Contrarian Historian Hatorade

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Title: The Politicians & The Egalitarians

Rating: 2 Stars

I picked this book up pretty much on a whim. I was just wandering through a book store and, as per usual, I checked out the staff selections. I mean, who would have a deeper passion for books than people working at a bookstore? So, I saw it there on the rack, read the back of the book blurb, and took a dive.

On the surface, it showed a lot of promise. Especially recently, in our hyper polarized political world in which we live, the idea of compromising politicians and the dirty wheeling-dealing of the legislative process has given politics a bad name. Reading a book that grants the possibility that sometimes social progress lurches forward via the half a loaf of compromise approach might not be such a bad message now. Also, given the ever increasing economic divide that our country has experienced over the last several decades, some few kind words about the radicals that rise up in history and tilt at windmills in the name of our country’s ideals of equality of opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness might be a soothing balm. Understanding the ying and the yang of the compromising politician and the rigorous absolutism of the egalitarian might have made an entertaining read.

Alas, this book was not that. It was a series of essays of various political figures. There were essays on Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Brown, W.E.B. DuBois, and others. I was expecting that each one would be placed somewhere in the category of politicians or egalitarians or maybe how the pull of one or the other somehow moved the subject to a certain position.

But no, it was not that. Instead, a lot of it seemed to be throwing mud at previous historians. Apparently, over the last several decades, Thomas Jefferson has had some fair amount of shade thrown at him. You have to admit, it doesn’t look good for one of America’s philosophes, espousing equality for everyone and traumatized by the institution of slavery, to have had several children with a slave and upon his death, break up his slaves’ families in an auction to pay off his bills. However, here, Wilentz goes to some lengths to try to reclaim Jefferson’s reputation. Fair enough, but what does that have to do with the theme of politicians and egalitarians?

Even more oddly, some of his essays don’t really even have anything to do with politicians or egalitarians. He wrote an essay on the Homestead strike. He wrote another essay on the difference between liberals and leftists. He even wrote one about junk history, specifically focusing on Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States.

What is the tie that binds all of these together?

To top it all off, he closes (without not even so much as an afterword to try to tie these essays together) with an essay on Lyndon Baines Johnson. Robert Caro has spent much of the last 30 years writing a mammoth biography of LBJ. He’s finished the fourth volume and is trying to finish the fifth before he dies (he’s in his 80’s). These works have won national book awards and Pulitzers. Wilentz spends a significant chunk of this essay trying to take Caro down, basically claiming that Caro made a fundamental mistake in an assessment of LBJ’s character in the early stages of his work. He is now trapped by that mistake and as the decades unfold, is being forced to write within this trap of his own making.

OK, maybe that’s kind of interesting…if you’re a contrarian historian looking to take the piss out of someone, but again, remember your title and theme…you know…politicians and egalitarians?

He does try to tie this essay back to the theme by contrasting LBJ as the consummate politician who got shit done with Barack Obama, who theoretically wanted to be post partisan but was unable / unwilling to get down into the muck to actually get it done. Ultimately he even concedes that minor point by admitting that LBJ had huge majorities in both the Senate and the House, while Obama did not for most of his term.

Probably the only reason why this didn’t fall down to 1 star is because some of the essays were interesting (ie I didn’t know all that much about W.E.B. DuBois, so I found that essay enlightening).

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