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Prohibition and prosperity

The decade that invented all that jazz about modern America

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Think of the 1920s and several images come immediately to mind: flappers, speakeasies, jazz, and Jay Gatsby. But as Nathan Miller makes abundantly clear in this accessible and highly entertaining chronicle, the 1920s were also much like our own age. So much of what we take for granted today began in that long-ago decade. The cult of youth started then, as did the cult of celebrity. The 1920s media were gripped by Hollywood gossip and criminal trials involving the rich and famous. Sports stars and business leaders were revered as heroes. National politics was mired in scandal. The stock market was booming, but large segments of the population were left behind. The 1920s, Nathan Miller argues, was the beginning of modern America.

Miller covers it all, starting with the failed idealism of Woodrow Wilson. The president wanted to bring America's Jeffersonian ideals of equality and fairness to the post-World War I world. But when Wilson sailed home with the Treaty of Versailles, his Republican opponents killed it.

The nation was tired of grand causes and dealing with the problems of Europe. America wanted "normalcy," Miller claims, and Warren Harding gave it to them.

Harding was the first of three successive Republican presidents who believed that the true business of America was business. Miller paints a brilliant character sketch of the man many believe was the worst president in history. It wasn't that Harding was corrupt, Miller tells us, but that he put his corrupt cronies in high places. One such Harding "friend" was Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, who took large bribes when leasing government property to oil companies. The resulting Teapot Dome Scandal would forever taint the Harding administration.

When Harding died in 1923 (some said he was heartbroken by his corrupt friends), he was replaced by "Silent Cal" Coolidge, whose idea of the government's role was Jeffersonian in the extreme. Do little, say little: this was Coolidge's creed. He was the perfect president for the era.

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