A Note on the Mainstream Reviews

— Jane Slaughter

MAINSTREAM REVIEWS OF Nelson Lichtenstein’s new biography of Walter Reuther say as much about the boundaries of permissible ideas in the opinion-making media as they do about either the book or Reuther himself. To demonstrate its impartiality between labor and management, the Washington Post solicited the thoughts of Jeffrey E. Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management. The Boston Globe selected a particularly scornful staff writer; only the L.A. Times chose a leftist labor journalist.

It’s obvious that one reason a bio of a long-dead union leader has received space in the big papers is last fall’s palace revolt at the AFL-CIO, which brought John Sweeney to the presidency of that institution. Can Sweeney fill Reuther’s shoes? our reviewers ask. They don’t venture to say, but they consider Reuther’s shoes to be big indeed.

The Globe’s Mark Feeney says, in effect, Grow up, Lichtenstein, it’s Gingrich time. The days of "ideology" are over, and the workers never wanted more than a fat paycheck anyway. To Feeney, only a leftist academic would ask more of a labor leader than paychecks. Lichtenstein’s implication that more was possible is "off-putting." (Dec. 10, 1995, B40)

History professor Alan Brinkley, in the New York Times (Dec. 17, 1995), gets one main thrust of the book: that Reuther contributed to both the rise and the decline of the labor movement. But he accepts Reuther’s stake in the Democratic Party as a given, and then ignores his role in the collapse of the Democratic liberal coalition. Is this surprising, given that liberal academics accept exactly the same assumptions that Reuther himself did?

Management professor Garten, formerly Undersecretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration, understands that Lichtenstein has written about "the struggle over the shape of American capitalism," and he understands the pivotal choices Reuther made. Like Feeney and Brinkley, however, Garten makes sure to come down, today, on the side of realism: "The argument about American capitalism is over." Garten also invents a rather strange construct—"middle class solidarity"—but never mind, that’s over too. (Nov. 26, 1995)

ATC 64, September-October 1996