Ever hear of Newton D. Baker? Unless you're a close student of early 20th century history, probably not. In fact, the now-obscure Baker had a decent chance of being elected president of the United States in 1932. But the Age of Baker never emerged. Instead, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected, at least in part because a few men at the Democratic presidential nominating convention in Chicago that pivotal year couldn't let go of old grudges. Party conventions really mattered in those days, and the party barons chose the man they hated least. Happy Days Are Here Again, finished by Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Steve Neal shortly before his recent death, gives us an entertaining portrait of that epoch of late-night horse-trading in hotel corridors.

In case you're still wondering, Baker was Woodrow Wilson's war secretary, and he was the Adlai Stevenson of his day, the candidate favored by party intellectuals who thought FDR was a charming dimwit. Although Roosevelt went into the convention as the favorite, he faced heavy competition from the likes of party icon Al Smith of New York, House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas, William McAdoo of California, and a bevy of distinguished Favorite Sons.

Neal lays out the scene for us with lively profiles of the candidates and would-be powerbrokers, among them future presidential father Joseph P. Kennedy, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and the ever-colorful Louisiana "Kingfish," Huey P. Long. They all played a role in Roosevelt's selection, in some cases to their future regret.

The profiles build effectively to the convention crescendo. We all know the outcome: Roosevelt was nominated, and he changed the civic landscape for 50 years. Political junkies, American history buffs and anyone who likes an amusing story will have a good time learning how we got to where we are now. Anne Bartlett is a journalist who lives in South Florida.

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