- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2008

By Robert V. Remini
Harper, $27.95, 384 pages

Robert V. Remini, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and National Book Award winner for his biography of Andrew Jackson, about whom he is considered today’s leading authority, has also written about the lives of Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Daniel Webster (and, somewhat oddly, Joseph Smith) and, as historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, a history of the House. For the general reader, he’s known for his best-selling “The Battle of New Orleans” a concise, highly readable study of the nearly forgotten War of 1812.

Concision is also key here. But although this history is short in terms of pages, it’s crammed with content - as much as you’ll ever need to know about the settling of the continent, beginning with the Bering land bridge, working through the arrival and wanderings of Native American tribes, the exploration by European nations and their various settlements; the French and Indian Wars, the Revolution; the growth of political parties, the War of 1812, the Age of Jackson (because this is where the author lives, we linger here); westward expansion, slavery, the Civil War; Reconstruction, and all the demons it released; the Gilded Age and the rise of American business and industry; World War I, the Jazz Age, Depression; World War II, Korea, the Cold War, prosperity; the rise of conservatism, 9/ll, the challenge of terrorism.

Through this great mass of material, Mr. Remini holds to a steady narrative course, taking us from Pizarro’s pillaging through the establishment of colonies and the growth of democratic government and the free enterprise system - and various battles over the extent of that system’s freedom - to our pre-eminent position in the world today. He may spend a bit more time in the House of Representatives than we’d like, analyzing a sometimes bewildering array of legislative arcana, as well as political and ideological positions, once fervently held and inspiring some of the world’s greatest oratory, now barely comprehensible.

At times, especially when dealing with the manners, morals, mores and art forms of distinct periods, as he frequently does, he can suddenly become somewhat self-consciously mannered and wordy, much like a gentleman of the old school forced to discuss somewhat indelicate matters.

In a section called “Roaring Twenties,” for instance, he writes of speak-easies, where, “In these dark, crowded places young women, called flappers, could be seen dancing the Charleston or listening to jazz and the blues. … In this jazz age flappers wore short dresses, cut their hair short, and smoked cigarettes.”

Nor is he quite in sync when he writes of the literature of the period, lumping Hemingway and Fitzgerald with Dreiser and Dos Passos as epitomes of “the naturalistic school of literature.” (Actually, Dos Passos, who began with IWW/Socialist sympathies and ended as an enthusiastic National Review contributor, pretty much established his own unique literary school.)

But aside from these forays into uncertain territory, Mr. Remini makes every word and every sentence in this fact-crammed book count. No wasted words, no passives, no academic throat clearing, no polite beating around the bush. James Buchanan is “one of the worst presidents in the nation’s history.” Warren Harding’s “personal tastes ran to booze, gambling, and sex - not necessarily in that order.” His White House heroes seem generally to be Democrats, but while he calls Watergate “stupid and criminal,” he doesn’t attempt to caricature Richard Nixon and recognizes his genuine foreign policy achievements.

And as for Ronald Reagan, there’s general admiration, largely, one suspects, because of the way in which he and “his incomparable staff” were able to establish and maintain good relations with Speaker Tip O’Neill and the House Democrats. “And indeed,” writes Mr. Remini, “Tip and Reagan regularly met after six pm and had a drink together.” (He contrasts Reagan’s approach to relations with Congress with that of Jimmy Carter, who early on rejected Tip O’Neill’s suggestion that he consult with a committee chairman on his energy initiatives. “Carter foolishly dismissed the suggestion [and] Tip knew they were in trouble.”)

Mr. Remini is solid on the first Bush administration, as he is on Bill Clinton, and his section on the Contract With America congressional Republican uprising, brilliantly led by Newt Gingrich seems for the most part on the money, informed as it is by Lee Edward’s excellent “The Conservative Revolution: The Movement That Remade America.”

The final sections on George W. Bush are somewhat harsh, written from today’s perspective rather than the perspective of history. But as Richard Nixon once observed, how you are treated by history depends on who writes it. And we’re still much too close to this administration for that historian to be chosen.

Mr. Remini was also writing too close to deadline to deal adequately with today’s great economic crises, brought on in no small part by policies shaped in Washington. But, he concludes, although “it appeared at the beginning of 2008 that the nation was headed toward a recession … America’s large consumer society, technological superiority, and creative genius remained viable and gave hope that its people could find the leadership that would bring the country safely through this trying period of their history.”

And on that, we can all agree.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement,” published by Wiley.

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