The Magazine

Factoids on Parade

Why contemporary history is hard to write.

Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By MAX BOOT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Restless Giant

The United States From Watergate to Bush v. Gore

by James T. Patterson

Oxford, 448 pp., $35

I RECEIVED THIS LATEST VOLUME of the Oxford History of the United States with a mixture of hope and trepidation.

My expectations were high because of the quality of the previous four entries in this series. At least three of them--Robert Middlekauf's The Glorious Cause about the American Revolution; James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom about the Civil War; and David Kennedy's Freedom from Fear about the Great Depression and World War II--have been acknowledged as masterpieces and showered with Pulitzer Prizes and other accolades. Not only are they definitive accounts of their subjects but, in spite of the impeccable professorial pedigrees of the authors, they are also eminently accessible narratives that appeal to the great unwashed mass of plain old history buffs.

My sense of apprehension was due to the fact that the newest volume covers 1974 to 2000--history so recent that partisan passions have not yet had a chance to cool. The result, I feared, would be a political diatribe that would present the history of the past several decades through the prism of trendy academic leftism employing au courant terms like "privileged" (used as a verb, not an adjective) and "gendered." I need not have feared--at least not on that score. James T. Patterson may be closely associated with some highly suspect institutions (his title is Ford Foundation Professor Emeritus of History at Brown, which to a conservative sensibility is akin to being Al Franken Professor of Politics at Ben & Jerry's U.), but he has done a scrupulously fair job in Restless Giant, as he did in an earlier Oxford installment, Grand Expectations, covering 1945-1974.

There are only a few passages that may raise the hackles of conservatives. For instance, he writes that "white flight" to the suburbs in the 1970s "vividly demonstrated the enduring power of racist fears and misunderstandings," seeming to slight the legitimate concerns of people wanting to escape high crime and failing schools. And when discussing Ronald Reagan, he finds "the most remarkable foreign policy achievements of his eight years as president" to be his move in his second term "toward historic accommodations with the Soviet Union." He means the 1987 treaty eliminating intermediate-range Soviet and American missiles from Europe--a mere footnote to Reagan's real achievement, which, as even many onetime critics now acknowledge, was consigning the "evil empire" to the "ash heap of history."

Such lapses aside, Patterson avoids many traps that would have ensnared most other academics writing about recent events. For instance, he acknowledges that affirmative action programs "did little to help the masses of low-income minorities." That it is "difficult to establish a strong and clear causal connection between economic forces and crime rates." That campaign finance reforms such as caps on donations did not have a "significant" impact in reducing the influence of moneyed interests. That voters were won over by Reagan's message, not just "seduced" by "his manner of delivering it." And that Bill Clinton was "unusually self-indulgent, inconsiderate, self-pitying, and narcissistic."

Lest I give the wrong idea through selective quotation, I don't mean to imply that Patterson's book is a sequel to Paul Johnson's unabashedly conservative A History of the American People. Restless Giant is not conservative. It's not liberal, either. It's not much of anything. That's the problem. Fox News Channel may deliver its "Fair and Balanced" motto with a wink and a nudge, but Patterson takes this injunction seriously. Too seriously. Striving to be fair, he too often becomes banal and platitudinous.

On vital question after vital question, he takes refuge in boring equivocations. "Whether Reagan's economic policies were good for the country was--and is--hard to judge," he writes. In a similar vein, he says of the 1990 budget deal between a Democratic Congress and the first President Bush: "Whether the deal had great economic effects is unclear." No clearer is his judgment on the Millennial generation born after 1982, which was supposedly more conservative than the baby boomers and Gen-Xers: "Whether such generational characterizations held water was hard to say." By the time we reach the controversy over Clinton's 1998 airstrikes on Sudan and Afghanistan, which critics charged were designed to deflect attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it is not surprising to read Patterson's mushy conclusion: "Whether this was so was impossible to prove."