“A Check on Balance,” New York Times Book Review, January 24, 2016

Between 1913 and 1920, Americans amended the federal Constitution four times. Each amendment solidified a major reform: the direct election of senators, the first federal income tax, votes for women, the banning of alcohol nationwide. Taken together, they reflected the progressive view that the Constitution was a living document, able to be adapted to and updated for the nation’s needs. A century ago, most Americans seemed to agree that new circumstances required new tools, and that the federal government would have a key role to play in meeting the challenges of the modern age. Read more here.

“More ‘Progressive’ Than Thou,” New York Times Magazine, January 12, 2016

In these last gasping weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton has settled upon a political identity, declaring herself ‘‘a progressive who likes to get things done.’’ The label reassures left-wing Democrats that she shares their values while also signaling to the party’s centrists that she is above all pragmatic. Continue reading here.

“What an Uncensored Letter to MLK Reveals,” New York Times Magazine, November 11, 2014

The note is just a single sheet gone yellow with age, typewritten and tightly spaced. It’s rife with typos and misspellings and sprinkled with attempts at emending them. Clearly, some effort went into perfecting the tone, that of a disappointed admirer, appalled by the discovery of “hidious [sic] abnormalities” in someone he once viewed as “a man of character.”

The word “evil” makes six appearances in the text, beginning with an accusation: “You are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that.” In the paragraphs that follow, the recipient’s alleged lovers get the worst of it. They are described as “filthy dirty evil companions” and “evil playmates,” all engaged in “dirt, filth, evil and moronic talk.” The effect is at once grotesque and hypnotic, an obsessive’s account of carnal rage and personal betrayal. “What incredible evilness,” the letter proclaims, listing off “sexual orgies,” “adulterous acts” and “immoral conduct.” Near the end, it circles back to its initial target, denouncing him as an “evil, abnormal beast.”

Read the rest.

Review, “To Make Men Free,” Washington Post, October 3, 2014

Here’s a good rule of thumb for studying the history of American political parties: Forget what you know about the present. A century ago, Republicans were likely to be the country’s big-government progressives, its advocates of civil rights and social reform. Democrats were often small-government conservatives, especially in the one-party stronghold of the Solid South. The electoral map looked radically different, with a swath of blue below the Mason-Dixon line and a block of red in the Northeast. Just about the only things that have stayed the same are the party names: Democrat vs. Republican, locked in eternal electoral combat.

In “To Make Men Free,” Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson sets out to tell half of the story about how we got from there to here. “The journey,” she notes dryly, “has not been straightforward.”

Read the rest.

“The Roar of the Crowd,” New York Times Book Review, July 24, 2014

Between 1922 and 1930, a new building went up in New York City every 51 minutes, according to Donald L. Miller. Most of the truly spectacular structures — like the Chrysler Building, with its aspirational steel spire — emerged in Midtown, previously a region of open rail yards and shabby industry. Beginning with the reconstruction of Park Avenue in the early 1920s, Midtown became a destination neighborhood for the city’s ultrarich, eager to abandon their stand-alone Fifth Avenue palaces in favor of contemporary “mansions in the sky.” Alongside the real estate boom came a decadent new night life and a host of more serious cultural diversions, all of them fueled, in Miller’s telling, by a steady supply of ambition, energy and illicit booze.

The men and women who populated and recreated Midtown during these years are the chief subjects of “Supreme City,” Miller’s entertaining new history of Manhattan in its modern heyday.

Read the rest.


“If You Care About Inequality, You Should Care About Unions,” Slate, July 1, 2014

Most commentary on the Supreme Court’s Harris decision has emphasized the ruling’s limited nature: While public-sector unions can no longer collect certain administrative fees, the decision could have been much broader, and much more damaging to organized labor.

But there is another, more important decision that still needs to be made when it comes to unions, and this one will happen mostly outside of the courts. Unless something dramatic changes, Americans are on the verge of living in a nation where the right to organize and to belong to a labor union no longer exists. The country will need to decide, sooner rather than later, if those rights are worth preserving.

Read the rest.

“Band of Burglars,” Slate, January 8, 2014

On Tuesday, one of the biggest unsolved cases in FBI history burst wide open. In a new book, investigative journalist Betty Medsger revealed the identities of the anti-war activists who broke into the FBI’s office in Media, Pa., in March 1971 and made off with the agency’s secret files.* They were, it turns out, ordinary middle-class people: “a religion professor, a daycare center worker, a graduate student in a health profession, another professor, a social worker, and two people who had dropped out of college to work nearly full-time on building opposition to the war,” Medsger writes. On March 8, 1971, they pried open the FBI office door with a crowbar, stole hundreds of files, and shook the intelligence establishment to its jackboots.

Read the rest.

“Who Didn’t Kill JFK?” The Nation, December 27, 2013

In case you missed it, November marked the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The city of Dallas spent more than a year preparing for the occasion, scheduling exhibits and lecture series and memorial ceremonies. The Frontiers of Flight Museum constructed a life-size walk-through replica of Air Force One as it looked on the fateful day of November 22, 1963, complete with “a highly detailed cockpit, the president’s bedroom, and the stateroom in which Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office.” The Sixth Floor Museum, located in the former Texas School Book Depository, offered the artwork of the Dallas LOVE Project, intended to rewrite the city’s 1963 reputation as a “City of Hate.” On November 22 itself, some 5,000 privileged ticket holders gathered in Dealey Plaza, where the shots rang out, to hear historian David McCullough recite from the former president’s speeches and observe a moment of silence. To commemorate the day, The Dallas Morning News offered a memorial box set with the sleek title “JFK50,” featuring a full edition of the paper from the morning after the assassination along with three “collectible JFK50 cards.”

Read the rest.

Review, “A Cruel and Shocking Act,” Washington Post, October 25, 2013

The promotional material for Philip Shenon’s rollicking new book, “A Cruel and Shocking Act,” reminds us that three questions have “haunted our nation” for the past 50 years: “Was the President killed by a single gunman? Was Lee Harvey Oswald part of a conspiracy? Did the Warren Commission discover the whole truth of what happened on November 22, 1963?”

Shenon does not definitively answer the first two questions; as he acknowledges, we may never have the final word on whatever conspiracy did or did not exist. On the third matter, however, his judgment is unequivocal. The Warren Commission, he writes, was “flawed from the start” because of bureaucratic infighting, political manipulation, destruction of evidence, tight deadlines, understaffing, deception by intelligence agencies and a host of other ills. Rather than attempting to offer the Ultimate Truth of the Kennedy Assassination, Shenon presents a persuasive, deeply researched account of why, 50 years out, that truth still seems so hard to find.

Read the rest.

“Counting Crime,” Marquette Law Journal, Fall 2013

When I received the invitation to this conference about a year ago, I was surprised at the fortuitous timing: I was actually sitting at my computer writing about the Wickersham Commission—an unusual moment for such an obscure historical subject. So of course I said yes right away.

The other reason that I very much wanted to come here is that, thanks to the work of historian Athan Theoharis, Marquette is one of the country’s great repositories of historical FBI documents. I am currently writing a biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the former FBI director. Anyone who writes about this subject owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Professor Theoharis, whom you’ll be hearing from later on today.

Read the rest.