Blogs > Cliopatria > "How Little We Know"

Nov 4, 2008 7:07 pm


"How Little We Know"



Maybe it happens this way
Maybe we really belong together
But after all, how little we know

Maybe it's just for a day
Love is as changeable as the weather
And after all, how little we know

No, this Johnny Mercer lyric does not open another discussion of how little the American people know. It came to me as I finally put a political bumper sticker on the back of my car yesterday. As I smoothed it out—deeply pleased about getting a sticker on straight for a change—I had two thoughts. I thought while looking at the candidate's name, “I hope you win.” My second thought was something along the lines of “I hope the future shows I am right.” Soon afterwards that lyric—complete with Lauren Bacall’s dusky contralto voice—popped into my head.

How little we know.

These are not second thoughts. I have examined the alternatives and feel comfortable with my candidate. While something could shake that comfort in the next month, that something is not on the horizon. If anything the opposite is occurring.

Yet, in the midst of this campaign that keeps getting uglier, it might be good for those of us who are both historians and partisan to recall that knowing the past does not do much to help us predict the future. How many predicted that Bill Clinton’s greatest successes would be in working with (and over) a Republican congress after failing to work well with a Democratic congress? Who would have predicted that the current Bush Administration would do more to make the government responsible for day-to-day economy than any presidency since FDR pushed the NRA through Congress?

On a larger level, I have often wondered what would have happened if Gerald Ford had been reelected in 1976. Would Reagan have become president in 1981? Would the world be better off, or as much as I disagreed with Reagan’s policies, did he provide the nation’s majority with a much needed sense of optimism? Not even the most intelligent of us can anticipate how the temperament, values, and even policy goals of a candidate will fare when he or she encounters the unexpected, whether it be an enemy attack, economic turmoil, conflict among alleged allies, or something else entirely.

I would not suggest that historians withdraw from the political field. First, we are citizens, and second, we can use the past to shed light on the visible challenges before us. Nor should we shrink from making choices in the face of the unknown. That is the human condition. But I think that we, as professionals, should resist as best we can the tendency of politics to cross the line from opposing to demonizing political foes, even though it sometimes seems all too tempting.

For in the end, we should know better than most how little we do know of what fate (or love, to return to that fine song) will bring.

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Maarja Krusten - 10/20/2008

I once worked with Nixon's tapes and files as an employee of the National Archives whom the federal government tasked with determining what the public would see. My work was similar to that of the employees at the Ford Presidential Library who made possible the recent declassification of the documents about the Shah.

Perhaps because my work as an historian has been taking place in a governmental setting, I've given a lot of thought to something academic historians rarely discuss -- a President's stewardship obligation, both in political and governmental terms. Does he weaken or strengthen his party?

What a President does must be sustainable politically. He has to act and communicate his goals in such a way as to keep the majority of the voting public on his side. (Sustainability is an important consideration in keeping a blog such as this one going, also.) If not, he severely limits the options for his political party. This happened to Ford because of Nixon's actions.

It's not just that Presidents chose to take actions that affect public policies or are affected the "the flow" of events. They also are affected by the extent to which their predecessors were mindful of the longterm effect of their actions on their political party and on public opinion. It's not just what happens at the ballot box to bring a President to power, it's also what happens in terms of his ability or inability to pass along power to a successor of the same party.

If you read something such as Nixon chief of staff H. R. Haldeman's published diary, which provides a candid and engrossing narrative of Nixon's approach to political and policy matters, you see little or no sense that some of the actions considered for short term gain might have long term repercussions or even might backfire. A President who can sit with an aide and discuss using the Secret Service to gather intelligence on a perceived political rival (Edward M. Kennedy) is not likely to stop and say, "is this really the way to govern and to achieve my political aims? Where might such a mindset lead?"

Ford pardoned Nixon but paid a political price for that. Had the Nixonian abuses of governmental power not reached a critical mass, Nixon might have been a two term President who handed over to his sucessor (Ford or someone else of the same party) a legacy on which he could build. To consider where Ford or any other political figure stands, you have to consider not just his choices but how the majority of the public came to view his predecessor's actions and his party.

Only after he had had to resign did Nixon say, “I should have set a higher standard for the conduct of the people who participated in my campaign and administration. I should have established a moral tone that would have made such actions unthinkable. I did not. I played by the rules of politics as I found them. Not taking the higher road than my predecessors and my adversaries was my central mistake.” Why such thinking did not guide his actions while is office is a question that is inextricably linked to the question of what might have happened to Jerry Ford.


Ed Darrell - 10/18/2008

Pondering a full, elected term for Jerry Ford is a good exercise, I think. Is it likely Ford would have given the nation the career-threatening lecture on energy that Jimmy Carter did? I don't think so. But is it likely Congress would have so sternly resisted any efforts to conserve energy, if the proposals came from Ford instead of Carter?

Is it likely at all that Jerry Ford would have urged the Shah of Iran to capitulate? In the last week we saw the release of information that both Ford and Nixon had considered the fall of the Shah, and what happened next.

How much of history is changed by presidents, and how much of it is just the flow of the events they swim in? Jerry Ford's fantasy second term offers a good chance to consider such things.


Maarja Krusten - 10/13/2008

Hi, Oscar,

It's nice to see you back and blogging again. I'm not going to comment on the candidates for reasons I'm sure you'll remember and understand. I remain, as I have been for the last 20 years, a political Independent, unaffiliated with either party.

But I can comment on discourse.

I, too, feel that it is possible to oppose what someone writes or states without demonizing them. The problem is, what should a writer do, if he or she argues simply from opposition, and an opponent counters with demonization? I've seen this come up in various places with differing people on HNN over the years. The best course seems to be to state your case and let the readers judge how both you and your opponent have handled yourselves.

Whether they write from the left, center or the right, everyone who engages on HNN from a stated political viewpoint plays a representational role in terms of their partisan views and ideological stances. I've learned a lot from the authors of essays and the people posting here about how they frame issues, view their fellow citizens, and engage with them.

In a way, the people who post on HNN from identifiable partisan viewspoints are ambassadors for the political parties to which they belong. They reinforce (or undercut, as the case may be) the messages the political pros put out for public consumption. The diversity in tone and style is interesting, some people represent their parties very differently than others close to them ideologically do.

There are people throughout the political spectrum who argue reasonably, just as there are ones who do not. When you put yourself out there, whether you stand for one party or the other, you end up at risk of encountering angry as well as throughtful and calm readers. The greatest imbalances I've seen on HNN have not been political. Rather, they stem from an imbalance in style of discourse.

Some people are fine saying to political opponents "let's just agree to disagree." Others seem to strive to crush publicly or humiliate anyone who disagrees with them. What do you do if you have no interest in crushing others -- would prefer to say you go your way, I'll go mine -- but someone starts pounding on you, insulting you, belittling you?

If an opponent puts on brass knuckles and strikes me, and I don't feel like even throwing a punch, then I'm just out of luck in a forum such as HNN. I'm not going to become a ranter or a bully in presenting my views just because someone likes to argue in a way that does not suit me.

Having pointed out that difference from the classroom, I think it's up to individual academics whether they want to enter the political arena or not. But I do think you have to remain true to yourself. That's as true for the people commenting here as for those who post articles. A person filled with rage is bound to let that show, even if it is tactically unwise. And a person of moderate temperament and a sense of fair play is unlikely to fight dirty, no matter how others treat him or her. For what it is worth, writing reasonably and projecting a stylistically moderate persona is an area where I've always thought you've done quite well on HNN, just as Gil Troy does on the other side of the political spectrum.

BTW, Stanley Fish has a column in the New York Times about whether or not teachers and college instructors should wear political buttons or not.
(See
http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/buttons-and-bows/ )

Posted from home (federal holiday today) in case anyone is watching

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