Ain't You Glad You Joined The Republicans?

Phil Leggiere reviews the book "Ain't You Glad You Joined The Republicans? A Short History of The GOP" by John Calvin Batchelor.

Published May 21, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Recent American fiction has made good sport of creatively confounding the boundaries between History and the Novel. The results range from the arch ironies of Gore Vidal's U.S. History Cycle to the radical revisions of the past assayed by such writers as Thomas Pynchon, E.L. Doctorow and Ishmael Reed. The novelist John Calvin Batchelor has proven adept at all this, fashioning -- in works like "Gordon Liddy Is My Muse" -- highly cerebral spy/sci-fi scenarios which have made him a skeptical neo-conservative's answer to Don DeLillo.

For fans of Batchelor's fiction, "Ain't You Glad You Joined the Republicans? A Short History of the G.O.P." may be surprising. Unabashedly enthusiastic, even boosterish, about its subject and written with artful simplicity, the book is organized chronologically, by national election years, from the GOP's founding in the 1850s to the present. Batchelor narrates the evolution of an institution he describes, provocatively, as the vessel of "a successful revolutionary uprising against the status quo of human bondage."

Beginning with the emergence of the GOP from the crucible of the abolitionist movement, the book offers a vividly drawn account of an organization far less staid than its image. Batchelor makes highly readable drama of 140 years of competition within the "Big Tent" between radical reconstructionists and compromisers, Stalwarts and Mugwamps, Progressives and Stand-Patters, Taft Conservatives and "Me-Too" New Dealers, Rockefeller Blue Bloods and Goldwater Cowboys, Yuppie Libertarians and Born Again Christians, Country Clubbers and Gun Lovers. He packs the study with enough information to satisfy any political junkie.

Unfortunately, Batchelor the historian glides rather blithely over such unpleasant topics as the party's troubling relations with Far Right fringe groups, from America First in the 1930s to the McCarthyites of the 1950s and the New Right of the 1970s and '80s. He similarly neglects how the party of Lincoln has become, for many, a bastion of intolerant religious fundamentalism and not-necessarily "benign neglect" of the poor and minorities.

At his best, though, Batchelor invigorates the genre of narrative political history, a genre which, too often in the hands of academics and ideologues, has fallen on hard times. Its cheerleading qualities aside, "Ain't You Glad You Joined the Republicans?" clearly transcends the turgidness that's chronic in most political history writing, delighting and instructing (if not necessarily converting) with its quirky reverence.

By Phil Leggiere

Phil Leggiere is a cultural critic living in Hoboken, NJ.

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