2008 in History
Mr. Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).I have been telling my students how historic this election is. Maybe if they believe my claim that 2008 will long be remembered and talked about, like 1968 and 1929, they will make the effort to vote. Then they won’t spend their lives wondering why they didn’t realize quickly enough how significant this election and this year are and will be.
My students aren’t the only ones who don’t realize how many Americans will remember 2008. I’m not talking about any “verdict of history,” which never exists, anyway. Historians, and everyone else, are forming and will continue to form the most varied opinions about what is happening and what it means. Just as the polls after the debates show Americans disagreeing about who was the better debater and more sympathetic person, Americans will argue about all aspects of 2008. The memories of 2008 will be kept alive deep into the 21st century.
Our candidates, especially John McCain, should think more about the impressions they are making and the record they are leaving at this historic moment. Barack Obama should certainly ponder the future when he considers his present tactics. Thus far, he has maintained remarkable poise in the face of extreme provocation, especially in his own statements. But he has not been able to refrain from endorsing public ads which he knows make American politics less honorable and less effective. It is John McCain, however, who is expending all his efforts to create a historical bogeyman, not of Obama, but of himself.
Certainly he has made big mistakes, possibly due to impulsive choices on little evidence, like hoping Sarah Palin would be a candidate of presidential quality. The most recent belly flop over Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, Joe the so-called Plumber, demonstrates one of the enduring qualities of McCain’s campaign, and possibly of his own mind: leaping before looking. Maybe it was a bit of bad luck that Joe turns out to be a right-wing tax evader rather than an average Joe. Yet another questionable McCain campaign trait has surfaced again: McCain keeps using Joe as if he were what McCain wanted him to be. Here is where McCain’s flailing has made him appear ridiculous.
But worse than ridiculous is dishonorable. Over the past few weeks, as the polls appeared to make Obama’s lead look formidable, John McCain has pushed his campaign into non-stop negativity. "This election is not about issues," warned McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis back in September. McCain’s exclusive reliance on personal defamation might not be so notable if he had not earlier held himself up as the paragon of virtue. One of the maverick traits that McCain boasted about at the outset of his campaign was his disdain for negative campaigning and his promise to treat the American political system and the voters with more respect. No longer. He doesn’t seem to be reading the polls that show the American voters are turned off by his negative strategy.
McCain’s lack of insight into his own historical degradation was typified by his insistence that Obama repudiate John Lewis, a man who can hold his qualifications as American hero up to McCain’s without blushing. Lewis said, "What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse."
McCain has said of Lewis, "He can teach us all a lot about the meaning of courage and commitment to causes greater than our self-interest." He put Lewis among “three wise men” he would consult if he were elected President. Now that Lewis has spoken his mind about the nature of McCain’s campaign, McCain is no longer listening.
McCain ought to pay attention when Lewis says, "They are playing a very dangerous game that disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy. We can do better. The American people deserve better.” Lewis was not comparing him personally to George Wallace, but stressing how bad memories about McCain’s campaign will linger for decades, attached to his name, contaminating memories of the man and his whole life. McCain desperately wanted Obama to repudiate Lewis, to say that what McCain has been doing is not so bad, that even to think about other historical campaign nightmares is wrong. Obama wouldn’t do it, and neither will millions of other Americans, and observers around the world, when they remember 2008, that horrible and wonderful year, when national disaster led Americans to reach for the best from our past, not the worst.
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