- - Wednesday, January 15, 2020

There may be another historian in America who can write brilliantly about pre-FDR Republicanism with Calvin Coolidge as leading man, and attract a host of eager readers — and not only that, but get good, albeit grudging, reviews in organs of the liberal hegemony like The New York Times. Maybe. But I doubt it.

In addition to “Coolidge,” Ms. Shlaes has written several books that have appeared on that newspaper’s best-seller lists — “The Forgotten Man, a New History of the Great Depression;” “The Forgotten Man” graphic edition; and “The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy.” 

Ms. Shlaes also chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation and the Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Book Prize, and serves as a scholar at the King’s College. She is a former member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. And perhaps most important, her prose is clear and clean, with just the right touch of wit.

In “Great Society: A New History,” she writes that the social and economic issues of the 1960s and ’70s and the solutions advanced to resolve them — always led by government — came close to bringing us to our knees financially. 

And whether it was Michael Harrington or Walter Reuther talking to Lyndon Johnson, the solutions advanced to complete the work of FDR’s New Deal (LBJ’s minions called it the Great Society), were always socialistic, albeit a strange form of socialism. (Ms. Shlaes refers to a comment by Joseph Stalin, that only the United States was rich enough to institute real socialism.)

And although pure socialism was never realized, the “social democratic expansion” of those years “moved America closer to socialism than it ever had been in a period of prosperity. What the 1960s experiment and its 1970s results suggest is that social democratic compromise comes close enough to socialism to cause economic tragedy.”

Among the “social democratic programs” proudly announced by a president who was attempting to direct an unwinnable war in Vietnam started by his energetic predecessor (President Eisenhower had refused to let us get involved there, wanting no part in helping the French to recover their colonial possessions) and proving to the “Best and Brightest” Kennedyites he’d inherited that he was a better man than their erstwhile boss, was the great proliferation of initiatives subsumed under the rubric of the War on Poverty, equally unwinnable, the domestic equivalent of the war in Vietnam.

LBJ took great pride in being the commander of the men he’d inherited and their resumes. Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Sargent Shriver, Ted Sorensen, Richard Goodwin — an impressive lineup, and they all reported to him. “‘We are assembling the best thought and the broadest knowledge to find those answers for America,’” he said of them in a speech. His “‘Harvards,’” as he called them.

There were warnings. This one, reports Ms. Shlaes, came from his old friend and legislative partner, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn: “Maybe, Lyndon, but I’d feel a hell of a lot better if even one of them had ever run for Sheriff.’”

But they hadn’t. Nor had their underlings. With its proliferation of programs, all directed by federal appointees who took their orders from the Harvards as filtered down through the bureaucracy, there were inevitable clashes with state and local officials like Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago, resulting in mistrust, misspent funds, and in matters of race, open conflict, as in Detroit. 

Perhaps no failure in the Great Society’s semi-socialist agenda was more definitive than that of public housing. A basic tenet of socialism is that there is no such thing as human nature, only economic, social and environmental conditioning. Give people new, clean, paid-for apartments, and watch crime and drug use disappear, as people take pride in their new sorroundings.

But apparently, as witness the Taylor Homes in Chicago or Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis (Ms. Shlaes paints a distressing picture of daily life there), it just didn’t work that way.  

Fittingly, Ms. Shlaes concludes her book with an analysis and description of the demolition of the extraordinarily expensive Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, a fate that befell other similar monuments to the Great Society — and to the socialist impulse — in cities like Chicago. 

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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By Amity Shlaes

Harper, $32.50, 511 pages

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