Sean Wilentz: Obama's misuse of history

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University, is the author of "The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln," among other books.]

'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.
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Tony Faber - 2/10/2008

It's say to see Sean Wilentz take on the role of political hatchet man, but it seems that's what he has become with his ridiculous claim that Obama has a republican partisan view of recent history. The fact is that the Republican party has been the party of ideas since for the past 30 years. Old discredited ideas, terrible ideas, but ideas nonetheless. It is a cliche, but a true one, that the democratic party's milquetoast approach of recent years has allowed Republicans to set the public agenda with these bad ideas.

Neil Garland - 2/7/2008

Someone who has an independent head on thier shouldrs and in not cantaminated by the spiked Obama "kool-aid"!! Another person writes and supports my theory that Obama needs to stay home and read History for a few years first. I got plastered with abuse on the democratic blogs for even voicing an opinion that "King" Obama was not well versed in even basic American history let alone American Presidential history.
Thanks for the great article and I have passed it on to others.

Tim R. Furnish - 2/7/2008

Ms. Brown,
Don't you think it's a bit simplistic to chalk up opposition to HRC as "misogynistic?" Most of the conservatives I know, including my wife (an attorney), dislike Hillary because of her 1) policy proposals and 2) dishonesty. Folks like us would not have any problem voting for a woman with whom we agree (Condy, the late Kirkpatrick, Thatcher....). So please don't play the gender card.

Tim R. Furnish - 2/6/2008

One of the most amusing things about the posts on here is counting how long it takes those of you on the Left to start the ad hominem attacks. As usual, I wasn't disappointed, Mr. Pettit.

chris l pettit - 2/6/2008

Dr. Furnish never has been one for logical or coherent thought...


Larry Cebula - 2/4/2008

Amen, Michael. Wilentz writes something he surely knows not to be true to make a cheap rhetorical point. Bad history indeed.

Tim Matthewson - 2/3/2008

I opposed Johnson's policies in Vietnam.
Johnson died.
I won.
It was communism that collapsed. Communism does not work -- a large scale command economy was a foodhardy invention. I never could compete with the democratic capitalism of the U.S. That's why communism collapsed of it's own weight. The generational change explains the reason why it collapsed when it did -- from internal causes. Had the SU been democratic and capitalist, it never would have collapsed.
Newt was speaker of the house. Newt was fired from his post as speaker. Therefore, Newt was wrong about everyting. I won!

Nancy Brown - 2/2/2008

Obama has an awesome future ahead. But I think his timing is bad for running now, unless he is chosen for VP (which I support.)
He can match or exceed JFK in charisma and oratory. But he falls very short on experience on the national scene.
Hillary wins debates hands-down, and has shown she can shut Bill up when needed. She is the most qualified. I just hope she can overcome the forces of misogyny, which have dogged her for years.

Jack Faust Matlock, Jr. - 2/2/2008

The argument over who has the most experience is fundamentally silly. There are many people on the political scene with more experience than either. If that were the only factor, there would be a huge groundswell to draft Dick Cheney.

It is not experience that counts the most, it is judgment. How one reacts to relevant situations can tell us much about a person's judgment.

If eight years of hanging around the White House and a couple of years as Senatory, with access to classified information, was not enough to suggest to Senator Clinton that the president's request for authorization to use force in Iraq was based on flimsy evidence, then she is severely lacking in judgment. (Senator Graham and others understood that very well.) Barack Obama, with less experience but, it would seem, keener judgment, saw clearly that the reasons given for invading Iraq were phony.

So let's stop cherry picking the historical evidence to argue over who was more experienced than the other. The question is, who is more likely to combine sound judgment with policy goals that are in accord with the nation's needs. And, not least, who with these qualifications is most likely to be able to win.

And, by the way, however you might rate the amount and relevance of Lincoln's experience, it did not really match that of any of his principal competitors. Ultimately, it was not his experience that saved the Union but his integrity, his judgment, and his ability to bring into his cabinet the most varied group of erstwhile political competitors.

Tim R. Furnish - 2/2/2008

Let's see:
Cold War = US v USSR
Post-Cold War: US exists, USSR kaput
I'd say we won.
And only an academic could make the goofy argument that our economic, military and political pressure on the Soviet Union had nothing to do with its demise.
And I missed when Ted Kennedy joined the GOP. When was that?
As for welfare reform: the DNC can claim it all day long, but facts are stubborn things and had Newt and his party not taken it and run with it, it would never have become law.

Michael Kazin - 2/2/2008

Sean Wilentz omits one telling historical detail in his latest attempt to boost Hillary Clinton by denigrating Barack Obama: JFK won the Pulitzer Prize for history for a book that, according to biographer Robert Dallek, was actually the work of a committee that included Theodore Sorensen and Jules Davids. On the other hand, Obama has written every word of his two books.

Michael Kazin

Tim Matthewson - 2/2/2008

The Democratic Leadership Council, long before Gingrich and other Republicans had been a champion of welfare reform, a reform championed by Bill Clinton long before it was taken up by others. Gingrich's only contribution to welfare reform was his heartless and unsuccessful proposal that the children of black unwed mothers should be taken away from them and placed in orphanages where they could be raised by white people who would do a much better job than their parents.

The old bromide about America winning the cold war may play well among Republican, but it is in accurate. The US did not win the Cold War; but instead, communism collapsed from its own causes and internal reasons -- specifically the emergence of a new generation of leaders who had not experienced the WWII and were sick and tired of communism and its inability to provide for the basic necessities of life needed in the SU. This was not a US victory.

Still I am not much inclined to correct the historical analogies or assertions advanced by others. Let the Republicans believe that they have cornered all the best ideas and been the font of history. Such analysis can only lead to administrations such as those of Bush 43, that is, to disasters such as in Iraq. Bad or inaccurate analysis of history can only lead to foolhardy policy proposals such as 43's administration and then to the election of Democrats. Let the Republicans continue to believe that they have the ear of the Divine Being and have God on their side, that they know the mind and will of God. The moral certitude implicit in their dogmatic assertions of about history can only lead to the policy disasters implicit in their inaccurate historical analysis.

Tim R. Furnish - 2/2/2008

Physician, heal thyself. After accusing Obama (largely correctly) of misusing history, Wilentz does the same thing in his shallow and inaccurate disparagement of GOP ideas. Welfare reform, now hailed even by many on the Left as a success, was the brainchild of that evil Newt Gingrich (a Ph.D. in history, I might add), whose GOP House basically forced it upon a reluctant Bill Clinton; Medical Savings Accounts, now a staple of many employer-offered health care plans, was also a GOP idea; and most importantly, the idea that the USSR could actually be defeated in the Cold War, and not simply tolerated (or economonically life-supported) by the US was the idea of one....Ronald Reagan--the man whom even Ted Kennedy said "won the Cold War without firing a shot."
And Wilentz shows his ignorance of economic history, and frankly of economics in general--so typical of a Leftist--by his snide comment that we are in an "economic meltdown." Please. We're not even in a recession.
But what can you expect from a self-professed supporter of Hillary Clinton?

Lisa Kazmier - 2/1/2008

I can't say I can cover the nuances of the Founding Fathers, but candidate Hillary Clinton cannot represent her own voting record (or the recent past) credibly, which to me is worse.

Hence, I've already voted for Obama.