[NOTE: Historical revisionism occurs when, every generation or so, the scholarly consensus about important events or individuals begins to shift. Revisionism is not a concept that appeals to neophyte historians, or to “average Americans” trying to understand the past, many of whom come to the subject with the quaint notions that a) history is just a bunch of names and dates–or, as we historians like to insist, “facts”; and that b) said “facts” do not change. But, the longer one stays in this profession, the more he or she understands the importance of the historian’s opinions, biases, interpretations, and, ultimately, of revisionism, in shaping our received understanding of the past.]
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“Back in the day,” as my former students were wont to say, I did not enjoy studying–let alone teaching–modern American history. I had done my dissertation in the history of a single state during the era of the early American republic (late 18th-early 19th centuries) and, by gosh, that was all I really needed, or wanted, to think about. And, if I had wound up on a college or university faculty, perhaps I might have been able to get away with that mind set, at least for a while, especially when teaching upper-level courses “in my field.” But then a funny thing happened: I wound up teaching American history at the secondary school level, where the survey course is the bread and butter of every department, and, at my school, for the stronger students, the Advanced Placement American History course was the ultimate challenge, because it was supposed to be taught “on the college level.”
I had trouble with this at first. The AP U.S. History test purportedly covered the entirety of the nation’s past (an impossible task, by the way). Yet, as I soon discovered, there would be no essay questions treating solely events of the most recent couple of decades, although there might be a few objective, or “multiple-guess,” questions on that period. That still left a large swath of the nation’s recent past for me to “cover,” if I was to give my students a fighting chance to succeed on the AP exam, like it or not. And I finally discovered a way to like it.
What I did was to turn American history since the end of World War II into what I modestly called (to myself, not to my students) the “age of Lamplugh,” since I was born in 1944. As I tried to explain the history of the Vietnam War, the presidency of Richard Nixon, or the Civil Rights Movement to myself (the essential preliminary step to teaching my students about them, of course), I struggled to maintain at least a modicum of objectivity while delving into topics that I not only remembered but also had strong opinions about.
What helped immeasurably as I attempted to “play fair” when discussing the part of the past that I had grown up in, was the appearance of a steady stream of detailed, colorful studies of significant people and developments since the end of the Second World War. I eagerly read these and tried to incorporate ideas, interpretations, even anecdotes from them, into my classroom arsenal. The most important benefit, for me at least, was that I began to realize that there were more nuanced ways to interpret the heroes and villains of my youth than those I preferred to use. (I know, I know: what a concept!)
From time to time, I shared my growing appreciation of modern American history with my colleagues, in the columns of our History department newsletter, which I edited for five years or so. Our department was fairly diverse in political viewpoints, and I tried to be objective whenever I discussed teaching about the nation’s recent past. For instance, when I treated The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and civil rights, I tried to include a variety of interpretations, not just rely on my own memories of the man and his times, though those remained powerful to me.
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In an article in January 2009, I offered excerpts from recent works on Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, two of my least favorite modern American presidents. These volumes presented well-supported conclusions that were “kinder and gentler,” because they were more objective, than my own would have been:
Richard Nixon died in 1994. At his funeral, Senator Bob Dole prophesied that “the second half of the twentieth century will be known as the age of Nixon.” In a sense he surely did not intend, I think Bob Dole was correct. What Richard Nixon left behind was the very terms of our national self-image: a notion that there are two kinds of Americans. On one side, that “Silent Majority.” The “nonshouters.” The middle-class, middle American, suburban, exurban, and rural coalition who call themselves, now, “Values voters,” “people of faith,” “patriots,” or even, simply, “Republicans”–and who feel themselves condescended to by snobby opinion-making elites, and who rage about un-Americans, anti-Christians, amoralists, aliens. On the other side are the “liberals,” the “cosmopolitans,” the “intellectuals,” the “professionals”–“Democrats.” Who say they see shouting in opposition to injustice as a higher form of patriotism. Or say “live and let live.” Who believe that to have “values”has more to do with a willingness to extend aid to the downtrodden than where, or if, you happen to worship–but who look down on the first category as unwitting dupes of feckless elites who exploit sentimental pieties to aggrandize their wealth, start wars, ruin lives. Both populations–to speak in ideal types–are equally, essentially, tragically American. And both have learned to consider the other not quite American at all. The argument over Richard Nixon, pro and con, gave us the language for this war. . . .
How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet.
Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York, 2008), p.748. And Perlstein’s work on the rise of modern political conservatism also has not ended yet. See his Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001); and The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014).
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Finally, though, dissolving the Reagan myth by pointing out his presidency’s many failures, regressive policies, and dangerous legacies should not obscure his essential importance. As Edward Kennedy observed, Reagan was an effective president because he took ideas seriously. . . . Although passionate–at times too passionate–in fighting for what he believed in, Reagan was a leader who understood American politics, and who, with the egregious exception of Iran-contra, practiced the art of compromise shrewdly. If greatness in a president is measured in terms of affecting the temper of the times, whether you like it or not, Reagan stands second to none among the presidents of the second half of the twentieth century. American history is filled with presidents who tried to build and consolidate a conservative reaction to previous eras of reform, including Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Calvin Coolidge. None came close to matching Reagan in redefining the politics of his era and in reshaping the basic terms on which politics and government would be conducted long after he left office. Add in Reagan’s remarkable turnabout in helping to end the cold war, as well as his success, albeit easily exaggerated, in uplifting the country after the disaster in Vietnam and the Carter years, and his achievement actually looks more substantial than the claims invented by the Reaganite mythmakers. . . .
Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (New York, 2008), p.286.
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As a sort of response to the Wilentz volume, consider James Broussard’s friendlier assessment of Ronald Reagan’s legacy, which I summarized in an earlier post as follows:
Reagan deserves to be considered “the great American conservative champion” (179), . . . even if his actual views and actions on key issues are unacceptable (if done by someone not named Ronald Reagan) to today’s more frantic, ideologically lock-step GOP. . . . Reagan was the FDR of the Republicans, a strong leader who was not only good for the country but also revived his party’s fortunes.
. . . . Reagan was “the only president in a fifty-year period who was able, not merely to slow, but actually to reverse the rising tide of federal discretionary spending. Conservatives praise this achievement and treasure it in future memory. For liberals, it was a disgraceful abandonment of government’s duty to meet public needs.” (182). . .
“Reagan’s greatest achievement by far . . . is the successful—indeed victorious—end of the Cold War.” (184) There are those who award the lion’s share of credit for this development to Soviet Chairman Gorbachev; Broussard responds, “Even Reagan’s most fervent supporters cannot claim that he alone produced this change, but all except his most bitter critics agree that he had something to do with it.” Moreover, “few would disagree that Reagan’s impact, both at home and abroad, was profound.” (188)
James H. Broussard, Ronald Reagan: Champion of Conservative America (New York and London, 2015), pp. 179-188, passim.
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Now, none of this is intended to “sell” a particular interpretation of either Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. Rather, I’m arguing that it is possible–indeed, admirable–for a historian to strive for objectivity when evaluating a controversial contemporary figure, even if he or she does not always achieve it. Alas, that, too, is one of the burdens of historical revisionism.