In 1995, when I was a junior editor at the Wall Street Journal, I was handed "The Daniel J. Boorstin Reader" to review. I had heard of the author but had never read his work. As I dove into this 900-page compendium, I quickly discovered that Boorstin had a discerning eye for detail, an ability to compose flowing sentences, and a love of quirky facts.
He put those talents to use writing compelling narratives that ranged from mummifying techniques in ancient Egypt to art in modern France. His masterpiece was "The Americans," a trilogy that showed the importance of spelling bees, the garment industry, traveler's checks, and all sorts of other hitherto underestimated influences in the making of this country.
After my gushing review of the "Reader" appeared, I got an appreciative letter from Boorstin inviting me to lunch at the Cosmos Club. This is where--at its former location on Lafayette Square, across from the White House--Civil Service commissioner Theodore Roosevelt once held Rudyard Kipling spellbound. Our lunch was in the grand old pile where the club moved in 1952. With his natty bow tie, horn-rimmed glasses, and tweed jacket, Boorstin looked very much the Washington sage.
What I remember chiefly about the lunch is that he was a charming raconteur and a man of great learning who graciously spoke to me as if I were an equal. Though he was already a wizened ancient--or so it seemed to a twentysomething--his thoughts flowed as smoothly as a fine fountain pen and his talk was as intoxicating as a cocktail.
I went away from the meal with enhanced respect for the great man. It was with sadness, then, that I read of his death on February 28 at 89. He was treated to lengthy obituaries, which duly noted his glittering résumé: Rhodes scholar, professor at the University of Chicago, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of History and Technology, Librarian of Congress, bestselling author. But if it's possible for someone who won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and just about every other accolade a historian could reap to be underappreciated, then I would say, judging from the obituaries, that Boorstin was underappreciated.
Most of the articles had a slightly sniffy tone. They praised Boorstin, to be sure, but with reservations. He was, first of all, a "popular" historian--not a compliment in today's academy. He had also "named names" before the House Un-American Activities Committee following a youthful flirtation with communism. Perhaps worst of all, his books are known for celebrating America's achievements instead of wallowing in its shortcomings. As a consequence, Yale's David Greenberg wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Boorstin . . . had come to be derided in some quarters as a conservative."
It's not hard to see why he might have gotten such a reputation. An old-fashioned liberal, Boorstin was disgusted by the excesses of 1960s leftists, whom he labeled, in a 1968 Esquire article, "The New Barbarians." He also opposed racial quotas and much of what passed for ethnic studies, which he once described as "racist trash."
Yet, while earning the enmity of the left, he hardly sought refuge on the right. He mostly stood outside politics, preferring to work by day running the Library of Congress (1975-87), while writing his thick books early in the morning. I suspect that, if pressed, he would have said he'd never abandoned his original liberal creed, with its dedication to equal treatment for all and advancement based on merit.
Boorstin's life showed how this philosophy could work at its best. It must not have been easy for him growing up as the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants in the 1920s and '30s--his family had to abandon Atlanta after encountering severe anti-Semitism--but he nevertheless conquered such gentile institutions as Harvard, Yale, and Oxford. He never, as far as I know, publicly complained of being discriminated against. Instead, he celebrated a country that made his ascent possible.
During our lunch, I remember, he mentioned that Byron White, the retired Supreme Court justice, was a close friend who often graced his Fourth of July parties with a stirring rendition of the Declaration of Independence. Today, historians are trained to dissect the Declaration for all traces of racism, sexism, and other diabolical -isms. How many of them thrill to its sonorous ring? Boorstin did.