Sunday, July 24, 2011


A review of James T. Patterson's Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush V. Gore (2005)

Part of the Oxford History of the United States Series

(Rating 5 of 5)

My final stop on my march through the ages is James T. Patterson's Restless Giant. This volume has a very different feel from both Patterson's previous book Grand Expectations and from the Oxford series in general. This book is more upbeat than the previous; this could be due to the material. Grand Expectations leaves you a little emotionally down in a reflection of the disappointment of the time period. In contrast, Restless Giant is written with the optimism of the 1980s and 1990s, where America, in winning the Cold War, seemed as if it were invincible. The title of the book is a clear spin of one Admiral Yamamoto's statement of America being a sleeping giant that he had awakened by attacking Pearl Harbor. This book is also very different from the rest of the Oxford series because, unlike the earlier volumes, this book is features an era that I actually lived through. I was born in 1981, so my life begins basically in chapter 5 and the rest of the book covers the events of my youth.

The story begins in the 1970s in the aftermath of Watergate, Patterson does his best to uncover this brief little era, in which a public first supports President Gerald Ford but begins to soar towards him in as he pardons his dishonored predecessor. Ford finds himself replaced with the humorless Jimmy Carter, who in turn presides over one of the worst economies since the 1930s. In keeping the tradition of the series, Patterson explores this era from all sides. He tells the story of the ordinary people, the social trends, new gadgets, and entertainment that the people enjoyed. It is a decade I am glad to have just missed.

The 1980s and my life begin with Ronald Reagan having vanquished Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, ushered in a new conservative era. Although Patterson points out that even though conservative politics were becoming popular it was hardly a triumph equal to the liberals in 1932. The Democrats still held the House and Reagan while eager to pay lip-service to conservative domestic polices, he was not that interested in promoting them. Reagan chose instead to focus mainly on U.S. foreign policy. Reagan's foreign policy would be credited with winning the Cold War for the United States. Patterson also discusses horrors of the era, such as, the coming of the AIDS epidemic, and some the lighter moments such as the beginning of MTV.

“Reagan, moreover, was not so doctrinaire a conservative as liberals made out. While fond of damning big government—and of denunciations of 'welfare queens'--he recognized that liberal interest groups had effective lobbies on the Hill, that major New Deal—Great Society social programs—many of them entitlements—were here to stay, and the rights-consciousness had become a powerful political force. He understood that though people said they distrusted government, they expected important services from it.”(p.163)

The chapter covering the era of George H.W. Bush is known simply as 'Bush 41'. There is a strong argument to be made that of all the presidents to be featured in this book he was the most successful. Unfortunately, he will never be look at in that regard because he is cursed as a one-termer in his lost Bill Clinton in 1992. Although he had 'neo-cons' in his administration, the first President Bush was not as dominated by those view points as his son would be over a decade later.

Patterson begins to cover the nineties, which saw the end of the Industrial Age and the beginning of the Information Age. As the first baby boomer to assume the presidency, Bill Clinton gave Americans the impression that they once again had a very young Kennedy like president. Like Kennedy, he makes a lot of errors and also has his triumphs. And also like Kennedy, Patterson covers more of the former than the later. Nevertheless, I feel that Patterson gives Clinton a fair treatment.

“Extraordinarily well informed about domestic issues, Clinton had impressed many party leaders when he headed the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank that blossomed after 1989 within the ideologically centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Like a great many boomers, he liberal positions on a range of social issues such as abortion and health care, but though he had the populist touch of a campaigner, he did not position himself of the left. A moderate as governor, he distanced himself as a presidential candidate from liberals like Mondale and Dukakis, who had been badly beaten in 1984 and 1988.” p.248

I was a teenager in the 1990s and my political options were beginning to form. So reading about the Clinton years was like reliving my youth in a way. Of the course the news that dominated the headlines was the Monica Lewinsky affair and the unjustified impeachment of President Clinton by his relentless partisan opponents. Clinton's behavior brought on a lot of his own misery, but his opponents’ behavior was worse because they attacked not only Bill Clinton politically, but the office the President as an institution. Clinton in standing up to these attacks, I believe, ended a deterioration of power that had been chipping at the presidency since Nixon resigned*.

“If Clinton's near-legendary luck had held out—as it might have done if he had been chief executive during pre-Watergate days when reporters had turned a relatively blind eye to the promiscuity of politicians—he would have joined a number of American presidents who had engaged in extramarital relations without being publicly exposed while in office.”(p.388)

The book ends with the controversial election of President George W. Bush over Vice President Al Gore. The first election that I ever voted in was one that was finished by the United States Supreme Court. I was very disappointed the time because I thought the election was outright stolen. I now, in agreeing with Patterson but having this opinion before, feel that the election had instead just fallen off a bus. (I have often thought about what might have been.)

Before ending I have to talk about this one part of a paragraph in chapter 8—the chapter that deals with the culture wars of the 1990s:

“Though many publishers and bookshops struggled to break even, fiction by highly talented authors—Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Anne Tyler, Richard Ford, John Updike, and others with smaller name recognition—sold well. So did excellently researched works of non-fiction. James McPherson's prize winning Battle Cry for Freedom (1988), a history of the Civil War era enjoyed huge sales.” (p.288)

Now Battle Cry for Freedom, I believe I both read and reviewed that book. If memory serves that is the Civil War volume of the Oxford History of the United States series, which is the same series as this very book! David Kennedy, the current editor, must have yelled out 'GO TEAM' when he read those words.

All in all, this is a great book. It is interesting reading events that took place in your own life as actually history. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to know more about the time decades preceding the attacks of September 11.

{The first two videos are from YouTube thanks to the Miller Center of Public Affairs and the third is from Saturday Night Live}

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