Sean Wilentz: Under attack from Obama fans for raising doubts about Obama

Historians in the News

[Mr. Sleeper, a journalist, is a lecturer at Yale.]

As Bill Clinton was squashing most of the media's hopes for a Clintonista uprising against Barack Obama last night, Charles Kaiser, the veteran reporter and scourge of bad faith in journalism, was up in Newsweek squashing a perverse Clinton dead-ender, the increasingly and pathetically power-hungry Princeton professor Sean Wilentz.

As late as this week, Wilentz was still damning Obama with faint praise in a column - also in Newsweek -- that reeked of the empty ressentiment of someone thwarted in a desperate bid to become Hillary Clinton's presidential historian.

Pretending to worry anxiously about whether Obama is ready to lead, Wilentz signaled Newsweek readers that Obama isn't -- just as Bill Clinton was preparing to assure the country that he is. Kaiser deftly shows how many times and ways Wilentz tries to insinuate this, and he knocks him out of the park.

I'd thought that Wilentz had already disgraced himself in February by insisting, at diarrheatic length in The New Republic, that it was Obama who was playing the race card against the Clintons, not that Clinton surrogates were doing it against Obama. It was as if Wilentz figured that to become a presidential administration's Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., you have to become a presidential hit man first.

His slimy New Republic piece was demolished here and elsewhere - a suitable occasion, I'd have thought, for Wilentz to ponder Allan Bloom's caution that professors who strain to become counselors to the powerful risk ending up in the power of those they intended to influence.

But for Wilentz, it wasn't enough to lose his credibility as an historian that way; he seems to have some characterological need to prove himself a loyalist, not a scholarly thinker.
Politics needs both, of course. But Wilentz hubristically assumed he could be both all by himself.

At least what Schlesinger lost in gravitas for becoming an assiduous apologist for John F. Kennedy, he made up in ebullience and bravado, not to mention occasional brilliance. Wilentz is more weasily and posturing, his work"respected" most by media types looking for someone to fill the Schlesinger slot. Wilentz has worked a bit too hard to convince them he fills that bill.

For years, Wilentz worked tirelessly to make himself an avuncular arbiter of what was and was not appropriate for progressive young writers to say on any given issue at any given time. His modus was not so much to take a position and develop it as to look over his shoulder in three or four directions before positioning himself for the moment.

He became a smooth schemer and intriguer. Even now, he's trying to buff up his tarnished liberal credentials with a cover story in the September Rolling Stone, "How Bush Destroyed the Republican Party." Reading it, you wouldn't guess how hard Wilentz has tried to hurt Obama's chances of defeating Republicans, even since Obama won the primaries -- as if his losing the general election would somehow vindicate Wilentz's anti-Obama screeds of earlier this year.

Now, though, thanks to Bill Clinton and Charles Kaiser, Wilentz resembles the Japanese soldier found on a desert island in 1946 still fighting what he thinks is an unfinished World War. Wilentz lives in Princeton, not an island, however, and since the rest of Princeton's Clinton-Administration-in waiting has accepted reality, it's time he did, too. So thanks, indeed, to Kaiser for ushering him off history's stage for awhile. Editors and producers might take note and give him a rest.

Footnote on another schemer: Moments after Bill Clinton said last night that the world admires"the power of our example more than the example of our power," virtually the first words out of David Brooks' mouth in the PBS skybox were,"I'm not sure that Vladimir Putin admires our example." Brooks' reflexive neo-con emphasis on the world's darkness and cruelty as an excuse not to worry about the power of our example, was precisely what I attributed to him in my post of just yesterday. That makes it fun to read again now.

Isn't it time Brooks and other harnessed neo-cons read The God That Failed? Instead, he did something else ridiculously neo-connish last night: He announced that Biden's terrific performance makes it imperative that McCain make Joe Lieberman his running mate. I'd love to see Biden flatten Lieberman in a debate or two, as Kaiser flattened Wilentz.

Related Links

  • Publius: The Continuing Decline of Sean Wilentz

  • Eric Rauchway: We ♥ you, Sean!

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