Martin Gilbert, Biography, and Joe Posnanski

In the introduction to Herbert Samuel: A Political Life, historian Bernard Wasserstein offers a general warning to biographers:

After several years cohabiting with a historical figure, the biographer must guard against the dangers of unwittingly adopting his subject’s angle of vision, of exaggerating his importance, or of executing a mere celebration.

Historian Michael Cohen cites Wasserstein in his dismantling of Martin Gilbert’s 2007 Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship. Fit with Wasserstein’s boding, Cohen neatly displays how Gilbert has as Churchill’s biographer adopted the man’s “angle of vision,” and how this process “reflects a symbiosis” between biographer and subject: Gilbert, forty years Churchill’s biographer, can no longer be considered an academically relevant historian. And this is very sad. Gilbert’s output (the Churchill volumes, dozens of other texts) alone makes him a considerable figure in modern British historiography.

But Churchill and the Jews is a text unworthy of any praise or mere consideration, an example of how fawning admiration can muddle potentially serious work, and call into question the work of a highly regarded historian.

(Now we could get really technical here and talk about how postmodern studies of history basically dismiss the notion that anyone can be even remotely unbiased or objective—but I’m not talking about that, as that’s a big ol’ quagmire that none of you fine readers signed up for. Flyover: there’s no such thing as unbiased or objective opinions in historical scholarship because there’s no such thing as unbiased or objective people! We all bring to the table our own innate feelings or emotions, some of which might affect how we approach historical subjects. Gilbert, however, is a special case: There are pro-Churchill historians who go to great lengths to bury or rationalize Winston’s racism or sexism or flip-flopping or interwar failures, and then there are those who stop just short of erecting statues of Churchill on every corner in the UK; Gilbert being the latter.)

Gilbert has, in the twenty-first century, churned out some pro-Churchill shlock quite regularly. From Churchill and America to Churchill’s War Leadership, Gilbert’s books are very clearly aimed at those who wish to lionize the British leader, to recount his actions while assuming a virtuous intent for all. Of course, Churchill was foremost a politician, and acted so, changing parties and alliances with the wind.

But in Churchill and the Jews, Gilbert argues that Churchill’s admiration for the Jewish people was a constantly prevalent theme in his ninety-one years. From his first forays into elected government in the early 1900s to his time as Secretary of the Colonies to his premiership, Churchill was a constant and vocal supporter, Gilbert argues, of the Jewish people. Cohen destroys this reasoning, however, and with such grace! All one needs to dismiss Gilbert’s servile assertion of Churchill’s lifelong friendship with an entire people is one of Gilbert’s previous volumes: cross-checking parts of Churchill and the Jews against Volume Four: The Stricken World (1917-1922) is surreal. In Churchill and the Jews, Gilbert asserts that Churchill spent the years between the Balfour Declaration (1917) and the White Paper meant to clarify the Declaration (1922) working hard to ensure that the Lloyd George government not abandon its vague, wishy-washy, kinda-sorta promise to the Jewish people. But in Volume Four, Gilbert does not conceal the fact—as he does in Churchill and the Jews—that Churchill was foremost concerned, as Secretary of the Colonies, with the entire empire; that is to say, he made numerous suggestions (almost nagging Lloyd George) that Britain abandon the Declaration and give Palestine to the Americans.

Gilbert’s evolution from academic historian to pop-history shlockmaster could not be more evident than in this side-by-side comparison: three decades and a whole hell of a lot of credibility stand between the Volume Four Gilbert and the man who wrote Churchill and the Jews. Setting the baseline of scholarship and then going against it three decades later; it’s amazing, really.

This is a very long, circuitous way of discussing Joe Posnanski and his supposed-to-be-upcoming biography—commissioned by the good folks at Simon & Schuster—of the embattled, fired, and now lung cancer-stricken Joe Paterno. 

Those who have followed Posnanski’s career take a sort of pride in his rise to national prominence. Sportswriters, in general, can be awful and strangely elitist (check out the now-dark blog Fire Joe Morgan for a taste), letting their media access erode their credibility. With the rise of New Media, sportswriters attacked “bloggers” for thinking they can write intelligently about sports from—as the argument goes—their mother’s basements or some such place. In other words, it takes entrenchment to be a war reporter, locker room access to be a sports reporter.

But Posnanski was not like this! He embraced the Internet, established a discourse with his fans, and wrote damn good columns in his thirteen-plus years at the Kansas City Star. He twice won the AP award for best sports columnist, a rare sign that the old journalistic guard may actually recognize or appreciate a writer renowned for respecting the changing nature of sports coverage.

Now, when the entire Penn State child rape scandal first broke, it became clear that what was unfolding in State College was unprecedented: a storied university athletic program in trouble for suppressing accusations of child molestation against one of its coaches. Scandals in the NCAA are nothing new—last year’s Ohio State scandal (which obviously seems a little overblown when set against child rape), Reggie Bush, Cam Newton, etc.—they just don’t often contain such universally understood-to-be-inhuman-and-unconscionable acts like child rape, and its possible suppression. (Whether or not Paterno was an active suppresser or just a bystander is really neither here nor there: he’s been fired.)

Just days before it hit the fan in State College, Posnanski went on Jonah Keri’s Grantland podcast and discussed his upcoming Paterno bio. Posnanski, having been working on the book for a few years with a targeted pub date around Father’s Day, moved to State College for the 2011 football season.

Of course, when I realized that a writer of Posnanski’s stature happened to move to State College in time for the biggest university scandal of this generation, I was a little excited (much as one can be in this situation) knowing that the entire imbroglio would get a proper treatment, an insightful, talented-writer-on-the-scene chronicling. It’d be like if Anderson Cooper happened to be wandering around Abbottabad sometime around, say, May 1.

But then Posnanski went all wait, what? on everyone by telling Penn State’s COMM 497G class—titled Joe Paterno, Communications & Media (wait, you expected something different?)—that Paterno was being treated as a scapegoat, that the 84 year-old coach was always on the chopping block, and that he, Posnanski, was personally heartbroken that Paterno was shown the door.

The analogy I’m drawing here is pretty obvious, and more than a little clumsy: Gilbert/Posnanski, Churchill/Paterno.

In the years since Churchill’s passing in 1965, scholars have picked apart his absurdly long and storied political career, many focusing on his particularly unflattering positions/decisions (Dardanelles campaign, virulent racism, interwar reestablishment of the gold standard in the UK), others, like Gilbert, instead choosing to focus on Winston the great lion, the principled leader who stood up to the Nazi threat. And as the negative, or anti-Churchill historiography has piled up, Gilbert has assumed a more extreme, pro-Churchill position; a defensive position.

Is this inevitable? Is this the biographer’s problem—the instinct to defend his subject? And how does that change when the subject is still alive?

Posnanski, seeing the media assembled in State College to “bury” (his word) Paterno, has taken what may be a regrettable position: that Paterno should not have been fired, that the ex-coach “tried to do the right thing.” Paterno would agree. Is that a symbiosis, as Cohen framed it? Perhaps. But, then again, what if Posnanski’s right?

It would be best to keep that possibility in mind; why rush to judgment?

In my undergraduate years, I spent an inordinate amount of time studying Churchill’s follies and triumphs. One particularly influential professor always seemed to rag on Winston, alleging that his decision—while Chancellor of the Exchequer—to reestablish the gold standard not only placed unnecessary pressure on the UK markets, but also allowed for a swifter recovery/rise of the Weimar Republic, which was then replaced by, of course, the Nazis in 1933 and blahblahblah.

He was not blaming Churchill for both the UK depression and the Nazis, but he was at least insinuating there was something to that idea, that in the weird implications of economic decisions, one could at least point to Berlin and wonder if it was a consequence.

I asked my professor what he really thought of Churchill—all that historiographical business aside, what did he think of the man? His answer was simple: When Churchill was good, he was very good. When Churchill was bad, he was very bad. 

And perhaps we might say the same about Paterno some day. He was good at times and bad at others. That may take time—more if Posnanski follows the tack he seems to be on: a full-fledged defense of Paterno. If that happens, there might be something to this comparison.

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