The enjoyable theme is Bartlett’s gleeful partisan slagging of the horrible racial history of the Democratic party from ancient times to modern. Specialists in American history may know much of this story, but probably the typical reader does not. From Thomas Jefferson to George Wallace, the Democratic party was the party that defended slavery, Jim Crow, Ku Kluxery, and “massive resistance.” As Bartlett searchingly asks at one point: If the Republican party is to bear responsibility for Joe McCarthy through all time, why doesn’t the Democratic party have to bear responsibility for Theodore Bilbo?
I admire Frum’s ability to pack an amazing amount of silliness into 94 words. Let’s take this step by step, shall we?
1. Bilbo versus McCarthy.
Theodore Bilbo (1877-1947) was vicious racist who served as a Democratic Senator representing Mississippi from 1935 till his death. A flavour of his character can be gathered by a speech he gave attacking an anti-lynching law: “If you succeed in the passage of this bill, you will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded Anglo-Saxon white Southern men will not tolerate.” During his lifetime, Bilbo was a polarizing figure within the Democratic Party, supported by the white supremacists who dominated the Southern wing of the party but also bitterly opposed by northern liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt. This internecine battle over racism ran from the 1930s till the 1960s when the liberals triumphed. After the Democrats adopted a comprehensive civil rights program, white racists in the Bilbo tradition no longer felt at home in the party; many, notably Strom Thurmond, became Republicans. (A few relicts of Bilbo-ism, like Robert Byrd of West Virginia, are still Democrats but they’ve long since abandoned racism as a political program.) I don’t think you could find very many people in the Democratic Party now, or really at any point in the last 30 years, who would defend Theodore Bilbo or his politics.
The story with Joseph McCarthy is very different. To be sure, during McCarthy’s heyday there were liberal Republicans who repudiated his politics. But there was also a strong contingent of conservative Republicans who defended McCarthy and his brand of anticommunism; and more importantly many continue to defend McCarthyism to this day. In 1954 William Buckley and L. Brent Bozell published McCarthy and His Enemies, a polemic on behalf of the Wisconsin Senator. They allowed that here and there McCarthy might have made a few errors but McCarthyism itself was “a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks.” When McCarthy and his Enemies was reissued in 1996, Elliot Abrams, a prominent conservative intellectual who has worked for both Bush administrations, wrote a review in National Review which praised the book for its “moral stance” and argued that it stood the test of time.
Over the last decade, there have been a steady stream of pro-McCarthy books seeking to rehabilitate the disgraced senator’s reputation, notably Arthur Herman’s Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator (1999), Ann Coulter’s Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism (2003), and M. Stanton Evans’s Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies (2007).
These books have been widely praised in the conservative press. In fact, the first of them was hailed by David Frum himself. Writing in National Review, Frum said that Herman “has filed a brief for the defense [of McCarthy] that is simultaneously audacious in its argument and painstaking in its scholarship.” Frum adopted the same gambit that Buckley and Bozell did in the early 1950s, acknowledging that McCarthy the man was flawed but maintaining that he led a worthwhile movement. Or in Frum’s words, “Despite periodic flutters of hope, Herman himself in the end accepts that McCarthy’s reputation cannot be saved. But what can and should be salvaged is the honor of the conservative anti-Communism that unwisely accepted McCarthy as its champion.” McCarthy might deserve a mild rebuke but McCartharyism was worth a whole hog defense.
So, to answer Bartlett’s question, to the extent that conservative Republicans still defend McCarthyism, it is fair to hold them to account for McCarthy’s sins. Since Democrats don’t defend Theodore Bilbo or his politics, they’re not responsible for the terrible things he did.
2. Democratic racism from Thomas Jefferson to George Wallace
I’m puzzled by Frum’s belief that only “specialists” are aware of the history of racism in the Democratic Party. It’s true that Theodore Bilbo is by now a name that people have to look up on Wikipedia. But Thomas Jefferson’s slave-owing is the stuff of common knowledge, as is the fact that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. Jefferson’s sexual relations with the slave Sally Hemmings was earnestly discussed on Oprah and joked about on The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. And it’s absurd to think of Jefferson as simply a Democratic president, just as it would be to think of Lincoln as simply a Republican. Jefferson and Lincoln both now belong to the American pantheon and influenced people of all parties. Does Frum really believe that Jefferson’s legacy, for good and ill, is strictly the property of the Democrats?
Similarly, George Wallace’s racism is hardly a state secret requiring a “freedom of information act” request to ferret out. To the extent Wallace is remembered at all it’s as a metonym for segregationist politics. And, yes, Wallace was a Democrat for most of his life. But in 1968 he ran for president as an independent, famously saying there was not a dime’s worth of difference between the two big parties. Subsequently, the Nixon administration went out of its way to court Wallace’s supporters, as part of the “Southern Strategy” to gain the white racist vote.
3. Partisan history versus real scholarship.
The real problem with Frum’s comments is his glee in “partisan” history, a rather naïve and childish genre. The partisan sees history as a morality play of good guys fighting black hats. But if history should teach us anything, it’s a sense of the complexity of the past, the mixed motives behind all human activity, and the way in which figures from an earlier era shared hidden commonalities. In terms of our morality, Lincoln was right and the southern slave owners were wrong. But in terms of their attitude towards race, Lincoln and Jefferson Davis had more in common with each other than either has with almost any contemporary North American.
In his famous introduction to The American Political Tradition (1948), Richard Hofstadter argued that almost all American statesmen operate within a broad consensus supporting property rights and individualism:
The following studies in the ideology of American statesmanship have convinced me of the need for a reinterpretation of our political traditions which emphasizes the common climate of American opinion. The existence of such a climate of opinion has been much obscured by the tendency to place political conflict in the foreground of history.
Hofstadter might have overstated this idea of an American “consensus” but it’s true that a partisan emphasis on the virtues of one political party or the other obscures the relatively narrow ideological range under which American politics takes place.
Conservatives used to decry partisan history, often making use of the arguments found in Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Version of History (1931). The late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was widely derided for writing partisan histories that celebrated Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Kennedy family while mocking their enemies. But in his worst day Schlesinger never approached the sheer one-sided hackery of Frum, Bartlett or Jonah “Liberal Fascism” Goldberg.
The partisan can never be a good historian. Scholarship makes us aware that history is filled with irony, comedy, and tragedy. The partisan is satisfied with melodrama and point scoring.