Three books look at America forward and backward
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U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., made a disarming observation recently:
"The banks ... frankly own the place [Congress]."
Coming at a point in the nation's history when the federal government is pouring billions into the financial system, Durbin's blast sticks a needle into the idealism and optimism engendered by the victory of President Barack Obama.
It's still business as usual for our elected officials in 2009, says the senator. How the United States government, founded in carefully reasoned principles of democracy and liberty in 1776, wound up in the clutches of special interests is a question on the mind of the authors of three books.
A new book by Columbia University historian Simon Schama deserves attention on the strength of his fine scholarship, found in his histories of Great Britain, the French Revolution and the slave trade.
Lynn Hudson Parsons, another historian, is known for his work on the life of John Quincy Adams. In his latest book, he uses that knowledge to discuss the career of another president, Andrew Jackson, whose reputation continues to rise, most recently on the strength of Jon Meacham's prize-winning biography, "American Lion."
The third choice -- the "conservative manifesto" of a radio talk show performer -- was made because, while Mark L. Levin's short book is among the top 10 best-sellers, the mainstream (read "liberal") media has ignored it. As an example of the rapidly successful, soon-forgotten genre of political books by performers posing as pundits, it warranted an examination.
Schama's book poses the greatest challenge to the casual reader because of its complexity. Taking Jefferson's remark, "History, by apprising them of the past, will enable them to judge the future," he considers the past and present from four points -- military, religion, immigration and the natural bounty.
Oxford University Press ($24.95)
For a historian, he's not an idle watcher, though. Schama travels to Iowa for the presidential caucuses, to Atlanta for Easter services at Ebenezer Baptist Church and to a fried chicken joint in Texas to learn about the Mexican border situation.
He frames these stops with detailed accounts of the nation's past, ranging from the dislocation of the Cherokee Nation to the experience of Roger Williams in New England.
As a stylist, the historian wanders from entertaining observations to ponderous, tortured phrases.
"McKinley liked to think that God was watching over his work, but even God had the odd day off, and on one of those days in September 1901, the president was assassinated by an anarchist."
Threshold Editions ($25)
Tortured: "I expected his speech to be heavy with regimental camaraderie from which he could segue to disingenuous self-exoneration..."
Schama gives much to ponder and learn about the country's troubled past, and then, in a rebuke to the politically conservative remnants remaining, announces that as this year advances, the federal government is no longer the problem, but the guardian and the conscience of the United States. He will find opponents for that view.
Parsons restricts his view to the contested election of 1828 between incumbent President John Quincy Adams and the man who out-polled him four years earlier, Andrew Jackson, but lost in the House of Representatives.
The son of John Adams, the president was among the most learned and cultured men in the United States that year, Parsons points out, while his challenger was unschooled, uncouth and a possible adulterer.
Jackson was charismatic, Adams a stuffed shirt, but in the age of print media only, their personalities were not the issue. Political change was at the root.
Parsons argues in an earnest, straightforward manner that what 1828 marked was the first truly popular election. More voters -- all men -- were able to participate, nearly twice as many as in 1824.
At the same time, the early version of machine politics was taking shape. Jackson took advantage of it while Adams played the game the outmoded way and was soundly thrashed.
The sour note of the contest was the increased intensity of personal attacks by both candidates, including the adulterer smear. The campaigns opened the door to the electoral mud-slinging that continues to this day.
Coming to Levin's slight effort, a best-seller largely on sales to conservative book clubs, the contrast between the work of serious historians and the reworked scripts of a talk show is impossible to miss.
What is Levin's purpose in reworking the standard neoconservative argument at a moment when the voters have soundly rejected it?
Because the other side -- "statists" -- have won. His book is a cry for attention, maybe even help, as his message is nothing more than an echo of other right-wing radio DJs who threaten to drown him out.
Levin reveals a fatal fallacy from the get-go: "How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?"
Because the government is not the nation. For a guy who demands a smaller, toothless federal bureaucracy, Levin believes devoutly in government's role in our lives.
Inconsistency is the hallmark of Levin's thinking. Examples:
As a "conservative," Levin puts his trust in the "people," but then complains about the constitutional amendment allowing direct election of U.S. senators, taking that right away from state legislatures. Isn't that less government control?
He pledges fealty to the Constitution, then calls for an amendment "establishing legislative veto of Court [sic] decisions."
What about separation of powers?
Am I quibbling? No, I'm quitting Levin, tired of his love of contradiction.
First Published May 17, 2009 12:00 am