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A Few Questions For James T. Patterson

In the editor’s introduction to Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore by James T. Patterson, David Kennedy writes, “James Patterson has done a special service to readers born during and after the Vietnam era. Here they will find a cogent and compelling account of how history has shaped the world they inherited – and the world they now inhabit.” I am one of the readers Kennedy describes, born after Vietnam, often struggling to understand recent history. So, when the paperback edition of Restless Giant came out I jumped at the chance to interview James Patterson. His book, a concise and readable narrative of the years between Richard Nixon‘s resignation and the election of George W. Bush, has long been one of my favorite Oxford titles. Check out what Patterson has to say below.

OUP: What is the most challenging thing about writing contemporary history? How do you find perspective so close to the actual events?

James T. Patterson: Trying to write about the VERY recent past – that is, about ten years Restless_giant ago or less – was very challenging for me, for the simple and obvious reason that historians generally like to place events in a longer historical perspective. We all know, for instance, how rapidly and even radically the historical reputations of major figures (e. g., Truman or Eisenhower) can change. But a longer perspective is also needed in writing economic or social history. Just to take one example that caused me a good deal of uncertainty as I was writing Restless Giant, the American economy was booming as perhaps never before from the mid-1990s into the early 2000s – a boom that in my opinion had far-reaching effects on politics and cultural trends as well. So I allot a fair amount of space in the book in order to lay out for readers the main explanations – of economists and others – for this surge. But as I did so, I was of course aware of the possibility that the economy might be in serious decline by the time the book appeared – in which case at least some of the “explanations” offered in the book might seem dated and/or wrong-headed. A similar problem faced me as I pondered explaining another happy side of the 1990s: declining rates of violent crime. Experts, however, offered a variety of explanations for this decline. How valid would my treatment of this rise and fall appear if the rates were to shoot up again at the time of publication?

OUP: Which president did you enjoy writing about most in this book and why?

Patterson: Perhaps because I like political history, I enjoyed writing about all the presidents between 1974 and 2000: Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. Mining contemporary accounts, I was able to include many colorful anecdotes along with what I trust is serious treatment of their policies. The process of digging into the doings of their administrations helped me revise earlier opinions of some of them, notably Ford, who comes out better in Restless Giant than in some other accounts. My overall evaluation of Reagan, too, is probably a little more favorable than that of most academic historians (though I remain highly critical of some of his mistakes, such as the Iran-contra scandal).

Restless Giant, however, also includes a considerable amount of social and cultural history – quite a bit more, I believe, than is the case in other volumes of the Oxford History of the United States series. One reviewer of the book, praising passages that explore movies, television, and the “culture wars,” wrote that I am the “hippest” historian around. I was amazed but not displeased by this judgment.

OUP: I know that you felt it was too soon to comment on 9/11 when this book was published. How has your view of the lasting effects of 9/11 changed since then?

Patterson: It was late 2004 when I finished a close-to-final draft of the last chapter (which focuses on events in 2000 and very early 2001, especially the Bush v. Gore election of 2000). I then sat down to write a brief “epilogue,” which attempted to highlight the major changes (and continuities) since then. Of course, the most noteworthy events between 2001 and late 2004 were 9/11, controversial efforts of the Bush administration (especially in tax and education policies), and the Iraq war. I must have written ten drafts concerned with these and other events, finally settling on one in February 2005. But even though this draft made no effort to predict the future (historians ALWAYS botch such attempts!), changing events in early 2005 kept picking little holes in my draft. Worse, in my attempt to offer a “balanced” account, I came across as cautious to the extent of saying very little that up-to-date readers could not have said as well or better. When a former student who was helping me proofread read the draft, he said, in effect, “this is terrible.” I had to agree, and scrapped it.

You ask, however, about my view of the impact of 9/11. Historians will almost surely write that the most obvious impact was on American foreign and military policies. Bush, having criticized the Clinton administration for “nation building,” quickly changed his tune, in ways that are familiar to all of us, and that dramatically altered international relations. Historians, encouraged by publishers, like to periodize the past, setting dates (either rough or exact) for the beginning and end of their narratives or analyses. Given the great changes since 9/11, it now seems that I was wise to stop before 9/11, which will serve, I believe, as a major marker in United States history.

OUP: How did you first get involved in the “Oxford History of The United States Series”?

Patterson: I got involved because Sheldon Meyer, Oxford’s guiding editor of the series, and C. Vann Woodward, the eminent historian who served as academic editor, asked me to do a volume on the years 1945-1974. I had read other books in the series, which is highly regarded by historians and which attracts a wide readership beyond academe. The result, appearing in 1996, was Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974. I then wrote a book in Oxford’s “Pivotal Moments in American History” series–on the Brown v. Board education case and its legacy. This appeared in 2001, at which point I volunteered to write a follow-up volume in the Oxford History series. Restless Giant was the result.

OUP: How do you think Bill Clinton’s legacy will reflect on Hillary Clinton’s Presidential run?

Patterson: I said above that historians don’t do well when they predict the future. (I went on television in October 1980 and predicted, though cautiously, that Carter would beat Reagan). So I will pass on that one, except to say that so far Bill Clinton’s legacy does not seem to be playing much of a role in the way that Americans are reacting to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But we need to stay tuned–who knows what may turn up?

OUP: Do you think there were lessons to be learned in the Gulf War which the current administration has missed? In other words, how could the lessons of history have better dictated our actions in Iraq?

Given the many contingencies that affect disparate events, I am not sure that any past experience offers reliable “lessons.” But your mention of the Gulf War is of course appropriate. In 1991-92, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney spoke forcefully against carrying that war to Baghdad and against trying to unseat Saddam Hussein. The reasons he gave at that time (reasons that I cite in Restless Giant) very closely resemble those that opponents of Bush’s policies use today.

I am often struck by the durability of the “Munich analogy” in post-World War II American history. The “lesson” of Munich, many American policy-makers and politicians have argued, is that powerful nations (such as the United States) should never “appease” serious troublemakers abroad. This “lesson” was in most respects a useful one for American leaders during the Cold War. But no two troublemakers or overseas “crises” are alike. There are always particular contingencies that make it necessary for nations to be wary of being guided too obediently by “lessons” from the past.

OUP: What are you working on now?

Patterson: I have been doing a good deal of research into events of what I believe to have been a pivotal year in modern United States history: 1965. It was then that American escalation in Vietnam became irrevocable, sparking large-scale anti-war activity as well as angry rock music such as Barry McGuire’s chart-topping “Eve of Destruction;” that the civil rights movement peaked but then broke apart, never to recuperate; and that American liberalism under the leadership of President Johnson secured passage of an unprecedented body of legislation–federal aid to public education, Medicare and Medicaid, a Voting Rights Act, major immigration reform, expansion of a War on Poverty, and creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, to name just a few–only to falter badly in late 1965 for a variety of reasons. Flaws in Great Society programs, along with acrimony surrounding the Vietnam War opened the way for a conservative resurgence that almost no one might have imagined at the start of the year.

All this digging might end up as a book. We shall see.

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