In the summer of 1917, Walter Lippmann strutted into Washington as it prepared for war. Both he and his young country were ready to prove their worth as superpowers. He was 27 and newly married, recruited to whisper into the ear of Newton Baker, the secretary of war. Lippmann’s reputation already prefigured the heights to which it would ultimately ascend. None other than Teddy Roosevelt had anointed him “the most brilliant young man of his age.”
Following the timeless capital tradition of communal living, the Lippmanns moved into a group house just off Dupont Circle. Their residence—which they shared with a coterie of other fast-talking, quick-thinking, precociously influential 20-somethings—instantly became the stuff of legend, the wonkish frat house of American liberalism. Denizens included Felix Frankfurter, the Harvard Law professor who went on to make his mark with forceful crusades on behalf of unpopular causes, and then with Supreme Court opinions and a wide array of well-placed protégés.
Dinner conversations at the rowhouse extended late into the night. Older minds gravitated to these meals, eager to watch a new vision of government being hammered out. Among the eminent guests who welcomed a respite from stuffy, self-important Washington were Herbert Hoover, Louis Brandeis, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. It was Holmes, a regular and enthusiastic presence at the table, who gave the place a name—the House of Truth.
The legal historian Brad Snyder has reconstructed the glories of this group house in a bulging, careful study of its inhabitants. Though The House of Truth drowns in detail, Snyder’s account usefully maps a hinge moment in American political history. Progressivism, that amorphous explosion of reformism in the early years of the century, had come and gone. Thinkers like Lippmann and Frankfurter increasingly referred to themselves as “liberals,” by which they didn’t mean advocates of laissez-faire governance. Their use of the label connoted something closer to its present-day meaning, and their faith in government’s capacity to improve the world was boosted by the war. Liberals believed that America’s entry into the global conflagration would transform their country. The experience, they hoped, would rouse a new spirit of solidarity. It would corrode the ingrained Jeffersonian hostility to the state, and would permit America to exert a beneficent influence beyond its borders.