Monday, August 3, 2009

Book Review: Grand Old Party - A History of the Republicans

by Pittsburgh Enigma

Author: Lewis L. Gould
Genre: Political History

Grand Old Party provides a history of the Republican Party, from its origin in 1854 to the present day and the first election of George W. Bush. While the book focuses primarily on presidential elections, it also covers congressional and state Republicans who had an important influence on the party at the given time. An analysis of the changing philosphy of the party through its history is also presented. The book is organized around major eras in American History, including the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, the Teddy Roosevelt years, the Wilson Years, Roosevelt and the New Deal, the Cold War, Nixon and Watergate, Reagan, and the "Gingrich Revolution" of 1994. All of this makes for not only a good political history but a good American history as well.

While Grand Old Party is for the most part easy to read, it is long--about 500 densely written pages (not including the "notes" section) -- so one should keep that in mind before starting. There are also political and party terms that are often assumed to be already known to the reader. For example, the author jumps right in talking about the process of delegates balloting for a presidential candidate without first explaining how that process works.

The coverage of presidential elections includes not only the candidates and who they run against, but what the make-up of the country's population was at the time and how critical it was in building coalitions that enabled certain candidates to win. For example, in the Civil War era the Republicans largely held the North while Democrats held the South. Trends in party politics would almost turn this fact upside down in later years. In reading about the presidential elections early in the party, one can compare those events to modern events and draw some interesting conclusions.

For one thing, partisanship was rampant. The conventional wisdom seems to be that presidential politics was never so "ugly and divisive" as it is today, but in fact it frequently was. In the election of 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican) won an electoral victory over Samuel J. Tilden (Democrat), but Tilden led in the popular vote. Sound familiar? Another example of conventional wisdom is that a Republican candidate who is "too conservative" (as opposed to being more centrist) can't win elections, and then Barry Goldwater is presented as the example. But when we read about Barry Goldwater's candidacy, we discover that he didn't lose because he was too conservative but because he was just a really bad candidate himself and ran a bad campaign. Sound like someone who just lost an election in 2008?

The analysis of the evolution of the Republican Party's philosophy is interesting, because it shows just how different the party is today compared to what it stood for in 1854. What started as a party that promoted national power to end slavery and preserve the Union (and to consequently limit the rights of the states) is now a party that stands for a less powerful federal government and a strong support of states' rights. A party that was once isolationist is now the party that is known for its stand on strong national security. A party that supported protectionism and tariffs on foreign goods for much of its early history is now the party of free trade.

It is worth noting that a certain amount of bias can be detected in the book. The author states from the outset that he is a Democrat. This comes as no surprise when one discovers that the author has written not one but two books on Ladybird Johnson. But that aside, the author insists that he attempts to present the material in an unbiased way, and this is for the most part true. The bias tends to creep through on the more modern history of the party. For example, the author can't help pointing out that certain prominent Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney and Phil Gramm avoided entering the military during the Vietnam War even though they encouraged military intervention (e.g. the Gulf War) later in their careers. The criticism seems to come out of nowhere. But when the subject of Senator Ted Kennedy comes up, there is only a passing reference to a drowning woman who just happened to be a passenger in his car.

Despite the occasional bias, I think this book is an excellent read for anyone who wants to better understand how the Republican Party got its start and how it has evolved over the last 154 years into a major component of the two-party system in American politics.

(Editor’s Note: Commentarama has its own article on the history of the Republican Party. Check it out if you get the chance, you might be surprised.)

9 comments:

Writer X said...

Thanks for the review. I'm heading off for vacation soon and wondering what books to take. This could be one of them. Is the emphasis on the book the origins of the party or present day?

Tennessee Jed said...

I think the concept of this book is excellent.Perhaps it will delve into differences between Republican platforms and conservative ideology. I also wonder if there is something about Arizona Republicans which makes them poor campaigners. The 500 densely packed pages could be daunting (like one of Andrew's posts-- just kidding l.o.l.) but it would be easy enough to skim through parts that become too onerous.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, daunting? I'm hurt. :-(

Enigma, thanks for the review. It sounds like an interesting book, and it sounds like something Republican politicians should read.

LawHawkSF said...

Goldwater was also working at another distinct disadvantage. Lyndon Johnson led a party which had a much larger voter registration edge over the Republicans than is true today, and he was the successor to a "martyred President." There was a strong emotional element in that election. Goldwater's campaign was not that badly conducted, but it took years of Vietnam and The Great Society for Americans to see the wisdom in Goldwater's politics. Nixon benefited from the backlash against the Vietnam War and the deep divisions within the Democratic Party, but it took Ronald Reagan to be the first popular President to stand behind the old Goldwater conservatism and make it the most popular view in the nation.

CrispyRice said...

Sounds like an interesting book, thanks! It also sounds like it might make up for some of my woefully-lacking American history, particularly anything past about 1890.

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

Writer X: The coverage of the present day ends at the first election of George W. Bush (2000), so if you're looking for analysis of Bush/Kerry or McCain/Obama, you won't find it. But coverage from the mid 1800s through 2000 is mostly equal, with more focus on the more famous presidents and periods in American history.

Tennessee Jed: There's not much focus on conservative ideology. The author's primary goal was to document the history of the party. Don't worry about the 500 pages. It makes up for itself in readability.

Lawhawk: Thanks for the info on Goldwater! I know next to nothing about Goldwater except what I read in this book.

CrispyRice: It's a good book for filling in the gaps in your political history, or your American history for that matter. I'd also be interested in a similar book on the Democrat Party. Something as unbiased as possible. Any recommendations anyone?

LawHawkSF said...

PittsburgEnigma: Thanks for the tip on the book. I threw in the Goldwater comment because I lived it. I was a radical 60s student who didn't much care for Johnson and made my own bumper sticker that rephrased Goldwater's campaign slogan "In your heart, you know he's right" into "In your guts, you know he's nuts." So my praise for Goldwater took years to come by. I should have known that anybody who was as funny and self-deprecating as Goldwater was the right man for the job (look what humorless candidates have brought us). Goldwater joked about his political honesty. When asked about it one time, he said "I'm always forthright in my political opinions. When somebody asks me about segregation, I look him right in the eye and ask 'what part of the country are you from.'" And he had a very practical side. When a liberal commentator challenged him by saying that Red China wouldn't get the atom bomb or be able to deliver it, Goldwater replied: "Who cares? The idea of a billion angry Chinese armed only with their bare fists scares the hell out of me."

His motto for the leftwing of the Democratic Peace movement: "Damn the torpedoes, we're unilaterally disarmed." What's not to love in a guy like that? The most famous episode of the Johnson/Goldwater election was the shown-only-one-time Democratic Party TV commercial in which an adorable little girl is shown picking flowers, then is suddenly replaced by a mushroom cloud. The implied message was that Goldwater was a warmonger. The message brought huge outrage on both sides of the political fence, and was pulled immediately. The irony is that Johnson, determined not to be "the first President to lose a war" became the inept and finally unsuccesful Commander-in-Chief of a war fought bravely and successfully by our troops, but lost by our amateur warriors in the administration and the antiwar press and television reporters.

Writer X said...

Pittsburgh, thanks for the additional info. As an aside, I was at the bookstore this weekend (where I live, literally), and couldn't help but notice that in the bargain rack there many copies of Schumer's, Kerry's, and Gore's recent books going for $3.99. All I could think was Schumer has a book?? And who'd want to read it?

Anyway, I know of no unbiased accounts on the Democratic Party, although I'd be very open to reading one. I had to read plenty of biased ones during college. I think I've had my fill. And then some.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Who would pay $3.99 for a book on those fools?

If I get the cloning machine working, we could do an unbiased book about the dems. Hehe he heh. Sorry, I'm laughing about the cloning, not the democrats.

At some point, I hope to go back through various historical democrats and show how they wouldn't be democrats today, but don't hold your breath on that one -- lots of research needed.

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