Sean Wilentz: Obama's misuse of historyRoundup: Historians' Take
'God alone knows the future," Ambrose Bierce reputedly wrote, "but only an historian can alter the past." Although Bierce was undoubtedly right about historians, he should perhaps have added politicians and their ardent supporters as well.
In recent weeks, some of the presidential candidates and their surrogates have been evoking history more insistently than ever. Not surprisingly, those evocations often have been flimsy and faulty.
On the Republican side, the misuse of history has mostly centered on the presidency of Ronald Reagan; indeed, the GOP contest has at times looked like an "American Idol"-style competition over who can deliver the most convincing imitation of Reagan. At the Fox News debate on Jan. 5, the GOP candidates invoked the former president's name 34 times -- yet, on closer inspection, their evocations have more to do with nostalgia for a happier time for conservatives than with historical accuracy.
The more grievous abuses of history, though, have come from the Democrats, and particularly from the Barack Obama side, including his many avid supporters in the media and the academy. (Perhaps this is a good place to note that I am on record as a supporter of Hillary Clinton.)
Few will disagree that it is very rare for a candidate with as little experience in politics and government as Obama to capture the imagination of so many influential Americans. One way for a candidate like this to minimize his lack of experience is to pluck from the past the names of great presidents who also, supposedly, lacked experience. Early in the campaign, Obama's backers likened him to the supposed neophyte John F. Kennedy. More recently, some have pointed out (as did New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, among others) that Abraham Lincoln served only one "undistinguished" term in the House before he was elected president in 1860.
These comparisons distort the past beyond recognition. By the time he ran for president, JFK had served three terms in the House and twice won election to the Senate, where he was an active member of the Foreign Relations Committee. In total, he had held elective office in Washington for 14 years. Before that, he was, of course, a decorated veteran of World War II, having fought with valor in the South Pacific. Kennedy, the son of a U.S. ambassador to Britain, had closely studied foreign affairs, which led to his first book, "Why England Slept," as well as to a postwar stint in journalism.
This record is not comparable to Obama's eight years in the Illinois Legislature, his work as a community organizer and his single election to the Senate in 2004 -- an election he won against a late entrant, right-wing Republican Alan Keyes, in a state where the GOP was in severe disarray.
The Lincoln comparison is equally tortured. Yes, Lincoln spent only two years in the House after winning election in 1846. Yet his deep involvement in state and national politics began in 1832, the same year he was elected a captain in the Illinois militia -- and 28 years before he ran for president. He then served as leader of the Illinois Whig Party and served his far-from-undistinguished term in Congress courageously leading opposition to the Mexican War.
After returning home, he became one of the leading railroad lawyers in the country, emerged as an outspoken antislavery leader of Illinois' Republican Party -- and then, in 1858, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate and engaged with Stephen A. Douglas in the nation's most important debates over slavery before the Civil War. It behooves the champions of any candidate to think carefully when citing similarities to Lincoln's record. In this case, the comparison is absurd.
But on to the founding fathers. The historian Joseph Ellis, writing in the Los Angeles Times, likened Obama to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, in a hazy way, as an advocate of nonpartisan politics. Yet Ellis had to sidestep what even he admitted is a large, inconvenient fact: Jefferson and Madison were not nonpartisan -- they actually founded what has evolved into the Democratic Party. Through highly selective and misleading quotations, Ellis then described them as nonpartisan at heart, ignoring Madison's recognition, in 1792, that "in every political society, parties are unavoidable," or Jefferson's pledge, as president, to sink the Federalist Party "into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection for it."
Returning to more recent history: The Obama campaign, in asserting a supposedly innovative post-partisan politics, has endorsed a partisan Republican account of the post-Reagan years that is at odds with the facts. Obama has asserted that the GOP has been the "party of ideas" over the last 10 to 15 years -- that is, since 1993 or so. In other words: the old (and long discredited) right-wing bromides repackaged as the "Contract with America" in 1994, the Republican attack on Medicare that led to the government shutdown a year later, the endless recycling of supply-side economics (especially ironic, given the current meltdown), and the other ideological agendas pushed by Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, have made the GOP the party of intellectual daring and innovation.
Historians cannot expect all politicians and their supporters to know as much about American history as, say, John F. Kennedy, who won the Pulitzer Prize for a work of history. But it is reasonable to expect respect for the basic facts -- and not contribute to cheapening the historical currency.
Spreading bad history is no way to make history.