Total immersion in the Jazz Age, viewed through its key personalities.
Flappers, the Model T, F. Scott Fitzgerald, bootleg hooch, and free love all parade by as expected, but historian/biographer Miller (Star Spangled Men, 1998, etc.) zeroes in on the White House, who got elected to it, and why, as crucial in shaping the modern America of the title. First he sketches the dark period leading up to the Roaring ’20s, a time of postwar chaos and turmoil that seems strangely contemporary. (Politicians distracted the nation from labor unrest and racial violence with the massive 1919 Red hunt, during which one man was arrested simply because “he looked like a Bolshevik.”) The election of Republican Warren G. Harding in 1920 was the first in which women could vote, its results the first ever broadcast by radio, and the ensuing creep of corruption by his “Ohio gang” cronies set records of its own, culminating in the Teapot Dome oil-lease scandal. One in three Americans worked on farms in the ’20s, Miller notes, and 44 percent of the population was still counted as rural in 1930. The real story of the decade, he neatly sums up, “is one of constant struggle between city and countryside for the nation’s soul.” Harding’s death in office ushered in “Silent Cal” Coolidge, whose legendary frugality and business-boosting policies (including four rounds of tax cuts that made him a model for then-teenager Ronald Reagan) created a wave of prosperity doomed to crash in the nation’s worst depression. Even Miller’s asides are gemlike, as when he mentions that Rin Tin Tin, leading movie star at mid-decade with his own limo and chauffeur, collapsed during a workout and died in the arms of blonde bombshell Jean Harlow.
Spellbinding account of growing pains in an often-gullible society.