For decades, scholars have insisted that what most of us know instinctively to be true -- is false. Mocking the belief that individuals such as Julius Caesar, Adolf Hitler or Winston Churchill make history, experts focus on social forces. They explain the past with statistical studies and abstract theories, dismissing stories about individual initiative or heroism.
While powerful economic, social and ideological movements dwarfing any individual do shape history, be it the high-tech boom, feminism or the rise of conservatism, we cannot underestimate the way a leader's action and inaction can change the world. Especially when assessing the American presidency and modern America, individual character -- and contingency -- count.
Bill Clinton's presidency would have ended very differently if he had been faithful to Hillary or if Monica Lewinsky had dry cleaned all her dresses. Franklin Roosevelt's life -- and America's fate during the Great Depression and World War II -- would have changed dramatically if FDR had not contracted polio in 1921. And does anyone believe that Americans would have experienced the same kind of Morning in America in the 1980s had Jimmy Carter beaten Ronald Reagan?
William H. Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History and former Dean of the Faculty at Duke University, admits that he has built his impressive scholarly career by neglecting these dramas to shape what is now the accepted historical conventional wisdom. In books such as "Civilities and Civil Rights" and "The American Woman," he writes, "I have focused on the way social movements, not individuals, have transformed our recent past." Now, Chafe wishes to right the balance, beginning with what he calls "an old-fashioned conviction -- that individual leaders make a difference in a society." The result is insightful and significant, showing how the personal and the psychological shape the political and historical.
In eight well-paced, well-written chapters, Chafe sketches...