The vast left-wing conspiracy

How will American universities repair the damage caused by the partisan politicization of the impeachment debacle?

By David Horowitz
Published February 1, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

When the dust has finally settled on this lost year of American
politics, there may be consolation in the fact that much of the damage
is reparable, and that most of the scars inflicted on the nation will be
readily healed. As a new election cycle rolls around, fresh faces will
become the focus of public attention. President Clinton, along with his
seductions and prevarications, will be gone. There will be renewed
respect for the privacy rights of public figures. Even Congress will
come together and, in a bipartisan moment, undo the independent counsel law that liberals contrived as a weapon against conservatives and
conservatives turned into a weapon against liberals, and then against
themselves. Larry Flynt will slither back under his familiar rock.

But there is at least one institution that has thrust
itself to the fore in this presidential crisis that will not be so
easy to repair. That institution is American academia, which in
the midst of the presidential battle volunteered a battalion of scholars
to serve the Clinton cause.

As the House Judiciary Committee was gearing up for impeachment in October, a full-page political ad appeared in the New York
Times sponsored by "Historians in Defense of the Constitution." The
historians declared that in their professional judgment there was no
constitutional basis for impeaching the president, and that to do so would
undermine our political order. The historians' statement was eagerly seized on by the president's congressional defenders and deployed as a
weapon against his congressional accusers. In the none-too-meticulous
hands of the pols, the signers became 400 "constitutional
experts" who had exposed the Republicans' attempt at a "coup d'etat."

One of the three organizers of the statement, Sean Wilentz,
even appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to warn the
Republicans that "history will hunt you down" for betraying the American
Founders. On the day his Senate trial began, the president himself
referred reporters to the "constitutional experts" who had gone on
record that he should not have been impeached.

The signers of the statement, however, are not constitutional experts
at all. One of them, Julian Bond, is not even a trained historian, though two
universities -- Maryland and Virginia -- have appointed him a "professor
of history." Now head of the NAACP, Bond is a leftist with a failed
political career whose university posts were in effect political
appointments. Another signer, Henry Louis Gates, is not a historian but
a talented essayist and a professor of literature. A third, Orlando
Patterson, is a first-rate sociologist. Perhaps the three are affirmative
action signers designed to increase the African-American presence on the
list. All three, of course, are men of the left.

Sean Wilentz is himself a socialist, whose expertise is social,
not political, history. A second organizer, C. Vann Woodward, is a
distinguished historian of 19th and 20th century America, but not a
historian of the Constitution. The third, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., is a
partisan Democrat who has written adoring books on Andrew Jackson,
Franklin Roosevelt and the Kennedy brothers, but not on the

Indeed, the same could be said for almost all the "historians in defense
of the Constitution" with a handful of exceptions like Pauline Maier,
who has indeed studied and written about the founding, and Garry Wills. Others on the list have even fewer credentials than
the organizers to pontificate on these matters. Todd Gitlin is a
professor of sociology and cultural studies, whose only contribution to
historical knowledge is a tendentious book justifying the radical
'60s from the perspective of a former president of SDS. Jonathan
Weiner is a writer for the Nation whose major publication is a book on
John Lennon's FBI file. Michael Kazin is another Nation writer whose
work as a historian is on American populism. John Judis is a New
Republic editor who wrote a biography of William Buckley and a book on
20th century conservatives. Jeffrey Herf's expertise is modern German
history; Robert Dallek and Bruce Kuklick are 20th century diplomatic
historians who have also written books on Lyndon Johnson and Shibe
Park. Maurice Isserman is another Nation regular and a historian of the
20th century American left.

Another signer, Ellen Du Bois, can be taken as typical of a large cohort
in what have become the thoroughly politicized humanities. She is a
professor of women's history at UCLA and a militant feminist. She is
joined as a signer by other zealous feminists whose academic work has
been the elaboration of feminist themes. These include Gerda Lerner,
Linda Gordon, Ruth Rosen, Sara Evans, Christine Stansell (Wilentz's
wife) and Alice Kessler-Harris. Two months after the Times ad appeared,
while the House was pursuing its impeachment vote, a notice was posted
on the Internet announcing that Du Bois would be a speaker (along with
two other well-known leftists) at a "Reed College Symposium on the Joy
of Struggle." The symposium was a presentation of the Reed College
Multiculturalism Center and was co-sponsored by the Feminist Union, the
Queer Alliance, Earth First, Amnesty at Reed, the Latino/a Student
Association and the Reed student activities office.

To be sure, not all the signers are ideologues, but the statement they
signed reflects the long-standing political corruption of the
American academy, and is itself a form of political deception. By
massing 400 historians "in defense of the Constitution," the organizers
imply that these well-known liberal and left-wing academics are
defending the document's original intent. Since when, however, have
liberals and leftists become defenders of the doctrine of original intent?
Are any of the signers on record as opposing the loose constructionism
of the Warren court? Were any of the scholars exercised when the Brennan
majority inserted a nonexistent "right of privacy" into the
Constitution to justify its decision in Roe vs. Wade? Were any of them
outspoken defenders of Judge Robert Bork -- the leading theorist of
"original intent" -- when a coalition of political vigilantes set out to
destroy his nomination to the Supreme Court, and even solicited his
video store purchases to see if he had rented X-rated films (talk about
sexual McCarthyism!)? Not only is the answer to all these questions
negative, but dozens of the same historians, including organizers Schlesinger and Wilentz, are "veterans of the politicized
misuse of history" (as Romesh Ponnaru put it in a recent National
Review), having previously signed a "historians' brief" to the
Supreme Court supporting abortion.

Concern for the original intent of the Constitution apparently enters
these academic hearts only when it can be deployed against Republicans
and conservatives. This probably explains why the office address listed
at the bottom of the historians' statement is the Washington address of
People for the American Way, a national lobby for the political left.

Partisan political pronouncements by groups invoking the authority of a
profession are treacherous exercises. They misrepresent what scholarship
can do, such as deciding questions that are inherently controversial.
More important, they cast a chill on academic discourse by suggesting
there is a historical party line. When Jesse Lemisch, a notable
left-wing historian, tried to organize a counterstatement favoring
impeachment (over Clinton's wag-the-dog policy in the Persian Gulf), he received
vicious e-mails from his colleagues and Wilentz stopped speaking to him.

The kind of politicization reflected in these episodes is, in fact, a
fairly recent development in academic life. Its origin can be traced to
a famous battle at the annual meeting of the American Historical
Association in 1969. At that meeting, a "radical caucus" led by
Staughton Lynd and Arthur Waskow attempted to have the organization pass
an official resolution calling for American withdrawal from the Vietnam
War and an end to the "repression" of the Black Panther Party.
Opposition to the resolution was led by radical historian Eugene
Genovese and by liberal historian H. Stuart Hughes. Four years earlier,
Genovese had become a national cause célèbre when he publicly declared
his support for the communist Viet Cong. He nonetheless opposed the
radical call for such a resolution as a "totalitarian" threat to the
profession and to the intellectual standards on which it was based. H.
Stuart Hughes, who had been a peace candidate for Congress, joined in
asserting that any anti-war resolution would "politicize" the AHA, and
urging the members to reject it.

Hughes and Genovese narrowly won the battle, but eventually lost the
war. The AHA joined other professional academic associations in becoming
institutions of the political left. The politicization went so far that,
a few years ago, philosopher Richard Rorty smugly applauded the fact
that "the power base of the left in America is now in the universities,
since the trade unions have largely been killed off." In a Nation
editorial ("Scholars on the Left," Feb. 1, 1999) Jon Wiener, one of
the signers of the historians' statement, boasts that "three members of
the Nation family" have just been elected to head three powerful
professional associations -- the American Historical Association, the
Organization of American Historians and the Modern Language Association
-- with a combined membership of 54,000 academics.

Eric Foner, Columbia professor and president-elect of the American
Historical Association, is indeed the scion of a family of well-known
American Communists, a supporter of the Rosenbergs, a sponsor of CP
stalwarts Angela Davis and Herbert Aptheker, a lifelong member of the
radical left and, recently, an organizer of the secretaries union at
Columbia and a would-be architect of an alliance between intellectuals
and the working class. David Montgomery, the new president of the
Organization of American Historians, is described in the Nation as "a
factory worker, union organizer and Communist militant in St. Paul in
the Fifties" -- Montgomery's ties to labor remain strong: He was active in
the Yale clerical workers' strike and other campus and union struggles.

Edward Said is a former member of the PLO governing council and was the
most prominent apologist in America for PLO terrorism until he fell out
with Yassir Arafat over the Oslo peace accords, which Said regards as a
"sellout" to the Israeli imperialists. A living legend in the leftist
academy, Said's overrated work is little more than warmed-over Marxist
claptrap. (For details see Keith Windschuttle's article "Edward Said's
Orientalism Revisited" in the current New Criterion.)

That's the bad news. The good news is more modest. The Historians
Statement was not an official resolution of either the AHA or the OAH,
and neither Montgomery nor Foner signed it. When asked, Foner said
he did not think it was appropriate for him to do so because of his
position as head of an organization representing 15,000 members, many of
whom might not agree with its sentiments. That was the right idea, but
unfortunately he was unable to extend it to the problem at hand. Thus he
did not think a volatile political statement by 400 professors, invoking
the authority of their profession, was itself inappropriate, even though
almost all of them lacked professional competence in the subject at

The deeper problem in this episode is the serious absence of
intellectual diversity on university faculties. Such diversity would
provide a check on the hubris of academic activists like Wilentz and his
co-signers. The fact is that leftists in the university, through decades
of political hiring and promotion, and through systematic intellectual
intimidation, have virtually driven conservative thought from the halls
of academe. It is a fact that a shallow ideologue like Angela Davis can
be officially invited to speak at a quality institution like Brandeis
and be paid $10,000 for her effort, while a Jeanne Kirkpatrick, invited
to the same institution, will be asked by administrators not to come
because they are unable to guarantee her safety. It is a fact that
Columbia University will host an official reception honoring Herbert
Aptheker, a Communist Party apparatchik and apologist for the Soviet
rape of Hungary, but will close down a conference featuring University
of California trustee Ward Connerly because he holds politically
incorrect views against racial preferences.

A call to one of the handful of known conservatives allowed to teach a
humanities subject at Princeton confirms the following suspicion: In
Wilentz's history department, not a single conservative is to be
found among 56 faculty members. If he believes in the original intent of
the Constitution to create a pluralistic society, that is something for
Professor Wilentz to be concerned about.

As it happens, Genovese has recently formed a new organization,
the American Historical Society, to take politics out of the profession.
Already 1,000 historians have joined and the first annual meeting will
be held in May. But several signers of the Historians
Statement are already charter members, including Wilentz himself. If the
organization is serious, it will have to chasten Wilentz and
promote a scholarly distance from partisan politics. Even more
important, it will have to press for the systematic hiring of
professors with under-represented conservative viewpoints. This is a
daunting task, but without such an opening to perspectives on the right,
the profession can hardly hope to restore its sagging credibility.

David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

MORE FROM David Horowitz

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton