March 7, 2011


WEEKEND INTERVIEW: Why America Will Stay on Top: Eminent historian Paul Johnson on Sarah Palin, the tea party, and 'baddies' from Napoleon to Gadhafi. (BRIAN M. CARNEY, 3/06/11, WSJ)

Frank judgments like these are a hallmark of Mr. Johnson's work, delivered with almost child-like glee. Of Mahatma Gandhi, he wrote in "Modern Times": "About the Gandhi phenomenon there was always a strong aroma of twentieth-century humbug."

Socrates is much more to Mr. Johnson's liking. Whereas, in Mr. Johnson's telling, Gandhi led hundreds of thousands to death by stirring up civil unrest in India, all the while maintaining a pretense of nonviolence, Socrates "thought people mattered more than ideas. . . . He loved people, and his ideas came from people, and he thought ideas existed for the benefit of people," not the other way around.

In the popular imagination, Socrates may be the first deep thinker in Western civilization, but in Mr. Johnson's view he was also an anti-intellectual. Which is what makes him one of the good guys. "One of the categories of people I don't like much are intellectuals," Mr. Johnson says. "People say, 'Oh, you're an intellectual,' and I say, 'No!' What is an intellectual? An intellectual is somebody who thinks ideas are more important than people."

And indeed, Mr. Johnson's work and thought are characterized by concern for the human qualities of people. Cicero, he tells me, was not a man "one would have liked to have been friends with." But even so the Roman statesman is "often very well worth reading."

His concern with the human dimension of history is reflected as well in his attitude toward humor, the subject of another recent book, "Humorists." "The older I get," he tells me, "the more important I think it is to stress jokes." Which is another reason he loves America. "One of the great contributions that America has made to civilization," he deadpans, "is the one-liner." The one-liner, he says, was "invented, or at any rate brought to the forefront, by Benjamin Franklin." Mark Twain's were the "greatest of all."

And then there was Ronald Reagan. "Mr. Reagan had thousands of one-liners." Here a grin spreads across Mr. Johnson's face: "That's what made him a great president."

Jokes, he argues, were a vital communication tool for President Reagan "because he could illustrate points with them." Mr. Johnson adopts a remarkable vocal impression of America's 40th president and delivers an example: "You know, he said, 'I'm not too worried about the deficit. It's big enough to take care of itself.'" Recovering from his own laughter, he adds: "Of course, that's an excellent one-liner, but it's also a perfectly valid economic point." Then his expression grows serious again and he concludes: "You don't get that from Obama. He talks in paragraphs."

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 7, 2011 5:37 AM
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