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Wednesday, July 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Citizen Dave: Lessons learned from In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

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It's already presidential election season and it's a good idea to ask what notes, aside from specific policy proposals, each candidate is hitting, what part of each of us they are trying to appeal to.

Like a lot of Americans this summer I've been reading Erik Larson's latest book, In the Garden of Beasts. The book is about Franklin Roosevelt's first ambassador to Hitler's Germany, William Dodd. It's full of intrigue, not the least of which revolves around the serial sexual exploits of the ambassador's daughter.

But that's not the reason to read the book. What I found fascinating were the descriptions of middle class German life at the beginning of Nazi rule. It feels so much like America. People pretty much just wanted to go about their own business and they didn't want to be bothered with the details of Hitler's policies.

What's most disheartening about Larson's book are descriptions of how close things came to turning out differently. Hitler was put in power by men who thought they could control him, many of whom ended up dead at Hitler's behest. He wasn't taken seriously by the U.S. State Department and he was dismissed by one contemporary as a man who looked like "a suburban hairdresser on his day off."

Larson describes how the personality of Germany changed overnight under Hitler's reign. Hitler made it okay, in fact patriotic, to hate. Any electorate is as complex as a single human being. We all have tendencies toward decency and generosity combined with the capability for paranoia and callousness. Hitler played on the latter.

For those who think it can't happen here, another good book to read is Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America. Though fiction, Roth paints a chilling portrait of how a popular, but pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh might have been elected president in 1940 over a tired and less popular FDR.

The point is that sometimes one person does matter and the notes they choose to play on the public stage get echoed back and can change history for good or evil. It's what Lincoln meant when he called on Americans to find the "better angels of our nature." And it's why I still support Barack Obama. Because at the end of the day, despite my frustrations with his policies, he appeals to the things that are best in us.

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