By RJ Walters / For the Jackson Citizen Patriot
Ronald J. Pestritto was having mild success with his book “Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism” four years after its 2005 release, with the publisher simply hoping to recoup printing costs.
He was content teaching political science at Hillsdale College, delving deeper into the principles of American government, giving lectures and writing for publication when opportunities arose.
Then Glenn Beck got a hold of his book.
In a blink, Pestritto went from being unheralded, outside of scholarly circles and his D.C. colleagues, to a guest and bona fide voice of reason on the birth of modern liberalism — at least to hear it from one of the most polarizing figures on TV.
Beck, the Fox News Channel host, has been a political force this year, promoting the grassroots Tea Party movement that looks sure to sweep many politicians from office in Tuesday’s elections.
Pestritto admits being unsure exactly who Beck was until last year, although he “may have heard his radio show once.” Now, Pestritto is everything from a beloved “egghead” on Beck’s show to a guy known by traditional liberals for “demonizing” former President Wilson.
“It’s funny, because from some quarters you get respect and other quarters there are a bunch of people who didn’t know you who now hate you,” Pestritto said. “That’s a double-edged sword.”
Pestritto credits Princeton professor Robert P. George for dropping his name on the show, after Beck apparently took a jab at Wilson, who was the president at Princeton during the early 1900s.
“So George said to him, ‘Well, if you really want to know something about Wilson you should read this book,” Pestritto said.
“So (Beck) read it and evidently he really liked it, so he started talking about it a lot. As he later explained to me, he said it opened his eyes to the origin of liberalism today.”
Chris Bachelder, Hillsdale College’s associate vice president for marketing, said Hillsdale faculty have a tendency to build niche areas of expertise that attract the media.
Pestritto’s work was great for the college because it was considered groundbreaking scholarship, he said.
It was good for Pestritto’s book sales, too.
He had been on C-SPAN during panel discussions and contributed editorial work to The Wall Street Journal several times, but getting a call on a Tuesday and being under the lights in New York City by Wednesday afternoon was a new experience.
He said it’s nerve-wracking because it’s live and there are only a few people on the set, but millions of people tune it at home or at work.
“It’s very misleading because you have a sense that you’re just in this small, intimate setting, when in fact there’s a bunch of people on the other side of the camera,” he said.
“The other thing is the show is not really scripted, so you have a general notion of what the topic is, but you don’t really have any notion of the direction in which things are going to go.”
Beck calls on Pestritto for shows about issues relating to progressivism, which has included everything from discussions about health care to the relevance of the Progressive Era today. Pestritto said he makes sure to only go on the show when he thinks he’s qualified to speak on a subject.
Otherwise, he gives Beck’s producers a couple of other names to consider.
Beck is a hot name, routinely the subject of debate in the national media. Comedian Jon Stewart’s rally on the National Mall planned for Saturday was loosely based on Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in August.
Pestritto said people can quibble with the political arguments Beck makes based on what he reads, but to say he doesn’t understand history is false.
“One thing you could really say about Beck, and I know a lot of people are critical of him, but he reads stuff. He’s not stupid,” he said. “He reads stuff, he reads it thoroughly. He’s interested in it.”
He was interested enough to read Pestritto’s book on Wilson, but later said, “it was a little too thick and made his eyes bleed.”
So Pestritto pointed him in the direction of “American Progressivism: A Reader,” a collection of progressive writings edited by himself and William J. Atto that was released in 2008.
Not surprisingly, Pestritto said, “the thing sold like hotcakes” after Beck mentioned it.
Pestritto said he imagines his time in the spotlight will be short-lived, but that’s OK because it’s not his primary concern.
“For me, the core of what I do and what I’m interested in is my students here, teaching and writing academic, scholarly books. That’s what I do well,” he said. “This other stuff is a bonus. It’s gravy and in all likelihood will go away, and that will be just fine with me.”
Bachelder said it is beneficial for the privately funded institution to have its professors widely quoted because it gives more people a chance to understand the principles of the college.
“The reason we’re so anxious to spotlight our professors or ensure they get exposure, not only for their scholarly work but some of their more day-to-day commentary, is that we have a strong alignment between the principles of the college and what the faculty is trying to achieve,” he said.
Bachelder said the college never tries to control the messages its professors purvey.
Pestritto joked that he says what he’s going to say and “to the extent which the college wishes to identify itself with that, that’s their choice.”