it is not surprising that Hoover's aggressive style did not fit neatly into characteristic Republican profile (either conservative or progressive), yet his self-identified conservativeness and open criticism of government's abilities versus individual's did not put him in the Democratic camp.  So for ten years he existed as a powerful force and contrasting style within the relatively weak Republican administrations.  At the end of Coolidge's reign he cited the inevitability of Herbert Hoover as one reason not to pursue an additional term.  Is this a common trend in history, that when top leadership is weak that counter personality forces will emerge?  And the inverse, when leadership is strong that it is difficult for other strong players to develop?  Surely there must be other examples.

The 1920s America was one of heroes.  The public adored Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Henry Ford and others that symbolized the country's new position of leadership on the world stage and progression into the modern world through mighty feats.  With no heroes in the White House, Hoover was probably the closest fit for that role within the government with his famous actions to feed Europe and save food during the War and prominent roles afterward.  Plus his upbringing and early life success was straight out of a Horatio Alger story. His pre-presidential stature is largely forgotten today.

Moving to the next decade the two big questions are: Although he didn't cause the Great Depression did he make it worse?  And, if he did not inherit a crumbling economy, could Hoover have been a good or even great president?

The short answer to the first question is: probably.  While he could not have prevented the collapse, and it would have happened to anyone in his seat, he did not take the right actions to alleviate the situation.  In his defense, throughout the 1920s and in the 1929 election, there were no competing voices warning of impending depression and the need for preventative action.  Much of today's economic understanding and strategies were not known at the time.  However his attitude to downplay the severity, focus on adding tariffs, and limiting relief among other actions only exacerbated things and at a minimum caused the public to lose faith in government at a time it was most needed.  While what he did and didn't do was not necessarily inconsistent with common thinking at the time, it is exposed by the urgent and bold new actions taken by Roosevelt when he takes over.

As for his chance for success sans the collapse, Leuchtenburg argues that it still would have been slim.  He concludes that Hoover's engineering czar style of operating was not compatible with the office of the President.  He didn't have the ability to navigate the politics that are necessary for accomplishments in Washington.  And because he didn't fit well within the conservative or progressive groups within the party he did not have a core base of support.  While he may have been elected to a second term simply because he was an incumbent Republican in that era, he would not have accomplished much.  (Funny aside: as I was finishing the book I read Scott Adams of Dilbert fame asking if we should have engineers run the government.)

Alas, Herbert Hoover is cemented in history along with the legacies of Martin Van Buren, James Buchanon, U.S. Grant, and Grover Cleveland who presided over economic Depressions and effectively sat on their hands.

Leuchtenburg's book is good for this series.  He does not overly defend his subject and writes a compelling narrative.  I really enjoyed the years leading up to the White House.  I did expect the author to be building a case that Hoover has been given a raw deal by history because of the success and personality of the mining executive and Secretary. If I had stopped there the book would get five stars and Herbert Hoover would be my new favorite president.  But the latter half of the book is a less gripping story and includes all of the expected descriptions of his fall that do not need much analysis.  All in all, 4/5 stars for an unexpected good read.

Going into the three consecutive biographies, I expected Harding to be the most interesting book, followed by Hoover and then Coolidge.  How wrong I was. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

1920s: Presidents of the '20s--Coolidge

Before reading the biographies of Harding, Coolidge, Hoover I had only a characterization-level understanding of the three.  Together they were the three Republicans that let the good times roll in the 1920s and irresponsibly set up the stock market crash and the Great Depression.  Individually they were the corrupt womanizer, the silent one, and Mr. Hooverville.

Of the three, Coolidge had the longest tenure in the White House and was truly the one that oversaw the decade and probably contributed the most, or at least had the opportunity to contribute the most, to the state of the country and the economy.  The "Silent Cal" image was neither unfair nor an accident.  Although it was probably a one-time anomaly for a president, only possible for vice president who assumed office when the president died.  And it is unlikely that today someone with his lack of strong personality could even be elected as a VP.  It was also a match of an economy naturally firing on all cylinders that reinforced his laissez-faire style.

David Greenberg's book is one of the better ones I have read from the President's series, showing again that sometimes the better story and interesting analysis comes from the less obvious subjects.  In this case, while Coolidge's personality was quiet and his actions were few, he did have six years in office compared to his more flamboyant predecessor who only had two years, and those six years happened to be a time of prominent social and economic change in the country.  The author also did not spend too much of the book passionately arguing that his subject is misunderstood or underappreciated as authors in this series are too often tempted to do, although he does raise the questions of how to fairly evaluate Coolidge from the hindsight perspective of different eras.

The irony of his quiet personality is that he was the first president of the modern media age.  Greenburg shows how his administration, and Cal himself, were the first to really capitalize on the radio and news reels to spread his carefully crafted messages to the entire country.  I was amazed by the comparison that some of his speeches were broadcast to listening audiences in the tens of millions while it is estimated that Theodore Roosevelt reached no more than 13 million people with every speech he gave in his career combined.  Even if there was not much substance to his messages and positions, his image was carefully constructed and then protected by press secretaries and friends in publishing unlike any of his predecessors.  It seems ironic now that his dull and almost unimportant legacy was intentionally developed by Coolidge and his people.

Greenburg addresses the fairness of Coolidge's blame for the subsequent economic disaster.

"Any president surely would have failed to do all that was necessary to avert some serious trouble.  But Coolidge's naive faith in the gospel of productivity and the benevolence of business--as well as his excessive reliance on others to make his policies--deterred him even from asking the questions that might have mitigated the misfortune." (pg 150)

It is difficult to judge fairly from a position of hindsight, and maybe even more in this era that was so suddenly different than previous eras.  Unlike the disastrous lead up to the Civil War, there were not significant camps of people and emerging political parties warning of trouble and underlying fundamental problems.  I think it is very telling none the challengers he had, both within his party and from the other side, were arguing to slow down the economy or do anything economists later believed could have reduced the fall.  A few may have been better in the long run because they would have supported this position or that, but it is likely the 1920s would have roared regardless and it would still crash.

If history truly does repeat itself we could see other cases of economic blind spots, which is probably a fair description of the lack of attention on fundamental weaknesses in the 2000s that led to the housing and credit crisis.  Is the lesson that when everything appears to be going well no politicians want to be the ones suggesting otherwise?

I still plan to read the Herbert Hoover biography next, but then I want to pause on the 1920s as so much else was happening as the country was transitioning from 19th Century to the modern era, socially, commercially and economically.  I also want to explore more the question of economic knowledge--was it simply that the understanding of economics was not developed enough to understand what was happening and therefore leaders can be excused from not acting on knowledge and advice that didn't exist.  If that is so, then there is less excuses for repeating economic issues in the future.

I will give Greenburg's book 4/5 stars for making Coolidge readable.

(Read May 2012)

Friday, November 4, 2011

1920s: Presidents of the '20s--Harding

For my next assignment I decided to read consecutively the Times series biographies of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, treating them as one continuous Republican administration.

Up first is Warren Harding, longtime favorite of my father, who is a fan presidential history, because of all of the juicy tales of corruption and intrigue around his death. That is until he read this book.

Many of the authors in this series are fans or apologists for their subjects, as is the case with John Dean.  And I smile that they found a former member of the Nixon White House to write about the infamously corrupt Harding administration.  Throughout the book the author is making two basic arguments:

  1. Warren Harding's legacy has been unfairly, and incorrectly, tied to corruption.
  2. He was not one of the worst presidents in history, but in fact a very good one.

The case Dean makes against Harding being corrupt is actually very solid.  As scandals were breaking at the time he died a lot of colleagues and politicians had incentive to find a scapegoat and focus attention on him to protect themselves.  I had always learned that he was "one of the good old boys", but he actually was not a lifelong Washington politician, having only spent a few years in the Senate before his election.  So there was not a lot of deep relationships with people that would look to protect his legacy.  Also telling, is the media's lack of interest in truly investigating the stories of what happened.

It may have been independently published accounts that made the first or juiciest accusations of corruption, affairs, and even his being murdered by his wife.  While the major press and scholars may not have originated or spread these stories, they certainly did not look to correct the public record by the simple fact that his personal files sat untouched in a basement for forty years.

As for the case that his subject is an under-appreciated President, (the same argument most authors make in this series), Dean's argument is weaker.  At best, if you remove any stain from corrupt colleagues and assume Harding was innocent of any knowledge or involvement, you can say that his presidency was simply incomplete.  He did not live long enough to see a lot of his policies enacted.  His style of leadership in the Senate and campaign trail to "offend no one, make friends everywhere, bring together factions as the peacemaker" (p 52) didn't really translate to a strong leader in office.

At the end of the day, Harding was the transition from the Wilson years of Democratic control to the era of Republican leadership that contributed to the freewheeling 1920s, and eventually its later colossal collapse.   Along with Coolidge and Hoover I plan on reading other books on the decade of jazz, Prohibition, and economic growth built on margin.  I am curious to see how much these presidencies and their policies affected the changes in culture and an out of control economic engine.

Dean's book gets 3/5 stars for being a decent read and attempt at setting the record straight.

(Read October 2011)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

1910s: Early Auto Industry

Each Labor Day weekend I go to Auburn, Indiana for a classic car festival, including a trip to the Auburn Cord Dusenberg Museum that tells the story of automobile manufacturing in Indiana in the first decades of the Twentieth Century. I am always fascinated by the hundreds of small car companies that were founded by tinkering mechanics that added engines to carriages, or by an enterprising businessman to assemble and market autos made entirely from acquired parts.

These were true start up companies at the infancy stages of an industry, with the same as we are seeing today in technology. Many small companies enter the market with an incremental innovation or with access to a new piece of the market. Many of these companies quickly fail, but a few catch enough lightning for short-term success. Then consolidation begins, and access and control of capital becomes an equally important factor to pure innovation and operations.

Many of these pioneer automakers only produced a handful or even just one car under its own brand before being lost to history. The ones that have survived today, the Buick, Ford, Chevrolets, Chrysler, are the result of both a great vision and effort of their founders as much as pure fortune of being in the right place at the right time. Pelfrey's Billy, Alfred, and General Motors is a fascinating story of how two gentlemen had the right vision while being at the right place and time.

While other pioneers, especially Ford, were successful building scale from initial concepts, this story shows how Billy Durant's path to consolidate different brands being the first to create economies of capital gave GM the infrastructure and competitive advantage to quickly emerge as the early, dominant player in the industry. But GM's legacy was only solidified, the author argues, because Durant was succeeded by Alfred Sloan who tranformed Durant's conglomeration into a single-functioning company with economies of scale that could continue to compete and grow.

While even now we are seeing companies take a competitive advantage to grow to a dominant position and then later lose when it cannot adapt, the story of GM's early generations shows the rare company that is able to radically evolve. In recent years we have seen IBM reinvent itself after Microsoft's rise, and then Microsoft's struggle to change.

This book was great after reading the stories of the industrial revolution titans taking advantage of innovations and government trying to adapt to keep up with a rapidly changing country. The rise of the auto industry expands upon these trends resulting in stories of average born but industrious individuals competing and building national businesses. The true American story of the Twentieth Century was born.

Pelfry's book is a really fun read, 5/5 stars. It was written for a General Motors anniversary and maybe is a little too bias toward the company legacy, especially compared to Ford, but I didn't care here and the stories of the various characters and ventures were well researched and told.

(Read August 2011)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

1910s: WWI

I am not a big fan of military history, but I needed to read about World War I as it seemed to be glossed over in the shadow of World War II in history classes. It almost seems reduced to trivia answers: the Archduke Ferdinand, trench warfare, doughboys, the Red Baron, Treaty of Versailles. Maybe the fact that the US was late to enter the war and it was relatively brief and less painful than the Europeans' experience that it is almost overlooked in US history studies. Go to any large bookstore (while you can) and peruse the history and military aisles. There are rows and rows of Civil War and WWII books. Entire sections. And nestled in between you will probably find the obligatory account of the Spanish American War (most likely focusing on Teddy Roosevelt) and maybe a book or two about the Great War in Europe.

But what was the experience of the United States? Even if it was a short engagement the mobilization was massive compared to the somewhat recent conflict in Cuba. And the country was a very different place than when a previous generation raised arms in the Civil War. How did that happen? That is what I wanted to read about. With no compelling recent books I found The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I written in 1968 by Edward Coffman. The book is exactly as advertised in the title. It barely covers the European conflict prior to the American involvement and then focuses exclusively on the planning, mobilization, administration, and finally major battles.

The battle description in the latter part of the book were interesting from the perspective of the decision-making and communications challenges, however it did not capture the true experiences of the thousands that lived and died through the horrors of early modern warfare.

The first half of the book described a mobilization effort that is still almost unbelieveable. The United States had a very, very small standing army and the institutions and infrastructure were basically nonexistent, or relics of the Civil War. That includes people and knowledge. The conscription, training, feeding, clothing, and moving of more than a million men from a standstill is remarkable. Of course many had little to no training. Others used sticks instead of guns for practice until they reached the front. Tanks and airplanes were brand new technology that no one knew how to use and maintain, let alone to understand and coordinate optimal military strategies for them.

The infrastructure created, including the financing and industrial relations, will obviously be key to the country's ability to expand into a world power in the coming century, specifically its lead role in WWII. (Personal shout out to Mr. Bernard Baruch for his leadership in WWI as the most famous alum and namesake of my graduate school!) While the book stopped with the armistice, I want to know more how much the country was truly changed by this experience, how much infrastructure remained versus dismantled, and how the attitude of people changed as the soldiers returned to waving flags and bands with stories of the horror of a great war, all against a backdrop of a rapidly world and their country's position in that world was changing.

Coffman's book is a fine read. 3/5 stars. As mentioned the focus is exclusively on the American experience. While it is not a page turner, it is readable and appears to be thorough, with a good use of primary sources and accounts from multiple perspectives. Written in 1968, there are fleeting references to Vietnam and he anticipates World War II, often hinting at people who would later become prominent in that story.

(Read July 2011)

Friday, April 22, 2011

1910s: Taft Administration

I prefer to read biographies and presidential histories on the lesser-known presidents, focusing on specific events for the "big guys". Previous books on Monroe, Polk, Ben Harrison have been pleasant surprises as interesting lessons in politics, insights into a specific time, or just compelling stories. That was my expectation in choosing to read about William Howard Taft instead of Roosevelt or Wilson. My mistake.

Gould's book on Taft is well researched, positioned, and written, but he can only do so much with limited material. The fact is that not much happened during the Taft administration. He was Teddy's chosen successor, but nothing like him in ambition. A much more conservative Republican in both politics and style, his highlights were pushing legislation to tweak tariffs and most international relations issues were with the world powers of Mexico and Canada. Although his legacy shouldn't be hurt by the fact that a war didn't break out on his watch. But he also was not an adept politician, didn't surround himself with great people or look for advice when he should, essentially shooting himself in his foot. Arguably his rift with Roosevelt could have been avoided along with other blunders, which possibly could have resulted in a second term and Taft needing to deal with WWI. How history would have been different.

In the context of the times, Taft's administration does illustrate some of the trends. He approached the office more as a lawyer (or maybe judge), instituted some organization to the administration processes as were being implemented in industry and organizations across the country at the time as the scale of operations in an industrialized society required more organization. But this society required a lot more than just organization, and industrialization and urbanization were creating new problems for people seen in the past several books--from the steel laborers in Pittsburgh, to the Kansas farmers with economic imbalances with the railroads, to the disadvantaged immigrants in sprawling Chicago, to the local bank customer in New York. The trend toward progressivism was clearly taking hold, but the conservative side of the Republicans were essentially disregarding the inevitable. And as the party had been in power more or less for decades, in hindsight it is not surprising that the party leadership could be assumed by a master lawyer/admisitrator than necessarily a master politician and leader. If anything Roosevelt is the more surprising anomaly in personality.

As I said, Gould's book is fine. The material is incredibly dry, but he gets credit for presenting it in as compelling a manner as possible. I would read a book on a better topic by him. 2/5 stars.

(Read April 2011)