While visiting family in Washington, D.C. over the Thanksgiving holiday, I met my good friend and former dissertation advisor Leo Ribuffo for drinks at an Irish pub. This was our tradition: any time I was in town, we would meet up at a local bar and talk for hours over pints of Guinness and drams (whiskey for me, cognac for Leo).
There was a definite pattern to the topics of conversation at these semi-annual meet-ups. We would begin by discussing the mundane. I say mundane, but Leo always had a way of making even these conversations consequential. We would talk about our students, never in a mean-spirited sort of way, but rather out of genuine curiosity. What did differences in patterns of student behavior across generations mean? Did these differences really add up to anything of significance? For Leo, not much. You see, in the face of an over-excited, gee-wiz punditry that acts as if every recent occurrence is a novelty, he believed it is our singular task as historians to convey the longue durée. Which is why he thought generational analysis was hogwash. As he grumpily barked at me when I was a graduate student arguing that people’s attitudes in the 1950s were uniquely shaped by the Cold War: “Those people had not forgotten the 1930s. It wasn’t that long ago for them!”
Our booze-soaked conversations eventually always found their way to topics of real substance: politics, history, philosophy, religion—“pointy-headed intellectual stuff” in his words. At our most recent get-together I was so focused on the discussion about Trump and how he ranks against other presidents (not nearly as bad since, unlike many others, he has yet to launch a war that kills millions), and so enjoying our deep dive into Niebuhr, Marx, William James, Cotton Mather (longue durée, natch) that I would not allow myself to interrupt the conversation to use the bathroom even though by that point I had had several pints. Too much information? Nah, this puts my emotions in material form. I so cherished the uninterrupted banter that, by the time we departed the bar, my bladder was on the verge of exploding. Given that Leo died less than a week after our final discourse, I have no regrets.
I first met Leo in January 2002, when I walked into his research seminar on the 1960s. As a budding Marxist who came of intellectual age immersed in Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, I didn’t think I had anything to learn from a cranky Niebuhrian, William Jamesian, neo-isolationist, unreconstructed McGovernite—especially since I wasn’t equipped at that time to even make sense of these confusing and dare I now say contradictory labels that Leo had given himself. Was I wrong! Leo quickly became my best teacher, and remained so to the end. Whenever I think I have something figured out, I tell myself, yes, but, what does Leo think? We as historians would all do well to ask: What would Leo have thought?
Luckily for us, the editors at the American Historical Review were perceptive enough to ask Leo for his thoughts about Alan Brinkley’s 1994 article, “The Problem of American Conservatism.” Brinkley declared that American historians needed to study conservatives with the same degree of attention that they had given to liberals and lefties. In his response—“Why Is There So Much Conservatism in the United States and Why Do So Few Historians Know Anything About It?”—Leo described Brinkley’s essay as a “certification narrative.” A don of the profession had descended from his Olympian heights to inform us plebs that our work mattered! If you haven’t read that especially Ribuffoesque essay, and if you enjoy the spectacle of historians who bring knives to historiographical battles, do yourself a favor: read it straight away.
Leo was famous for his withering historiographical “interventions” and “interrogations” (he never tired of ridiculing academics for appropriating basic words to make prosaic points sound fancy: he said “interrogation” was something French cops did to bad guys, not something nerds did to texts). I always implored my fellow historians to attend one of Leo’s rousing, hilarious conference presentations. After one such presentation at the 2010 OAH convention about “how historians should study the right now that studying the right is trendy,”he was followed on the panel by Michael Kazin, who declared that following Leo was like trying to follow Jon Stewart. In that paper, Leo once again admonished us for not going back further in time. He declared that his most important suggestion to those who wished to study the history of American conservatism was to “pay more attention to events that occurred before the 1950s—even long before.”
There is simply no other important movement or worldview that historians study in such a truncated fashion. Students of liberalism go back through the New Deal to the so-called Progressive era and sometimes to Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and John Locke. Students of radicalism go back through the Popular Front, Debsian socialism, and sometimes to Tom Paine. Conversely, for many participants in the second discovery of the Right [which dates to the aforementioned Brinkley AHR forum], Herbert Hoover, William Appleman Williams’s tragic hero, is a distant and barely recognizable figure.
Leo also suggested, using one of his favorite metaphors, that our efforts to take conservatives seriously as historical subjects demanded that we bury Richard Hofstadter’s chief conceptual contribution to the literature, “the paranoid style in American politics,” “in a deep cavern with nuclear waste.” This was archetypal Ribuffo. He used snark to make what he thought was an obvious point but one that historians ignored over and over again: that calling people to our right (and to our left) “paranoid,” “crazy,” “nut jobs,” “wackos,” was an expedient way to ignore two salient facts. First, that American right-wingers were first and foremost American, in that their history could be explained in very American terms. Second, reserving psychological pejoratives for people outside the safe political center conveniently left out the fact that centrist liberals were not immune from political paranoia. Any sober study of Cold War liberalism proves this point.
Leo will best be remembered as a historian of American conservatism, for good reason. But he also had a deep knowledge of intellectual history, and not just conservative ideas. For instance, he was one of the most informed critics of the pluralist social thinkers of the postwar era—Daniel Bell, Seymour Lipset, Nathan Glazer, Hofstadter—whom he accused of confusing description for prescription when they argued that a pluralist consensus was the defining feature of American history. But whereas most recent critics of these consensus era historians and social scientists treat them merely as mid-century signposts and, often, straw men, Leo actually read their work with care and came away impressed by much of their approach even as he harshly criticized their overriding contention. For instance, Leo liked that these pluralist thinkers, unlike many who came after them, didn’t think American history began in 1945, or 1933, or 1912, or even 1865. As my good friend and fellow Ribuffo student Christopher Hickman reminds me, Leo followed these thinkers in accentuating continuity. Leo, in his own eclectic way, discovered consensus in American history. But his consensus, unlike Hofstadter’s or Schlesinger’s, was much more capacious in that it allowed freaks into the mix.
Leo’s intellectual history chops were on display to me when I took his seminar on “Social Thought in the United States since 1945,” a legendary course among his legions of graduate students. This class, in which we mostly read primary texts from Dwight MacDonald, to C. Wright Mills, to Abraham Maslow, to Barbara Ehrenreich, to Christopher Lasch, to many more (it’s a long list—he expected us to read a lot), was not only far-and-away my favorite class during graduate school, it also gave me the topics for my first two books. (Who am I kidding, Leo explicitly gave me those ideas. In a conversation after one of those classes in 2003, he said, “You should write a dissertation on the education wars of the 1950s.” Then again in 2008, he told me, “You should write a book about the ‘so-called’ culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s.” It always cracked me up that Leo advised me to write a book about a topic that he never failed to qualify as “so-called.”)
Leo also had deep knowledge of political and presidential history. He had been working on a book about the Jimmy Carter presidency for the past 20 or more years. People often asked me why it was taking Leo so long to write what he called “the fucking Carter book,” wondering if perhaps he was stuck. Leo was not stuck. He did write slowly, in part (I think) because of his life-long visual impairment. Also, Leo was a very committed teacher, and had many graduate students, which took up a lot his time. He always read my work carefully, even long after I was officially his student, an act of generosity that I will never forget, even though I tended to curse his name immediately after receiving feedback. After submitting drafts of the first three chapters of my dissertation to him, he returned them with several single-spaced pages of harsh criticism, including the following, unforgettable sentence, which he wrote in response to my long discursive historiographical asides: “You are not Jackson Lears.” By which he meant, I was not yet qualified to write like that. It took me 24 hours (and many beers and bad zombie movies) to calm down and realize that Leo was only being harsh because he knew I would respond well. Leo did tough love better than anyone, because he was tough as nails, and lovable.
But in addition to his eyes and his teaching commitments, Leo’s glacial pace can be attributed to his desire to get the Carter book right. He made annual pilgrimages to the Carter Center in Atlanta to dig into the latest declassified documentation that might help him explain knotty subjects like SALT II or the Camp David Accords. He believed that the 1970s and the Carter presidency were crucial to understanding contemporary America. He was determined to get it right. Word is that he has nine or ten chapters, at upwards 200,000 words, complete. For our sake, I hope the book is published posthumously, even if Leo never finally got it right by the lofty standards he set for himself. In the meantime, for those who want a fuller flavor of Leo’s knowledge of political history, there are dozens and dozens of published essays. I highly recommend his book, Right, Center, Left: Essays in American History, which includes excellent essays on Carter, Henry Ford, Bruce Barton, the American Communist Party, and more.
Lest you think Leo was limited in his scholarly range—I kid—he also knew a lot about the history of American foreign policy. One of my favorite Ribuffo essays was his contribution to the 2004 Ellen Schrecker edited collection, Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History After the Fall of Communism, titled, “Moral Judgment and the Cold War: Reflections on Reinhold Niebuhr, Williams Appleman Williams, and John Lewis Gaddis.” In this essay, Leo “explores an aspect of Cold War intellectual history.” Whereas the Cold War was overflowing with moral judgments, most often of the self-serving type, Leo analyzed three intellectuals who undertook sustained moral reflection about the American role in the Cold War. Leo took sides in this essay, Williams coming out on top, followed closely by Niebuhr, with Gaddis a distant third. But more to the point, this essay demonstrates something Leo stressed time and again across his long career: we must strive for empathy when dealing with people from the past, whether such people are 18thcentury Luddites, American fascists in the 1930s, or pointy-headed intellectuals during the Cold War. In his analysis of Niebuhr, Williams, and Gaddis, empathy meant that, even when he disagreed with their conclusions, he recognized that their conclusions were hard won, and that the problems they grappled with offered no easy solutions. For Leo, as for Niebuhr, Williams, and Gaddis, the world was complex, ironic, tragic. Any effort to sidestep that was intellectually lazy.
I would like to quote at length two passages from this essay, because they perfectly capture Leo as a thinker and writer. The first is the last paragraph in his introduction where he stated his perspective. The second is his description of Niebuhr’s perspective, which, with some secular qualifications, was also Leo’s perspective. These paragraphs pack serious intellectual punch, but are communicated in Leo’s typically clear and unpretentious prose.
My perspective is, broadly speaking, a version of pragmatism. “Facts” and “values” do not dwell in separate spheres but interact, and we should be conscious of that interaction. Moral judgments should be based on the consequences of human actions at least as much on the motives. Actions—or even notions about the right ways to act—are constrained by time, place, and circumstance. Consequences of human actions are often unpredictable and change over time, and these changes typically affect both our conceptualization of facts and our ethical judgments.
By the early 1930s Niebuhr had formulated an approach to God, humanity, and society that he called “Christian realism.” According to Niebuhr, bourgeois secular liberals and Protestant social gospelers exaggerated humanity’s capacity for virtue and wisdom. At most, altruistic behavior was possible only in small groups. Because men (as he put it) were inherently sinful, at least in a metaphorical sense, their social movements and governments were always morally tainted. Virtues turned into vices when they were pressed too zealously, and evil means were used to advance relatively noble ends. Nonetheless, men should not sink into cynicism but attempt to achieve ideals that were impossible to attain.
I realize I have described Leo’s work at some length and have yet to mention his signature piece of scholarship, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War. Published in 1983, The Old Christian Right won the OAH’s Merle Curti Award for best book in American intellectual history. I have left the best for last.
Last month at S-USIH in Chicago, I had the honor of organizing and chairing a roundtable dedicated to reevaluating The Old Christian Right. Leo was the least sentimental, least nostalgic person on the planet—his will mandated no memorial service upon his death—and yet I could tell Leo was happy with the roundtable. He hated festschrifts, yet I was lucky to give him a great one. Now, thanks to the USIH Blog, which will publish an edited version of the roundtable over the next week, everyone will be able to enjoy it.
The Old Christian Right is a close study of Depression-era native fascists William Dudley Pelley, Gerald B. Winrod, and Gerald L.K. Smith. With this book, to my mind, Leo accomplished at least three things. First, he was arguably one of the only left-leaning historians of his generation (not to mention the preceding “consensus historian” generation) to treat the far right without condescension. Second, Leo’s analysis served as a poignant contrast to a gobsmacked punditry then reporting on the surprising emergence of the “New” Christian Right that had helped propel Reagan to the White House. Third, the book was a methodological meditation grounded in deep knowledge of the psychological theories of extremism that had informed scholars of the “radical right” since before World War II. Our roundtable participants discuss all of these historical and historiographical issues, and more. They also fruitfully ponder the ways in which Leo’s analysis of American fascism in the 1930s resonates in an era when the “f-word” is perpetually on people’s lips again, in ways that Leo objected to.
Let me now briefly introduce the distinguished contributors to this roundtable, all of whom are experts on modern American conservatism. First, Rick Perlstein, a renowned journalist and author of several books that most of us have read, including Nixonland. Second, Michelle Nickerson, associate professor of history at Loyola University, Chicago and author of Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right. Third, Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, also an associate professor of history at Loyola University, Chicago, and author of Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics. Last, a response from Leo Ribuffo, the late Society of the Cincinnati George Washington Distinguished Professor of History at George Washington University.
I will conclude by mentioning something most people probably don’t know about Leo Ribuffo: he supervised 30 dissertations in his 40 plus years at GWU, including mine, many of which have gone on to become books. We Leo advisees like to refer to ourselves as Ribuffoites.
In a fitting tribute to his legacy, below is a bibliography of Ribuffo-advised dissertations that became books. Leo will be missed, but not forgotten.
- JoAnn E. Argersinger, Toward a New Deal in Baltimore (University of North Carolina Press, 1988).
- John Maxwell Hamilton, Edgar Snow (Indiana University Press, 1988).
- Thomas A. Kolsky, Jews Against Zionism: The American Council for Judaism, 1942-1948 (Temple University Press, 1990).
- George D. Moffett, III, The Limits of Victory: The Ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties (Cornell University Press, 1985).
- Edward J. Sheehy, The US Navy, the Mediterranean, and the Cold War, 1945-1949 (Greenwood Press, 1992).
- John Ehrman, The Rise of Neoconservatism (Yale University Press, 1995).
- Allida M. Black, Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1996).
- David Marley, Pat Robertson: An American Life (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).
- Andrew Hartman, Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (Palgrave, 2008).
- Victoria Grieve, The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middle Brow Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2009).
- Sarah K. Mergel, Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon (Palgrave 2009).
- Earl Tilford, Air Force Search and Rescue Operations in Southeast Asia 1961-1975 (Center for Air Force History, 1981).
- Christopher Bright, Continental Defense in the Eisenhower Era: Nuclear Antiaircraft Arms and the Cold War (Palgrave, 2010).
- Kristen Gwinn, Emily Greene Balch: The Long Road to Internationalism (University of Illinois Press, 2010).
- Felix Harcourt, Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s (University of Chicago Press, 2017).
- Emily Dufton, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America (Basic Books, 2017).