When George W. Bush was getting ready to sell the invasion of Iraq to the American people, he turned to History. It was 2002, and the cable channel was prerecording an interview with the president, scheduled to air after the death of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, which seemed imminent at the time.
As Michael Isikoff and David Corn recount in their 2006 book, Hubris, Bush prepared for the segment by rummaging through history, trying to find any analogy he could use as a justification for his desired war. In the margins of a pre-interview brief with potential questions about Reagan, Bush wrote words like “moral clarity” and “faith.” Beside a reference to the 1983 suicide bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, he scribbled: “There will be casualties.”
When the interview came, Bush pulled out a then-favorite conservative historical chestnut:
Reagan “didn’t say, ‘Well, Mr. Gorbachev, would you take the top three bricks off the wall?’ ” Bush told [interviewer] Frank Sesno. “He said, tear it all down. . . . And the truth of the matter is, I spoke about the Axis of Evil, and I did it for a reason. I wanted the world to know exactly where the United States stood.”
Reagan’s hard line had been a success, Bush said to Sesno. Not only the top three bricks but the whole damn Berlin Wall had come tumbling down. Now Bush had the chance to do something similar.
This is how the American right used to (and perhaps still does) think about history: a chronicle of Great Moments and Great Men, chock full of still-operational examples — a collection of unexpired warrants waiting to justify their immediate goals. In The Conscience of a Conservative, the 1960 manifesto ghostwritten by L. Brent Bozell, Jr., and published under Barry Goldwater’s name, the movement’s founding fathers instructed: “The Conservative does not claim special powers of perception … but he does claim a familiarity with the accumulated wisdom and experience of history, and he is not too proud to learn from the great minds of the past.”
These days you’re more likely to hear the opposite sentiment. Take Bret Stephens’ column this week in the New York Times. Lamenting what he sees as the “collapse” of “History” (the capital H is his), Stephens lectures: “The proper role of the historian is to complexify, not simplify; to show us historical figures in the context of their time, not reduce them to figurines that can be weaponized in our contemporary debates. Above all, historians should make us understand the ways in which the past was distinct.”
What has changed between the Goldwater and Bush years and today should be obvious. When Bozell and Bush talked about history, they were thinking of a body of reactionary texts, edited to bolster narratives in which people who looked and sounded like them were the protagonists; “the history of a nation that grew through the initiative and ambition of uncommon men,” as Bozell put it. One might call this an “identity politics,” one in which there was little room for outliers or revisionist works like W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America or William Appleman Williams’ The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. (Bozell also knew all about the extensive efforts to ensure that the bulk of university faculty would toe the party line in his day: Before going to work for Goldwater he had been a speechwriter for Sen. Joseph McCarthy.)
Today, the faces of both the academy and popular history are very different than they were back then. Women and nonwhite people have entered the scholarly ranks in droves, helping create new methodologies and re-introducing old and historically excluded perspectives. (Stephens’ insistence on the supposed absolving power of the “context of their time,” as applied to the founders of the United States, for instance, requires ignoring the perspectives of displaced Native Americans and enslaved people, among others, not to mention prominent thinkers of the day like Samuel Johnson, who famously wrote in 1775, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”)