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Perspective

Hail to Which Chiefs?

The new popularity of John Adams raises interesting questions about Americans' connection to their history.

July 29, 2001|TIM RUTTEN | TIMES CULTURE CORRESPONDENT

Like hemlines and stocks, historical reputations rise and fall on the unseen hands of fashion and the market.

At the moment, for example, John Adams' reputation is enjoying a raging bull market. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson's personal stock, once the historical epitome of a blue chip equity, is sinking like a telecom. Adams, in fact, is probably more popular today than when he pushed the resolution for independence through the Continental Congress or was elected president.

David McCullough's weighty new biography of Adams has sold an astonishing 820,000 copies since its publication by Simon & Schuster in May; the second president also emerges as the hero of historian Joseph Ellis' bestselling group portrait of the men who made the Revolution--"Founding Brothers." Both authors weigh Jefferson in the balance with Adams and find the Sage of Monticello wanting in both principle and character.

As a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Harry S Truman and popular public television host, McCullough commands a formidable readership of his own. His Adams book is the first nonfiction bestseller in a decade to outsell the summer's most popular fiction title. McCullough has been the voice of American history since his narration of filmmaker Ken Burns' wildly popular history of the Civil War on public television. Still, not all historians are enamored of his character-driven narrative histories.

"The success of his books is further evidence of the gulf between the popular taste in history and serious scholarship," said Jon Wiener, professor of history at UC Irvine.

The popular reputations of historical figures often have as much to do with the attitudes and anxieties of the moment as they do with facts. Americans are as enamored of the personal and confessional in their historical icons as they are in their elected officials. They have as little taste for ideas and ideology in their histories as they do in their candidates.

The public, however, is sufficiently pragmatic that wishful historical thinking and good story sometimes yield to the facts. Thus, the balance of esteem between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee also is being recalibrated. Grant's military reputation has waxed in recent years and, now, an authoritative new history of his two-term presidency--Jean Edward Smith's "Grant" (also published by Simon & Schuster)--has rehabilitated the reputation of an administration that once was a watchword for sloth and corruption. That view was summarized most witheringly by another Adams--John's great-grandson, the historian Henry--who sneered memorably, if unfairly, that "the progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin."

The President Grant who emerges from Smith's convincing book is hardly the negligent drunkard so often placed alongside the inexcusable Warren G. Harding on lists of America's worst presidents. The rehabilitated Grant is an Eisenhower-like chief executive, a serious and efficient administrator who cured the economy of its wartime inflation, pursued a forward-looking foreign policy and was a vigorous friend of civil rights for recently emancipated African Americans.

Academic historians generally have been well-disposed toward the books by their professional colleagues, Ellis and Smith. McCullough--an elegant writer of historical narratives, who once worked at American Heritage Publishing--has fared less well. He has been accused of idealizing and sentimentalizing his subject and of giving undue weight to Adams' unassailably good personal character. Other critics have taxed him with turning a blind eye to the engaging Adams' considerable shortcomings, while judging Jefferson to be cold and distant, sometimes sly and often manipulative.

In one particularly sharp critique in the New Republic, for example, Princeton professor Sean Wilentz tartly observed that, "If sterling character were the main guide to greatness, all America would formally commemorate the birthday of Robert E. Lee instead of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr."

(It is a comparison that brings to mind another of Henry Adams' acidic appraisals: Given the harm that Lee had done the nation, the historian wrote, it made no difference that the Confederate commander was "a good man. It is always the good men who do the most harm. ... He should have been hanged.")

According to Wiener, "many scholars in the field are very critical of McCullough's biography" and "appreciate the fact that Wilentz took him on. It's not only because McCullough isn't, as it were, a member of the guild. What troubles people is his focus on character at the expense of any serious political analysis.

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