Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN.
The murder of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is an evil act that, on its face, delivers a crushing blow to the forces for democratization and enlightenment in Pakistan – and the world over. Nevertheless, her assassination raises an awful, amoral, terribly unsentimental historical question: do assassinations like this – as shocking and horrific as they are – ever produce unintended positive consequences? This question is not to justify any such crimes. But it is instructive to think about the expected and the unexpected, the predictable and the unpredictable, positive gains that sometimes result from terrible losses.
Assassinations freeze moments – and leaders – in historical time, then frequently place the martyred leader on the national, and even international pantheon of immortals.
Often, naturally, justifiably, we mourn the lost potential, we contemplate all the good the lost leader could have accomplished. We imagine Abraham Lincoln engineering a just post-Civil War Reconstruction that rehabilitated Southerners and welcomed blacks as citizens – in contrast to the hamhanded Andrew Johnson’s failures. We envisage John Kennedy managing the civil rights movement, avoiding the Vietnam War mess, and preventing any serious Sixties youth rebellion, which his successor Lyndon Johnson could not do. And we dream of the kind of warm peace Anwar Sadat would have brought to the Middle East, indulging in the fantasy that he could have moderated other leaders, including the incorrigible Yasir Arafat.
The truth is, as flesh-and-blood politicos become legendary icons they often become more powerful symbols dead than they would have been had they remained alive. John Kennedy was on track to be a rather mediocre president when Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet cut him down. And while Martin Luther King, Jr., had already proved his greatness before being murdered at the tender age of thirty-nine, he died just as the civil rights movement was hitting a particular rocky patch. King’s death in 1968 froze him as the sainted slayer of Southern segregation but insulated him from the ensuing decades’ fights over busing, affirmative action, African-American crime, and how to balance personal prerogative and the need to integrate.
Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in November, 1995, made him an enduring icon of Israel’s hopes for peace – and Israel’s peace camp. He is remembered as a warm fuzzy peacemaker, rather than the gruff, Scotch-drinking warrior he was for much of his life. Who knows if he would have been able to stave off the ensuing Palestinian violence. Who knows how his reactions to that violence might have tainted his now pristine image. In fact, in elevating Rabin to a godlike status as Israel’s martyred mediator, Rabin’s murderer unwittingly gave his opponents a powerful spur for more concessions and more conciliation.
Looking at the heartbreaking images beaming out of Pakistan today, this assassination’s negative consequences are clear. Benzair Bhutto’s death all but guarantees more unrest, euphoria among her violent, Islamist opponents, and a blow to Pakistan’s already fragile democracy. Bhutto’s assassination shows how deeply the culture of violence permeates and distorts so many polities in the Islamic world. Who knows? Perhaps this act of violence will be the wake-up call Pakistanis – and Muslims throughout the world - need to demand a reformation of Islam and expel from their midst the Jihadists and that murderous medieval spirit of Jihadism which is proving so dangerous.</div>
RUDY GIULIANI: a big bust of a terror ring the day before every primary, to resurrect the fears of 9/11 (without any real trauma) – and a marital record like Harry Truman’s (who was devotedly married to Bess, his Sunday-School sweetheart for 53 years).
MITT ROMNEY: the right incantation for exorcising Evangelical Protestants’ anti-Mormon bigotry – and John Kennedy’s skill in handling religious prejudice.
MIKE HUCKABEE: the same good luck charm propelling obscure governors into the White House that Bill Clinton found in the Arkansas governor’s mansion – and that Jimmy Carter found in the Georgia governor’s mansion.
JOHN MCCAIN: the mantle of righteous iconoclasm he wore so effectively back in 2000 – and George Washington’s manual for using military service to win the presidency.
FRED THOMPSON: those adoring summertime headlines, before he actually started running – and a political career that truly is like Ronald Reagan’s.
RON PAUL: a year-long celebration of the Boston Tea Party’s anniversary (he used the anniversary to set the record for internet fundraising) – and James Baker (Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff), who helped moderate the image of a man deemed to be an extremist.
HILLARY CLINTON: her husband’s magic potion for bewitching America’s voters – and Richard Nixon’s 1968 strategy for winning despite being so disliked.
JOHN EDWARDS: his wife’s good health. Nothing else really matters.
BARACK OBAMA: Joe Biden’s, Chris Dodd’s, or Bill Richardson’s resume – and a posthumous endorsement from Theodore Roosevelt, America’s youngest president ever.
JOE BIDEN, CHRIS DODD, and BILL RICHARDSON: a just world in which decades of governmental experience and real gravitas would make you more than just an asterisk in the presidential popularity polls.
DENNIS KUCINICH: extra-gravity shoes to keep earth-bound (even James Baker couldn't help).
AL GORE: Mike Huckabee's diet secrets and the good ole days when conventions deadlocked and dark horses, favorite sons, and party bosses' choices could emerge as last minute nominees.
Apparently, Hillary Clinton is trying to prove her “likability” to Iowans or as she put it on Tuesday,
“to kind of round out who I am as a person.”
This latest strategic shift in the surprisingly herky-jerky Clinton campaign is further proof of an increasingly jittery “juggernaut” as the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses approach. Moreover, this strategy is doomed to fail. If Hillary Clinton is nominated, Democratic voters will be banking on her electability or governing ability not her likability.
In political terms, in the public sphere, “likability” is not the same as niceness or goodness. My guess is that if we could look into the future, scan the heavens, and get a gander at the situation at the Pearly Gates when both Clintons meet their maker, Hillary Clinton would outscore Bill Clinton as a nicer and better person. Over the decades, Hillary Clinton has cultivated a coterie of devoted friends and aides who testify to her niceness; her lifelong devotion to Methodism and perennial search for the virtuous path testifies to her goodness – or at least her ability to outscore Bill Clinton in this realm.
Bill Clinton, by contrast, like so many successful politicians, is extraordinarily selfish, self-involved, temperamental, ruthless, and amoral. He is not particularly nice or good, but he plays a pleasant person convincingly on TV. Bill, however, unlike his wife, is blessed with a magical charisma that – as Dan Rather might have said in one of his mangled frontier metaphors -- could charm the skin right off of a rattlesnake. Clinton is like another great politician of his era, Ronald Reagan. Reagan was known for his affability but he was remarkably aloof. Even Reagan’s devoted wife Nancy said that emotionally he was like a “brick wall” (although Reagan lacked Clinton’s temper, sloppiness, and self-indulgence).
Hillary Clinton has never been that effective in mass producing charm or feel-good moments. In high school, she was known as “Sister Frigidaire.” At Yale Law School, observers trusted Hillary to have done the homework and be the closer at her moot court trial, while her partner and boyfriend Bill was the schmoozer. She was “tough as nails”; he was “Mr. Softee.” Similarly, in the Arkansas governor’s mansion and in the White House, she impressed people with her IQ, he seduced people with his EQ, his emotional intelligence.
During Hillary Clinton’s first few years on the national stage, she proved particularly inept when it came to practicing the black arts of mass seduction. It was not just that her husband’s extraordinary abilities in this realm dwarfed hers. In 1992 and 1993, Hillary Clinton was frequently brittle, heavy-handed, doing far more to perpetuate the stereotype of the humorless feminist than mimicking her husband, the glad-handing good ole’ boy Southern politician. It is remarkable how intensely so many people hate her – even loyal Democrats, even though so much time has passed. It is possible that no politician has alienated so many so thoroughly since Richard Nixon’s heyday.
To her credit, Hillary Clinton has learned – and matured. Having just turned sixty, she is far more settled, sobered and softer than she was as an edgy, anxious forty-five-year-old. Moreover, fifteen years in the maelstrom of national politics and amid the glare of the celebrity culture have taught her how to project that ease onto the national stage. Her tremendous fame helps, generating excitement and brouhaha befitting royalty wherever she goes. Happy to be running her own political career rather than serving her husband’s, she has been more self-assured, resolved, and charming as New York’s Senator than she ever was as First Lady. She appears less remote, impassive, unnaturally-perfect and ruthless. She laughs more frequently and more freely – but still risks falling into the forced cackle that Jon Stewart has mocked (back when the writers weren’t striking and we could enjoy politics a whole lot more by seeing it through his eyes – and through Stephen Colbert’s).
Still, for all her progress, Hillary is surrounded and upstaged by three particular maestros of mass magnetism. Bill Clinton has proven that even at a funeral for Coretta Scott King, he can play the bubbly Bubba while she remains the forbidding schoolmarm. Her rival Barack Obama is also compulsively cuddly, appearing to be every Democrat’s cute younger brother while she seems to be the stiff older sister. And the ever-sunny John Edwards is the smiley-est, seemingly happiest politician since Jimmy Carter’s ultimately deceptive 1976 smile-fest. (Sad but true: gender issues clearly play a role here in shaping public perceptions of both men and women about both men and women on the public stage).
With Democrats like that around, Hillary better do what she has done throughout her career – wow people with her brains, her work ethic, her skills. Meanwhile, she should hope that if she is the Democratic nominee, the Republicans go more with a Bob Dole or Richard Nixon type than with a Ronald Reagan replacement. In fact, Hillary Clinton has much to learn from Richard Nixon, a politician she and her peers so detested. Nixon understood that, at the end of the day, Americans know it is far more important to respect the president than to like him – or her. Hillary Clinton and her people better hope that this remains true, even amid today’s celebrity-sotted culture.
This question gets to a deeper phenomenon, highlighting one of the essential dynamics in a campaign. Theodore White, the great presidential reporter, described campaigns as opportunities for Americans to weigh the past and assess the present in shaping the future. Romantics like to think of campaigns as opportunities for the best man – or woman – to win. But all too frequently, rather than choosing a candidate they like and trust, voters end up settling on who they perceive to be the lesser of two evils.
Similarly, while parties like to think that they are presenting their best and most noble faces to the electorate, frequently campaigns are about containing a party’s least attractive and extreme elements. Since 1972, Democratic candidates, especially the successful nominees, have been running away from the spectre of George McGovern’s losing “acid, amnesty and abortion” campaign. Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and even Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry worked hard to distance themselves from the charge that they rejected traditional mainstream American values. At the same time, since 1964, Republican candidates have been haunted by the ghosts of Barry Goldwater’s failing “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” campaign. In other words, to win, Democrats have to prove they are neither libertines nor wimps; Republicans have to prove they are neither totalitarians nor racists.
Two of the most successful modern politicians, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, were particularly attuned to their respective party’s baggage. Bill Clinton’s “values talk” and “Sister Souljah” moment denouncing a Rap singer as a racist, were attempts to prove that he was a New Democrat, rooted in old traditions and strong enough to stand up to the party’s special interest groups – and by analogy America’s enemies. Ronald Reagan’s Goldwaterism with a smile bled the toxins from the conservatives’ image as cranky control freaks. Reagan understood that he needed to reach out to African-Americans and other liberal constituencies that would never support him, not so much to win their votes, as to reassure moderates of his own centrism and reasonableness.
Especially after all the Culture Wars of the last few years, Republicans have to disprove Kevin Phillips’ overheated but best-selling charge that George W. Bush has brought about an “American Theocracy.” As Republicans reach out to the religious right, they need to reassure the less religious – or less militantly religious – center. When Democrats like Obama and Clinton profess their faith, however, few worry that they will create an American Theocracy, but many are reassured that a Democratic victory will not vanquish what’s left of the traditional American consensus. So, yes, Theodore White was partially right. On Election Day, Americans do weigh their hopes and dreams; but they also seek to manage their fears and nightmares, from the left and the right.
The New York Times today reports on a journalistic brouhaha regarding a front-page Washington Post article from November 29, 2007, entitled: “Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him.” Claiming that the Post piece spread and legitimated the false rumors, the Columbia Journalism Review called the Post article “the single worst campaign ‘08 piece to appear in any American newspaper so far this election cycle.” But the criticism of the original article strikes me as unreasonable – and the Times article itself shows that the Washington Post article was fair and within acceptable boundaries.
The major objections to the article pivoted on the classic problem that simply refuting rumors perpetuates them, immortalized in the old Borscht Belt routine that “no, your honor, I did not beat my wife.” As I read the article, the meaning of the word “rumors” – placed in the headline and repeated in the text -- makes it clear that this article is about false allegations the campaign is having difficulty shaking. Moreover, Senator Barack Obama’s membership in the “United Church of Christ in Chicago,” is mentioned in the second paragraph, and the reporter then writes (in an unacceptably long sentence, that DID need editing): “Despite his denials, rumors and e-mails circulating on the Internet continue to allege that Obama (D-Ill.) is a Muslim, a"Muslim plant" in a conspiracy against America, and that, if elected president, he would take the oath of office using a Koran, rather than a Bible, as did Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the only Muslim in Congress, when he was sworn in earlier this year.”
The argument about the article intensified – and attracted the New York Times’ attention – when a 53-year-old Boston University journalism professor, Chris Daly, attacked the Washington Post’s editors for assigning an important “Page 1 presidential campaign piece” to a 27-year-old, Perry Bacon, Jr. The Times article appeared in the business section under the headline: “At Web Site for Journalists, Criticism of a Campaign Article Becomes a Melee.” The bulk of the article focused on the media big wigs who slugged it out over Daly’s personal attack on Bacon’s age.
In other words, the New York Times reported on the fallout of the article, rather than assessing the article itself or the rumors themselves. In fact, while the Times-on-line provided links to pages with the Washington Post Company’s stock information, and Senator Obama’s biographical sketch, it failed to provide links to the original Washington Post article or any of the blog posts criticizing the article. This abundance of irrelevant information gives a modern illusion of interactivity with very little enlightenment resulting.
Presidential campaigns are about controversies, rumors, perceptions. One crucial test of a campaign is its skill in deflecting the inevitable attacks on character that arise. In 1828, Andrew Jackson was convinced that allegations – which had some legitimacy -- that his wife Rachel had married him before divorcing her first husband led to her premature death. Jackson’s supporters countercharged with the false claims that John Quincy Adams pimped for the Czar. More recently, in 1992 Bill Clinton showed great virtuosity in treating fact-based allegations questioning his virtue as merely vicious rumors while George W. Bush spent a lot of time in 2000 artfully dodging questions about whether or not he used drugs before he found God.
I, too, have heard many people darkly whispering about Obama’s quite marginal Muslim past. Having read his autobiography I know that he went to a public school in Indonesia and has been an active member of his Christian church for years. I have corrected the rumor-mongers but have wondered what kind of impact these rumors are having on Obama’s candidacy. The Washington Post piece showed how widespread the phenomenon was, trusting readers to understand the meaning of such basic words as “rumors” and “denials.”
The Washington Post was justified in printing the story. And while the New York Times story was lots of fun to read for its gossip value, as a loyal Times reader who depends on the self-appointed “newspaper of record” to keep me and others informed, I wondered why it took two weeks for me to hear about this controversy, and why the Times has not explored the more serious question about what kind of an impact these false rumors against this good Christian have had. At the same time, I am also waiting for an article explaining why when Democrats profess their Christian faith, they are expressing their freedom of religion, and when Republicans profess their Christian faith, they are threatening our freedom to be as religious or secular as we wish…
You don’t need a Ph.D. in American history to realize that freedom OF religion does not just mandate a government with freedom FROM established religion but also fosters freedom FOR religions. Roger Williams and his fellow Puritan fanatics certainly understood the dangers of mixing church and state – and wanted to protect their church from any state meddling. These seeds of freedom scattered throughout America’s land mass have resulted in one of America’s glories – the flourishing of all kinds of ideologies as well as the flowering of individuals with diverse worldviews.
Alas, amid the lush fields of freedom-nourished thoughts, poisonous bigotry has also festered. A definitive religious history of the United States and a definitive intellectual history would also require a definitive history of American intolerance, theologically and intellectually. True, European intolerance, let alone Asian, African, and South American intolerance, has often been more virulent, systematic, brutal, and lethal. Still, Americans need to stand guard, making sure that the noxious fumes of bigotry do not pollute our free, diverse atmosphere.
So far, Mike Huckabee is not only failing to be suitably vigilant on this score, he risks poisoning the 2008 campaign by stirring the already too-powerful undercurrents of anti-Mormonism shaping the Republican debate. Huckabee was already playing with fire with his heavy-handed appeal as a “Christian Leader” – a term used to describe him in his television commercials until just days ago. All of a sudden, he’s a “Proven Leader.” But Huckabee crossed the line in his already-infamous New York Times Magazine interview to be published this Sunday. Huckabee asked the reporter Zev Chafets during an interview: ‘‘Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?’’
Huckabee’s morning-TV show apology – and private apology to Mitt Romney – are not sufficient. Huckabee has to make it clear that he is not running for America’s pastor in chief – and that he understands the distinction between his roles as preacher and political leader. Moreover, those Mormons who in Utah and environs tend to blur church and state may now understand why distant from the state protects the church, by creating barriers against bigotry and irrelevant religious tests. Defenses of freedom of religion should not only be coming from Romney and his camp. Huckabee’s provincial and small-minded appeals should trigger a wave of disgust and denunciations.
And as we exorcise these demons from our midst, let us also pat ourselves on the collective backs. Less than half a century ago, John Kennedy’s Catholicism played a major role in his candidacy. Today, the fact that Rudy Giuliani, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Bill Richardson are Catholic is not just irrelevant it is barely noticed by most voters and commentators. Let us not forget that if politicians had to be pious to be elected president, none of the great leaders whose faces are carved into Mount Rushmore would have even made it into office.
Mitt Romney's speech in Texas about religion and politics resurrected the ghost of John Kennedy, and his historic appearance in Houston during the 1960 campaign. But few have mentioned that Kennedy was following in the footsteps of Governor Alfred E. Smith. Smith was a Catholic who confronted the religious prejudices of his day when vying for the presidency during the 1928 campaign.
In the April 1927 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, a prominent lawyer named Charles Marshall wrote an open letter to Governor Smith, doubting a good Catholic's ability to serve the American people independently and honorably as president.
Al Smith, who loved to speak in the"dese, dem, dose," argot of New York's Bowery, but was an intelligent, and surprisingly refined individual, responded in the May issue. Smith's response was unequivocal and memorable, saying:"I should be a poor American and a poor Catholic alike if I injected religious discussion into a political campaign." Addressing Marshall"not as a candidate for any public office but as an American citizen, honored with high elective office, meeting a challenge to his patriotism and his intellectual integrity," Smith insisted there was no conflict between being a good Catholic and a good American.
John Kennedy was less hobbled by the religion issue than Al Smith was, because for all Smith's eloquence and alleged refinement, his political persona struck so many Americans as foreign. Governor Smith was too brassy, too Bowery, too much the immigrant New Yorker for many. Proving that Culture Wars in America are not new, the great American journalist William Allen White thundered:"The whole Puritan civilization which has built a sturdy, orderly nation is threatened by Smith." The evangelist Bill Sunday denounced Smith's male supporters as"damnable whiskey politicians, bootleggers, crooks, pimps, and businessmen," and his female supporters as"streetwalkers."
Like Kennedy, Mitt Romney comes across as all-American rather than as foreign or fanatic. If anything, whereas Al Smith oozed authenticity, Romney like Kennedy before him occasionally appears a bit too artificial, too programmed. Romney's campaign should rise or fall on half a dozen other factors than his Mormonism. Romney's courage and eloquence - like Kennedy's and Smith's - on this issue was admirable and a welcome contribution to the continuing American debate about religion and state, and the continuing American quest for a campaign and a country free of bigotry.
The Margarine Republicans include: Rudy Giuliani, whose positions on abortion and gay rights are far to the party’s left; Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism, unfortunately, makes him suspect in the eyes of too many evangelicals, and who also took unconventional stands as governor of what is sometimes called “The People’s Republic of Massachusetts”; and John McCain, who built a national reputation on his iconoclasm. Fred Thompson’s pre-September surge and Mike Huckabee’s recent popularity reflect Republicans’ search for a candidate they perceive as more authentic.
This question of party suitability and loyalty is an old one. Before the Civil War, a “doughface” was someone who twisted his words on the slavery issue depending on whether he was facing north or south. In 1896, the New York Democratic Party boss David Hill expressed his discomfort with the nominee William Jennings Bryan by saying “I am a Democrat still, very still.”
The contrasting stances of the candidates vis a vis their parties reflect the parties’ relative strengths going into the campaign. The Democrats are feeling confident while Republicans are reeling from the 2006 midterm election losses and from George W. Bush’s continuing unpopularity. Even as the candidates insist on their support of Bush and the broader Reagan Revolution agenda, most try to avoid cozying up too close to Bush. Many fear that the Republicans are out of synch with the nation on many social questions.
Predictions at this stage are poppycock. But while Republicans have to worry about the weaknesses all this iconoclasm reveals, it could redound to their benefit. Despite what Karl Rove and Matthew Dowd preached in 2004, elections are won in the center. Given the backlash against George W. Bush’s partisanship, a Margarine Republican may be the best chance Republicans have to continue dining in the White House Mess with the presidential seal carved into the very real and very rich butter balls.
Recently, more than 70 historians proclaimed their support for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy under the banner headline: Historians for Obama. It triggered the predictable response: both A Historian Against Obama, then Academics for Ron Paul. Let’s put aside the question of whether it should be “a historian” or “an historian.” Although I have tremendous respect for many of the historians who signed the endorsement letter, I do not think that historians as a group should endorse candidates. Uniting on the basis of our professional expertise implies that somehow through applying the rigorous skills of our discipline it is obvious who should be the next president.
I am no shrinking violet and have taken many stands on public issues in newspapers. However, I try to keep my political activism out of the classroom – and out of my historical monographs. Taking a strong stand as an historian, with other historians, would breach the already admittedly shaky and permeable wall I’ve built between my scholarship and my activism.
I think there is great merit in trying to keep the mantle of objectivity as both a teacher and a scholar – if not as a citizen. To help stimulate what I think is a necessary and long overdue discussion about this question – on different terms than is usually debated – let’s think about journalists. Let’s start by admitting (without probing deeply “why” for now) most academics’ (unfairly) condescending attitudes toward reporters. If they are the ones who, as the cliché goes, write history’s first draft, we are the ones who supposedly write the more authoritative, objective version.
And yet, academics, especially these days, feel empowered to be political inside and outside the classroom – often with few internal or external constraints – while our most respected journalists follow careful “conflict of interest” guidelines. In 1989, when reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post participated in a pro-choice march, editors at both papers criticized them. More recently, when one of those reporters, Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times, who covers the Supreme Court, gave a partisan speech at Harvard University it triggered another controversy.
The NPR story covering that speech quoted the first public editor – or in-house journalism critic – of the New York Times, Daniel Okrent, who reportedly was amazed by Greenhouse’s speech, saying: “It's been a basic tenet of journalism ... that the reporter's ideology [has] to be suppressed and submerged, so the reader has absolute confidence that what he or she is reading is not colored by previous views.” Don’t our students – and readers -- deserve what newspaper readers deserve? Isn’t there value in trying to control ourselves, and not turn our professorial podiums into political platforms? At what point does blurring the line between scholarship and advocacy risk becoming educational and professional malpractice?
I pose these as questions because I acknowledge my own inconsistencies here. I remember as an undergraduate how exciting it was to hear Professor Archibald Cox lecture about Supreme Court cases he argued originally as Solicitor General or watching professors work on campaigns, advise presidents, or take public stands. But I also respected professors who kept their opinions to themselves, and kept their partisan politics out of their professional scholarship.
I am not critical of individual historians who plunge into the public arena – I struggle with the question of how intellectuals stay relevant and make a broader contribution. But I draw the line on these kinds of group statements in speculative political matters – just as I try to draw a line between my identity as an op-ed writer my students might read in the morning and as their professor whose hopefully far less political and polemical lecture they will attend in the afternoon.
HNN Hot Topics: Historians and the 2008 Election
Cramer may have influenced Halperin. Still, Halperin reflects an all too typical, Clintonesque narcissism in conflating autobiography with history. The granddaddy of all “horse-race” reporters was Theodore H. White. White’s The Making of the President 1960 offered insider’s coverage of the battle between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. It is the most important book that shaped political coverage over the last half-century – and its influence was reinforced by White’s succeeding volumes covering 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976. By the time Cramer came along, reporters were already addicted to character studies, minor biographical details that could be magnified, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, insignificant gaffes that could be made into scandals, perpetual polls, and, most annoying of all, the tendency to try reporting what happened before it actually occurred.
Theodore White always provided deep historical perspective and incisive social commentary while producing masterpieces of reportage. Were he alive today, what he spawned probably would appall him, even though he would acknowledge the great skill of Cramer, Halperin and many of the reporters who perpetuate today’s many journalistic sins on the campaign trail. White would be particularly dismayed by the short historical memory Halperin and so many of his peers display.
The first voting in caucuses and primaries is a month away. We historians have an important role to play as America votes. The point is not to pretend that historians have a clearer crystal ball than reporters, or voters themselves. Rather, we can help offer context, comparisons, points of reference. This blog will try to help us look forward by looking backward, seeing how they ran in the past as a way of better understanding why they run as they do today – and what we can learn about this fascinating, frustrating, democratic marathon that has been going on for months already – but now is going to start making history.