The Current Crisis

Reading History This Summer

From Sean Wilentz to Claire Tomalin, an awesome pile of books.

By 7.31.08

WASHINGTON -- It is vacation time, and this summer millions of Americans are going to take a break from their daily toil. Many will seek out a quiet spot to relax with family members. They will head to the beach or to a campsite, and some will defy gas prices and head for the open road. The summer vacation is a perfect time to read a book, possibly two books. There are all kinds of books available, personal improvement books, how-to books, bad books, very bad books. For some reason the books I have been reading this summer have mostly been history books. It is an election year and possibly the approach of a historic decision explains my absorption with history. Then again it might just be that the most interesting books available this summer are books about the past.

At the top of my summer reading list is The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008, by the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. There was a day when leading academic historians wrote about large issues: wars, the rise of great leaders, the fall of failed leaders and failed movements. Today most historians write about little and obscure things, homosexuality among 18th-century merchant mariners, gun ownership in early America. Possibly scholarly work is being done on the condition of barnyard animals in the Old Northwest. Wilentz writes about the dramatic things that have affected the life of the nation. That is why he is one of the few remaining scholars of national stature.

In his last book, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, Wilentz chronicled the political evolution that led to the Civil War. In his present book he chronicles the rise of modern American conservatism, the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and how both influenced recent history. In so doing he makes the case that Ronald Reagan stands with the Roosevelts as a 20th-century president who left a lasting mark. He gives Reagan full credit for the good he did, though Wilentz make it clear that he does not share Reagan's politics and never has. If memory serves, Wilentz was a key figure in defending our recent Boy President during impeachment. Be that as it may, Wilentz's objective treatment of the last three and a half decades of our history should renew our faith in a fine historian's intellectual discipline and fairness. The Age of Reagan is informative not only about the Reagan Administration but also about the presidencies of Gerald Ford and his successors. This book covers a lot of ground.

Next on my summer list is a very peculiar history book, The Pact, by Steven M. Gillon. I say it is peculiar because despite errors of fact it is an informative history. As I coyly suggested earlier in the month, everything Gillon says about me in his book is wrong. For instance, I -- one of Bill Clinton's most exuberant critics -- did not as Gillon claims go to Georgetown with Clinton. But the book is not about me. It is about the intriguing relationship between Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Clinton. The portrait Gillon paints of Gingrich is particularly vivid and to my mind accurate. What he and the President were up to in their meetings -- some of which were secret -- was the transformation of American politics and most significantly Social Security. Their failure was a failure in character -- both men's character.

Two more books that make my list are Martin Gilbert's Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship and Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self. Gilbert is the author of the definitive eight-volume biography of Churchill, as well as many other superb works of history. In this book he demonstrates how the great British leader at the beginning of his long life developed an admiration for the Jews that lasted through many trials, crowned, of course, by his support for a Jewish state. As often with Churchill, his heart deeply engaged but it was ruled by his intellect. He believed the ancient Jews were responsible for the ethical foundations of Western morality. As Churchill conceived it, the Jews "grasped and proclaimed an idea of which all the genius of Greece and all the power of Rome were incapable."

Turning to Claire Tomalin's biography of Pepys, let me say that I would never have picked it up if Don Graham, the bookish chairman of the Washington Post had not sent it to me. Don has high regard for the book and now I do too. Pepys is perhaps the greatest diarist in the English language and he wrote his diary entries in the middle of 17th-century London when great events were taking place that in time would shape the founding of our own country. Pepys gives us a feel for his time from a powerful office in government and a crow's nest over emerging British society. Tomalin is a superb biographer and Pepys is an enthralling subject, part bureaucrat, part Puritan, part rogue.

Maybe this book can be your how-to book for summer reading, namely, how to serve in a high government position in Washington, D.C. in the early 21st century. Some things never change.

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About the Author
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn't Work: Social Democracy's Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery.