Bush's Weird, Favorite Historian
On Andrew Roberts
Jacob Weisberg / Slate, March 28, 2007
“President Bush is sometimes a boastful anti-intellectual, but in the past year he has been touting his reading lists and engaging in who-can-read-more contests with his chief political adviser, Karl Rove. (Bush claimed to have read 60 books in just the first seven and a half months of last year, the pace of a full-time reviewer.) There even seems to be a White House book club. The most recent selection was A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 by conservative British writer Andrew Roberts. Bush invited Roberts for a discussion over lunch at the White House earlier this month. The author was joined by Dick Cheney (who was recently photographed carrying the book), Rove, and a group of neoconservative intellectuals including Norman Podhoretz and Gertrude Himmelfarb, along with various other officials and conservative journalists. Though the event was supposed to be off the record, several participants wrote it up afterward. (You can read their breathy accounts here and here and here.) Bush's embrace of Roberts' book is hardly surprising, given how it glorifies his presidency. But it does suggest that all the heavy reading he's been doing lately may not be opening his mind.
Roberts' book picks up in 1900, shortly before the point where Winston Churchill's four volumes of similar title leave off. It also takes up Churchill's idea that the Anglo-American alliance is responsible for the survival of liberty. Though Roberts does not favor the term, his framework closely tracks the notion of an "Anglosphere"—a natural alliance among the English-speaking former colonies of Great Britain that spreads higher civilization in the form of democracy and capitalism. His own idiosyncratic definition of English-speaking countries, which includes New Zealand but not Bermuda, Canada but not Ireland, and Australia but not India or South Africa, explains the book's curious cross-cutting from London to Wellington to Washington to Canberra.
At the core of the book is Roberts' notion of what might be called the Super-Special Relationship. When Britain could no longer rule its empire in 1946, he argues, it handed responsibility for the rest of the world over to its successor, the United States. "Just as in science-fiction people are able to live on through cryogenic freezing after their bodies die, so British post-imperial greatness has been preserved and fostered through its incorporation into the American world-historical project," Roberts writes. He views British colonialism and American hegemony as alike in their selfless benevolence and effectiveness. Like Bush, he is peeved that the recipients of our generosity are not more grateful. The answer, Roberts says, "is the first law of modern imperialism: that no good deed goes unpunished."
As a historian, Roberts is present-minded in the extreme, returning at every stage of his narrative to justifications for Bush's actions in Iraq. The neoconservatives who want to spread democracy in the Middle East are the heirs to compassionate Victorians who sought to civilize India, China, and Africa. While the reader is still choking on the casting of Richard Perle as Lord Macaulay, Roberts is hard at work grafting Bush's head onto Winston Churchill's body. The president's prosecution of the war on terror is "vigorous" and "absolutely unwavering." His and Tony Blair's Iraq war has provided "excellent value for money" to the taxpayer. That Bush has brought "full democracy" to Iraq is stated as unequivocal fact.
Roberts has written several other well-regarded books, including a biography of Lord Salisbury, a Victorian prime minister of the post-Disraeli period. But it is hard to see how the form of ideological assertion that predominates here qualifies as historical scholarship, as opposed to polemic. A true historian explores questions; a great popular one can spin a good yarn while revealing complexities and surprises. Roberts musters a muscular narrative line but examines nothing at all. All charges against his Anglo-American Imperium are quickly dismissed, from the "supposed ill-treatment" of women and children in Boer War internment camps to the prison camp at Guantanamo, which he declares Bush is "right" to keep open. The fire-bombing of Dresden was "justified," the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki positive in various ways. The abuses at Abu Ghraib, Roberts writes, were of course overstated and resulted from "the fact that some of the military policemen involved were clearly little better than Appalachian mountain-cretins."
Roberts is as sloppy as he is snobbish. I am seldom bothered by minor errors from a good writer, but Roberts' mistakes are so extensive, foolish, and revealing of his basic ignorance about the United States in particular, that it may be worth noting a few of those I caught in a fast read. The San Francisco earthquake did considerably more than $400,000 in damage. Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in 1941, did not write for Encounter, which began publication in 1953. The Proposition 13 Tax Revolt took place in the 1970s, not the 1980s—an important distinction because it presaged Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. Michael Milken was not a "takeover arbitrageur," whatever that is. Roberts cannot know that there were 500 registered lobbyists in Washington during World War II because lobbyists weren't forced to register until 1946. Gregg Easterbrook is not the editor of the New Republic. "No man gets left behind" is a line from the film Black Hawk Down, not the motto of the U.S. Army Rangers; their actual motto is "Rangers Lead the Way." In a breathtaking peroration, Roberts point out that "as a proportion of the total number of Americans, only 0.008 percent died bringing democracy to important parts of the Middle East in 2003-5." Leaving aside the question of whether those deaths have brought anything like democracy to Iraq, 0.008 percent of 300 million people is 24,000—off by a factor of 10, which is typical of his arithmetic. If you looked closely enough, I expect you could find an error of one kind or another on every page of the book.
More disturbing than the mistakes is the sense of "linguistic" superiority that pervades Roberts' triumphal account. Kipling's phrase "the white man's burden"—originally written to urge the United States to take up its imperial obligations in the Philippines—is adopted with little sense of irony, and the racist dimension of colonialism goes unconsidered. "Although the ill-treatment of the Black American has long been held to represent an indelible blot on the escutcheon of the English-speaking peoples … " begins the section on the civil rights movement. Roberts doesn't think those spreading civilization to the benighted have to be Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, or male; he is a philo-Semite and esteems Margaret Thatcher only slightly less than Churchill. But Roberts seldom bothers to hide his biases, raining open hostility on the French and Irish Catholics. In one of the book's loopier passages, he rants about how a supposed Irish mafia in Hollywood has conspired to portray Englishmen as villains. Hannibal Lecter, as played by Anthony Hopkins, stands in for perfidious Albion.
With this book, Andrew Roberts takes his place as the fawning court historian of the Bush administration. He claims this role not just by singing the Bush administration's achievements but by producing a version of the past that conforms to and confirms its prefabricated view of the world. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples feeds Bush's growing preference for the unknowable future to a problematic present, by assuring him that history will vindicate him, as it did Churchill and Truman, if only he continues to hold firm.
Other recent favorites Bush has cited fall into this same, self-justifying category, including Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy and Mark Steyn's America Alone. Are we sure we want a president who spends so much time reading? The leader who loves books that tell him he is great and right may be worse than the leader who does not love books at all.
Jacob Weisberg is editor of Slate and co-author, with Robert E. Rubin, of In an Uncertain World.