The Magazine

Factoids on Parade

Why contemporary history is hard to write.

Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By MAX BOOT
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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.