The Books Briefing: The Leaders Who Weathered Historical Storms

Power players and unsung heroes: Your weekly guide to the best in books

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Emergency Banking Act in March 1933. (AP)

In a crisis, leaders step up—and not always in the expected ways. As the U.S. scrambles to contain the novel coronavirus, President Donald Trump has been heavily criticized for his lack of preparation and misleading messaging, while the immunologist Anthony Fauci has become an unlikely celebrity. Meanwhile, volunteers around the world have mobilized to keep their neighbors safe, fed, and healthy. In this tumultuous time, reading about historical feats of leadership can be a source of perspective and comfort, as well as inspiration.

The author Fergus M. Bordewich’s new history of the Civil War focuses on the radical Republican legislators who guided ambitious policies through Congress while the nation was in turmoil. The historian Eric Rauchway homes in on the transition between the Hoover and Roosevelt presidencies, showing how Roosevelt responded to the uncertainties of the Great Depression.

Vanessa Siddle Walker’s study of school desegregation reveals the work of black educators who had to keep their activism secret to protect their jobs. Anne Firor Scott examines the women’s organizations that supported the everyday functions of communities and protected their most vulnerable members throughout the 19th century. And Sherwin B. Nuland’s “biography of medicine” chronicles the accomplishments of pioneering physicians—such as the development of the personal protective equipment that’s so essential today.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

The bitter origins of the fight over big government
“Rauchway … argues that in the conflict between the lame-duck Hoover and the incoming Roosevelt, we can already see the tension between the New Deal and the opposition to it that would structure American politics for much of the rest of the 20th century.”

📚 Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal, by Eric Rauchway

The secret network of black teachers behind the fight for desegregation
“Black educators called themselves hidden provocateurs—these are the people figuring out, on a local level, how to provoke change and maneuver to get better facilities and more funding.”

📚 The Lost Education of Horace Tate: Uncovering the Hidden Heroes Who Fought for Justice in Schools, by Vanessa Siddle Walker

Abraham Lincoln’s radical moderation
“The Radicals were quick on their feet, exploiting national turmoil to break a legislative logjam … Here was the chance to neutralize the Democratic aversion to centralized power and advance a collectivist vision of the commercial republic.”

📚 Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America, by Fergus M. Bordewich
📚 The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote

The civic organizations that relied on women volunteers
“Women have long formed collective organizations intended to improve American society. They volunteered their time, waged political campaigns, and advocated for the poor and elderly. They organized voters, patronized the arts, and protested the government.”

📚 Natural Allies: Women’s Organizations in American History, by Anne Firor Scott
📚 The Paradox of Gender Equality: How American Women’s Groups Gained and Lost Their Public Voice, by Kristin A. Goss

The incredible rubber glove
“To [Dr.] Bloodgood’s surprise, wearing [gloves] during hernia surgeries led to a dramatic drop-off in the infection rate. To which [Dr.] Halsted responded, fittingly: ‘Why was I so blind not to have perceived the necessity for wearing them all the time?’”

📚 Doctors: The Biography of Medicine, by Sherwin B. Nuland

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Rosa Inocencio Smith. Her quarantine book club is reading Middlemarch, by George Eliot.

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