Last night some friends and I ventured up to Roosevelt House on East 65th Street to attend a discussion with Susan Swain and Brian Lamb with Amity Shlaes and Harold Holzer. The event was in recognition of the release of The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best–and Worst–Chief Executives. Swain led off with an introduction about how the book developed and noted that the latest survey of historians is the third such study they have conducted since 2000. Lamb picked it up from there with a discussion/interview of Holzer and Shlaes along with audience Q&A.
Shlaes is the author of a 2013 biography of Calvin Coolidge and 2007’s The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, a reinterpretation of the Roosevelt Era that casts FDR’s New Deal in a less favorable light. I ordered both of these works for the library where I work when they were first released and, while I don’t know if I agree that Calvin Coolidge’s policies in the 1920s were ultimately a good for the nation or that Roosevelt’s Depression Era initiatives harmed us to the degree she seems to believe, I am all for a more nuanced understanding of our history. In class all semester we and out students have been studying the laws of unintended consequences, most notably as it applies to our course with the failures and successes of Robert Moses.
It is no doubt true that the New Deal did not end the Depression; the industrial output necessary to win the Second World War did that. And indeed, as she argues, some of the Roosevelt Administration’s polices aggravated the situation. That said, I find it unpersuasive that Roosevelt’s measures were not the way to go given the historical moment. If you want to Roosevelt’s legacy, look around you. That said, I’m glad Shlaes is offering a well argued counter-narrative and have nothing but respect for her. That is why I ordered her books for our collection. I can’t wait for her book about Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to come out in November. Check out the episode when it is broadcast tomorrow tomorrow, May 5, on C-SPAN.