To be interesting, lists should provoke. Your “100 Most Influential Americans” selection succeeded (“They Made America,” December Atlantic). As the author of They Made America, the book and PBS series and radio documentary, I was flattered to have my title as your headline, but disappointed that your panel of historians did scant justice to so many of the men and women who really did make America: those who created the modern world with their innovations, from the steam engine to the search engine.
Without the innovators, America could not have been knit together as a nation, nor preserved as such. Think of the railroads and the telegraph lines that were crucial to the North’s victory in 1865; think of World War II and the Cold War, and America’s emergence as the world’s predominant economic power.
But the most fundamental point your panel missed is how much innovators have enabled America’s dedication to democracy and equal rights. A. P. Giannini opened banking to the common man. Madam C. J. Walker, the orphan daughter of slaves, built the largest black business of its day, liberating millions of African American women through the iconic status she achieved. Gary Kildall and Ken Olson expanded access to the computer beyond a select priesthood. The panel did mention Henry Ford, but failed to stress his singular achievement: giving practical reality to the rhetoric of democracy by fighting for the people’s car. Similarly, Cyrus McCormick’s truly original contribution—as important as his reaper—was his invention of easy credit for the masses of ordinary farmers who otherwise could not have afforded his machine.
Beyond this, it was amazing to see no mention of the new nation’s first notable innovator, Oliver Evans (the high-pressure steam engine), or Charles Goodyear (vulcanized rubber), Philo T. Farnsworth (television), Herbert Boyer (the father of biotechnology), Theodore Judah (the architect of the transcontinental railroad) … I could go on!
Rather than depreciating the achievements of our innovators in business and technology, historians should acknowledge how much we need them for making a better America—independent of foreign fossil fuel, ready to cope with the effects of global warming and with competition from low-cost economies. Just as they made yesterday’s America, the innovators are crucial to making tomorrow’s.
New York, N.Y.
Joshua Green spent pages detailing Hillary Clinton’s remarkable professionalism, political agility, work ethic, and ability to grow on the job (“Take Two,” November Atlantic), so what more does he want of her? He criticizes her lack of “big ideas” and “crusading causes,” but can he name a single big idea or cause that Governor George W. Bush was known for when he sought the presidency in 2000? Green wonders at Clinton’s lack of firebrand tactics, but did he pay attention to his own description of the Senate as a place where female senators have had to “walk down two floors to use a public restroom” and still have to submit their wardrobes to the daily approval of “bench ladies”? Besides, Clinton’s entire career has been about risk—from making partner in a southern law firm in the 1970s, to redefining the role of the first lady as aggressively as Dick Cheney has redefined the vice presidency, to becoming a senator who has put her most powerful foes in a remarkable state of debt and deference to her.
I have yet to see any analysis by a male journalist that shows any real understanding of the burden that Clinton, and all talented professional women, still labor under. It’s the “Ginger Rogers Rule”: Do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. And yet it’s still never enough. Our toughness will be “caution,” and our political skills will be called “compromise”; we’ll hear that although we’ve “reached the top,” it’s not a “viable” place to be. And God help you if you answer questions about complex issues, because then you’re a “laundry lady, pinning up every fact.”
As a constituent of Senator Clinton’s, I long ago made peace with the fact that I don’t always agree with her, and I now see her as excellent presidential material. Mainly that’s because she shares most of my values and works hard to earn my vote. But it’s also because, as a professional woman, I know exactly what she’s going through.
Hillary Clinton comes across as a cure for some of the worst ills of contemporary Congress: she is modest while her colleagues grandstand; she accepts small gains in minor bills developed through compromise rather than sponsoring high-profile bills headed to certain failure; and perhaps most important, she makes common cause with members across the aisle, preserving a small corner of collegiality and conversation in a body that has become increasingly acrimonious and partisan. I can see how Senator Clinton may be on her way to a position of Senate leadership.
On the other hand, what I did not see in Joshua Green’s profile was a future president of the United States. Our nation is in crisis: global climate change will soon make us sentimental for a time when we feared terrorists; the rising price of energy will make us all poorer; and the yawning chasm between the very rich and everybody else is making us a plutocratic caricature of democracy. Green did not depict a Hillary Clinton with sufficient vision and courage to lead us back from the brink. Intelligence, knowledge, political astuteness, perhaps even wisdom—these she appears to possess, in marked contrast to the current president. But I fear those qualities are insufficient to lead the nation as it soon will desperately need to be led.
Three Rivers, Calif.
Joshua Green replies:
I’m happy to address Joan Hilty’s criticisms of my Hillary Clinton profile, but let’s dispense with the straw-man comparison to George W. Bush. Surely we can agree that it would be deeply unfair to doom Senator Clinton to the soft bigotry of low expectations. (And if we can’t: Bush ran on the big idea of “compassionate conservatism,” which served him well—at least until he assumed office.) I agree that Clinton has faced extraordinary challenges as a woman in the Senate; indeed, I documented them more thoroughly than anyone else I’ve seen. I also agree that she has taken large risks in her career, such as running for the Senate. My point was that she has taken none as a senator, which has led to a record notable for its caution and risk-aversion—qualities that Americans typically do not seek in their presidents, and ones that I believe will hurt her presidential campaign for the reasons delineated in David Graber’s letter. It isn’t Clinton’s gender but her lack of vision that I think most imperils her bid for the White House.
Benjamin Schwarz marvelously highlights the merits of the latest volume in the New Oxford History of England series, A Mad, Bad, & Dangerous People? (“The Path of Least Resistance,” October Atlantic). Yet I must take issue with his invidious comparison of the New Oxford History of England series with the Oxford History of the United States. The rate of publication of titles in the History of the United States series, which Schwarz calls “unconscionably tardy,” reflects the high standards set by the Oxford Press and the series editors: Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward, and now David Kennedy. It also reflects a conceptual change in the series, which was originally intended to be a set of chronological political histories, accompanied by thematic volumes on culture, economics, diplomacy, and other topics. Titles now are expected to blend social, political, economic, cultural, diplomatic, and military history into coherent and vividly written narratives with strong interpretive angles—a high bar, especially given the richness of American historiography since the series was inaugurated.
Book reviews are invariably a matter of personal opinion. But the committees of the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the Parkman Prize, as well as a great many readers, might disagree with Schwarz’s characterization of Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear and James Patterson’s Grand Expectations, among other titles, as “bloated and intellectually flabby.”
Oxford University Press
New York, N.Y.
Benjamin Schwarz replies:
I stand by my invidious comparison. The Oxford History of England series aims to meet the same standards as its American counterpart, and its authors also “blend social, political, economic, cultural, diplomatic, and military history.” Somehow, though, the British writers have managed to produce far more volumes of a generally far higher intellectual and stylistic quality in a fraction of the time. And I stand by my verdict of intellectually mushy storytelling regarding the two titles Susan Ferber mentions (and I’d use the same words to describe Restless Giant, James Patterson’s other volume in the series).