Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The power of trivia

It's in the details

This morning's rounds included visits to a couple of bookstores. I usually stop first at a local independent store where I know the senior clerk (we were college classmates) and then pop into the big-box chain bookstore on the edge of town. If the independent bookstore has what I'm looking for, I'll snap it up there. The chain bookstore is good for non-book stuff (CDs and DVDs) and the occasional got-to-have-it-now book that would be a special order at the small local store.

The big store, of course, has lots more display room, so you can scan dozens of book covers in a couple of minutes. Today my eye lit on the new paperback edition of Creators: From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney by Paul Johnson. My lip curled and my nose wrinkled. Oh, oh! Something had triggered my disdain response.

Was it a knee-jerk reaction to Johnson's well-known conservatism? His books are praised to the skies in publications like The Wall Street Journal (“a magnificent achievement”) and the National Review (“Proves that history can still be literature”). Since I'm a liberal, perhaps I dislike conservative historians on general principles. Johnson is the sort of writer who inspires paeans like “Paul Johnson's ‘History of the American People’ is very readable history whose objectivity is manifest.... He also rightly points out that attempts to restrict man's freedom through higher tax rates reduce productivity and progress. The increasing government involvement in the economy during FDR's administration probably weakened the economy and extended the Depression. The economy was recovering on its own at the time FDR took office.” Yeah, right. More Hooverism would have fixed us right up.

Actually, no. I distrust Johnson's books because of his sloppiness, not because of his political point of view. He is quite candid about his philosophical perspective, so it's easy to take it into account. It's a greater problem, however, that he is less than attentive to details. When you see someone praised for his insights and accuracy, yet he seems clumsy on matters where you have solid personal knowledge, perhaps it is time to consider whether the praise-singers are telling you more about their own ignorance than about the writer's erudition.

My example sprang out of the pages of Johnson's one-volume history of the U.S. It's titled, quite simply, A History of the American People. When the original hardcover edition appeared in the bookstores in March 1998, I opened it up and riffled the pages. This is what I saw on page 887:
Nixon had suffered some reverses since he lost—or at any rate conceded—the 1960 election. But he never gave up. Nor did the East Coast media stop loathing him. In 1962 he ran for governor of California, and largely because of the Cuban missile crisis lost the race to a weak left-wing Democratic candidate, Pete Brown, who turned out to be one of the worst governors in California's history.
Elsewhere I have addressed the persistent canard that a noble Nixon conceded a presidential contest that he had arguably won. We should probably forgive Johnson for obliquely parroting a right-wing talking point that has become one of the fundamentals of their conservative faith, but that's not what grabbed my attention and made me snort with derision.

Edmund G. Brown was known as Pat Brown, not Pete. (This oversight was corrected in later printings of the book.) Trivial, right? But you expect a professional historian to get these things correct. And there's more. Besides getting our late governor's name wrong, Johnson saw fit to characterize him as “weak” and one of our “worst” chief executives. Shall we examine the historical record, concentrating on facts rather than mere opinion?

Brown was elected governor in 1958 when he defeated the Republican nominee, U.S. Senator William Knowland, by nearly twenty percentage points, leading a broad-based Democratic resurgence in the state.
Brown topped Knowland by more than a million votes, carrying all but four of the state's fifty-eight counties.... Democrats won a majority of seats in the congressional delegation. In the legislature they seized control of both houses for the first time in the twentieth century.

California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown
—Ethan Rarick
While it would be going too far to give Brown all the credit for the 1958 landslide, you don't get that kind of smashing result with a weak candidate at the top of the state ticket.

What about the re-election campaign in 1962, when Brown thumped Nixon? Was it all the fault of Cuba and JFK's facedown of Nikita Khrushchev in the missile crisis? Well, that certainly helped, but let's not forget that Nixon ran a bad campaign (carelessly saying in one campaign appearance that he looked forward to being “president” of California) and Brown ran a rather good one. The former vice president started with a significant lead in the polls, which the incumbent governor doggedly chipped away at. By the time the to-and-fro race was over, Brown iced another victory, ending up on election day with an edge of nearly 300,000 votes (after which Nixon held his famous “last press conference”—would that it had been).

Brown was not a “weak” governor. How about the claim that he was a bad governor? Today most Californians who are old enough remember Brown's two terms as a transformational period in the state's history. The great California Aqueduct, which bears Brown's name, was the outgrowth of the governor's ambitious state water project, which today makes life possible in otherwise arid southern California. (Indeed, we northern Californians sometimes think the state water project works too well.) The master plan for higher education was enacted during Brown's first term and established the long-term relationship between California's public postsecondary educational institutions. The community colleges have open admissions and provide higher education to anyone who can benefit from it. The California State University offers higher education to the top third of the state's high school graduates, up to and including master's degrees (and, more recently, doctorates in education), while the elite University of California provides advanced education to the top eighth of high school graduates. The California master plan has been used as a model by many other states.

Brown also presided over a dramatic increase in the number of California colleges and universities. Only Berkeley and Los Angeles were considered general campuses in the University of California system when Brown took office in 1959. Soon thereafter Davis was promoted from University Farm status and schools were added in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Riverside, Irvine, and Santa Cruz, plus a medical campus in San Francisco. After Brown left office, the UC constructed no new campuses until UC Merced opened in 2005.

The legacy of Pat Brown's gubernatorial years included enormous contributions to California's infrastructure, not just in school buildings and aqueducts, but in road systems and flood control. Today's task is to preserve and rebuild that infrastructure, often ignored and neglected by Brown's successors (Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger), none of whom can reasonably be said to eclipse his state accomplishments. One of our “worst”? Ha!

In 1980, when Jerry Brown was governor, I was a legislative aide and snagged a ticket to the state of the state address. In the audience was Pat Brown, an honored guest at his son's big event. At the end, as we filed out of the assembly chambers, I noticed that Brown was near me. I sidled over and said, “Governor, it would be an honor to shake the hand of the only living politician to have beaten Richard Nixon.” Pat Brown's face split in a big grin as he thrust out his hand and gave me a politician's carefully gauged and practiced handshake. “My pleasure!” he said.

I got to shake the hand of Pat Brown, one of California's greatest governors. So there, Paul Johnson!

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