Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Stanley I. Kutler (1934-2015)

Stanley I. Kutler was many things, some of which I got to observe first hand during my two-year fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the mid-1980s.  I suspect most people know him from his work on Watergate: the litigation that preserved and opened the Nixon tapes to the public, his Wars of Watergate (to which I contributed a summer’s research assistance), his play “I, Nixon,” and many of his columns for the Christian Science Monitor and other news outlets.  Reviews in American History, which he and Stanley N. Katz created and edited, was essential reading for my generation of history graduate students.  “Reviews 10"–an issue devoted to a series of field surveys including Daniel T. Rodgers’s “In Search of Progressivism”–was something of a bible.  As an ABD trying to find a dissertation somewhere within the legal history of labor law, I relied heavily on his dissertation-based articles on the labor cases of the Taft Court to get my bearings.  I saw at once and still believe that his Privilege and Creative Destruction is the best book every written on a single case in American constitutional history.  Only a little later in my career, after I realized that Kutler’s generation of legal historians had turned to political history to professionalize the field of American legal history, did I recognize his Judicial Power and Reconstruction Politics for the landmark it was. 

It would be scarcely metaphorical to characterize Kutler’s interactions with me as avuncular, so close was his relationship to my dissertation adviser Stanley N. Katz.  To this day, I find myself repeating his advice.  One counsel, which my seminar students will be hearing shortly, came after he had struggled through a dissertation chapter of mine that pitched readers into a blizzard of names, dates, and events.  To cushion the blow that it needed much compression and omission, he observed, “The hardest thing for a historian to do is to let go of a hard-won fact.”  Another piece of advice, shared when I went on the job market for the first time, was “Go where you can do the best work.”  The independent variables in that equation, he made clear, ought not to be limited to narrowly professional factors, like teaching load and research leave.  They also included the happiness of a spouse, of children, and of anyone else whose state of mind was inextricably joined to one’s own. 

American legal and constitutional history has lost one of its greatest practitioners.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's obituary is here; the Washington Post's is here.  I'll update as more come to my attention.

Update: The UW press release; an appreciation in The Nation; R. B. Bernstein's thorough and thoughtful obituary for H-Law (with a slight correction); another obituary on; a remembrance by Ruth Conniff, editor of The Progressive; Bernard Weisberger and Michael Ebner (the latter of whom focuses on Reviews in American History) on HNN; "One who wasn't at all the president's man," in the Sydney Morning Herald; "Usa: addio a Stanley Kutler, storico del Watergate," in L'Unione Sarda; Watergate historian Kutler who fought for release of Nixon’s tapes dies, in The Hindu; the New York Times obituary.