Bowen, Michael. The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. ix + 254 pages. Cloth, $45.00.
Jordan, David M. FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011. xii + 386 pages. Cloth, $29.95.
Traditional political history, once unfashionable, is becoming ever more chic among professionally trained historians and popular writers. Two recent books by David M, Jordan and Michael Bowen are cases in point, for they explore in insightful ways American political developments during the 1940s and 1950s. Jordan chronicles the oft- overlooked U.S. presidential election of 1944, while Bowen focuses on the subsequent fight between two titans for control of the Grand Old Party (GOP), Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York and Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio. Both books address how Americans strove to adjust as President Franklin D. Roosevelt--unquestionably the political giant of American politics in the twentieth century--departed the national stage. Jordan depicts the 1944 election as "far from normal" because "the nation was deeply involved in the greatest war in its history" (p. ix). But Jordan also portrays an increasingly frail FDR, struggling to summon his famed eloquence and charisma against a revitalizing Republican Party led by an aggressive foe: Dewey. Bowen's study continues the story by exploring how the GOP wrestled with Roosevelt's legacy in the two decades following the death of the thirty-second president. The choice for Republicans was straightforward. Should the party generally endorse, and only mildly critique, Roosevelt's expansive vision for the use of federal power at home and United States influence abroad? Or should Republicans distinguish themselves from the Democrats and adopt a restricted view of the capacities of the American State'? Dewey, a liberal Republican, favored the former answer, whereas the conservative Taft embraced the latter.
Jordan's book is popular history, exuding the virtues and pitfalls of that genre. His writ- ing style is superb. He has a sense of narrative cadence and a dramatic rhythm reminiscent of an earlier chronicler of presidential campaigns, Theodore White (In fact, this book could have been titled The Making of the President 1944). Jordan exudes a gift for characterization and an eye for a quotation. In addressing Dewey's persona, he goes beyond the cliche that the governor resembled a little man atop a wedding cake. "Dewey," he quotes a reporter for PM magazine, "is like the beautiful girl at the cocktail party who turns out to be dull and superficial. He is intelligent without depth, shrewd without vision, jocular without humor" (pp. 27-28). The author also appreciates the randomness that often governed electoral politics. A modest bid by conservative, southern Democrats to nominate Senator Harry E Byrd of Virginia in place of Roosevelt was not helped by an error in which Byrd's hotel room was assigned instead to "an attractive young Washington newswoman" (p. 162). When the woman answered the door and deceitfully informed a group of delegates that the senator was sleeping, the Byrd boom ended.
Nevertheless, Jordan, like many popular historians, struggles to locate a fresh thesis for his entertaining book. The author has little new to say about the selection of Harry S. Truman as vice president save for an anecdote about how party leaders tried to quell a floor demonstration on behalf of the outgoing vice president, Henry A. Wallace. His account of the campaign waged by Dewey will be familiar to students of American politics. The Republican nominee combined attacks on the Roosevelt administration as "tired, exhausted, quarreling and bickering" with efforts to link the labor leader (and FDR supporter) Sidney Hillman to the Communist Party, illustrating how Dewey, a one-time racketeer-busting prosecutor, had become a red-baiting politician (p. …