National Review / Digital
Up from Leftism
A visit with the historian Gene Genovese
Betsey and Gene Genovese on the eve of their wedding, June 1969


Turning to the president of the United States, I ask Genovese to classify him for me. What is Obama? A McGovernite, a social democrat, a socialist, a pinko, a red? Genovese says that Obama is redder than people suspect, even his conservative adversaries. Obama’s instinct, he says, is to take the most radical position he can get away with. What’s more, he is “probably the vainest president I can remember, and the least competent. What surprised me was the incompetence. The first time I laid eyes on this guy — I heard him make a speech — I said, ‘He’s a demagogue.’ One more. More skillful than most. I mean, he is clearly a good speechifier. I say ‘speechifier’ because, in a classical sense, an orator he’s not. You just have to read Demosthenes and Cicero to know what an orator is. He ain’t it. Churchill yes, him no. And furthermore he butchers the English language. Gets away with it. But he does.”

All his life, Genovese had been hoping for a black president and a woman president. So, “we got a black president — thanks a lot.” Still, Genovese allows, Obama’s election was an historic occasion, symbolizing the huge progress we have made as a country. I ask whether he is hopeful or depressed about the future for black Americans. He regrets that he is more depressed than hopeful. “Look,” he says (and he begins a great many sentences with “Look”): “They have a thoroughly corrupt leadership, and I don’t just mean the politicians, I mean the intelligentsia too.” He cites Cornel West, who, he says, had the choice to be a serious and useful scholar or a rabble-rousing clown, and went down the wrong path.

Genovese is far from a picture of despair, however. There is fight in him. He once chided the great Irving Kristol for saying that the “culture wars” were over and that the Left had won. “The culture wars haven’t even been fought!” Genovese says. “It’s not at all inevitable that the Left is going to win.

I’m not convinced that the present madness will last forever. Some of the damage will remain, though.”

Here at his home in Atlanta, Genovese continues to work. He has just come out with a book started jointly with his wife and finished by him: Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South. He has no e-mail, fax machine, or cellphone. He has a home phone, whose number is unlisted. He follows baseball, he watches Fox News. He gets along fine, as near as I can tell.

And there is a heroic aspect about him. Writing about Genovese in 1995, William F. Buckley Jr. said, essentially, that the 20th century — the bloodiest on record — was a hard teacher. Genovese had learned his way through. “Is this learning to be compared with ‘learning’ that the earth is round, not flat? No, because the physical features of the earth are not deniable. But it is different in the social sciences. Everything is deniable, or ignorable.” The terrible costs of Communism and its cousins, including socialism, Genovese could not deny or ignore. He said goodbye to a Left that had loved him and lionized him. His truth-telling exposed him to their total wrath and condemnation. Genovese is not only brilliant, he is brave. A hell of a lot of fun, too.

November 14, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 21

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Anthony Daniels reviews After America: Get Ready for Armageddon, by Mark Steyn.
  • Steven F. Hayward reviews Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America, by Joseph A. McCartin.
  • David Pryce-Jones reviews Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
  • Stephen Smith reviews Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, by Richard White.
  • Ross Douthat reviews The Way.
  • Richard Brookhiser turns the page.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .