Leo Ribuffo (1945–2018)
Historian of the United States
Leo Paul Ribuffo, a professor of history at George Washington University, died unexpectedly on November 28, 2018, in his Washington, DC, home at the age of 73. Only a week earlier, he had attended an intellectual history conference in Chicago that featured a special session honoring his best-known work, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War.First published in 1983, this award-winning book ushered in a new era of scholarship on conservatism, one that did not simply dismiss right-wing political figures, in the manner of Richard Hofstadter, as irrational fanatics.
Born in New Jersey’s Bergen County to a Catholic father and a Protestant mother in a working-class household—those demographic markers were important to his later identity as an intellectual and a historian—Ribuffo graduated from Rutgers University in 1966. He benefited from his contact with the remarkable group of historians assembled there, including Eugene Genovese, Warren Susman, and Lloyd Gardner. They persuaded him to attend graduate school in history and helped him gain admission to Yale University’s history department and American studies program, where he studied under Sidney Ahlstrom. The Old Christian Right began as his doctoral dissertation and reflected the influence of Ahlstrom in its emphasis on religion but also Ribuffo’s idiosyncratic interests in culture and politics.
The Old Christian Right started Ribuffo’s career-long interest in people he described as “right-wing weirdos.” It also introduced the term “Brown Scare” to the literature that, as Ribuffo later explained, “ was meant to show that the often over-wrought rhetorical response to the Right fitted within the American countersubversive tradition.”
After a brief stint at Bucknell University, a place where, as he liked to explain, one could not get a decent corned beef sandwich, Ribuffo came to George Washington in 1973. He led the department’s efforts in recent American history and collaborated with Dewey Wallace in the university’s American religious history program. His reputation and charisma attracted a large group of devoted and talented graduate students. Many of these students, too numerous to list here, made their own important contributions to the historical literature. Leo Ribuffo was a mentor in the best sense of that term.
Ribuffo was finishing a major biography of President Jimmy Carter at the time of his death. He also frequently published essays on various aspects of diplomatic, religious, political, and intellectual history. Some of these were later collected in a 1992 volume, Right, Center, Left. As the reviewer for the American Historical Review noted, “Ribuffo writes well, and his perspective is always challenging and refreshing.” “These are acute essays,” he noted, “and entertaining ones as well.”
Ribuffo labored over his writing, describing himself as more like J. D. Salinger than John Updike. Part of the reason was that he was a stylist who wanted each of his sentences to have the intended effect, often an ironic point about how historians got a particular person—Henry Ford, Bruce Barton, or Jimmy Carter—wrong. Another part of the reason was that his writing always reflected his erudition. He was well-read and well-traveled to archives in a way that made him an impeccable scholar but also slowed down his production. The result—whether a popular essay, a scholarly monograph, or a reflection on the state of academia—was always worth the wait.
His emails for his friends and colleagues often depicted the foibles of university administrators who, in the stereotypical manner, were striving for global excellence without any understanding of what it is that academic historians do. His colleagues always received these communications with appreciation and looked forward to Ribuffo’s brilliant and witty performances in faculty meetings and departmental seminars.
Leo Ribuffo’s friends and former students remember him as a person with an encyclopedic knowledge of American history, a lightning-quick mind, and a caustic wit that enlivened their encounters with him. For his colleagues, he was a loyal friend who reinforced what was good about an academic career.
Note: The article title has been corrected to reflect the correct years of Leo Ribuffo's life: 1945–2018.
George Washington University
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