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Leftist Publishers Trash Reagan By: Paul Kengor
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Readers of FrontPage Magazine are better informed than readers anywhere on subjects like the Left’s control of academia, media, and culture. But what about the Left’s continuing control of the publishing industry?

To be sure, the Left’s control of this hugely influential medium has waned with the advent of conservative imprints at several major houses. A new day has dawned, where the Left no longer can simply not publish an entire segment of opinion with which it disagrees. Nonetheless, the publishing industry continues to disregard conservative authors in notable ways, including not honoring them with literary awards, no matter how groundbreaking the work.

Another area within publishing where conservatives are disrespected by the Left is one that has gone unnoticed, and which I only discovered because I myself have been a victim: the influential book reviews published by Publishers Weekly, the flagship publication for the industry. A telling illustration—relevant now, the month of Presidents Day, which includes the births of Washington, Lincoln, and, coincidentally, Ronald Reagan—is the case of books on the subject of Ronald Reagan.


Ranking Reagan


Though one would never know this from reading Publishers Weekly, the fact is that Ronald Reagan is now consistently rated among the most successful presidents in all of American history—even by liberals who comprise academia and media.


A long list of the most prestigious presidential scholars—most of which in their wildest dreams would never have voted for Reagan—today rank Reagan quite favorably: Thomas Mann, Sidney Milkis, John W. Sloan, David Mervin, Stephen Skowronek, James T. Patterson, Robert Dallek, Matthew Dallek, and Alonzo Hamby, to cite a few. George Mason University’s Hugh Heclo maintains that Reagan was a “man of ideas” in the estimable company of Jackson, Madison, and Jefferson. There are similar appraisals from giants like Harvard’s dean of presidential scholars, the late Richard Neustadt, from popular historian and Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough, from historian Michael Beschloss, and from Yale’s John Lewis Gaddis, the leading Cold War historian. Reagan is even faring well in certain surveys of academics, nearly all of whom are politically liberal. The most authoritative and critical Reagan biographers, such as Lou Cannon, Richard Reeves, and Edmund Morris—not exactly right-wingers—tend to give him considerable credit, especially for winning the Cold War.


There are even numerous liberal politicians and journalists, from Bill Clinton to Ted Kennedy to Sam Donaldson, who now praise Reagan. Kennedy himself offers the explanation as to why: “Reagan will be honored as the president who won the Cold War.”


I’m not exaggerating when I say that I could fill a book with encomiums on Reagan from left-leaning professors and journalists.


In fact, even former Soviet communists grant Reagan enormous credit, from Pravda and Izvestia to Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev has called Reagan “a very big person—a very great political leader.” At a dinner in Cambridge, England in 2001, a British academic called Reagan “rather an intellectual lightweight.” Gorbachev would not tolerate the slight, and reprimanded his host: “You are wrong. President Reagan was a man of real insight, sound political judgment, and courage.”


Or take this appraisal from the hardline Soviet-era publication, Literaturnaya Gazeta, which informed Soviet citizens at the end of Reagan’s presidency: “The years of his presidency have seen an unprecedented surge in America’s self-belief, and quite a marked recovery in the economy…Reagan restored America’s belief that it is capable of achieving a lot.” It closed glowingly: “Reagan is giving America what it has been yearning for. Optimism. Self-belief. Heroes.”


Genrikh Trofimenko, head of the Institute for U.S.A. and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, stated, “ninety-nine percent of all Russians believe that Reagan won the Cold War.”


 From Pravda to Publishers Weekly


This is all context, or pretext, in demonstrating—as I will now—how utterly out-of-touch Publishers Weekly is in comparison to not just the wider country and world but even to the much narrower mainstream of academia and media. It is not hyperbole to say that the take on Reagan by Publishers Weekly is to the Left of Ted Kennedy and Pravda.


Here is the situation: If you are a conservative author who has written a favorable book on Ronald Reagan—no matter how insightful and well sourced—chances are extremely high that you will be zinged by Publishers Weekly, which will not merely be critical but will denigrate you and your work with the charge of “hagiography”—the scarlet H of biographical writing. This is a blistering criticism, done to signal to the wider industry to not take an author seriously. It is a term designed to ridicule and to discredit, to cause serious damage to not only a book but to the author’s reputation. It should not be used lightly. And yet, Publishers Weekly applies the charge with abandon to conservative authors who dare to praise Reagan. Consider these examples:


Peter Schweizer’s Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism, reported a significant amount of new material on Reagan. It is engaging and enlightening—another testimony to the fine work of not only Schweizer, who has written or edited several works on Reagan, but to Adam Bellow and the editors at Doubleday. Yet, Publishers Weekly judged the book “hagiography” for giving “the Gipper full credit for bringing down the Soviet Union.” 


One gets a sense of Publishers Weekly’s broader leanings from its criticism of Schweizer’s characterization of communism, faulting Schweizer because he “did not carefully distinguish (as Reagan and most others of the era did not) Stalinism and what came after from communism as an ideal.” This awkwardly written critique seems to suggest that communism’s atrocities were confined mainly to Stalin. Quite the contrary, it was after Stalin’s death in 1953 that Mao Zedong became responsible for the deaths of over 60 million in China, that Pol Pot murdered 2-3 million out of a population of 5-7 million in Cambodia, that Kim Jong-il starved 2-3 million to death in North Korea, and on and on. Of the 100 million people killed by communism in the 20th century, the vast majority came after Stalin.


Such a statement speaks volumes about the source. In fact, Schweizer’s  Reagan’s War seems to garner more criticism from Publisher’s Weekly than communism itself.


Another book on Reagan that allegedly “slips into hagiology” is Dinesh D’Souza’s Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. The author is lampooned for “defending the former president like a zealot shielding a saint’s reputation.” D’Souza “is often in danger of falling prey to revisionism” and “even, when the facts are questionable,” he “glosses over his portrait of Reagan, risking hypocrisy to justify and praise.”


To be sure, D’Souza is unequivocally pro-Reagan; still, these words are pretty harsh. Even professional reviews of D’Souza’s book in top academic journals avoided such searing terminology—such as the spring 1998 review in the prestigious Presidential Studies Quarterly, to cite just one.


There is in fact a lack of charity and even mean-spiritedness in these reviews. Consider, for example, the Publishers Weekly summary of Peter Robinson’s How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, which began, “Conservatives, exult! Robinson’s self-help/memoir/Reagan hagiography is an All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten for right-wingers.” The book was called “a love letter to the Gipper,” written by someone whose “respect for the former president verges on deification.”


The surprising aspect of this rather unprofessional assault on Robinson is that his book was never supposed to be a comprehensive, critical analysis of the Reagan presidency. It is a personal look at a man from whom a young, 20-something Robinson—who worked for Reagan as a speechwriter in his first job out of college—learned a great deal. Robinson’s respect for Reagan clearly comes through in the book, and it was intended to; that was the purpose. To make fun of a book for being what it purports to be—a sentimental lessons-learned look at a president’s personal traits and habits—seems like a critique based more on the reviewer’s bias than a balanced assessment of the author’s work.


Another book condemned by Publishers Weekly is Steven Hayward’s The Age of Reagan, 1964-1980: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order. While Hayward somehow escapes charges of canonization, the one paragraph review makes sure the reader understands why the author is allegedly not credible: he is a conservative. Publishers Weekly begins the review by noting that Hayward writes from “an unabashedly conservative perspective,” and outs him as someone who works for a conservative think tank. 


The review criticizes Hayward’s use of historical facts, chiefly because he includes them “indiscriminately and tediously.” Ultimately, Hayward’s dense, detailed tome is dismissed as “an ultraconservative polemic masquerading as history.” Never mind that not a Ph.D. political scientist in the country would argue with Hayward’s carefully proven premise: the old liberal order collapsed during the period examined in the book, and Ronald Reagan was no doubt a central reason.


More and more examples could be cited. Dr. Lee Edwards, a professor at Catholic University and the author of the first biography of Reagan, is another casualty. It is hard to find anyone who has studied Reagan longer than Edwards. His recent and well done, The Essential Ronald Reagan, is dismissed by Publishers Weekly as a “flattering chronicle,” and, of course, a “slim hagiography.” Likewise, Jim Kuhn’s Ronald Reagan in Private: A Memoir of My Years in the White House, is shrugged off as “admiring,” offering mere “tender” recollections, and simply “hits the glossy surfaces.”


This bias toward Reagan manages its way into presidential books of which Reagan is considered but not the focus. Take, for instance, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham’s American Gospel, which looks at the influence of religion in the American founding and on its presidents. To his immense credit, Meacham has read the careful work of others on Reagan and learned from them; he is not blinded by ideology. Publishers Weekly concluded its review of Meacham: “Meacham’s remarkable grasp of the intricacies and achievements of a nascent nation is well worth the cover price, though his consideration of Reagan feels like that of an apologist.” Yes, of course.


Me, Too


In the interest of full disclosure, I only became aware of this leftward bent when Publishers Weekly labeled both of my books on Reagan hagiography. For the record, both books are clearly sympathetic. Nonetheless, I had vetted them through two dozen credible academic reviewers and endorsers—mostly Democrats—including (for the first book) a blind review process through the most prestigious academic house, Oxford University Press. All read it carefully, and none called it hagiography, including those whose names were withheld in the blind review. Academic reviewers are serious folks, and they generally do not level such a hurtful charge unless a work merits the allegation. If it does, there is an obligation to clear the air in the review process, so any undue, over-the-top praise can be resolved.


Consequently, when Publishers Weekly hit me with the scarlet H for my first book on Reagan, I wrote a panicky email to my editor, who told me not to worry, since Publishers Weekly does this with all pro-Reagan books by conservative authors.


Importantly, this partisanship by Publishers Weekly seems to preclude its ability to decipher what is new in books on Reagan—another disservice to readers of the reviews. For instance, the opening line in the review of my God and Ronald Reagan states that the book “argues the seemingly obvious point that the former president’s outlook was shaped by his religious beliefs.” Quite the contrary, there is not a historian or political scientist in America who would agree that this was obvious. More, Publishers Weekly lamented that Reagan’s faith was “not exactly of Gandhian proportions.” No, it was a Christian faith.


Similarly, in regard to my current book on Reagan, the reviewer complained that communism did not fall until after Reagan’s presidency, and yet he still gets credit for the collapse in my book. This is an interesting historical standard. Should Woodrow Wilson, then, not get credit for the creation of the United Nations? Should FDR get no credit for ultimate victory in World War II? Nearly every Reagan biographer, from Left to Right, credits him with this achievement. Besides, communism fell the same year he left the presidency—is that not good enough?


Good Books on Reagan


This thinking by Publishers Weekly shines through in its treatment of books critical of the 40th president.


Frances Fitzgerald’s blistering, Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War, was reviewed glowingly by Publishers Weekly as a “painstakingly detailed study.” The book portrays Reagan as, indeed, way out there in the blue. The review highlights Fitzgerald’s claim that Reagan was “prodded” to support the Strategic Defense Initiative “by the Republican right, by military hardliners such as limited-nuclear-war advocate Edward Teller and by deputy national security adviser Robert McFarlane.” In fact, while these voices were influential, SDI was—to borrow from Lou Cannon’s description—totally Reagan’s baby.


The review also does not fault Fitzgerald for neglecting the untold number of highest-level Soviet officials who cite SDI as central to bankrupting the Soviet Union. To the contrary, the review mentioned SDI’s effect on the Soviet leadership’s thinking and strategy only with the negative comment that the Reykjavik summit “stalled over SDI”—meaning it stalled over Reagan’s insistence on SDI—just when “both leaders almost negotiated away all their nuclear arms.” This is a simplification of Reagan’s strategic considerations at Reykjavik—an event that individuals from Zbigniew Brzezinski to Mikhail Gorbachev described as the moment the Cold War ended.


It should be noted that Publishers Weekly does not pause to note that writers like Fitzgerald are liberal, though this is a major point of contention for conservative authors like Steven Hayward.


Publishers Weekly hails the most scathing books on Reagan. Haynes Johnson’s Sleepwalking Through History is commended as a “stunning indictment” that “reveals how the administration renounced responsibility for ameliorating social distress. The book makes clear why the rich got richer and the poor poorer…Johnson portrays Reagan as a kind of Dr. Feelgood.”


Publishers Weekly also lauded Gary Wills’ Reagan’s America as “ambitious and insightful.” Actually, it may want to redo its review of Wills. Like many who have researched Reagan with an open mind, Wills has reevaluated his previous appraisals. More recently, he has written: “Part of Reagan’s legacy is what we do not see now. We see no Berlin Wall. He said, ‘Tear down this wall,’ and it was done. We see no Iron Curtain. In fact, we see no Soviet Union. He called it an Evil Empire, and it evaporated overnight.”


Why This Matters


Does it really matter what Publishers Weekly says? You bet it does.


Publishers Weekly accurately describes itself as the “leading publication serving all segments involved in the creation, production, marketing and sale of the written word.” Moreover, it rightly claims that, “In addition to reaching publishers worldwide, Publishers Weekly influences all media dealing with the acquisition, sale, distribution and rights of intellectual and cultural properties. Its weekly reviews of forthcoming books are a must-read for the entire industry.”


What Publishers Weekly says about a book matters. Its reviews shape the opinions of an entire industry. The books that sellers sell and the public buys are influenced by this publication. An author’s or book’s reputation in the book world can be spurred to new heights or diminished to new lows with the stroke of a Publishers Weekly reviewer’s pen.


It is no self-congratulatory boast when Publishers Weekly claims to be “widely recognized as the industry’s publication of record.” On Amazon.com, the Publishers Weekly review of a book is not only listed first, but is frequently the only review that gets posted, even with the easy availability of much richer and better professional reviews by respected authorities.


Quite unreasonably, Amazon grants such status to Publishers Weekly despite the fact that its reviewers are anonymous, whereas a review of a book on Reagan and the Cold War by, say, John Lewis Gaddis or Richard Pipes does not get posted. This is unfair to the reader as well as the author, neither of whom has a clue as to the Publishers Weekly reviewer’s identity and credibility. I know this from personal experience, as my most recent book was reviewed by Pipes, who for over 50 years has been a professor of Russian history at Harvard, where he is now emeritus. Pipes’ appraisal takes a back seat to an anonymous person at Publishers Weekly—one who, per chance, happens to judge most such books on Reagan hagiography.


Amazon executives need to understand the slanted perspective they are getting from Publishers Weekly. With influence comes responsibility—namely, a dedication to fairness and an even-handed approach to the critique of books. That is why Publishers Weekly’s treatment of Ronald Reagan and those who write of him sympathetically is so disappointing.


At the least, I would implore Publishers Weekly to be honest about the bias. Sure, Fox News Channel is biased. The New York Times editorial board is biased. CBS News is biased. Jerry Falwell’s newsletter holds to a certain point of view. And so does Publishers Weekly. That is fine—but readers need to know that. Until then, readers of Publishers Weekly’s reviews on Amazon and elsewhere should be forewarned: buyer beware.


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Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperCollins, 2006) and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

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