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October 26, 2004

Pop Historian Shows Astounding Lack Of Smarts

Robert Dallek is a popular Democratic leaning historian. Perhaps you've seen his toothy grin on TV. i own his thick tome on LBJ, but haven't gotten around to reading it yet. In a column for USA Today, he presents a pretty good recap of electoral history, while exhibiting an astounding lack of analytical ability.

If voters pay as close attention to a president's record as I think they do, Bush will likely sink on Nov. 2. Like Taft, Bush is vulnerable to charges of being in the pockets of corporate interests. Like Hoover, he has presided over an administration that has lost jobs. Not since the Great Depression has any other president had to run on a record of shrinking rather than expanding employment. However mindful he has been about the economic causes of his father's defeat, Bush does not seem well positioned to avoid his father's political fate.
Repeat after me Bob: "Bush will win re-election. Bush will win re-election." If you start saying it now, you may get used to the idea before it happens next week.

Dallek conveniently cherry-picks his analogies to justify his own wishful thinking, and reveals his typical liberal Democrat myopia:

Like Ford, who unrealistically denied Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and Carter, who could not manage to rescue American hostages from Tehran or control rising oil prices, Bush's blundering policy in Iraq, alienation of so many other governments and peoples around the globe, and uncertain formula for dealing with terrorists raise doubts about his stewardship of foreign policy, which can work to deny him a second term.
Comparing Bush to Ford or Carter is simply bad historical analysis. Ford lost because of his predecessor, not because of anything he said at the debate. And Carter ran this country's economy into the ground and made the US an international laughing stock. Like it or not, while the US may have lost a few friends around the world under Bush, no one can say we're not respected in a Machiavellian sense. That's just fine with me, and i suspect it's fine with the majority of American voters too.

i also thought it was funny how Dallek ended his column by hedging his historical bet, with this bit of prospective sour-grapes:

That a president with so questionable a record is still running a competitive race is a little startling. If Bush wins the election, it would seem to represent the triumph of spin politics.
Funny, i might say the same thing if Kerry wins. But since Kerry is not going to win, i won't have to, lol.

Posted by annika, Oct. 26, 2004 |
Rubric: annikapunditry


As someone who worked as a "reader" for one of his classes at UCLA (where he taught in the early '90s), I don't think "pop historian" is fair. Everyone agrees that his biographies of LBJ are the standard in the business. He is a first-rate scholar and was a marvelous teacher. However, first-rate scholars can long for public acclaim, and in pursuit of that acclaim, often do "dumb down" their message. He's a fine, fine man -- and his written scholarship is far more substantive than his op-ed columns and his tv pronouncements.

Posted by: Hugo on Oct. 26, 2004

Hugo, you're forgetting Robert A. Caro, who has written a Proustian three volumes on the life of LBJ -- and he hasn't even started on the presidential years yet! Caro's work is the standard not only in LBJ scholarship, but arguably sets a standard for all historical biography. i saw him speak on CSPAN and he is amazing. Someday i plan to read his multi-volume biography, though it may take me a year to do it, because i'm fascinated by LBJ. (i've already read Beschloss's stuff, which is very interesting too.)

Anyways, i've no doubt Dallek's a good guy, though wrong about the election. Since i haven't read either, i can't comment on their disagreements regarding the LBJ legacy. Still, the #1 LBJ scolar today is clearly Caro, based on the depth of his work on the subject.

Posted by: annika on Oct. 26, 2004

Caro's LBJ tomes are amazing – well-researched, thorough, reasonable, and wonderfully written. I've never been a big fan of LBJ (and still aren't), but after reading Caro's first volume I became obsessed about learning everything I can about this contradictory historical figure. I'm in Austin, so I'm tempted to go down to the LBJ Presidential Library every so often to tell Caro -- in the kindest, gentlest way, of course -- to hurry his slow methodical ass up and not pull a William Manchester on us!

Posted by: Todd on Oct. 26, 2004

Or a Dostoevsky.

Posted by: annika on Oct. 26, 2004

Well, you've got me on Caro. I've never read him, largely because as someone who isn't an Americanist, I felt that one bio of LBJ was sufficient for me. (Now, if we're talking Edward III, that's a different story). And I picked Dallek because I had worked for him, and trusted his scholarship -- and liked his politics.

Posted by: Hugo on Oct. 26, 2004

LBJ? LBJ!!? Who gives a fuck, really. Teddy Roosevelt's bio by Edmund Morris, now there's a biography to get deep with. What a life. He did more before he was 25 than LBJ can account for, I'll tell ya what.

Posted by: Scof on Oct. 26, 2004

If biographies are what you like, then Otto Pflanze's "Bismarck and the Development of Germany" Is the best you can get!

Posted by: lawguy on Oct. 26, 2004

Sort of what has happened to Paul Krugman.

Biographical discussions aside, what he leaves out is a discussion that, given his "analysis", the competitiveness of the race also must reflect either poorly on the public perception of Senator Kerry's qualification to be President or on the quality of his campaign.

Posted by: Col Steve on Oct. 26, 2004

Caro is an honest historian, but let me save you the weeks it would take to read the three volume set. LBJ was the kind of turd who'd make Clinton smell good. Truth is D presidential candidates pretend to be JFK, while they're really LBJ. When he became President in 1963, LBJ had a personal fortune of over $10 million, and had never worked outside the public sector. His cover story was that Lady Bird had inherited. Well, she did, about $20K with which she bought a radio station, while Lyndon was the Chairman of the FCC oversight committee. If you wanted something from Lyndon, you bought advertising.

Posted by: Casca on Oct. 27, 2004

I'm glad Hugo stuck up for Dallek. Although like Annika, I' dissing his analysis on the election.

Didn't such a fine historian ever hear of Harry Truman? Truman was a wildly unpopular President in November, 1948, but managed a big win against a complacent Tom Dewey. The economy at that time was in the toilet, the Sovs were on the march, and Truman was still seen as a water boy for Missouri political interests. And yet, he pulled it off with room to spare.

By the way...lots of good historical biographies out there...how about Fleming's three volume bio of George Washington?

Posted by: superhawk on Oct. 28, 2004

superhawk: Of course, Truman had a real loser for an opponent. But not as bad as Kerry...

Posted by: markm on Oct. 30, 2004