Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Review

Over the past couple of weeks I have read two books about historical presidential elections. The first is Lynn Hudson Parson's The Birth of Modern Politics and the second is James Chace's 1912. A first I thought the books might be a little boring but instead I found both of them very readable and enjoyable. If anything, I wanted them to go into even more depth.

What I found most interesting about both books is m=how much the issues is the campaign of 1828 and 1912 parallel current issues. In 1828 one of the major issues was banking and specifically, the 2nd Bank of the United States. The 1912 election centered on the best way to rein a corporate sector that had run amuck. The parallels between those elections and the current political debates over regulating the financial sector and Wall Street were fascinating. It is clear that almost since the earliest days of the republic, the idea of effectively dealing with banks and large corporations has a long history of political viability in our elections. It is alao worth noting that both victors campaigned in opposition banks and big business and then governed in a manner closely aligned with their campaign promises. Populism, even if co-opted, has a long history of being politically successful.

It is also true that the big issues of the American political debate have not changed much over the years. The questions of the size and role of government dominated the eras covered by both books. In 1828 the question was on using government money on internal improvements and in 1912 the debate centered on the regulatory role of the federal government. While it is clear that our political systems has made progress, it has done so within defined limits of the American political system. I am not sure if this is a good thing or not.

What both books point out is that if you are unwilling to fight and defend your beliefs in the political arena then you don't deserve to be there. John Quincy Adams had a defensible record as President but his failure to use the leverage of his office to build political support ensured his defeat. William Howard Taft is a little different case. He never wanted to be, and never enjoyed being, the President; his life's dream was to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This lack of desire when coupled with his distress over a very public rupture with Theodore Roosevelt led Taft to not fight very hard to remain as President.

I once heard someone say that "history does not repeat but it rhymes." If that is indeed the case then both of these books provide a good basic understanding of where our country's politics have come from and what we can learn from our past when it rhymes with our current situation.

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