THE UNRAVELLING OF AMERICA: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s by Allen J. Matusow

THE UNRAVELLING OF AMERICA: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s

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KIRKUS REVIEW

As long as Rice U. historian Matusow sticks to the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith and Lyndon Johnson, his narrative account of liberalism in the heyday of economic growth moves briskly along. He has no difficulty showing JFK's lack of liberal credentials, even if, as a presidential candidate, he fashioned an appeal to voters out of the Cold War liberalism of the 1950s intellectuals. The civil rights issue was forced on him, Matusow notes; and Kennedy was, if anything, a champion of the big corporation (it was only knee-jerk Keynesianism on the part of some businessmen that painted Kennedy as anything else). Against the romantic view, Matusow contends that Kennedy's moves on poverty were not sparked by Michael Harrington's The Other America, but by ""a constituency both aggrieved and vocal."" Kennedy, in short, was a politician whose personal charisma appealed to liberal intellectuals, and whose political savvy enabled him to follow the tides of social movement. As for LBJ, Matusow gives a good account of the major programs of the Great Society, like OEO--which was supposed to spur community action, but which showed instead how many ways there are to destroy it. (It was black politicians who killed it in Harlem, Matusow says, and black militants in San Francisco.) In the end, the war on poverty did less to move incomes across the poverty line than did Vietnam War inflation. But Matusow's narrative goes astray with big, overdrawn, repetitive chapters on the counterculture, the New Left, and Black Power--phenomena which do help explain the ultimate downfall of Johnson and the liberalism his administration epitomized, but not as treated here. (Drugs, sex, kicks, etc., are intoned ad nauseam as the purpose of the counterculture, for example.) And Matusow's asides are funny once (""Conductor Leonard Bernstein, who attended Kennedy's famous party for cellist Pablo Casals and never got over it""), but become too pat (""Norman O. Brown. . ., whose underground explorations began in middle age and never strayed beyond the library""). With the election of 1968 acting as the climax, moreover, the question of whether or not the collapse of 1960s liberalism was due to other than chance factors is not answered. What begins as a promising review eventually loses its way and reaches no conclusions.

Pub Date: Jan. 11th, 1983
Publisher: Harper & Row