Factoids on Parade
Why contemporary history is hard to write.
Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By MAX BOOT
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."
It may, indeed, be impossible to reach definitive conclusions about such recent controversies, but his repeated failure to take a provocative stance--or any stance at all--doesn't make for very scintillating reading. Too often this book reminds me of the stack of old Newsweeks that my parents kept in the closet while I was growing up. Reading Restless Giant is a lot like leafing through those yellowing magazines, insofar as it consists of a summary of recent events without much new information or analysis that would surprise anyone who was sentient at the time--which means, for the bulk of this book, anyone older than 30 or so.
The fault may not be entirely Patterson's, since the time period assigned to him by the editors--"The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore"--does not easily offer a coherent theme. It might have made more sense to focus on 1974-1991--"The End of the Cold War." Or 1980-2001--"America Resurgent." But to make sense of 1974-2000 is not easy, and Patterson does not rise to the challenge. His title, Restless Giant, does not tell us anything particularly interesting about this period; it could just as well be applied to almost any other period in American history.
Patterson did better in his previous contribution to this series, Grand Expectations, which did offer a relatively clear theme: A booming postwar economy had "stimulated unprecedented and, by the late 1960s, near-fantastic expectations about the Good Life," which helped "to accelerate a rights-consciousness that had always been inherent in American democratic culture."
Lacking an equally coherent theme in his new volume, his narrative too often bogs down in an undifferentiated mass of information. Patterson loves to conjure up endless regiments of facts and figures and send them marching to beat readers into stupefaction. Too often we get sentences such as this: "Of the 107 million households in the country in 2001, 106 million had color televisions (76 million had two or more sets); 96 million, VCR and/or DVD players; 92 million, microwave ovens; 82 million, cable TV; 81 million, either room or central air-conditioning; 79 million, electric or gas clothes dryers; 60 million, personal computers; and 51 million, access to the Internet."
The only thing he left out was the number of kitchen sinks.
The lack of authorial vision makes it hard for him to separate the transcendent from the trivial. In over 400 pages Patterson has almost nothing to say about how the American military got back on its feet after the Vietnam war--a subject central to the history of the last quarter-century. The earth-shaking developments of 1989-1992--from the reunification of Germany to the collapse of the Soviet Union--are briefly summarized in a manner that conveys none of the drama of those crucial years. But he somehow works in a reference not only to RoboCop, a 1987 action flick of no particular significance, but also to "its shoddier sequels, RoboCop2 (1990) and RoboCop3 (1991)." Attention to popular culture can make for an interesting analysis of American society, but Patterson is usually satisfied with long lists of movies or TV shows, introduced by a few perfunctory comments about the public's appetite for "gore and ghoulishness" or about its equally strong desire for "inoffensive stuff."
One might be tempted to conclude from the shortcomings of Restless Giant that it's a fool's errand to write a history of "the present." It is, indeed, harder in many ways than writing about the long-ago past, since we lack much perspective on our own time; but it's far from impossible. What it takes is either a vivid narrative (Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down) or a provocative argument (Robert Samuelson's The Good Life and Its Discontents). Unfortunately, Patterson's book falls short on both counts.
The good news is that the Oxford history, which began appearing in 1982, remains only half complete. There is good reason to hope that the remaining five installments, which do not face the burden of making sense of our own times, will come closer to the stratospheric standards of the earlier works.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.