Elaine C. Kamarck is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Why Presidents Fail and How they Can Succeed Again.” She teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and worked for Vice President Al Gore in the 1990s.
‘The Gifted Generation” is a sweeping political and social history of America from the end of World War II to the present. It is told from the perspective of three presidents, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson, who “often worked against members of their respective parties [and] pulled against prevailing public opinion, particularly with respect to their civil rights and immigration initiatives.”
In their own ways, each of these men was brave and politically astute. Truman, a very unpopular president in his day, nevertheless left a hefty legacy of accomplishment and protected the New Deal from the conservative resurgence going on at the time. Outwardly, Eisenhower was a passive, unobtrusive, golf-playing president. However, as the political scientist Fred Greenstein wrote, Eisenhower conducted a “hidden hand” presidency, often directing and shaping the course of events without claiming any credit (certainly unlike the excessive and sometimes comical credit-claiming of our current president). And Johnson was the consummate politician, using his skills to break one impasse after another in America’s long-running struggle between black and white.
The book recounts a phenomenon that many Americans have never experienced and don’t believe is possible — a government that works. There are two dominant threads in this narrative. The first is the story of the civil rights movement from the perspective of the presidency. From Truman’s civil rights message to Congress in February 1948, to Eisenhower’s hidden hand in furthering Truman’s civil rights initiatives, to Johnson’s passage of landmark civil rights legislation and his war on poverty, David Goldfield tells a story of moral resolution, political bravery and managerial skill.
The second narrative is about economic progress and the government’s remarkable role in creating the post-World War II economic prosperity. If President Trump would read only two chapters of this book, he should read the one called “Tomorrow” and another titled “Confidence,” where Goldfield tells the real story of how to make America great again. But neither Trump nor any other Republican is likely to read this because, as Goldfield shows, government was the key that made America a colossus in the world economy and the generator of a robust middle class.
“Tomorrow” tells the story of how, in 1919, Eisenhower took a cross-country trip on awful roads. Unlike European nations at the time, America had no national highway system. When World War II came along, Ike once again faced the problem of inadequate infrastructure as the nation’s old-fashioned transport system groaned under the demands placed on it to carry men and materiel for the war effort.
Once Eisenhower became president, he proposed a plan to create a 40,000-mile national highway network. In hindsight, this looks like a no-brainer. As Goldfield tells it, “The interstate highway system would become a significant economic generator not only during its construction, but also in the development that would occur because of it, just as Keynes would have predicted.” Eisenhower’s attention to infrastructure extended beyond highways to aviation as well.
While civil rights battles continue today, the connection between infrastructure development and economic growth is so basic and so nonideological that it behooves us to stop and ask: Why haven’t we been able to do it recently, in spite of the fact that both Trump and President Barack Obama have touted it? As Goldfield tells it, there were objections to Ike’s plan, but Eisenhower persisted in a way that neither Obama nor Trump has. And today bridges crumble, trains are slow, and airports and air traffic look obsolete next to aviation infrastructure in other countries.
Here’s what Trump would learn from the chapter called “Confidence.” In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit Earth. Americans were profoundly embarrassed that their archenemy had made this breakthrough before they had. To make matters worse, several months later the United States launched its own satellite, which got two feet off the ground before it crashed and burned — earning it the nickname Flopnik or Stay-putnik. Eisenhower saw an opportunity and used it. Having failed to pass legislation on education, he used the crash of the American satellite to launch what became the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which boosted spending on science and foreign-language training.
In addition, Goldfield points out that “federally funded research across all disciplines grew dramatically after 1958. . . . Federal support accounted for more than 50 percent of all U.S. research and development funding between the 1950s and the 1970s.” Basic science is one of the most important things a government can fund to promote economic growth. And yet the United States has not kept up. Funding for science and technology has declined in the 21st century, and since the 2010 elections, federal spending on basic research has fallen by a quarter. Goldfield points out that this is “the sharpest decline in history.”
“The first two decades after World War II,” Goldfield concludes, “were American’s confident years. . . . That is no longer the case.”
Perhaps nothing sums up America’s regression more than a story that is not included in Goldfield’s book — the story of Al Gore’s Internet. One of Eisenhower’s allies in the effort to build a national highway system was Sen. Albert Gore Sr. (D-Tenn.). His son, Albert Gore Jr., also became a senator from Tennessee and vice president under President Bill Clinton. Because of his father, Gore understood the importance to the nation of creating an information-age “super highway” and pushed legislation (the High Performance Computing Act of 1991) that brought the nascent Internet out of the control of governmental, mostly defense, agencies and allowed it to become what it is today.
Not only was this act of foresight not rewarded, it became the butt of jokes that have dogged Gore ever since. When he told CNN that he "took the initiative in creating the Internet" — a statement that is undoubtedly true — his opponents claimed that he had said he "invented the Internet." To this day most Americans, including many Democrats, think this was a ridiculous piece of self-aggrandizement.
Which brings us to Goldfield’s larger point. America doesn’t seem to have leaders who dream big and have the skill to make those dreams reality. A politician or the government creating the Internet is so unbelievable that it becomes a joke. But the reality is that the government had everything to do with it.
By David Goldfield
Bloomsbury. 534 pp. $35