The Historian Who Forced President Bush to Allow Condi Rice to Testify

Harvey H. Jackson, in the Anniston Star (April 8, 2004):

It has always been one of the hardest questions students ask. “I love history,” they begin, “but what can I do with a degree in it?”

“Well,” I tell them, “you could teach. Or go into government service. Or work in a museum. Or do a whole host of things.”

(At that point I pull out a chart prepared by the American Historical Association that shows a bunch of careers open to folks who study history.

And to that list I can now add, “with a history degree you can make the President of the United States back down, flip-flop, change his mind.”

That, according to Newsweek magazine, is just what happened a week ago.

You all recall how for weeks President Bush made it very clear that he had no intention of letting his national-security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, testify in public, under oath, before the 9/11 commission. On more than one occasion administration officials told the commission's executive director, Philip Zelikow, that such testimony was unprecedented and the president was not about to allow Rice to do what no previous presidential advisor had done.

No one expected Zelikow to push the matter very hard. A University of Virginia history professor, he had worked closely with Rice, even co-authored a book with her. In fact, some of the commission's critics felt Zelikow was too friendly to the Bush administration to be objective and wanted him to step down.

But he didn't.

Instead, like any good historian, he just kept digging into the records to see what he could find.

Then he found it.

And a short time later a photograph came in over the White House fax machine with a note from Zelikow saying that if the president did not relent and let Rice testify publicly, “this will be all over Washington in 24 hours.”

The picture was of Adm. D. Leahy, chief of staff to Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, testifying before the congressional committee investigating the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Immediately realizing that the excuse that Rice's testimony would break precedent would no longer fly, the White House announced that she would appear before the committee. Her appearance is scheduled to start this morning.

Learning of the reversal, commission chairman Thomas Kean observed, “This is what happens when you hire historians.”

Yessir, it sure is.

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