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Posted August 20, 2010
Politics has changed considerably in the 86 years since the 1924 presidential race between Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis, which marked the fracture point in the divide between the Democratic and Republican parties. Garland S. Tucker's new book, "The High Tide of American Conservatism" documents the account of that election and the lives of its two conservative candidates.
"High Tide" feels like an emotional testament to a time when government worked. Before the woes of The Great Depression or the shock of World War II and Vietnam; before the corruption of the Nixon administration infected the American public with doubt and cynicism towards its government there was a kind of kinship that existed between the people and its representatives. And both parties seemed to mutually admire one another even as they disagreed on how the country should be run. It's become evident in the foundations of this book that while there is indeed something to be said for the 1924 presidential election's place in history, "High Tide" is more concerned with the intricate details of the election itself, allowing readers to understand it and to draw their own conclusions.
Even as reader's are encouraged to form opinions on the context of the Coolidge and Davis race, the book refuses to draw its own conclusions other than to say that in the time since Democrats have become more left, and Republicans more right. Despite a few mentions of this divergence in the opening and at the end of the book, Tucker seems more interested in giving readers a detailed account of what happened as it happened. Don't expect the history of the 1924 election to be continually placed in a larger political history in the vein of books like Sarah Vowell's "The Wordy Shipmates" and don't expect it to be a politically charged rant like Charles P. Peirce's "Idiot America". This is quite simply and elegantly a history book free of the battered malleability of political opinion.
It's hard not to like both Davis and Coolidge for their even-handedness and their reluctance to even step into the nation's top office. And it seems from the outset of the race that Coolidge has already won given the prosperity of America and the in-fighting amongst the Dems. "High Tide" doesn't merely chronicle the election, but brings its two principle characters to life through a dual portrait which feels like a tracing of the roots of both Democratic and Republican thinking. The ultimate irony being that those roots stem from the same source: an iron willed commitment to the service of the American people.
Garland S. Tucker has created a beautiful homage to that period and he has done it virtually free of modern political squabbling. "The High Tide of American Conservatism" is a reminder to those who pick it up that government can still work for the people, and it's a fascinating and loving tribute to the era in which it did.