THE FORGOTTEN MAN

The Forgotten Man is a sweeping title for a book about The Great Depression.  Historian Amity  Shlaes book was published just one year before The Great Recession of 2008 .  Prescient indeed!

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Who is the forgotten man of The Great Depression?  The  Wall Street tycoon,  the homeless, the apple vendor, the WPA laborer, or the woman in the most famous photograph of the period by Dorothy Lange titled Migrant Mother?  In many respects the answer lies with none of the aforementioned.  Shlaes makes the case that the forgotten man of the 1930s  was those who today would be referenced as the great middle class.  The parallels between The Great Depression and The Great Recession are enlightening and Shlaes places in historical perspective  the lost opportunities of an entire generation of  Americans, then and now.

Surely this book is a study of the New Deal and what forms of government intervention did and did not work.  Shlaes is certainly not a hero worshiper of FDR  or of the New Deal but my take on this book is that it offers a balanced look at the multitude of factors surrounding Roosevelt, his advisors, detractors and the enormity of the recovery programs during the period.

Most provocative and compelling is the insight and comparisons to the economic conditions in which the U.S. Economy  finds itself today.  The Forgotten Man of the 1930s is very  much present in the displaced middle class of 2013. Is today’s forgotten man the family bread-winner out of work because of the government shutdown, the child in need of medical care, the returning veteran, the foreclosed upon and the forgotten?  The similarities are ever-present.

An aside  from within The Forgotten Man is the startling comparison of how politically effectively FDR communicated the New Deal through the then new medium, radio, the 1930s version of today’s social media. Radio was FDR’s bully pulpit.  A very interesting  analogy.

You may also wish to consider Shlaes Coolidge.  ( see gordonsgoodreads ) While Amity Shlaes is certainly not a liberal, I think both The Forgotten Man and Coolidge are balanced. I would recommend reading Coolidge first. By doing so, the New Deal is placed in greater perspective.

COOLIDGE, REVISIONIST OR ACCURATE PORTRAIT OF THE PRESIDENT?

Amity Shlaes new biography COOLIDGE  has received its share of controversial reviews including  charges of  a “white-washed” Coolidge presidency. There is little doubt that Shlaes places  ” silent Cal” in a favorable light. However, that is not at all unusual as historians review a presidency in a perspective from a hundred years distance.  Perhaps the best example of the retrospective is David McCullough’s  reincarnation  of John Adams.  I am not suggesting that the two books or presidencies are comparable but the passage of time allows authors the opportunity to look through a different prism.  Be assured that Shales portrait of Calvin Coolidge does not attempt to elevate him to John Adams status, however, she clearly establishes the image of a strong, independent thinking president capable of making unpopular decisions that he deemed correct for the country.

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Coolidge served as president, during the roaring 20s, from 1923 to 1929.  He remains famous for small government, balanced budgets and ” the business of America is business.”   Unlike some reviews, I do not think Coolidge is a whitewash of the administration, but rather an overview of the thinking in America following the First World War and the national desire to return to ” normalcy.”  Ironically, Coolidge came into his political career as an acolyte of Teddy Roosevelt  progressivism and acted accordingly during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts.  Coolidge was a reluctant recruit as Warren Harding’s Vice-President, he disliked the position, but his New England work ethic underscored his making a best effort to support Harding’s policies.  The two were exact opposites, Harding the gregarious politician telling the electorate what they wanted to hear,  Coolidge, quiet and reserved.

Shlaes does an excellent job in depicting Coolidge’s transition to the presidency following Harding’s unexpected death.  He moves into the oval office with no great fanfare and picks up the reins of governing turning quickly to his zeal for a balanced budget, eliminating the war-time bureaucracy and establishing the concept of reducing taxes to stimulate the economy out of a post war recession.  Shlaes makes a case that Coolidge handed off a strong economy to Herbert Hoover after Coolidge kept his commitment that he would not run  for a second term.  However, Shlaes  book makes no mention of the rampant speculation on Wall Street that occurred during the later years of the Coolidge Administration which lead to the crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression.  Does Coolidge share the blame or does it all fall at the feet of  Herbert Hoover?

A most interesting part of the book is that once again we go back over 100 years to discover recurring themes facing today’s American economy:  The fairness of the tax policy, protective tariffs, balanced federal budget, government spending, the deficits of war-time spending, and the overriding argument of  big government versus small government.

COOLIDGE is well written and for lovers of history it is a look back at a presidency almost forgotten.  COOLIDGE  offers a  glimpse at the expectations of life in America following  World War I , the “War to end all wars. ”  It was the period of the first automobiles produced on the Ford assembly line, electrification,  the birth of the aviation industry, Lindbergh and the  passage of the Kellogg-Briand international treaty, the successor to the failed  Woodrow Wilson League of Nations.

You will learn much about Coolidge the family man, his wife Grace and the tragedy of the death of his son  Calvin, Jr. while Coolidge was in office.  The journey— from his birth in  Plymouth Notch, Vermont  to Amherst College, small town attorney in Northampton, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Senate, Massachusetts Governor,  Vice-President and President of the United States–a remarkable life.