History is all around us; happening, even now! The immediacy which information and by extension history are available to us, may allow the modern individual to take history on its surface for granted. History may be like fine wine or aged cheese; only appreciated after giving it careful consideration and plenty of gestation time. Historians are hard to pin down because, in a way, anyone who writes down words transcribing thoughts or events is a ‘historian.’ However some are more opinionated, informed, or studied than others; many just have a better vantage point from which to record history. Regardless, here are five of the finest historians to write and the books they wrote in on.
William Bennett: America: The Last Best Hope: While some may not share his political leanings, there can be no real argument over the way William Bennett can catalog history. In America: The Last Best Hope (2006), Bennett methodically hits the highs and lows of this nation of ours with equal zeal. Bennett was a converted democrat who worked in the administration of President Reagan and even though there have been many shortcomings in the American democratic experiment, Bennett argues that it is still better than any alternative. No matter how dissatisfied we are with our government, it may be important to remember that fact.
Ralph Waldo Emerson: (Nature, Self-Reliance, Politics, Experience…) Ralph Waldo Emerson was about as important a figure in history as any other. His own feelings on Nature, Self-Reliance, Politics, and Experience made for great essays; they also became the basis for the transcendentalist movement in history. While some may look to his writings and consider them “present tense for their time,” Emerson’s contribution to history was his looking forward and establishing his own individual school of thought which remains borne out to this day. For that fact alone Emerson can’t be denied a place as historian.
Chris Matthews: (Life’s a Campaign, Hardball, etc…): Chris Matthews is a political junkie’s best friend. His own place working in the staff of a number of congressional figures as well as speechwriter for President Carter made him just as much a part of the history he wrote about as an observer. Fortunately for readers, Matthews is able to keep a balanced disposition; some liberals call him too far right; some hawks call him far too dovish. Whatever your feelings about Matthews political leanings, his astute study of modern and distant past political history is worth mentioning.
Thomas E Mann & Norman J Ornstein (The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track): Congress impacts all of our lives; yet so few of us really have any idea how Congress works, what they do, or what it is they are talking about for hours upon hours on CSPAN. Thomas E Mann and Norman J Ornstein have put their stamp on recent history by pulling back the curtain on the machinations of Congress and their “arbitrary and authortarian leadership.” Whether the authors are writing about Tom Delay, Jack Abramoff, Jim Wright, Harriet Miers, or warrantless wiretapping, all have their own individual stamp on the excesses of Congress and each are ousted in The Broken Branch.
Ben Ginsberg (The American Lie): As far as politicians go, Ben Ginsberg isn’t impressed. His astute book, The American Lie is a soberingly funny take on how much politicians have indeed lied. While many of these books about history and historians have been about politics, Ben Ginsberg is very quick to see how much politics affects all of our lives and how funny and sad it all is.
While historians continually are writing about all things present in real time, these five writers have done a fine job commenting on the moment and delivering insights in stunning clarity. While there were plenty of other historians which could have made this list, these five were mine!