On the edge of an abyss

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She makes much of the fact that Eddington was a Briton and that he did a frightfully liberal thing in validating the shockingly new theories of a hated Hun physicist. The trouble is that Einstein’s theories were formulated in 1906 and had been under debate before, during and after the war. Nor is it a quibble that Einstein, although born in Germany, never considered his identity rooted there; he studied, worked and formed his theories in Switzerland.

This tendency to strain to make points that lead nowhere, when coupled with an annoyingly florid writing style, merely produces a book whose only real value may be to inspire some other writer to re-examine 1919 and the struggle to create a nexus of civil liberties in the midst of America’s return to the remembered normalcy of the pre-war era.

In “1920: The Year of the Six Presidents,” writer David Pietrusza shows the right way to pull together disparate characters into a coherent narrative. By rolling the tape forward just one year, this book portrays an America that has stopped looking backward and has begun to craft a new country and a new world role.

The six presidents referred to include Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who would have liked a third term, and four others who began the year as pretty dark horses whatever their ambitions might have been. Roosevelt, who would have been the commanding leader for a Republican nomination, and stroke victim Wilson both soon died, but not before both took some formative first shots.

One of the more interesting tales in this clean narration is when the overweening Franklin Roosevelt importuned Herbert Hoover to form a Democratic ticket with him despite Hoover’s repeated insistence that he was a Republican. In the event it was Warren Harding, a genial ignoramus and sexual predator of Clintonesque proportions, who carried the day, a day that included women getting the vote, the ratification of liquor prohibition, and the joyful retreat of America into isolationism.

Any year can be a watershed year; it merely takes a good storyteller to make it so.

James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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