U.S. Intellectual History Blog

influence of history on "real life"

Just last week, a student in my class wrote a paper arguing that he could “gain little” from reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and that he “would prefer to use [his] time to further [his] understanding in more pressing matters.” Viewed more broadly, this complaint is often lodged against history itself: many view the discipline, by definition concerned only with the past, as being of little relevance to contemporary concerns. Such an interpretation should hardly be surprising in an age in which the History Channel focuses with unholy fascination on the military hardware of World War II, and the most public faces of history are Renaissance Faires and Civil War re-enactments.

In response to this criticism, historians too often rely on some version of Santayana’s quip that “[t]hose who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Students and others who hear this idea are, in my view, justifiably skeptical of it: not too many of us will ever have to consider whether to attack Russia with winter coming on. The more powerful justification of history, though, is a bit more subtle, and consequently harder to get across. This is that the present is comprehensible only in light of the past, and that history consists of much more than the amassing of fact-sized chunks of information. Though such gathering is an important part of history, the facts it reveals are of little historical value until they are placed into some interpretive frame. To the extent that these interpretations are successful, they inevitably color our vision of how we see our own lives in the present. 

In that light I have been struck by how frequently president-elect Barack Obama’s decision-making process in assembling his incoming cabinet has been characterized in terms of the selection of a “team of rivals.” Obama owes this concept to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning study of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. In May, before even securing the Democratic nomination, Obama himself cited “a wonderful book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin called Team of Rivals, in which [she] talked about [how] Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet because whatever, you know, personal feelings there were, the issue was, ‘How can we get this country through this time of crisis?'” The then-candidate even mentioned at that time the possibility of naming John McCain to be the Secretary of Homeland Security.

As cabinet speculation heats up, references to the book are everywhere. Friday evening on MSNBC, I watched David Gregory discuss the book as an framework within which to understand the Obama cabinet, only to switch the channels to find Goodwin herself on CNN. Maureen Dowd, in her New York Times column this morning, argued that selecting Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State would demonstrate that Obama will be a “president who’s willing to open up his universe to other smart, strong people…a big dog who shares his food dish.” Its title: “Team of Frenemies.” Jacob Heilbrunn recently wrote a Huffington Post piece called “Team of Rivals,” and the Associated Press reported this morning that “both Obama and New York Sen. Clinton share a reverence for Team of Rivals.” Other examples abound.

Regardless of whether Obama chooses Clinton, or even McCain, to serve in his Cabinet, it is apparent that Goodwin’s book has not only significantly influenced Obama’s thinking about how he wants to run his administration, but also defined a prominent lens through which the press–and consequently the public–will interpret and understand his presidency. Obviously Lincoln deserves much of the credit for inspiring the president-elect, but Goodwin’s contributions as an historian should not be overlooked. The facts regarding the members of Lincoln’s cabinet have long been known, but probably would have made little impact in 2008 without Goodwin’s book. It took a talented historian to, in the phrase of Studs Terkel, “make them sing.” Goodwin, in choosing to write a book on this particular topic, constructing a framework that highlights certain aspects of Lincoln’s decision-making over others, and presenting that interpretation to the public in a compelling fashion, has done us all a great service by showing just how relevant history, and historians, can be.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. What an amazing world it would be if historians had some influence on American politics. It should motivate us that much more to find significance for our work.

    Thank you too for discussing the reason for studying history. I latched on to Santayana’s quote in undergrad, but have found it increasingly unsatisfactory over the course of grad school.

    In addition to the reasons you mention, it is also unhelpful because of how partisan it can become. What lessons exactly do we learn? That any despot is a potential Hitler who we need to confront immediately with large military invasion (WWII)? Or that war is most particularly a failure of diplomacy (WWI)?

    It is so much more helpful to study these wars (just for example) as a necessary means to understand current political discourse around going to war. Suddenly, the fear stimulated around Hussein makes more sense.

  2. Over the weekened I reread Robert Kennedy’s succinct recounting the Cuban Missile Crisis, Thirteen Days (1968, written late in 1967). I’ve been reading a lot of long books recently and wanted something quick, dirty, and relevant to add to my “Books Read” list for the year (yes, I’m anal and productive like that). I’m in the middle of a close rereading of Lawrence Cremin’s 684-page monstrosity, American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, and needed a break!

    Anyway, I’ve heard the Thirteen Days story many times, most recently (and frequently) via viewings of Fog of War in my post-CW U.S. History courses. But in RFK’s retelling I was struck by his (and JFK’s) references to Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August. That book’s recounting of the confusion, ignorance, and poor-decision making that led to WWI had profound influence on both Kennedys as they sat in meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    Like Harry S Truman before him, JFK, according to his brother, didn’t just read history, he learned the lessons it has to offer. History had important implications to them FOR THE PRESENT. And that’s what we historians, in my opinion, must always do to keep our profession relevant: remind readers and students that our work helps others to understand how we got to today. Of course all caveats do apply (drug-company fast-reading follows): the present is unique, historical events parallel the present imperfectly, circumstances change, the players are different/unique, etc.

    But history, if used cautiously—as with RFK and JFK—does apply. It is useful not just in a Santayana-esque way. I’m sure that the Kennedys didn’t see WWI as a one-for-one with with the Cuban Missile Crisis. – TL

  3. Andrew brought my attention to a similar debunking of Goodwin’s book by Matthew Pinsker in the LA Times. I’m not sure if Lauren was asking for my response or Tim’s, but I would reply that whether the book is any good is irrelevant to my initial point. I haven’t even read it! But its influence on Obama’s decision-making, as well as the way in which many are interpreting his thought processes, is, in my view, undeniable. Regardless of the merits of that particular book, it’s a pretty good case study in the influence of the history profession. Of course, if its conclusions are incorrect, it’s still a good case study, but in a more negative way.

    Speaking of books I haven’t read, Tim’s post brought the mention of Thirteen Days into my life for the second time in a week. On the basis of those recommendations, I went ahead and ordered it for next semester’s post-Reconstruction survey.

  4. So here is my question–If this is a shallow use of history (as some have suggested. I particularly remember the Bloggingheads Video on NY Times), is it better than Santayana’s aphorism? I haven’t read the book and I haven’t seen any clear justification for his cabinet choices on his website. Could someone who knows more tell me whether he is using a complicated idea learned from history? Or a simple equation (like Hitler = any dictator or a team of any rivals = Lincoln’s success)?

  5. Lincoln was balancing regional interests in a new party whose nomination he won at the convention as everyone’s second choice. The presidency did not operate in 1861 as it does today, Lincoln’s prior whiggery, as David Donald suggests, influenced his thinking about executive power greatly going into the job. For instance, he was willing initially to use his cabinet as a sort of sounding board debating group for policy issues, but this became frustrating to everyone over time (to Lincoln because he became increasingly confident about what he wanted to do over time, to various cabinet members because Lincoln would decide what he wanted to do anyway despite their persuasive fulminations). His selection of Seward at State was initially a disaster because Seward thought seriously that he could rule the government through the cabinet and engaged early on in his own secret diplomacy. Cameron of Pennsylvania, a rival from Chicago, was an inept and corrupt secretary of war while Chase never gave up his ulterior ambitions while at the Treasury department. Lincoln had to work with these people to maintain fragile party harmony in the midst of secession and Civil War. Obama has no such party or existential crises to deal with, and thus the comparison (which Obama seems to be drawing between his situation and Lincoln’s) is, at best, ridiculous.

  6. Dear Alexander,

    Of course the presidency doesn’t operate in 2008 as it did in 1861. And of course Obama’s situation is not the same as Lincoln’s.

    But we’re trying to analyze ~which~ lessons ~might~ apply forward. In thinking about these, it is clear that the term “rival” might not operate the same for Obama as it did for Lincoln—that the term has to be used with caution. Lincoln’s rivals appear to have been more intense (i.e. Seward). And it doesn’t seem, as of today, that the “rivals” being considered for Obama’s cabinet are corrupt in the way that Cameron was.

    Also, since the crisis at hand is economic, any concern about rivals should have an eye on that issue. It doesn’t appear to me that Clinton ever had an articulated plan for it, or at least not one made public after she wasn’t the nominee.

    – TL

  7. I overheard two people on the plane discussing _Team of Rivals_. It didn’t sound like they were historians, but rather picking it up because of Obama’s influence. One said that it was a hard read, but fascinating and worth it.

    Not only might this indicate a way historians have influence on politicians, but also a way more academic type books *could* work their way into popular discourse. Of course, it usually seems like books about presidents have more ability to work their way into discourse than most of our more obscure topics.

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