Book review: Scuppered at the Watergate

A History of the American People by Paul Johnson Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 25

Two spirits, alas! dwelled in the breast of Goethe's Faust, and two spirits, alas! dwell in Paul Johnson's. There is the tub-thumping bully of the Daily Mail, laying all the world's complex evils at the doors of a hideously caricatured tribe called liberals. And there is the stylish popular historian, author of an admirable History of the Jews and of other books, disfigured, indeed, by occasional ideological perversities like his odd preference for Warren Harding over Franklin Roosevelt, but still well worth reading. Which of these two unkindred spirits has now written the history of the American people? The answer is: both.

The first 750 pages of this book are by Jekyll Johnson, the graceful, fair historian. I particularly enjoyed his neat biographical sketches, of Alexander Hamilton, for example, or of Thomas Jefferson ("a fastidious devotee of all life's luxuries, from claret to concubinage"). Johnson is just as good on Henry Clay, who is portrayed unforgettably in Kentucky giving "a grand Terpsichorean performance ... executing a pas seul on the table, smashing $120 worth of china and glass"; while in Washington "he adopted a different accent, watched his grammar (not always successfully) ... and generally did his gentleman act".

Only occasionally does Hyde Johnson grab the pencil and manage to scribble in some ponderous neo-conservative anachronism, such as calling plans for repatriating slaves to Africa "a liberal solution" or comparing the Salem witch trials to Watergate. From first to last, Johnson promotes the idea of American exceptionalism. "The creation of the United States," says his first sentence, "is the greatest of all human adventures." "Looking back on its past and forward to its future," says his last, "the auguries are that it will not disappoint an expectant humanity."

That is the book's strength. For 750 pages it is written with a wonder and affectionate curiosity that sweep the reader along. Johnson has mastered a huge amount of material, yet made his narrative immensely readable. Professional historians will no doubt find fault with his interpretations. There is some force, too, in the criticism that this is not, as modern historians would see it, a history of the American people, so much as an old-fashioned general history of the kind that has been out of fashion for two generations. So much the worse for them. This is the kind of book that brings new readers to its subject by its freshness, its enthusiasm and the quality of its writing.

Almost to the end, Johnson maintains his detachment. His portraits of Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman are as lively as his Andrew Jackson or his Abraham Lincoln. His set-pieces on the jazz age and on McCarthyism are as fresh as his account of slavery or the Great Awakening of American Protestantism. Even his portraits of Kennedy and Johnson, though sharp, are judicious. And then we come to Nixon, and Watergate.

At this point, Johnson leaves the rails. Or rather his locomotive jumps the points and careers off on new rails, leading straight for a gaping mineshaft of ideology and prejudice. He speaks of "hysteria", of "juvenilia". He says that the Plumbers were "engaged in a variety of activities of an entirely justifiable nature". That is not what the courts found.

He describes Watergate as a "media putsch". That is exactly what it was not. The President of the United States resigned to avoid virtually certain conviction on articles of impeachment. He was not brought low by the media, but because the whole system, from the police court to the Supreme Court, worked as it was supposed to do.

After Nixon, Johnson spirals out of control. He rages incoherently about "political correctness", not understanding that it was never anything but a slogan used by conservatives to dish the liberals. His account of the Iran Contra affair is a travesty. His account of the civil rights movement is trivial and inaccurate. He recites right-wing tittle-tattle about Clinton.

At one point, he actually leaves terra firma. After the new immigration began in the late 1960s, Johnson says, "America became in danger of embracing a caste system" or of setting up "the juridical infrastructure of a racist state, like Hitler's Germany".

Nothing like that happened. Nothing like that could happen in America. To use such wild language would be inappropriate in a tabloid newspaper. To use it in a history book, like the 13th stroke of a clock, casts doubt on all that preceded it. And it raises the question whether the United States Johnson knows, and claims to love, bears any relation to the real country beyond the walls of neo-conservative think tanks.

News
news
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
New Articles
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Sport
sport
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

    £70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

    £20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

    Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

    £24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all