Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist (AP/Reuters/Doug Mills/Mike Theiler/Yuri Gripas/photo montage by Salon)

When the Republicans went insane: Newt Gingrich, Fox News, Grover Norquist and the roots of today's shameful intransigence

Understanding the GOP revolution means studying the mid-'90s, when Fox and Drudge began, and tax pledges meant all


Heather Cox Richardson
September 20, 2014 7:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party"

Although Movement Conservative imagery had put him in the White House, George H. W. Bush’s inaugural address signaled that he would back away from the movement’s extremes. He promised to bring the budget into balance. But since popular programs—Medicare, Social Security, veterans’ benefits, food stamps—took up 65 percent of the budget and defense spending took up most of the rest, there was very little room for cuts. Bush suggested hopefully that volunteerism could replace expensive social programs. He told Americans the nation had a “high moral principle” to “make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world.” He deplored the rise of partisanship in Congress and called for bipartisan cooperation.

Bush tried to repair the damage to the nation’s finances wrought by Reagan’s policies. Between 1980 and 1989, the federal debt had tripled to $2.8 trillion, interest payments cost $200 billion a year, and budgets were still badly out of balance. The debt problem had been bad when Reagan left office, but it got worse almost immediately as the federal government stepped in to clean up the mess of collapsing savings and loan institutions to the tune of $132 billion.

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In 1990, Bush faced an estimated $171 billion deficit for the next fiscal year. This amounted to 4 percent of GNP, less than the deficits of the 1980s but a greater problem for Bush than deficits had been for Reagan because a 1985 law that went into effect in 1991 would require automatic cuts of 40 percent across the board if something weren’t done. “I’m willing to eat crow,” Bush wrote in his diary. “But the others are going to have to eat crow. I’ll have to yield on ‘Read My Lips,’ and they’re going to have to yield on some of their rhetoric on taxes and on entitlements.”

But Bush had badly underestimated Movement Conservatives. In fall 1990, he and his lieutenants in Congress hammered out a deal with congressional Democrats that made deep spending cuts, demanded that future appropriations be paired with a way to pay for them, and called for $134 billion in new taxes. Movement Conservative congressmen signed on in private but in public they launched a broadside against the deal as an affront to economic growth, common people, and Reagan.

Leading the Movement Conservatives was Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich. A consummate egotist, Gingrich believed he could put the Republicans in control of Congress for the first time since 1954. To do that, he took a hard Movement Conservative line, accusing anyone who stood against him of elitism, socialism, or corruption—either personal or in the traditional sense of corrupting the body politic by representing “special interests.” “You are killing us,” Bush told him, “you are just killing us.”

That was exactly Gingrich’s intention: to knock off the remaining Republican moderates, whom he and his lieutenants were beginning to think of as RINOs—Republicans in Name Only—and marshal Movement Conservatives to take over the party and the country. First to his side was Grover Norquist, who had developed a pledge designed to guarantee that Reagan’s 1986 tax reform measure would not be “subverted.” Elected officials who signed the pledge vowed to oppose any increase in tax rates or any elimination of tax deductions or tax credits from the 1986 law. The pledge had been such a powerful talisman for voters in 1988 that 101 House Republicans and 2 House Democrats had signed it. Norquist warned that anyone elected based on the pledge who then voted for Bush’s budget agreement was elected on a “falsehood” and would be held accountable. He promised that Americans for Tax Reform and other antitax groups would publicize the names of those who broke the pledge.

The tax measure that Gingrich opposed, the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1990, as it was formally known, destroyed Bush. With members of his own party carping at him from the right, his popularity fell to 52 percent in October.

Although Movement Conservatives didn’t like it, the same pragmatism that made Bush a careful custodian of the country’s finances made him a good leader through the crumbling of the Soviet Union and its empire in Eastern Europe. Bush had extensive experience in foreign policy. He had led the CIA for a year in the mid-1970s, served for two years as the American ambassador to the UN, and spent fourteen months as an American representative in China. He understood that America must be cautious as the USSR spun apart and its satellites—Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, and others—tried to transition out of communism. He refused to gloat over the nation’s former foes and tried to institute a “new world order” in which America and former communist countries cooperated to solve international problems.

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The splintering of a superpower raised an important question: with national boundaries shifting almost daily, would America permit larger countries to swallow up smaller ones? That question ceased to be academic in August 1990, when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait. Swayed by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to conclude that if Iraq were permitted to keep Kuwait, no small country would be safe, Bush backed sanctions against Iraq and then its invasion by a coalition of thirty-three countries allied to remove Saddam from Kuwait.

On January 17, 1991, Operation Desert Storm began with air strikes against Baghdad. On February 24, US Marines advanced into occupied Kuwait. Prepared for a bloody struggle against the best troops in the Arab world, coalition forces were astonished when the Iraqi army melted away, in retreat even before the invasion. Only 243 coalition soldiers—147 of them American—died in combat. Four days after the fighting began, it was over; Iraqi forces had abandoned Kuwait and the Bush team declared a cease-fire. Bush hoped that disaffected Iraqis would remove Saddam from power, but he offered only humanitarian aid to the rebelling Shiites and Kurds who tried to do just that. Saddam’s forces killed between fifty and eighty thousand of those rebels, created a mass exodus of Kurds from Iraq, and laid the groundwork for another invasion under another President Bush twelve years later.

In the buildup to the Gulf War, Bush’s popularity soared to an astonishing 89 percent. But his goose was cooked with Movement Conservatives, who warned that anyone who had voted for the 1990 tax measure—or signed it—was a RINO who would pay for his or her apostasy at the polls. In the election of 1992, they backed the independent candidate, billionaire businessman Ross Perot, while the Democratic governor of Arkansas, the charismatic William Jefferson Clinton, whipped up cheering audiences with his relentless focus on the economy, which was in a short-term recession sparked primarily by the savings and loan crisis. Bush clung to the vain hope that he could come from behind.

That November, Clinton and his running mate, Tennessee senator Albert Gore III, garnered 43 percent of the vote to win the White House. Republicans had the powerful language of individualism and prosperity against special interests, but Democrats had the even more powerful facts that the Reagan years had left poor and middle-class Americans falling behind the wealthiest of their countrymen. Bush captured only 37 percent of the electorate, and Ross Perot siphoned off more than nineteen million votes, almost 19 percent of the voters, who were fed up with what seemed to many to be the interchangeability of the politicians in Washington. Democrats retained control of the House and Senate. With Republican policies driving more and more voters toward Democrats, the election of 1992 demonstrated that Republicans could not win without the votes of Movement Conservatives. They would have to harden their positions even further.

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*

If they hated RINOs, Movement Conservatives were apoplectic about Democrats, those Liberals who were pushing America toward socialism. They worried that Clinton would find a way to erase the gains of the Reagan years. They had spent forty years fighting “statism” on two fronts: in America and against the Soviet Union. Now that the Soviet Union was gone, they noted, they could concentrate their firepower at home.

And they did. Although polls suggested that the public was not greatly concerned about taxes, Movement Conservatives’ rhetoric against taxes continued to mount as they pushed supply-side economics. Promising to slash budgets and cut taxes, regardless of the effect on state and local governments, was almost always a recipe for victory. In 1993, Republican Christine Todd Whitman, a woman with, as even the supportive Wall Street Journal noted, “no recognizable economic credentials,” came from twenty points behind to win the governorship of New Jersey when she called in Grover Norquist to craft a tax-cut promise. Norquist simply fought the supply-side fight. “We worked from the assumption that our economic policies worked and theirs didn’t. . . . We ran on this message . . . and we won.”

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Movement Conservatives continued to insist that social welfare legislation was simply Democratic vote buying. When Clinton proposed a national healthcare plan, they worried that healthcare benefits would cement more voters to the Democrats, and they attacked it with the same sort of vicious misrepresentation that had worked in the Willie Horton ad.

But it was not just healthcare they opposed. A law designed to protect women against domestic violence was portrayed as an attempt to create more government jobs; support for education was called a payoff for teachers’ unions or a plot to indoctrinate children into Liberal ideas. Movement Conservatives called for “school choice,” the privatization of the educational system, or homeschooling to guarantee children’s moral safety. Support for affirmative action for minorities was “reverse discrimination”; Movement Conservatives suggested that the real people at risk in America were white men, against whom the government had consistently stacked the rules.

These arguments had a wide reach as Rush Limbaugh’s Movement Conservative talk show—only one of many—was aired on 659 radio stations. To extend that reach further, in 1992 Limbaugh began to host a television show—produced by Roger Ailes—which was carried on 225 television stations by 1994.

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From the very beginning of Clinton’s administration, Movement Conservatives demonized the president as fiscally and morally bankrupt: James Johnson, for example, who had challenged Orville Faubus for the governorship of Arkansas in 1956 on the grounds that he was too soft on racial integration, told the Conservative Political Action Committee that he had proof Clinton was a “queermongering, whore-hopping adulterer; a baby-killing, draft-dodging, dope-tolerating, lying, two-faced, treasonable activist.” Republicans searched for a scandal that would stick, but had no luck with anything other a land development project in the Ozarks. The Whitewater story was thin—the Clintons had invested in a land development project in which they had lost forty thousand dollars, and they had no connection to the developer’s later shady deals—but that tenuousness did not matter to Republicans.

Clinton appointed a special prosecutor to look into the Whitewater matter, fully confident it would be put to rest. He figured wrong. Hard-line Movement Conservatives brushed aside his own appointee—a Republican with a reputation for fairness—and replaced him with one of their own, Kenneth Starr. Starr had no prosecutorial experience, but he was connected to the Arkansas Project, a group funded by billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife to get rid of Clinton. The Arkansas Project had urged a former government employee, Paula Jones, to charge that Clinton, during his term as governor, had sexually harassed her. With his broad power to subpoena witnesses as a special prosecutor, it was a sure-fire bet that Starr would dig through the Arkansas stories.

In the 1994 midterm elections, an astonishing 175 House seats were in play. Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour went for broke, pouring fifteen million dollars into House races.

Republicans offered voters a “Contract with America,” produced primarily by Newt Gingrich and his adviser Grover Norquist, along with Texas representative Dick Armey. It was a “contract” because, they said, Americans were tired of having politicians break promises; the language of contract promised that the items in it would be binding. The contract called for small government and claimed that if given control of Congress, Republicans would immediately—on their first day—enact eight changes, including an audit of Congress, a cut of one-third of House committees and their staffs, and a rule to require a three-fifths majority to pass a tax increase. In the following ninety-nine days of a new Congress, they promised they would pass a balanced budget amendment, a line-item veto, welfare cuts, an anticrime bill, and a whole host of the tax expenditures—tax breaks—Americans seemed to love.

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The Contract with America sounded good, especially as talk show hosts like Limbaugh pushed it hourly on their stations and kept up the attacks on Clinton. That November, voters swung fifty-four seats from Democrats to Republicans, giving Republicans control of the House for the first time since 1954. In the Senate,  Republicans picked up eight seats, gaining control there, too. The election results made Republicans, but especially Movement Conservatives, giddy. “Speaker Gingrich,” read a T-shirt selling in Washington, “Deal with it.”

*

The Republican sweep of 1994 gave Movement Conservatives a free hand to set the terms of political debate, although reporters noted that they seemed to articulate only what they opposed, not what they favored. What they opposed was very clear: they hated what they claimed was the socialist system that was turning America into a nation of dependents. Destroying it, they thought, was simple: just get rid of the taxes that paid for it.

Rush Limbaugh, whose support had been so instrumental that the Republican revolutionaries of 1994 made him an honorary member of their incoming congressional freshman class, outlined their agenda. They must “begin an emergency dismantling of the welfare system, which is shredding the social fabric,” bankrupting the country, and “gutting the work ethic, educational performance, and moral discipline of the poor.” Next, Congress should cut capital gains taxes, which would drive economic growth, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and generate billions in federal revenue. Limbaugh kept staff in Washington to make sure the positions of the Movement Conservatives got through to voters. In exchange, every congressman knew that taking a stand against Limbaugh would earn instant condemnation on radio stations across the country.

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The Gingrich revolutionaries hit the ground running. They took over control of key positions in the House—Gingrich became Speaker; Armey, House majority leader; Texas’s Tom DeLay, majority whip. In April 1995, an internal memo laid down the theme of cutting taxes, rather than paying down the national debt, as the main principle of Republicanism. “Mr. Norquist has become one of the main power brokers in the new Republican majority,” a writer for the Wall Street Journal noted. “His rise helps explain both the power of Newt Gingrich and the ideological makeover of Republicans.”

A balanced budget amendment to the Constitution passed by Congress two months later was the next step. It was, Norquist said, “the containment strategy,” a mirror of the national security strategy the nation had used to contain communism during the Cold War. “All reductions in federal government spending weaken the left in America,” Norquist continued. “Defunding government is defunding the left.” His plan was, he said, to “run up 100 yards and blow [up] the train tracks.”

In the end, the inability of Gingrich’s revolutionaries to compromise meant they went too far. Pieces of the agenda triumphantly passed in the House were watered down in the Senate and fell to the president’s veto. Frustrated when Clinton refused to sign the Republican budget slashing funding for Medicare, public health, the environment, and education, Gingrich refused to compromise. The federal government shut down all nonessential activity for twenty-eight days between November 1995 and January 1996: national parks shut down, government contracts were suspended, applications for visas and passports went unanswered. The crisis pushed Clinton’s poll numbers higher than they had been since his election as American blamed Republicans for the shutdown. The Contract with America, announced with such fanfare, withered. By March 1996, Republicans themselves were ignoring it.

*

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But the apocalyptic rhetoric of Movement Conservatism had taken on a life of its own. Newly empowered by talk radio and by fax machines that gave easy access to their representatives and to like-minded activists, people who had fallen behind in the Reagan economy blamed their troubles not on the policies that were drawing wealth upwards, but on the taxes that the Republicans insisted were the root of America’s problems. Disaffected Americans began to see plots everywhere: politicians were selling out America to socialism. It was imperative for regular citizens to take matters into their own hands, just as the boys in Red Dawn had done, and return the nation to the traditional values Buckley had asserted in the 1950s: religion, the free market, and a strong military.

Antigovernment extremism forced its way into American consciousness on the morning of April 19, 1995, when a bomb exploded in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168, including 19 children younger than six, and injured more than 800. Timothy McVeigh, the chief bomber, had grown up on Red Dawn, had been a gunner in the Gulf War, and had become increasingly disaffected when he got home, convinced that America was turning socialist. “Taxes are a joke,” he wrote to a newspaper. “Regardless of what a political candidate ‘promises,’ they will increase. More taxes are always the answer to government mismanagement. They mess up. We suffer. Taxes are reaching cataclysmic levels, with no slowdown in sight. . . . Is a Civil War Imminent? Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn’t come to that. But it might.” When the police captured him shortly after the bombing, McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt that featured a picture of Abraham Lincoln and the words of presidential assassin Booth: sic semper tyrannis.

The Republican revolution took on a life outside official channels in Washington, too. Gingrich, Armey, and DeLay, together with Norquist, launched the K Street Project, designed to change the culture of Washington to favor Republicans, rather than the congressional Democrats who had built up long-standing ties to businessmen and lobbyists over their many years in power. Delay pointed out to lobbyists that Republicans were now in charge, and that if they wanted access to the channels of power, they had better remember Republicans and forget Democrats when they were hiring and making political contributions. K Street, the address of Washington lobbying firms, quickly got the message.

At the same time, the budget cuts the revolutionaries pushed through Congress led to congressional staff cuts, meaning that representatives increasingly turned to lobbyists, rather than staffers, to explain issues and write bills. Government pay stagnated, making the private sector an attractive alternative for former congressional staffers, and the space between congressional offices and K Street became a revolving door. By 1998 there were more than ten thousand registered lobbyists in Washington, spending $1.45 billion to advance their industries’ interests. As the business community wrote legislation, congressmen justified it with the language of Movement Conservatism, emphasizing that only businessmen knew what was best for their industries.

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In October 1996, the movement gained its own television network, with Roger Ailes as its founding CEO. The Fox News Channel (FNC) was the brainchild of Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who recognized the frustration of Movement Conservatives with what they insisted was a Liberal media biased against their version of the world. Buckley had outlined this argument initially, and followers like Schlafly and later Limbaugh amplified it until followers believed that anything coming from a mainstream reporter was Liberal propaganda. Calling Fox News “fair and balanced,” Murdoch played on Movement Conservatives’ idea that their views had been dismissed by a cabal of elitist “leftist and anti-American” news outlets. By giving a voice to those ideas, Fox News promised to restore fairness and balance to American politics.

Ailes used his trademark visual skills to set up an information system based on a clear, simple narrative. Stories used colorful graphics with bullet-pointed information. Newsreaders were handsome men or young, beautiful women; their stories created a narrative uncluttered with nuance. To hurry the spread of the new channel, Murdoch offered ten dollars per subscriber to each cable company that carried FNC. The FNC presented a mythologized America based on the ideology of Movement Conservatism. Its Americans were overwhelmingly white and rural and wanted just to be independent individuals. They hated taxes and intrusive government, and they would do fine if they could just get the socialistic Democrats to leave them alone.

This vision had resonated in America since 1872, but it was even less real in the 1990s than it had been a century before. The 1990 census showed that more than three-quarters of the US population lived in cities of more than one hundred thousand people. Whites were the slowest-growing racial group in America (although they still made up about 80 percent of the population). And Americans across the board liked government services; they just didn’t like paying for them, something Movement Conservatives since Reagan had said they didn’t have to do.

Fox News quickly became a major political player. By election 2000, 17.3 percent of Americans were watching FNC, and 3 to 8 percent of its voting viewers moved into the Republican column. FNC charged all other news stations with bias, forcing them to air the views of Movement Conservatives in self-defense. This technique had driven McCarthyism in the 1950s, and in the 1990s it acquired a new, scientific-sounding name. A vice president for the Movement Conservative think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Joseph P. Overton, came up with the idea of the Overton Window, a span of ideas the public would accept. To move that range rightward, Movement Conservatives had to promote their views aggressively, until arguments and policies that had previously been considered outrageous would become acceptable. FNC moved the Overton Window by keeping up a constant stream of media chatter charging Democrats with socialism, elitism, and anti-Americanism.

*

Clinton won reelection in 1996 because no matter how Republicans tried to spin it, the economy boomed during the Clinton years. Indeed, it put the Reagan economy to shame. The budgets of Reagan and Bush had run $290 billion in the red; and at the end of his term, Bush suddenly announced that that year’s budget deficit would be $60 billion higher than projected. To address the deficits while also promoting his goals of social welfare, Clinton pushed through a 1993 budget that raised marginal tax rates on incomes over $250,000—affecting about 1 percent of Americans—to 39.6 percent, increased the highest corporate tax rate by 1 percent, and increased the tax on gasoline by 4.3 cents. He made small cuts to defense and overall spending but increased the earned income tax credit for low-income households with children. Although Clinton groused that his administration was full of “Eisenhower Republicans” trying to push back against Reagan Republicans, not a single Republican voted for the budget measure.

Republicans howled that Clinton was destroying the economy by raising taxes on all Americans to fund special interests, but in fact the economy jumped back from its weak performance in 1991–1992 to perform brilliantly. Per capita GDP climbed and would climb 3 percent each year after 1997; unemployment dropped from 7.3 percent in 1993 to 4 percent in 2000; inflation fell from 3 percent to 1.6 percent in 1998. The raging deficits that had plagued the country since the Eisenhower years began to shrink. By 1998, thanks both to Bush’s 1990 Omnibus Reconciliation Act and Clinton’s 1993 tax reform, the government was producing a budget surplus. In 1997, the booming economy gave Clinton room to expand health care for poor children, provide tax credits for college tuition, and cut the capital gains tax rate from 25 percent to 20 percent.

The very fact that the economy was doing so well under a Democrat convinced Movement Conservatives that Clinton had to be stopped. If the Democratic program worked, Americans would continue it, just as they had chosen Eisenhower Republicanism in the 1950s. The country would be right back where it had been when William F. Buckley Jr. had despaired that people could not be trusted to choose the right thing: a government that worked handin-hand with business and religion.

In 1997, having turned up nothing on Whitewater, Kenneth Starr turned to the Paula Jones case in Arkansas. It, too, produced nothing that he could use, until Jones’s lawyers gave him the name of a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. They had gotten her name after her friend Linda Tripp secretly recorded Lewinsky’s heartfelt conversations about her encounters with Clinton, then shared them with a man who had been part of Nixon’s dirty-tricks team in 1972, who took them to Jones’s lawyers (who played them to Movement Conservative hit woman Ann Coulter). Subpoenaed by Jones’s lawyers, Lewinsky signed an affidavit denying any sexual relationship with the president. Jones’s lawyers took the tapes to Starr. When he deposed Clinton in the Paula Jones case on January 17, Starr questioned him closely about his relationship with Lewinsky and elicited from him a statement, under oath, “I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.” With the secretly recorded Tripp tapes in hand, Starr promptly concluded he could get the president on charges of perjury and obstructing justice.

For the next year, Starr called witnesses and leaked damaging gossip in techniques that looked much like McCarthy’s. When Starr issued his report on September 9, 1998—just in time for the 1998 midterm election—it was an excruciatingly detailed account of every intimate encounter between Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky. Designed to shock and to confirm every hint that the president’s actions would horrify moral Americans, it read like pornography. Clinton, it appeared to jubilant Republicans, was coming down.

But Movement Conservatism had always been based in ideology, not reality. As far as Movement Conservatives were concerned, Clinton was a mistaken president, an abomination, and they had finally been able to prove it. Most Americans, though, were disgusted less by the president’s sexual encounters than by the prurience of his tormentors. Clinton’s popularity remained high throughout 1998; it was above 65 percent before the elections. In those elections, after Gingrich had pumped ten million dollars into House races to pound on the Lewinsky scandal, the Democrats actually picked up five seats in the House and held even in the Senate— an outcome virtually unheard of in a midterm election in the sixth year of an administration. The last time it had happened was in 1822.

Gingrich had promised his supporters a House pickup of ten to forty seats. Disgraced by the election results, already tainted by a reprimand and fine for ethics violations, and well aware that he was politically vulnerable himself because of his own extramarital affair, he resigned from Congress within a week of the election.

But once again, Movement Conservatives believed that the problem was not their ideology, rather that Gingrich had been insufficiently committed to it. Power in the House went to Texas’s Tom Delay, a former pesticide salesman who had replaced a fondness for alcohol and women with evangelical Christianity. Delay enforced his will by threatening to back a primary challenger against any Republican who opposed him. He demanded a vote for impeachment and nervous moderate Republicans complied. Delay and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde—sponsor of a congressional measure prohibiting federal funding for abortion and himself soon to admit to an extramarital affair—wanted to force Clinton out of office.

On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice, based on his statement under oath that he had not had sex with Lewinsky when there was evidence that the two had, in fact, engaged in oral sex. The case went to the Senate for trial, where, after all the hoopla that had raged around the case for a year, the Senate called no live witnesses and deliberated in private, acquitting the president—whose popularity was now at 70 percent—on all counts.

Clinton’s continuing popularity made Movement Conservatives despair. Why couldn’t Americans see how awful he was? They swung toward conspiracy theories and pure Clinton-bashing, aided by talk radio and by new websites, especially the Drudge Report. In 1997, Matt Drudge and his assistant, Andrew Breitbart—who was a fan of Limbaugh—began aggregating anti-Democratic gossip and news. They sensationalized rumor and began to build a community of likeminded right-wing radicals on the increasingly powerful Internet.

Excerpted from "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party" by Heather Cox Richardson. Published by Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2014 by Heather Cox Richardson. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson is the author of "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party," amongst several other books, and a professor of history at Boston College.

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