THE GIFTED GENERATION
When Government Was Good
By David Goldfield
Illustrated. 534 pp. Bloomsbury. $35.
Approaching the midpoint of this good-hearted book, David Goldfield pauses to reflect on the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers, who, to Brooklynites, “were less a baseball team than part of the family,” whose players “lived scattered about the borough among their fans.” It’s a vanished world, one in which the Dodgers would soon move to “new houses, new roads, new schools, new infrastructures and new lives” in California. Evoking, and mourning, that world — sometimes with appealing personal stories — helps drive “The Gifted Generation,” which Goldfield says is intended as “a compelling brief for government activism on behalf of all Americans.”
The phrase “gifted generation” refers to the boomers, although with expansive actuarial boundaries. The first wave, born in the 1940s, might have watched the Dodgers in Ebbets Field; they would lead very different lives from those born in the 1950s. Many of these men and women, now well past middle age, were “gifted” in the sense that they benefited from the gifts that were given to their parents, chief among them the G.I. Bill of Rights, an enormous jump-start that provided World War II veterans with the means to go to college, buy a house and join the growing, and comfortable, middle class. “Of the many gifts to the gifted generation,” Goldfield writes, “this federal policy was among the finest. It fulfilled both the short-term economic needs of the nation and the long-term educational needs of a transforming economy.” This is cheering stuff, a reminder that America, which was already a great nation, became a greater nation when government policies were able to help release the potential of its citizenry.
These gifts, though, were by no means universally bestowed. African-Americans got shortchanged by agencies that administered the G.I. Bill; private colleges kept control of their admissions policies; and minorities continued to face exclusion and quotas. (Goldfield’s pages are filled with freshly unearthed nuggets, like the fact that in 1951, American Airlines ordered its ticket agents to segregate passengers.) Nor were these gifts guaranteed to last: For instance, in terms of careers and incomes, children no longer do better than their parents, numbers that declined sharply between 1940 and 1980.
In these early stages of the Donald Trump era, there’s something almost old-fashioned in the notion that government can, and should, work to make life better. If that’s an idea whose time has gone, Goldfield points his finger at President Ronald Reagan, who liked to say, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” (Bill Clinton, in his 1996 State of the Union speech, said in Reaganesque style that “the era of big government is over,” though he added that “we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”) The aim of “The Gifted Generation” is to make a reader ask what has been lost, and why.
Goldfield, the Robert Lee Bailey professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has a romantic view of three presidents who, apart from having been reared in rural America, could not have been less alike: Harry Truman, a New Deal Democrat, forced (after the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt) to come to terms with postwar America; Dwight D. Eisenhower, Truman’s successor, a five-star general and middle-of-the-road Republican, who preserved the status quo; and Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan, whose presidency promoted antipoverty programs as well as major advances in civil rights and health care, but who was consumed by the divisive Vietnam War. All three, Goldfield believes, moved the government “to extend the pursuit of happiness to a broader population,” and all three “perceived that the nation could not be whole until everyone had the opportunity to succeed. They knew from personal experience that government was not only good but also necessary to address society’s inequalities.”