Cramming for my finals, Part 2. High Tension, FDR’s Battle to Power America, by John Riggs.

“A man only learns in two ways, one by reading, and the other by association with smarter people.” – Will Rogers[1]

I absolutely love this book:

High Tension, FDR’s Battle to Power America, by John (“Jack”) Riggs came out in late 2020 or thereabouts. I’d known Jack was at work on this project and happily got my paperback copy soon after. You may remember the country was still in a state of covid lockdown at that time. When the book arrived I eagerly read the first few pages, but the demands of my full-time job (accomplished remotely, thank God, because my wife was in declining health and needed care) found me putting it down. Since then, I’d always known that I would get back to it, but month-after-month has gone by. I even have in the bottom of my email Inbox a gracious update from Jack and an invitation to catch lunch, dated March of 2022 – as yet unanswered. I kept thinking, “I’ll first read the book; then I’ll answer, and then we’ll have lunch” – and yet here we are. Jack, my abject and inadequate apologies.

But through the miracle of cramming, I have finished the book.

And, to repeat, I loved it. I’d have finished it even without the Reunion-imposed deadline. At its heart, the book is a page turner because Jack had lived its content day-in and day-out for decades as a Congressional staffer. He knows its substance at great depth  (much as Jed Rakoff knows his legal discipline, per the previous LOTRW cramming post). But this book, like Jed’s, over-delivers. Jack fully recounts FDR’s battle to power America, but he provides so much more. He looks at a half-century of the pre-FDR background. He reviews the engineering innovation, driven by Edison, Westinghouse, and others. He lays out U.S. policies towards business and their evolution over the period. He weaves throughout the emerging impact of hydroelectric power, the disruptions occasioned by the Great Depression and World War II. Like Jed, Jack peels away the layer of what happened over time to reveal why and how events unfolded as they did. And he proves himself a masterful storyteller, focusing on the people – their strengths and their flaws – and their relationships and engagement with one another.

Does this sound too good to be true? Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a link to a 2020 Hunter College video conversation between Jack and Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior under Bill Clinton. Babbitt takes the first five full minutes to deliver a paean to Jack’s knowledge and authoritative yet captivating writing style, starting out something along the lines of I thought to myself I’d had eight years as Secretary of the Interior working on these problems, to say nothing of my earlier career, and really wondered why I should have to read this book… Then I absorbed the first few pages and literally couldn’t put it down…In my experience, to find a Cabinet-level presidential appointee this effusive about a career civil-servant’s work is virtually unheard-of.

When Babbitt finishes with his praise, he asks Jack, what prompted you to write this book? Jack answers that he’d read Ben Yergin’s book about the history of the oil industry, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, & Power. He then wondered, where’s the counterpart book on electricity? only find there wasn’t one.

Jack adds that his book doesn’t compare with Yergin’s, but an argument can be made that he’s being too modest. Here are two (out of several) additional comparisons that come to mind. The first is Marc Reisner’s classic: Cadillac Desert: the American West and its Disappearing Water. The second is Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. The latter interests me particularly. Tuchman’s purpose in writing her epic book was to provide an analog to the kind of upheaval one might expect to accompany a third World War. In a similar fashion, High Tension gives a feel for the interplay of political-, business-, and technical dynamics now underway in the transition from fossil fuels to solar- and wind power (or the disruption just beginning through the overlay of artificial intelligence onto virtually every human activity). (Projects for Jack to contemplate in retirement!)

In closing, I’d note that one of the many attractions of Jack’s book is that it’s peppered throughout with on-point insights from Will Rogers. In the search for something of Rogers’ material to add, I came across the quote opening this post. It captures the essence of my experience at Swarthmore, where I got to learn both ways.

[1] In another quote, Will Rogers describes a third way of learning, featuring a connection to the theme of Jack’s book, but I didn’t feel comfortable posting it in this blog.

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