Conservatives' Biographies Show That History Can Move Right

By Barone, Michael | Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The, December 23, 2015 | Go to article overview

Conservatives' Biographies Show That History Can Move Right


Barone, Michael, Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The


Biography is one way -- often the most vivid way -- in which people understand history. The beautifully written biographies of Franklin Roosevelt that rolled off the presses and rose in the bestseller lists in the 1950s and 1960s created a template in which the New Deal was central to American history. It was the culmination of what happened before the 1930s and the model for what should and would happen next.

That model was undermined by the success of four-time Roosevelt voter Ronald Reagan, but the idea that every bigger government is beneficial and inevitable continues to be accepted by many on the left.

Three biographies published over the last year, each by a British author with deep understanding of America (two of them live here), point in a different direction. They are Andrew Roberts's Napoleon: A Life, Niall Ferguson's Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist and the second of three volumes of Charles Moore's authorized biography of Margaret Thatcher.

Unlike FDR, all three subjects can, to varying degrees, be described as conservative. That characterization is more debatable in the case of Napoleon, who rose from corporal to general to emperor in the wake of the French Revolution. But Roberts shows how Bonaparte tamed the Revolution, with a whiff of grapeshot, clever political maneuvering and an astonishing mixture of energy and insight.

And he shows how Napoleon created enduring public institutions. He spread the Revolution's metric system throughout Europe and ultimately most of the world. His Napoleonic Code remains the basis of law in continental Europe and many of its former colonies. He achieved for a decade a united Europe, the vision of which inspired creation of the European Union.

Many Americans wouldn't characterize Henry Kissinger as a conservative either, given his support of detente with the Soviet Union and opening to communist China. But Ferguson shows how Kissinger, from his days as a sergeant in postwar Germany, tempered his severe analysis of facts on the ground with a fine appreciation of national histories and a conviction that idealism must undergird American foreign policy.

Ferguson ends this first volume with Richard Nixon's astonishing appointment of Kissinger as national security adviser. But Kissinger, deeply involved in Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administration policymaking, had already developed not only trenchant critiques of their current policies, especially on Vietnam, but also had developed impressive adroitness in bureaucratic infighting. …

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