As we enter a year of national political decision, we can find context for what lies ahead in reading several current books as well as some published long ago.
I can recommend a number of worthwhile works.
Janny Scott's A Singular Woman, published in 2011, is a well-researched biography of Stanley Ann Dunham, President Barack Obama's mother, who spent her teenage years on Mercer Island. The book got only scant notice at publication but provides greater insights into Obama's personality and character than are offered by his own autobiographical books. In fact, it corrects minor errors in the president's books — for instance, the birthplace of his mother.
Ann Dunham, as she came to be known, was a distinguished anthropological scholar who lived an ascetic life among the peoples she studied. She was ambitious for her son, who barely knew his African father, but it was not the overweaning, monstrous kind of ambition that sometimes is associated with mothers of famous men. Obama, for his part, saw his mother as a typical Peace Corps, do-good type out of the New Frontier and Great Society.
He was mainly raised by his Anglo maternal grandparents, in Hawaii, and never was consciously close to his mother from his teen years onward. He was not present at her bedside when she died at 52, although his half-sister was. Yet there is more of Ann Dunham in Barack Obama than the son might admit. You can draw your own conclusions upon reading.
Midnight Rising, also published in 2011, is an account by Tony Horwitz of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virgina, and its aftermath, before the Civil War. But it also covers Brown's earlier time in Kansas and traces the issue of slavery as it evolved into the central issue of the war. I've read many volumes of Civil War history but was surprised to find new material in the Horwitz book.
Among other things, I had not been aware of the degree to which Brown, idealistic but deranged and grandiose, was adopted and supported before the Harpers Ferry raid by prominent New England abolitionists. In parlors, salons, and personal meetings, he got the same kind of support that current-day cause and political figures extract from well-off sideline sitters eager to participate in grand movements and campaigns.
The Harpers Ferry raid, of course, was destined from its outset to end in death and tragedy for all involved. Yet it stirred strong emotions, both North and South, and probably hastened the onset of general war and, then, the end of slavery. John Brown was probably crazy but he nonetheless was a more important figure in our history than is commonly thought.
I wrote briefly several months ago about Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars, the story of British and European dissent before and during World War I but, also, of the tides of elite and majority opinion that led the United Kingdom and Germany, in particular, into a bloody, stalemated conflict, which those countries' national leaders thought would be resolved in short order. World War II, of course, was a bloodier and more hateful continuation of World War I. In his 2011 book, Hochschild tells of the UK's brutal conduct of the Boer War against European settlers in southern Africa sitting atop valuable gold and other deposits and the establishment of concentration camps — forerunners of those in World War II — lacking sanitation and medical care, in which hundreds of thousands of Boer women and children were interned and many died.
British leaders of the time, notably including Winston Churchill, thought the Boer War an appropriate warm-up for a more ambitious war for domination of the European continent. German leaders had similar ideas. Their mutual folly helped set in motion unintended consequences, including the end of Empire, the establishment of a Bolshevist Soviet Union, the mass murder of millions of troops and civilians, a Cold War, the development and use of nuclear weapons, and an entire 20th Century soaked in blood.
The Hochshild book is a constant reminder that policymakers' neat calculations about wars and their outcomes almost never prove out. Leaders revered as statesmen and heroes can often be outright fools. We need to watch them closely and challenge their destructive impulses.
An older but instructive book is David Kennedy's Freedom From Fear, his 1999 account of the American people in Depression and war, 1929-45. President Franklin Roosevelt's actions and policies were central to the period. Yet, as the book makes clear, they were not always as seamless and successful as we might think they were. President Obama, for instance, introduced a massive remake of the American health sector in 2009, in the midst of financial and economic crisis, on the basis that such initiatives could only be successful in the "honeymoon period" of his first 100 days in office. FDR's New Deal agenda was cited as precedent. Yet it was not until 1935 that FDR introduced and passed his historic Social Security legislation, perhaps the landmark New Deal achievement. The first two years of his presidency were devoted wholly to pragmatic try-and-fail efforts toward financial and economic recovery.
The Great Depression was a global as well as American crisis. The Kennedy book reminds us of what did and did not happen in those years and what we might learn from them in dealing with less severe crisis now. It is also timely because, in the lead-up to 2012 national elections, rhetoric on both sides has an unworldly similarity to that used in the 1930s by liberals and conservatives making their oversimplified cases. Roosevelt, of course, was never the "socialist" he was often accused of being at the time. He, in fact, saved the free American economic system, with a series of incremental reforms, at a time when totalitarian models were seen as the wave of the future elsewhere in the world.
Eric Hoffer's True Believer, 1951, remains the best place to gain a full understanding of the people and groups, both left and right, who are absolutely convinced of the rightness of their own cause and of the villainies of their opposition. Hoffer, a plain-spoken San Francisco longshoreman, was no ivory towerist but a man who observed and understood human behavior at ground level. He knew the street but wrote for audiences at all levels.
In today's politics, Hoffer likely would point to the declarative certitudes being peddled daily by political candidates and interest groups but also by cable-news and radio commentators — each directed toward a niche audience of true believers — and the angry accusations of bloggers proceeding from the security of simplistic, bumper-sticker viewpoints. We are closer now than we suspect to the period in which Hoffer wrote — a period of ideological and partisan polarization in which voices were too often shrill and destructively certain.
These are only a few of many books that might help us understand the period we are entering. My old boss Hubert Humphrey used to say: "It is good to know history but even better to make it." No, it is good to make history but better to know prior history beforehand.