Thinking about possible choices, I was a little surprised to realize that several grand historical surveys had made the greatest impression on me. This is not how history is supposed to be written by "serious" historians; most academic history digs into a niche in past time, striving for accurate description of details we can never fully know, often getting lost in minutia. Grand sweeping tomes seem excessively ambitious, a dangerously pretentious over-reach. One of the attractions of Kennedy's book is that he dared to chronicle such a long and episodically diverging period and got away with it. At the very least, it would have been possible to envision quite separate volumes about domestic concerns from 1929-39 and the World War II years that followed. But he makes them feel a single epoch, just as they were lived. I was often awed by how gracefully he wove in all the themes that a contemporary historian wants to be sure to include -- women's experience, the implications on events of the country's historic racism, the tiny gay minority who occasionally stuck their heads up in this period. This is not easy as the records were created and left by others.
I report that and think -- well, isn't that obvious? No it is not. Neither Barack Obama nor his critics seem to be responding to the Lesser Depression with this level of ambition. The 2009 stimulus and subsequent muddled economic pump-priming are aimed at restoring the status quo from before the bubble of the 00s, not rebuilding something stronger, fairer and better. Pressures -- the 99 percent movement and acknowledgment of rising inequality -- are mounting, but there's no sign that elites yet feel they have no choice but to encourage a new plateau of stability.
It's worth following Kennedy's description of how Roosevelt moved from plugging holes as banks collapsed in the first days of his administration to pushing through a program for long term economic stability. A significant feature was something we're not even considering these day: there was a great mass of people for whom the Depression was nothing new, just as the Lesser Depression is today, though since Bill Clinton we've learned not to even mention the perennially poor. Eleanor Roosevelt's reporter friend was sent out to chronicle life in the country outside the bright lights of the big cities -- Washington could do with some of that today.
It took elites awhile, as it has since the financial panic of 2009, to understand that this wasn't just a temporary economic hiccup.
In response to gathering pressure from the left (LaFollete, Sinclair Lewis, unions and Communists) and the right (Father Coughlin and Huey Long) Roosevelt pushed through what we think of as the New Deal in the second two years of his first term.
Will the country ever get there again?
"Honorable mentions" for 2011's "best book":
Empire of Liberty
In hard times, history comforts. Somehow our forbears muddled through; we might too.