Nicholas Lemann is a Professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a staff writer at The New Yorker.
 He is the author of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy and The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, among other books.
 (March 2016)

Reagan: The Triumph of Tone

Ronald Reagan being welcomed by Puerto Ricans and Cubans in Tampa, Florida, during his 1980 presidential campaign
The Republican presidential candidate debates, which have shown non-Republicans just how factionalized the party is and how many possible meanings of the term “conservative” there are, have produced one point of general agreement among the many contenders: Ronald Reagan was a great president. For a committed Republican audience, Reagan stands …

Unhappy Days for America

‘Baby Toss,’ 2009; photograph by Julie Blackmon from her book Homegrown. It includes an introduction by Billy Collins and an interview with Reese Witherspoon, and is published by Radius Books.
Robert Putnam is convinced that today relative mobility, as well as absolute mobility, is declining alarmingly—that most Americans are more firmly destined to remain where they started out than they were when he was young. His passion about the need to change this situation overwhelms his social scientist’s epistemological caution.

Who Was W.E.B. Du Bois?

W.E.B. Du Bois’s very long life coincided almost exactly with the period in African-American history between slavery and citizenship. Du Bois was born, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and, as he liked to point out, almost exactly coincident with the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, which …

The New Deal We Didn’t Know

An African-American entering a movie theater through the segregated back entrance, Mississippi, October 1939; photograph by Marion Post Wolcott for the Farm Security Administration
The New Deal, the apogee of liberal political power in American history and a story with a relatively happy ending—the Great Depression vanquished, World War II won—has usually had its history presented, except by conservatives who disapprove of the expansion of central government and taxation in the 1930s and 1940s, as an uplifting, inspiring one. That is not how Ira Katznelson presents it.

The Voice of Big-Time Sports

Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali before the start of the Olympic boxing trials, West Point, New York, August 7, 1972
Two years ago The Wall Street Journal calculated that in a typical National Football League game, the ball is live for only eleven minutes. The game clock runs for an hour, but most of that time is spent between plays; and the television broadcast of a game, which includes advertising …

The New New Orleans

2520 Deslondes Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005; photograph by Robert Polidori from his book Points Between...Up Till Now, which includes his images of post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans along with work from the rest of his career. It has just been published by Steidl.
Spike Lee’s latest long documentary film about New Orleans, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, which aired on HBO last summer, begins with a set piece on the outburst of ecstasy occasioned by the Saints winning the 2010 Super Bowl. Louisiana is football-mad and Saints fans were being redeemed after decades of suffering through losing seasons, but there was a special intensity to the celebration because, plausibly, it could have marked the beginning of the post–Hurricane Katrina era in New Orleans—the moment when rebirth rather than tragedy became the reigning local metaphor.

Charm City, USA

Clarke Peters as the Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux in the television series Treme, set in post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans
At first blush Treme would seem to be quite similar to The Wire: a synoptic portrait of a poor, old, troubled, black-majority American city, expressed through the intertwined unfolding stories of a group of characters. But there are several important differences—the most obvious of which is that The Wire presents Baltimore as the object of slow-motion devastation, in the form of a couple of generations’ worth of changes in urban economics, race relations, governance, and geography, whereas Treme presents New Orleans as having been devastated much more dramatically and rapidly, by Hurricane Katrina.

Can Populism Be Popular?

Al Gore’s rhetorical shift in emphasis during the campaign, from fiscal responsibility to a form of populism addressed to “working families,” calls for some discussion. The Democrats spent years repositioning themselves as “New Democrats,” a party of moderates. This was an effort in which both Bill Clinton and Gore were …

I’d Walk a Mile for a Fee

In parts of the country where labor unions are weak, especially the Deep South, the organized left consists mainly of personal-injury lawyers. They obtain, in a few dramatic cases, the economic redistribution that is out of reach by legislation. The leading personal-injury lawyers are rich, confident, aggressive people who are …

Justice for Blacks?

African-Americans make up an eighth of the population, but they occupy about half the places in American prisons. This figure, as Michael Tonry, the author of Malign Neglect and a professor of law and public policy at the University of Minnesota, writes, “greatly underestimates” the vast disproportion of blacks, particularly …

High in the Lower Depths

Most discussion of the black urban underclass is statistical or otherwise theoretical and removed, treating it as if it were life on an inaccessible planet. What makes Rosa Lee, Leon Dash’s report on a particular Washington ghetto family, so convincing and so valuable is his intimacy with his subjects, an …

An Attack in Atlanta

One Saturday night in October 1958, a large homemade bomb went off in the most prominent synagogue in Atlanta. It blew a hole in the wall, but nobody was inside, and there were no injuries. Though barely remembered today, the bombing created a national sensation; unlike the church burnings of …

Mysteries of the Middle Class

For a long time after World War II the middle-class American family, consisting of a working husband, a housewife, and their children, seemed to be moving on a steady, upward economic course. But in the early 1970s, at about the time of the OPEC embargo, family income leveled off. Partly …

The Not So Great Dictator

A.J. Liebling opened his wonderful book on Earl Long, The Earl of Louisiana (1961), by recounting his two meetings with Earl’s older brother, Huey Long, in New York in the early 1930s. Huey favored doing business in bed in his hotel room dressed in silk pajamas, a habit he probably …

Underachiever

John Tower’s life and career, like his recent death, seem more than most lives and careers to have depended on accident. Certainly his claim to historical importance rests mainly on a series of unusual episodes, rather than on the sustained accomplishment that might be expected of a four-term United States …

That’s Earl, Folks!

The history of the South is full of stories of fiery young economic populists who turned to racism, like George Wallace and Pitchfork Ben Tillman, as well as the man C. Vann Woodward made into an emblem of that political progression, Tom Watson. But one prominent Southern politician during the …

The Fall of Jim Wright

The resignation of Jim Wright as speaker of the House last May has had surprisingly few reverberations. The speaker is officially “second in line for the presidency,” but that understates the importance of the position Wright held: he was the leading figure in what is still, at least officially, the …

Whistling in the Pentagon

A. Ernest Fitzgerald is surely not the only American author who thinks that there is a conspiracy dedicated to destroying him, but he is unusual in his willingness to discuss it cheerfully and unself-consciously. In Fitzgerald’s case, the conspirators are not only military officers and defense contractors (who understandably want …

Confidence Boy

Dan Quayle’s fellow members of the large Republican Senate class of 1980 included Paula Hawkins of Florida, Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, John East of North Carolina, Steve Symms of Idaho, James Abdnor of South Dakota, and Alfonse D’Amato of New York. Richard Fenno’s book on Quayle’s first term in the …

The Best Years of Their Lives

Ronald Reagan is strangely lacking in apologists. Even Richard Nixon had die-hard defenders right up to the end, and after his resignation he was portrayed with admiration in the memoirs of establishment-approved aides like William Safire and Raymond Price. Jimmy Carter, though regarded in Washington as a failed president, didn’t …

Breaking Up

The Louisville Courier-Journal was for many years perhaps the most famous provincial newspaper in the United States, partly because it was among the few liberal ones and partly because of its many journalistic awards. Although the Courier-Journal and its sister paper, the Louisville Times, had several legendary editors, like Henry …