Blogs > Cliopatria > Gil Troy: Review of William H. Chafe's Private lives/Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America (Harvard)

Jan 26, 2006 5:42 pm

Gil Troy: Review of William H. Chafe's Private lives/Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America (Harvard)

For decades, scholars have insisted that what most of us know instinctively to be true -- is false. Mocking the belief that individuals such as Julius Caesar, Adolf Hitler or Winston Churchill make history, experts focus on social forces. They explain the past with statistical studies and abstract theories, dismissing stories about individual initiative or heroism.

While powerful economic, social and ideological movements dwarfing any individual do shape history, be it the high-tech boom, feminism or the rise of conservatism, we cannot underestimate the way a leader's action and inaction can change the world. Especially when assessing the American presidency and modern America, individual character -- and contingency -- count.

Bill Clinton's presidency would have ended very differently if he had been faithful to Hillary or if Monica Lewinsky had dry cleaned all her dresses. Franklin Roosevelt's life -- and America's fate during the Great Depression and World War II -- would have changed dramatically if FDR had not contracted polio in 1921. And does anyone believe that Americans would have experienced the same kind of Morning in America in the 1980s had Jimmy Carter beaten Ronald Reagan?

William H. Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History and former Dean of the Faculty at Duke University, admits that he has built his impressive scholarly career by neglecting these dramas to shape what is now the accepted historical conventional wisdom. In books such as "Civilities and Civil Rights" and "The American Woman," he writes, "I have focused on the way social movements, not individuals, have transformed our recent past." Now, Chafe wishes to right the balance, beginning with what he calls "an old-fashioned conviction -- that individual leaders make a difference in a society." The result is insightful and significant, showing how the personal and the psychological shape the political and historical.

In eight well-paced, well-written chapters, Chafe sketches portraits of 10 influential modern Americans: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the Clintons, Hillary and Bill. These "interpretive historical and biographical assessments" tackle one of the great human mysteries: "What is there in the personal profile of a leader that predisposes him or her to make a decision in a certain direction?"

Leaders, especially presidents, get only the hard questions, the conundrums presenting different, often conflicting solutions. Their decisions are based not only on the evidence presented and their advisers' suggestions, but also their core beliefs and life stories.

Without being formulaic, Chafe builds his essays reflecting his assumptions that early experiences shape an individual, and that many individual lives -- and destinies -- pivot around one critical moment. We see how Franklin Roosevelt's aristocratic upbringing, strained marriage and middle-age bout with polio made America's World War II commander-in-chief a master of indirection, masking his wrenching pain -- and his policy plans -- with a constructive, seductive charm.

We learn how John Kennedy's PT 109 drama in 1943, a "floating suicide mission" which he survived heroically, made him doubt military leaders, a skepticism that led the conciliatory JFK to ignore the saber-rattling army brass during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That diplomatic triumph emboldened Kennedy to find his "voice," expressed during "three days in June" 1963 when he made overtures to the Soviet Union at American University; "embraced civil rights as a moral issue" on national TV; and began planning a war on poverty.

Less well-known but equally significant is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s midnight revelation in his kitchen. During his first serious civil rights crusade, the Montgomery bus boycott, an anonymous phone caller threatened King's family. Sitting there terrified in his kitchen, King experienced a "divine intervention." Clearly rooted in his childhood, this encounter pushed him to his gutsiest moments during adulthood. Having set the scene by showing how King's life built toward that moment, Chafe skillfully, periodically, but not too frequently, returns to that "voice in the kitchen" that helped the surprisingly tormented leader manage his conflicting impulses and find the courage he needed to confront American racism.

Showing us how such pivotal early moments shaped many of these leaders later in life -- when it counted -- makes these familiar figures feel fresh. Chafe ends by making valuable generalizations about their influential lives. Many of Chafe's subjects were fleeing -- and often driven by -- unhappy childhoods. Moreover those who did not experience dramatic turning points nevertheless followed long-standing behavior patterns when leading. For example, both Bill Clinton's and Lyndon Johnson's hunger for public affirmation, which led to their greatest successes, reflected their respective strategies for escaping family shame. And both were defeated by equally long-standing personal demons.

Inevitably in such a work of synthesis, mistakes and biases creep in. Reflecting his politics, Chafe's strongest essays illuminate the modern Democratic pantheon -- the Roosevelts, both Kennedys, Johnson and King. The essays on Reagan and Nixon are less original, as Chafe echoes the Reagan-as-actor analysis, while arguing that Nixon "embodied the theme of paradox," thus cataloging contradictions without explaining them.

Most disturbing is his Clinton chapter where Chafe proclaims that "every official report on Whitewater exonerated the Clintons from wrongdoing" and "there was no evidence of wrongdoing in that matter." That is a partisan political judgment, not an accurate legal or historical analysis. Independent Counsel Robert Ray found circumstantial evidence of perjury, tax evasion and obstruction of justice. He chose not to prosecute because he doubted he could secure convictions. In the final report, Ray denounced Clinton's attempt to label the entire process "bogus" -- historians should be more judicious, too.

After admitting in his conclusion that during the Johnson and Nixon years America endured two "mentally unbalanced leaders," Chafe nevertheless praises "the sustained quality of American political leadership over this period. Time after time, these leaders demonstrated courage, imagination, strength, and grace under pressure." Considering that so many of Chafe's social history colleagues usually use the past as a club to bash America for all its flaws, this too represents a welcome change. Perhaps by studying America from that unique perch in the White House, historians are more likely to be humbled by the difficult dilemmas and inspired by the overall successes.

Intellectually honest, vivid and creative, this book represents an important retreat from the intellectual abstractionism and parlor Marxism bewitching historians. Who knows, professors may be ready to rediscover common sense. With any luck, American history classes might soon become intellectual forums seeking to understand the who, what, why, when, how of America's past, rather than tribunals lambasting our country based on present-day agendas.

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