When was America great? Let’s try 1927

DC

David Crisp

Weary of waiting for America to become great again, I went searching for a time when America already was great.

What drove me back in time may have been yet another letter to the editor admonishing no-Trumpers to give it up and admit the election is over. Fair enough, if the letters did not support the election of a man who took more than seven years to acknowledge that his predecessor was legally elected. If he gets seven years, don’t we get seven weeks?

Angrily, I climbed aboard my time machine and headed to 1927. My guide was Bill Bryson, author of “One Summer: America, 1927,” an endlessly engaging book about that critical year in American history.

Why 1927? As Bryson tells me, it was an extraordinary year. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, which was more home runs all by himself than any other team in the American league hit. Charles Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic flight, instantly becoming an international hero.

Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney fought the “long count” bout, which drew 150,000 spectators and still may be the most famous boxing match in history. The silent movie “Wings,” winner of the first Oscar ever for Best Picture, came out in a year that also saw the release of “The Jazz Singer,” the first mass commercial talkie, which revolutionized the movie business. Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry” sold 100,000 copies the first day it was on sale, despite being banned in Boston and other cities.

Mount Rushmore was dedicated, although still unfinished. AT&T created the first television images. CBS began broadcasting on radio, launching a broadcasting boom. The Ford Model T car was replaced by the Model A. The Mississippi Flood drove blacks to the north, where they settled in cities and eventually set the civil rights era in motion.

Calvin Coolidge was a hands-off and mostly silent president. A woman sitting next to him at dinner once famously (and possibly apocryphally) said, “My friend bet me that I wouldn’t be able to get you to say three words tonight.”

“You lose,” Coolidge replied.

America in 1927 looked like a Trump supporter’s dream. While the rest of the world was recovering from the ravages of World War I, we were booming. Forty-two percent of everything manufactured in the world was made here. Americans were adding more telephones every year than Britain had in total. Kansas had more cars than France. The average household bought 1.4 newspapers a day.

The stock market rose by a third in 1927 alone. The economy was growing 3.3 percent a year. Half of the world’s gold was in the United States—in an era when the gold standard still ruled. The federal budget had a surplus of $630 million. The average work week had fallen from 60 hours a week at the beginning of the decade to 48.

The Great Depression was still two years away. The Ku Klux Klan, whose membership in the 1920s peaked at 5 million members, including 75 members of Congress, was rocked by scandal in 1925 and never entirely recovered.

Sign me up. This is the America I want in 2027, when President-for-Life Trump is midway through his third term. But Mr. Bryson, my faithful guide, isn’t through yet.

There were dark sides to the ebullience of 1927. Racism was both casual and endemic. Even the staid New Yorker magazine ran a cartoon with the caption “Niggers all look alike to me.” Slurs against Jews, Catholics, Orientals, Italians, the Irish and women abounded.

“Eugenics,” Bryson tells us, “was used to justify enforced deportations, the introduction of restrictive covenants on where people could live, the suspension of civil liberties, and the involuntary sterilization of tens of thousands of innocent people.”

Andrew Kehoe, facing foreclosure on his farm, murdered his wife, then loaded up 500 pounds of explosives and blew up a school, killing 44 people, including 37 children and Kehoe himself. Anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed, setting off a wave of international protests, riots and bombings.

They shared a prison with Charles Ponzi, who was awaiting deportation for inventing the Ponzi scheme. Al Capone was named one of the 10 most outstanding people in the world.

Fake news? Among its many transgressions against reality, the Evening Graphic published stories that Rudolph Valentino supposedly wrote after he died. Its “composograph” illustrations pasted pictures of real people onto the bodies of models, most famously depicting a naked woman identified as Peaches testifying at an annulment proceeding.

The booming stock market, manipulated by insiders to freeze out small investors, burgeoned into a bubble that led to the disastrous crash of 1929. More than a thousand people died in car crashes in New York City, four times today’s fatality rate.

Two-thirds of murders went unsolved, and nine-tenths of all serious crimes went unpunished. Moral decline, so conservatives said, was ubiquitous. The Ladies Home Journal asked, “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?” America had the highest divorce rate in the world.

Despite seven years of prohibition, New York had twice as many drinking establishments in 1927 as it did before the Prohibition Amendment passed. The federal government, seeking to curb the illegal consumption of industrial alcohol, loaded it with poison, killing some 11,700 Americans.

Even a deregulated America turned out to have disadvantages. By the time Lindbergh made his famous flight, German airlines were carrying 151,000 passengers a year. A thousand people a week were flying between London and Paris. In America, aviation remained unregulated and highly dangerous. There was no regular passenger service, and 31 of the first 40 airmail pilots died in crashes.

Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, spent the decade playing himself into shape, then partying himself out of it. Not only could he not remember the names of his teammates, he had to admit that he couldn’t remember whether he had slept with a woman who named him in a paternity suit.

Even Lindbergh, the golden boy of the year, turned out to be an anti-Semite who suggested we should have been fighting on the German side in World War II.

Whoa, I thought, as my time machine crashed back into the 21st century. No thanks, Mr. Bryson. Maybe I will just stay right here. My post-election dream was turning into a post-election nightmare.

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