Magazine article The American Prospect

The Analogist: Jim Chapin, 1942-2002. (Devil in the Details)

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Analogist: Jim Chapin, 1942-2002. (Devil in the Details)

Article excerpt

"WHAT IF YOU GAUGED THE two sides in the Civil War just by looking at the two generals in command at Antietam?" Jim Chapin asked at some point during the 2000 campaign. "McClellan was more pro-slavery than Lee. If that's all you focused on--not the armies, not the governments, not the states and their politics--you might conclude there was no difference between the North and the South."

Chapin's point had nothing to do with the Civil War. It was that parties matter, that the then-embattled Al Gore, whatever his flaws, was responsive to a different set of forces than George W. Bush, and that elections are about a choice of parties and social forces at least as much as they are about a choice of men and women.

Chapin, who died suddenly on Sept. 30 of a heart attack, was given to historic analogies, to creating them and sharing them. It was one reason why hundreds of journalists and scholars and liberal activists and people with the dumb good luck just to have known him learned more from Jim than just about anyone else. In my own narrow circle, the people who write about politics from across the political spectrum, Chapin was our own private collection--an immense library of social facts large and small. It's an imperfect analogy (sorry, Jim) because he was the only library I know of who was constantly and creatively combining parts of the past to light up the present.

"I'd been talking to him (or, rather, he'd been talking to me) about [Tony] Blair seven or eight years ago, before Blair became [prime minister]," his friend John Judis wrote me the day after Jim died. "Chapin, who was nutty about analogies, insisted that I read some book about the Liberal Party in England in the 19th century. Of course, he turned out to be absolutely correct about Blair's Labor as a revival of the Liberal Party, but who knew it then, except him?"

Well, soon enough, Judis knew it, because none of Jim's knowledge was proprietary. By e-mail, by phone, in meetings, at parties, over dinner, while crossing the street against oncoming traffic, Chapin answered our questions or just plain rambled intellectually. In another person, it might have seemed a bit overbearing, but in Jim, who exuded a deep kindness, these expostulations always had a great charm. "He was the most extraordinary combination of strenuous intellect and deep sweetness I have ever encountered," says Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who credits Chapin (his boyhood baby-sitter) with turning him toward a career in history.

Chapin invariably assumed that his listeners knew where he was headed when he embarked on one of his historical discourses. …

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