Eminent historian Paul Johnson on Sarah Palin, the tea party, and ‘baddies’ from Napoleon to Gadhafi.
In his best-selling history of the 20th century, “Modern Times,” British historian Paul Johnson describes “a significant turning-point in American history: the first time the Great Republic, the richest nation on earth, came up against the limits of its financial resources.” Until the 1960s, he writes in a chapter titled “America’s Suicide Attempt,” “public finance was run in all essentials on conventional lines”—that is to say, with budgets more or less in balance outside of exceptional circumstances.
“The big change in principle came under Kennedy,” Mr. Johnson writes. “In the autumn of 1962 the Administration committed itself to a new and radical principle of creating budgetary deficits even when there was no economic emergency.” Removing this constraint on government spending allowed Kennedy to introduce “a new concept of ‘big government’: the ‘problem-eliminator.’ Every area of human misery could be classified as a ‘problem’; then the Federal government could be armed to ‘eliminate’ it.”
Twenty-eight years after “Modern Times” first appeared, Mr. Johnson is perhaps the most eminent living British historian, and big government as problem-eliminator is back with a vengeance—along with trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. I visited the 82-year-old Mr. Johnson in his West London home this week to ask him whether America has once again set off down the path to self-destruction. Is he worried about America’s future?
“Of course I worry about America,” he says. “The whole world depends on America ultimately, particularly Britain. And also, I love America—a marvelous country. But in a sense I don’t worry about America because I think America has such huge strengths—particularly its freedom of thought and expression—that it’s going to survive as a top nation for the foreseeable future. And therefore take care of the world.”
Pessimists, he points out, have been predicting America’s decline “since the 18th century.” But whenever things are looking bad, America “suddenly produces these wonderful things—like the tea party movement. That’s cheered me up no end. Because it’s done more for women in politics than anything else—all the feminists? Nuts! It’s brought a lot of very clever and quite young women into mainstream politics and got them elected. A very good little movement, that. I like it.” Then he deepens his voice for effect and adds: “And I like that lady—Sarah Palin. She’s great. I like the cut of her jib.”
The former governor of Alaska, he says, “is in the good tradition of America, which this awful political correctness business goes against.” Plus: “She’s got courage. That’s very important in politics. You can have all the right ideas and the ability to express them. But if you haven’t got guts, if you haven’t got courage the way Margaret Thatcher had courage—and [Ronald] Reagan, come to think of it. Your last president had courage too—if you haven’t got courage, all the other virtues are no good at all. It’s the central virtue.”
Mr. Johnson, decked out in a tweed jacket, green cardigan and velvet house slippers, speaks in full and lengthy paragraphs that manage to be at once well-formed and sprinkled with a healthy dose of free association. He has a full shock of white hair and a quick smile. He has, he allows, gone a bit deaf, but his mind remains sharp and he continues to write prolifically. His main concession to age, he says, is “I don’t write huge books any more. I used to write 1,000 printed pages, but now I write short books. I did one on Napoleon, 50,000 words—enjoyed doing that. He was a baddie. I did one on Churchill, which was a bestseller in New York, I’m glad to say. 50,000 words. He was a goodie.” He’s also written short forthcoming biographies of Socrates (another “goodie”) and Charles Darwin (an “interesting figure”).
Mr. Johnson says he doesn’t follow politics closely anymore, but he quickly warms to the subject of the Middle East. The rash of uprisings across the Arab world right now is “a very interesting phenomenon,” he says.
“It’s something that we knew all about in Europe in the 19th century. First of all we had the French Revolution and its repercussions in places like Germany and so on. Then, much like this current phenomenon, in 1830 we had a series of revolutions in Europe which worked like a chain reaction. And then in 1848, on a much bigger scale—that was known as the year of revolutions.”
In 1848, he explains, “Practically every country in Europe, except England of course . . . had a revolution and overthrew the government, at any rate for a time. So that is something which historically is well-attested and the same thing has happened here in the Middle East.”
Here he injects a note of caution: “But I notice it’s much more likely that a so-called dictatorship will be overthrown if it’s not a real dictatorship. The one in Tunisia wasn’t very much. Mubarak didn’t run a real dictatorship [in Egypt]. Real dictatorships in that part of the world,” such as Libya, are a different story.
As for Moammar Gadhafi, “We’ll see if he goes or not. I think he’s a real baddie, so we hope he will.” The Syrian regime, he adds, “not so long ago in Hama . . . killed 33,000 people because they rose up.” Then, “above all,” there is Iran. “If we can get rid of that horrible regime in Iran,” he says, “that will be a major triumph for the world.”
Frank judgments like these are a hallmark of Mr. Johnson’s work, delivered with almost child-like glee. Of Mahatma Gandhi, he wrote in “Modern Times”: “About the Gandhi phenomenon there was always a strong aroma of twentieth-century humbug.”
Socrates is much more to Mr. Johnson’s liking. Whereas, in Mr. Johnson’s telling, Gandhi led hundreds of thousands to death by stirring up civil unrest in India, all the while maintaining a pretense of nonviolence, Socrates “thought people mattered more than ideas. . . . He loved people, and his ideas came from people, and he thought ideas existed for the benefit of people,” not the other way around.
In the popular imagination, Socrates may be the first deep thinker in Western civilization, but in Mr. Johnson’s view he was also an anti-intellectual. Which is what makes him one of the good guys. “One of the categories of people I don’t like much are intellectuals,” Mr. Johnson says. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re an intellectual,’ and I say, ‘No!’ What is an intellectual? An intellectual is somebody who thinks ideas are more important than people.”
And indeed, Mr. Johnson’s work and thought are characterized by concern for the human qualities of people. Cicero, he tells me, was not a man “one would have liked to have been friends with.” But even so the Roman statesman is “often very well worth reading.”
His concern with the human dimension of history is reflected as well in his attitude toward humor, the subject of another recent book, “Humorists.” “The older I get,” he tells me, “the more important I think it is to stress jokes.” Which is another reason he loves America. “One of the great contributions that America has made to civilization,” he deadpans, “is the one-liner.” The one-liner, he says, was “invented, or at any rate brought to the forefront, by Benjamin Franklin.” Mark Twain’s were the “greatest of all.”
And then there was Ronald Reagan. “Mr. Reagan had thousands of one-liners.” Here a grin spreads across Mr. Johnson’s face: “That’s what made him a great president.”
Jokes, he argues, were a vital communication tool for President Reagan “because he could illustrate points with them.” Mr. Johnson adopts a remarkable vocal impression of America’s 40th president and delivers an example: “You know, he said, ‘I’m not too worried about the deficit. It’s big enough to take care of itself.'” Recovering from his own laughter, he adds: “Of course, that’s an excellent one-liner, but it’s also a perfectly valid economic point.” Then his expression grows serious again and he concludes: “You don’t get that from Obama. He talks inparagraphs.”
Mr. Johnson has written about the famous and notorious around the world and across centuries, but he’s not above telling of his personal encounters with history. He is, he says, “one of a dwindling band of people who actually met” Winston Churchill.
“In 1946,” he tells me, “he came up to my hometown because he was speaking at the Conservative Party conference up the road. And I managed to get in just as he was about to leave to make his speech. And I was 16. He seemed friendly, so I was inspired to say, ‘Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?’ And he said without any hesitation”—here Mr. Johnson drops his voice and puts on a passable Churchill impression—”‘Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down. And never sit down when you can lie down,'” he relates with a laugh. “And I’ve never forgotten this,” he says, “because as a matter of fact, it’s perfectly good advice.”
Here he adds the kicker: “Interestingly enough, Theodore Roosevelt, who had a lot in common with Winston Churchill in many ways, but was quite a bit older, said of him, ‘Oh, that Winston Churchill, he is not a gentleman. He doesn’t get to his feet when a lady enters the room.'”
Mr. Carney is editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe and the co-author of “Freedom, Inc.” (Crown Business, 2009).
NOTE: This is a cross post from Wall Street Journal.