For two decades after World War II, government actually strived to provide basic needs and equal opportunity for all Americans.
Goldfield (History/Univ. of North Carolina, Charlotte; Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History, 2013, etc.) argues that American children born in the “baby boom” generation were uniquely gifted because of federal policies enacted by Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson. These presidents, writes the author, saw government as a beneficial force in American life and demonstrated leadership that “played a major role in moving the government to extend the pursuit of happiness to a broader population.” They “believed in the commonwealth ideal of mutual responsibility” among citizens and between citizens and government. Each tried to protect and foster access to education, social services, housing, employment, and health care. Goldfield offers a biographical overview of each leader, emphasizing the family poverty that made them especially sympathetic to those in similar straits. Truman unsuccessfully proposed universal health care; Eisenhower quietly pursued civil rights for African-Americans; Johnson declared war on poverty and envisioned a Great Society. Often, their aims were thwarted by recalcitrant legislators and voters, responses that undermine Goldfield’s argument about the efficacy of moral leadership and instead point out endemic racism, sexism, and greed. Although the subtitle is “When Government Was Good,” a more accurate subtitle would be, “When Idealistic Leaders Advocated for the Common Good.” They surely did not always succeed. The author amasses an overwhelming number of statistics, and he calls upon some voices from the gifted generation, particularly men and women he knew growing up in a multiethnic Brooklyn neighborhood and whose success he attributes to government gifts such as GI mortgages and affordable public colleges. Belief that federal government must work for all Americans eroded with Ronald Reagan and has reached a low point in Donald Trump and his supporters. Goldfield laments the cynicism that pervades politics: “We have lost sight of what good government can do.”
An American history that serves as a heartfelt plea for a revival of socially responsible leadership.