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Smoke-filled rooms, the League of Nations, and the second Mrs. Wilson.

Nov 19, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 10 • By PETER HANNAFORD
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The Year of Six Presidents

by David Pietrusza

Carroll & Graf, 544 pp., $28.95

At the moment we have several senators vying for the presidency. In 1920, it was presidents--past, present, and future--in a campaign like no other before or since. David Pietrusza, a seasoned crime-and-mystery writer, builds the suspense of the 1920 campaign so effectively that the reader easily suspends, for the moment, knowledge of the outcome, as if it were still about to happen.

He begins with the moment of President Woodrow Wilson's stroke on October 2, 1919: "The President of the United States lay bleeding on the bathroom floor. He could not move. He could not speak." This triggered a flurry of jockeying, guessing, conniving, wishing, and horse-trading that would end 13 months later in the election of Warren Harding as the 29th president.

On the way to that Election Day, there was much early support for former President Theodore Roosevelt, who had returned to the Republicans after bolting in 1912 to head the Progressive movement's ruinous Bull Moose ticket. Roosevelt's death in 1919 rearranged the equation. There was Herbert Hoover, the engineering whiz who had fed a starving Europe. He was so uncertain about his political moorings, however, that he ran in the 1920 primaries in both parties. Calvin Coolidge, governor of Massachusetts, had his supporters. Former President William Howard Taft harbored hopes of a political resurrection, but they were not to go far. After TR, the front-runners (now largely forgotten) were Illinois governor Frank Lowden and General Leonard Wood, of Rough Rider fame.

The Democratic nomination seemed less valuable as time went on, but this did not stop the ambitious Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore's fifth cousin, from making the effort (he ended up as his party's vice presidential nominee).

President Wilson, for his part, never recovered to fully govern again. Disabled and ill, he was sunk in reverie and the hope that, somehow, the Democratic convention would deadlock and turn to him for a third term, breathing new life into his lost cause, the League of Nations. David Pietrusza draws a clear portrait of a man of high ideals and low tolerance for anyone who disagreed with him. Woodrow Wilson had little personal loyalty for those who gave their all for him, and his inability to compromise in any way over the League with his nemesis, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, had led to the League's defeat.

After 44 ballots the Democrats chose Ohio governor James M. Cox--like Harding, a newspaper publisher/editor. Others in the running were William Gibbs McAdoo, Wilson's son-in-law and Treasury secretary, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who had run the controversial campaign to root out Communist sedition, and New York's governor Alfred Smith.

The campaign played out against a background of post-World War I inflation and unemployment, the final drive for women's suffrage, third-party impulses (Eugene Debs's Socialists and others), Prohibition, and the beginnings of pent-up industrial growth. There were more than enough issues to inflame this or that constituency, so both parties cast up bland platforms. "[The Republicans] were able at Chicago to say nothing in just about one-tenth the number of words that the Democrats needed to say the same thing," wrote the New York Tribune.

While the author gives us little new material (save some specifics of Wilson's bad temper and the fact that Harding's extramarital affairs were more numerous than you might think), he organizes the story in a way that produces high drama. The book begins with a section called "The Players in Our Drama," featuring brief sketches of 52 of them. We meet, among others, the fading William Jennings Bryan; William Estabrook Chancellor, a racist professor who tries to bring down Harding by accusing him of being part black (such were the times); Harry Daugherty, the Ohio tactician whose strategy it was to make the amiable Harding acceptable to all Republicans; the irascible Senator Hiram Johnson of California; and Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the president's second wife who controlled access to him for the final year-and-a-half of his presidency.