When the dust has finally settled on this lost year of American politics, there may be consolation in the fact that much of the damage is reparable, and that most of the scars inflicted on the nation will be readily healed. As a new election cycle rolls around, fresh faces will become the focus of public attention. President Clinton, along with his seductions and prevarications, will be gone. There will be renewed respect for the privacy rights of public figures. Even Congress will come together and, in a bipartisan moment, undo the independent counsel law that liberals contrived as a weapon against conservatives and conservatives turned into a weapon against liberals, and then against themselves. Larry Flynt will slither back under his familiar rock.
But there is at least one institution that has thrust itself to the fore in this presidential crisis that will not be so easy to repair. That institution is American academia, which in the midst of the presidential battle volunteered a battalion of scholars to serve the Clinton cause.
As the House Judiciary Committee was gearing up for impeachment in October, a full-page political ad appeared in the New York Times sponsored by “Historians in Defense of the Constitution.” The historians declared that in their professional judgment there was no constitutional basis for impeaching the president, and that to do so would undermine our political order. The historians’ statement was eagerly seized on by the president’s congressional defenders and deployed as a weapon against his congressional accusers. In the none-too-meticulous hands of the pols, the signers became 400 “constitutional experts” who had exposed the Republicans’ attempt at a “coup d’etat.”
One of the three organizers of the statement, Sean Wilentz, even appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to warn the Republicans that “history will hunt you down” for betraying the American Founders. On the day his Senate trial began, the president himself referred reporters to the “constitutional experts” who had gone on record that he should not have been impeached.
The signers of the statement, however, are not constitutional experts at all. One of them, Julian Bond, is not even a trained historian, though two universities — Maryland and Virginia — have appointed him a “professor of history.” Now head of the NAACP, Bond is a leftist with a failed political career whose university posts were in effect political appointments. Another signer, Henry Louis Gates, is not a historian but a talented essayist and a professor of literature. A third, Orlando Patterson, is a first-rate sociologist. Perhaps the three are affirmative action signers designed to increase the African-American presence on the list. All three, of course, are men of the left.
Sean Wilentz is himself a socialist, whose expertise is social, not political, history. A second organizer, C. Vann Woodward, is a distinguished historian of 19th and 20th century America, but not a historian of the Constitution. The third, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., is a partisan Democrat who has written adoring books on Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and the Kennedy brothers, but not on the Constitution.
Indeed, the same could be said for almost all the “historians in defense of the Constitution” with a handful of exceptions like Pauline Maier, who has indeed studied and written about the founding, and Garry Wills. Others on the list have even fewer credentials than the organizers to pontificate on these matters. Todd Gitlin is a professor of sociology and cultural studies, whose only contribution to historical knowledge is a tendentious book justifying the radical ’60s from the perspective of a former president of SDS. Jonathan Weiner is a writer for the Nation whose major publication is a book on John Lennon’s FBI file. Michael Kazin is another Nation writer whose work as a historian is on American populism. John Judis is a New Republic editor who wrote a biography of William Buckley and a book on 20th century conservatives. Jeffrey Herf’s expertise is modern German history; Robert Dallek and Bruce Kuklick are 20th century diplomatic historians who have also written books on Lyndon Johnson and Shibe Park. Maurice Isserman is another Nation regular and a historian of the 20th century American left.