The Year of the Six Presidents
A Selection of the History Book Club
Carroll & Graf Publishers ISBN # 0786716223
Writer's Voice Coordinator Glenn Raucher's Introduction of 1920: The
Year of the Six Presidents author David Pietrusza at Manhattan's West Side
YMCA, May 11, 2007
As someone whose interest in history only flourished long after I was out of high school, I
remember with a shudder those grim history books I was made to read. I know that the manner
in which history is told can determine whether or not the subject really connects to a reader.
Usually, it is done badly, and most people wind up not caring or learning about the past.
David Pietrusza's remarkable new book 1920: The Year of Six Presidents is exactly the way
history should be written. It is riveting, involving, filled with verified fact and compelling anecdote.
It makes the era come alive, challenges presumptions about well-known figures (showing, for
instance that we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again) and methodically reveals a country
changing--coming out of a War into relative prosperity, and trying to figure out how to relate to
other countries, as well as the shifting relationship of citizen to citizen, white, black, man &
David take a cast of almost literally thousands, a twisting path to nomination and election, and
issues and events such as women's suffrage, sedition laws, the Palmer Raids, Sacco & Vanzetti,
the resurrection of the Klan (and President Wilson's tacit endorsement of the racial politics of
both the Klan and related things like Birth of a Nation), the rise of the labor movement and its
ties to the socialist revolution, and much, much more, and renders them with amazing clarity. He
has the knack for choosing the smallest detail to communicate the most information about a
person or incident. For instance, his relating that Hoover got married in a brown suit reveals much
of the man that pages of exposition could not.
He also creates real tension--despite our knowing how things turned out--in extended chapters
like the one where Warren Harding wins the Republican nomination. We read page after page as
the tides shift from one candidate to another, Harding far behind, until finally, he rises, and wins.
And, being both talented writer and expert historian--a combination rarely present in the same
person--David manages to balance all of these things, giving us as much information as we need
in order to understand what the book tells us: That the election of 1920, and the events and
characters surrounding and involved in it, was one of the most remarkable of any ever held in our
country. In lesser hands, an 87 year-old political campaign would surely be a recipe for boredom,
or irrelevance. But 1920 connects to our current affairs subtly and unobtrusively, and relates a
tale well worth telling, leaving us glad that it is now well-told.