Monday, March 28, 2005

The jury will be out...

Saw Doris Kearns Goodwin tonight.

Allegations of plagiarism notwithstanding, she is impressive. She is so because she understands that without an understanding of history you cannot understand the present.

She was asked several questions about the current war in Iraq. She indicated (as an historian might) that it will be decades before the true results and ramifications of President Bush's "Crusade for Democracy" are apparent.

Interestingly, she has a son in the 1st Infantry Division who recently rotated out of Iraq. His experience was one of feted liberator turned besieged enforcer that is the great disappointment (or failure) of the Iraq campaign.

The main focus of her talk was the parallels between the presidencies of Lincoln, F.D. Roosevelt and L.B. Johnson. (What was unspoken, but nonetheless palpable, was the parallels between those leaders and the current one.)

Her main thrust - as I understood it - was that while politics was omnipresent in day-to-day activities, there remained a certain core cheerfulness and optimism among those who bore the heaviest of responsibilities. Borne from who knows where, it sustained President Lincoln through the death of his son, FDR through his failing health and LBJ through his crisis of the public's withdrawal of support for the Vietnam War.

Humor was key to all of these people.

In the case of Lincoln, an almost superhuman ability to let go of justly held grievances was one of his keys to holding the Union together. For FDR, when war came, he reached out to the very people his New Deal had alienated - and in so doing, guaranteed that the U.S. brought the full weight of its industrial might to bear on the Axis.

Professor Goodwin lamented that the media has recently seemingly suffered a form of schizophrenia in regard to presidents. E.g. Few people knew that FDR could not walk by himself. It was considered unimportant by the media in 1940. However, the questionable allegations about G.W. Bush's military records got front page attention. On the other hand however, they have quite correctly drawn attention to infringements like the PATRIOT Act.

(Her attitude toward Bill Clinton's indiscretions was: They warranted little in the way of publicity, as they bore little on policy, but he knew the current sensational attitude when he came into office and he literally flouted it. So, he got what he deserved.)

By way of comparison she showed that the current President has shown a stubborn unwillingness to admit mistakes - a very different attitude from that of Lincoln. It would be one thing were criticisms different today. But, if anything, they were worse then. The calumnies piled on the head of President Lincoln make today's editorials seem utterly benign by comparison.

(Personally, I would like to see the President take ownership of some mistakes. It would humanize him and defuse some of the criticism that comes his way.)

At the end, though, each did what he thought was right. To that degree, we will look back and say that our current President was as courageous in his way as Lincoln was in his.

It is odd, yet very true, that historians - those who deal in the past - often have the clearest sense of what is going on NOW. They, more than most of us, understand that what was common theory at a certain time didn't account for other forces at work. So it is today.

History is made by those who are willing to upset the apple cart and demand that current methods give way to new ones. One day we will look back on today and wish we had a leader as decisive as George W. Bush.


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