Q&A with Historian Kevin Phillips

Monday, 07 Jan 2013 04:25 PM

By Robert Feinberg

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C-SPAN recently broadcast an interview with historian Kevin Phillips by C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb. Phillips was a leading Republican theoretician as President Richard Nixon was putting together the coalition that would enable his improbable comeback, which was followed by his even more improbable downfall.

In recent years, Phillips has become a trenchant critic of what he views as the excessive influence of corporate politics in government. Phillips attended Colgate University, the University of Edinburgh and Harvard Law School before serving as a strategist in the Nixon White House. He has been a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and NPR.

In this interview, he and Lamb discussed both his views on politics and his fifteenth book, “1775: A Good Year for Revolution.”

The tone of the interview was set at the beginning as Phillips observed that the quality of the politicians during the revolutionary period contrast with the leadership demonstrated by the current crop of leaders. He characterized Washington as "an overgrown city with too many politicians, too many lobbyists, too many consultants, too many media." He added that seven of the 10 richest counties in the United States are located in the metropolitan Washington are, which he called "the capital that can't produce" for a country he contends is still great.

Asked by Lamb why he wrote the book, he said he wanted to escape from thinking about the campaign of 2012, and he decided to apply the methodology he used in writing “The Emerging Republican Majority,” which correctly forecast the Republican dominance of the presidency, as in fact there were Republican presidents for 20 of the 24 years following its publication.

Lamb asked Phillips, long reputed to be a conservative, to respond to being called a liberal by Jacob Weisberg of Salon.com. Phillips responded that the consistent thread is populism, and to some extent he has been a progressive, as progressivism has existed within the Republican Party, but he has never been a liberal or really conservative. He said he liked Nixon better after he worked for him and that he visited Nixon several times a year and received plugs for books from Nixon. He recalled that Nixon and his former attorney general, John Mitchell, had adopted the thesis of the book “Silent Coup” as the explanation for Watergate.

In writing this book, Phillips said he employed the technique of buying all the books he needed for research, so that he did not have to use a library. Thus, he acquired up to a thousand books. Then he would read them and think about the material alone.

He also drew on the knowledge of the geography of the Eastern seaboard that he had acquired through his previous work. Asked which personalities impressed him the most, Phillips listed George Washington, an able but sometimes mistaken leader and land speculator; Sam Adams, a brilliant schemer; and the British commander Sir William Howe, who came from a noble family.

Phillips found that Howe wanted to avoid making the Revolutionary War "a bloody mess" and was admired by the colonists. He regarded the portrayal of King George III as a tyrant as a public relations strategy based on the need to justify the revolution.

Phillips downplayed the role of Thomas Jefferson as author of the Declaration of Independence and contended that this legend did not become fully established until Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day 50 years later. Asked by Lamb what his own role would have been in revolutionary times, Phillips responded that he could hardly claim revolutionary ties, because his relatives on his mother's side were Quakers, one of whom was a loyalist delegate from Bucks County, Penn.

Phillips named four states as the "vanguard" colonies of the revolution — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, and South Carolina — not New York and Pennsylvania, because the latter colonies were too divided to lead a revolution. According to Phillips, the British saw the source of trouble as New England, in part because Eastern Massachusetts had been settled by people from East Anglia who had opposed the Crown and supported Parliament in the English Civil War. Their religion was Congregationalist, rather than Anglican, and they were seafarers whom the nobility sought to suppress.

The Virginia colonists had different concerns, forced to sell their tobacco crop back to England, rather than to the French, who would have paid more, and they received largely "junk" in return.

The advent of the Internet has provided much more detail about the revolution than was previously available, with the result for Phillips that the analysis of the movement has become much more nuanced and complicated. The realization on both sides that a shooting war was developing occurred in the fall of 1774, and colonists had begun to seize ammunition from British forts. The British never had more than about 40,000 troops, and they tried to recruit Russian mercenaries before they turned to Hessians and other Germans for support, up to 60,000 troops. Thus, the main reason the Patriots won was because the British were unable to manage the logistics of the war.

Returning to the subject of current politics, Phillips likened the Republican Party to a "jack-in-the-box" that pops up from time to time and says, "Help the Rich." He said his views on "the huge buildup of wealth from the financialization of America" stemmed from his work as a consultant for Wall Street firms.

As of 1982, Phillips had concluded that an era he called "post-conservative" had dawned. (Thus the conservative ascendancy, by Phillips's reckoning, turned out to be quite short.) In discussing his book “Mediacracy,” Phillips suggested that in Nixon's time, the media had the power to break presidents, but he sees its influence as much more diffuse today.

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