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We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More…
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We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More Equal America

by Charles Peters

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On the whole I found this disappointing, especially after the rave reviews quoted on the book's dust jacket. The first half is mildly interesting in parts, but much of the second is eye-glazingly banal. Jon Meacham writes in the Forward to his eighty-nine year old friend's book, “This book is Charlie's valedictory, his view from the mountaintop after decades in the arena,” and that is indeed the feeling conveyed. This is a swan song, in which a few sections may be of interest but much is misty-eyed and meandering. For example, Peters concludes chapter 8, “The Education Wars,” in which he explains that gifted, well-trained teachers are important and that teachers' unions have been an obstacle in raising teacher quality, with the interesting insight that

”Perhaps most important of all is that those in the entertainment industry with influence over the opinion of young people make sure that they never suggest that taking school seriously is uncool. The students themselves, though they have excellent excuses for not giving school their best effort, should consider whether it is a good idea to use those excuses to wreck the rest of their lives.”

Okay then. Just get those entertainment people on board and that problem should be solved!

Another example of this sort of silliness is in chapter 9, “A Cynical Age.” Having introduced the chapter with a summary of how presidential lies about Vietnam and Watergate increased public cynicism about politics, Peters goes on to give equal space and weight to movies – “The Godfather” movies and “The Candidate” – as “another contributor to cynicism about institutions.” Rather than seeing movies as a reflection of changing views, Peters credits them with being the cause, which seems like a claim requiring some serious support to me, but that never materializes. Actually, that is typical of the book, throughout which the author makes claims about education, abortion, guns, and so on (claims which, as a fairly liberal person, I am often inclined to agree with, but which, to be convincing in a polemic of this sort need some proof) but fails to provide evidence.

Peters' premise is that America has largely abandoned its generous, civic minded past to become, especially by the early 1980's and ever increasingly, selfish, greedy, and snobbish. The period of great virtue was during F.D.R.'s presidency, when the country came together to overcome the Great Depression and win WWII, through the early '60s. Now, I'm willing to believe that a spirit of generosity and cooperation might have been more prevalent during those times – adversity can bring out the best in people – but Peters does not, for me, persuasively demonstrate that there was a real change in national character. The New Deal, the Great Society, etc. are evidence of Americans' willingness to sacrifice temporarily for the greater good, but less noble impulses were evident before and during this period, as well as the more recent ones that Peters deplores. Going back a few years before FDR we have the Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding administration, the original Ponzi scheme, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, the “conspicuous consumption of Fifth Avenue and Newport, racism, antisemitism, etc. Peters talks about how snobbishness about going to the “right” college or university is only a recent development, but a quick Google search will bring up articles about Columbia, Harvard, and Yale advertising back in the 1860's and 70's the advantages their graduates enjoyed, and few readers will believe that “networking” is a recent phenomenon. It seems more likely, and more supported by Peters' evidence, that segments of the country experience occasional bouts of public spiritedness, as evidenced by the popularity of service in the Peace Corps during the Kennedy years or the generosity of housewives to hobos at their doors during the Depression, and then lapse back to more typical levels of moderate communal engagement leavening self-interested behavior.

For all that the years and programs he idealizes may have promoted a “fairer and more equal America,” the years of the New Deal, the Great Society, etc. were also the time of the Red Scare, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the John Birch Society, and more. Enthusiasm for “fairness and equality” was certainly not shared by all Americans, even in the 30's through the 60's – plenty of citizens loathed FDR, and I recently read “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,” which details how the bond between Evangelical Christianity and conservative businessmen was forged at this time in reaction against Great Society programs (Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsing the playboy businessman and pageant promoter Donald Trump with “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” however bizarre, didn't come out of nowhere). Peters does, however, provide dramatic and relevant figures for things such as “the ratio of CEO pay to factory-worker pay rose from 42 to 1 in 1960... to as high in some companies as 531 to 1 in the year 2000,” and a top income tax rate of 90 percent in the Roosevelt years being reduced under Reagan (from the then top rate of 70 percent) to 36 percent. And now, of course, with income inequality at stratospheric levels and cuts in programs for the needy imminent, Trump proposes to cut that top rate even more.

As an example of what I find unconvincing in his claim for there having been a period of virtue, in the chapter “Main Street Goes Wall Street” Peters traces the careers of three lawyers from their early days as activists “for liberal causes” in the 60s to their later careers as (wicked) corporate lobbyists by the 80's. While acknowledging the effects of things like the end of the Vietnam war, the draft, and inflation, Peters seems not to consider that his young idealists, like those in generations before them, were also getting older, perceiving more personal financial obligations, and being increasingly tempted by opportunities. What he sees as a “societal” change looks more to me like the sort of change typical in individuals. Young people today still join the Peace Corps, Teach for America, AmeriCorps, just as Americans of all ages still come together to help neighbors in need, operate food pantries, build houses for the poor, crowd-fund for medical emergencies.

A few parts of the book are just weird, such as chapter 10, “Fashionable Trouble.” Peters' descriptions of the expensive tastes of the wealthy, in designer clothing, handbags, decorating, food, and more is so irrelevant to the topic of “fairness” in America, not to mention painfully dull (this was the only chapter where I eventually started skimming) that it's hard not to feel annoyed at his far too deferential editor.

Chapter 11, “Clinton and Beyond,” in which Peters describes the successes and failures of the last Democratic president he sees as having had a strong appeal to the “common man,” is well done and pulled the book back up to three stars. Bill Clinton's political career, and Hillary's, offer useful insights into the ways Democrats might strengthen their appeal for working class voters, as well as various ways politicians can go wrong.

Finally, in chapter 12, “What Do We Do Now?” Peters offers his suggestions for how to make America fairer. Since this is clearly a pretty heavy duty challenge it seems unfair to criticize, but... his suggestions range from the improbable (such as, executives choosing to take smaller compensation packages, companies spending profits on higher wages for workers rather than stock repurchases) to the obvious (young people voting). Most of his ideas are great, in theory, but the trick, unfortunately, is in getting them to catch on, and this book offers no compelling ideas for how to make that happen. Which is a shame. If Peters could explain the secrets to inspiring people to willingly paying higher taxes in order to help their less fortunate neighbors, to choose work in lower paying professions over higher paying ones for the opportunity to be of most service to society, to sacrifice their own convenience in order to promote the interests of disadvantaged citizens, and so on, I think many readers would be interested, but he can not. ( )
  meandmybooks | Jul 7, 2017 |
The Fall as seen from The Decline

Charles Peters is an unreconstructed, old fashioned liberal. Now in his tenth decade, he can look back at how and when things changed, with a modicum of perspective. Or so he would like us to think.

His basic argument is sound. Government has changed from being an opportunity, a change agent, and a rewarding life, to the scum of the earth. Where FDR (Peters’ first president) attracted all the best talent, took chances and made gigantic strides, by the 1980s government was the problem, an embarrassment, and barely above Congress in public contempt. No one wants to go into government – except as a lobbyist. We Do Our Part tells how we got there.

The book rapidly degenerates into pop culture. About half way through there is an endless treatise on taste as propounded by glossy magazines in the New York City of the 1970s. There is interminable name dropping, whole lists of them: writers, editors, publishers and the trendy from that era. It is content-free. This is soon overtaken by fashion articles from the 1990s New York Times and various Conde Nast offerings, pushing the posh life. And then radio and tv commentators and show hosts, with special focus on Louis Rukeyser of Wall Street Week – you may or may not recall. He seems to be the poster boy for the new greed. The point is that t we are obsessed with luxury, judging by the media. There’s news. It all sort of ties into selfishness and self-indulgence, as opposed to the good old days of the Depression, when everyone was equally miserable and willing to help others.

Too often, Peters appears to be an apologist for the Democrats. This is unfortunate, because he has been there, seen it all, and knows full well the implications of everything that has happened. Pretending not to (“It wasn’t his fault that …”) cheapens his arguments immeasurably. The unstated causation he implies for everything is unproven, speculative and suspect when it isn’t just blatantly false.

For all that, We Do Our Part remains fascinating - to read the 90 year perspective of someone in the eye of the storm. It is current, perceptive and fast paced. As long as you can distance yourself, as Peters likes to think he has, it makes a fine read.

David Wineberg ( )
1 vote DavidWineberg | Jan 24, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812993527, Hardcover)

The legendary editor who founded the Washington Monthly and pioneered explanatory journalism trains his keen, principled eye on the changes that have reshaped American politics and civic life beginning with the New Deal.
 
“We Do Our Part” was the slogan of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration—and it captured the can-do spirit that allowed America to survive the Great Depression and win World War II. Although the intervening decades have seen their share of progress as well, in some ways we have regressed as a nation. Over the course of a sixty-year career as a Washington, D.C., journalist, historian, and challenger of conventional wisdom, Charles Peters has witnessed these drastic changes firsthand. This stirring book explains how we can consolidate the gains we have made while recapturing the generous spirit we have lost.
 
In a volume spanning the decades, Peters compares the flood of talented, original thinkers who flowed into the nation’s capital to join FDR’s administration with the tide of self-serving government staffers who left to exploit their opportunities on Wall Street and as lobbyists from the 1970s to today. During the same period, the economic divide between rich and poor grew, as we shifted from a culture of generosity to one of personal aggrandizement. With the wisdom of a prophet, Peters connects these two trends by showing how this money-fueled elitism has diminished our trust in one another and our nation—and changed Washington for the worse.
 
While Peters condemns the crass buckraking that afflicts our capital, and the rampant consumerism that fuels our greed, he refuses to see America’s downward drift as permanent. By reminding us of our vanished civic ideal, We Do Our Part also points the way forward. Peter argues that if we want to revive the ethos of the New Deal era—a time when government attracted the brightest and the most dedicated, and when our laws reflected a spirit of humility and community—we need only demand it of ourselves and our elected officials.
 
With a new administration in Washington, the time is ripe for a reassessment of our national priorities. We Do Our Part offers a vital road map of where we have been and where we are going, drawn from the invaluable perspective of a man who has seen America’s better days and still believes in the promise that lies ahead.

(retrieved from Amazon Wed, 11 Jan 2017 23:43:57 -0500)

The founder of "Washington Monthly" describes the drastic and negative changes occurring in Washington, D.C., that are driving the economic divide and culture of consumerism.

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