Book group focuses on nation’s presidents

HOWLAND — Discussing a president’s politics, policy and history can be conducted in a thought-provoking, intelligent manner.

The Presidents: Book Discussion Group at the Howland Branch of the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library aims to make the case in point.

Participants meet about six times a year, generally 7 p.m. the third Wednesday of every other month, to discuss a biography of a former U.S. president. Books are chosen beforehand by the facilitator, Howland Library branch manager Jeff Eling.

Eling said he created this presidential book group in February 2015 due in large part to the vast local interest in history.

“I noticed an interest in history, and I liked the theme for a book discussion group,” he said.

Eling has a particular focus when he is selecting the group’s reading material. “It is first a process of selecting those presidents who are either considered consequential by historians — that is, Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, etc. — or important for some other reason, such as covering an important historical period.

“I choose from well-reviewed historical biographies written for a popular audience. It is important that the book focus on the presidency itself, though the books often cover the rest of their political career and personal life as well,” Eling said.

Comparisons to present-day socio-economic programs and advancing technology were made during this month’s meeting, which focused on the biography, “Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century,” by Alonzo Hambly.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd president of the United States at a time when a relatively young medium — radio — was spreading news faster to a broader audience than ever before. The first radio news broadcast aired in 1920, a dozen years before the four-term president was first elected.

Book group member Beverly Butler of Howland said the biography portrayed the importance of the radio to the times. Group members shared memories of walking down streets and hearing the same news program drifting from open windows of each home in the neighborhood.

Roosevelt reached out to the populace with his fireside chats on the radio. He explained his policies and reassured a downtrodden country dealing with war and the Great Depression that better times were coming.

Robert Seibold of Sharon, Pa., said, “FDR brought out the three ‘R’s’ — Recovery, Relief and Reform.” But the biography did not touch upon much of the president’s reform programs, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, or SEC, and Social Security. Seibold said the book spent the majority of its writing on other matters.

Dave Barran of Warren countered that Hambly did mention the creation of Social Security — a program that had touched everyone in the discussion group.

The programs were part of The New Deal, created by Roosevelt to put Americans back to work and help the economy get out of The Great Depression. The government instituted the projects and programs on the premise of restoring some measure of dignity and prosperity to Americans.

The reading group opened two years ago reading “Mr. President: George Washington and the Making of the Nation’s Highest Office,” by Harlow Giles Unger.

Each subsequent meeting has focused on the next president chosen by the moderator in chronological order. So far, the books read by the group have focused on presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Happenstance brought Warren resident Tom Lewis to the book group.

“I don’t usually come to this branch, but last year I was here and I noticed the flyer for Presidents Book Group. I like history, so I went to a meeting,” said Lewis. Now, he regularly attends meetings.

Seibold recommended reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “No Ordinary Life, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, The Home Front in World War II.” This Pulitzer Prize-winning book deals with more of the personal relationship between the president and first lady, her role as first lady and his relationship with the American people.

Jean Taylor of Newton Falls quoted philosopher George Santayana. “Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,” after contemplating the recent financial calamity and the discussions of the book of The Great Depression.