Biden has acquired a group of progressive, tame historians to stoke his dreams and drain our wallets. We explore the vaunted perch of presidential historian in this podcast.
Presidential Historians: The Thirst for Glory
"The historian is an unsuccessful novelist."
H. L. Mencken, American journalist and satirist (1880-1956)
"Historians are themselves the products of history."
Paul Conkin and Roland Stromberg, American historians
"Study the historian before you begin to study the facts."
Edward Hallett Carr, British Historian
There are many types of histories. Our muse, Clio, whispers in many ways. The most common is political or military. Our revered father, Herodotus, wrote about both. A much better historian, Thucydides, did the same. Then we would add in religious history. The reasons were relatively simple. When the ability to write was limited to an elite few, either because of lack of education or because most people needed to engage in endless toil for the first 4,800 years of writing, there were only a few literates around. And the rulers were among them. When Livy wrote his History of Rome, he was careful to link the Julian family, to which Livy's patron Augustus and Julius Caesar belonged, to the legendary Aeneas and the Trojans. For much of the middle-ages in Europe, the monks and nobles could write, and the latter needed to tend to other duties.
But as literacy spread, especially after the invention of the printing press in 1492, so did versions of history. Social history, a more recent vintage of history, is a field that looks at the lived experience of the past. In its "golden age," it was a major growth field in the 1960s and 1970s among scholars and still is well represented in history departments in Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and the United States. For example, in the two decades from 1975 to 1995, the proportion of history professors in American universities identifying with social history rose from 31% to 41%, while the proportion of political historians fell from 40% to 30%. I like to think of social history as how people actually lived.
Given that a tiny percentage of people conquered lands, founded religions, or created political systems, social history gets at the root of the lives of everyone. What did they eat? Where did they sleep? How did they treat disease or grow crops? What were their families like? What was it like to be a woman in 15th century England or one in 9th century Japan?
Even a small subset of history called subaltern studies emanated from colonial possessions, especially India.
This is all well and good, but it is not what often sells. Frequent listeners will begin to sense certain ideological positions within this podcast. Primaries warp democracy. Activists are a carbuncle on the politics of our day, and this one, follow the money.
First, we need to remove political commentary from supposed history. New York Times opinion columnist, Dana Milbank's The Deconstructionists, the 25-year crack-up of the Republican Party, is not history. Keep in mind that the historian, in its purest sense, is a detective, sifting through all the materials and then making conclusions. I am reasonably confident that a progressive left-wing columnist would not sift through the data and come up with a "hey, the GOP is actually in pretty decent shape!" Instead, Milbank started with a narrative (GOP Bad) and then cherry-picked facts to fit the description.
What other books are on the non-fiction history list? We Nimitz at War, The President, and the Freedom Fighter, a book "by" (finger quotes intentional Fox News Host Brian Kilmeade about Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. We also have Diana, William, and Harry, because we cannot get enough of the "royals" (again, finger quotes intentional). Add to this Path lit by Lightning, a story of Jim Thorpe. I think you see the pattern, biographies! Not only are they popular, but they are easy to write. Contrast that with another popular book, and one of my favorites, call The Swerve. Here is the descriptor, "In the winter of 1417, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties plucked an ancient manuscript off a dusty shelf in a remote monastery, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. He was Poggio Bracciolini, the greatest book hunter of the Renaissance. His discovery, Lucretius' ancient poem On the Nature of Things, had been almost entirely lost to history for more than a thousand years. It was a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functions without the aid of gods, that religious fear is damaging to human life, that pleasure and virtue are not opposites but intertwined, and that matter is made up of very small material particles in eternal motion, randomly colliding and swerving in new directions. Its return to circulation changed the course of history. The poem's vision would shape the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein, and—in the hands of Thomas Jefferson—leave its trace on the Declaration of Independence."
Yup, the author, Stephen Greenblatt, not only had to learn all he could about Medieval monasteries, ancient roman poets, and the Italian Renaissance but linked it to a host of other historical figures and their readings. From the seven years 2004 to 2011, when The Swerve was published, Greenblatt published three books.
Bill O'Reilly, before being tossed off Fox News for sexual improprieties, in six years ranging from 2011 – 2017 when he was dismissed from Fox, published SIXTEEN books, mostly semi-biographies, while hosting a nightly broadcast. So either O'Reilly was a superman (uh no), or someone else did the work. To O'Reilly's credit, he notes who did the work. Martin Dugard is right there on the cover. Too bad other political commentaries are not quite so transparent about who is actually doing the writing.
And they are doing most biographies. This is not just the purview of Fox News Hosts. Liberal historians such as HW Brands have made a tidy living doing these. Doris Kearns Goodwin's breakthrough idea was to do a bunch of biographies together in her Team of Rivals, but before that, biographies. They are easy. Instead of having to span vast eras and multiple subjects as Greenblatt has done and then come up with the narrative from the research, the story is already there. They were born, they did some stuff, and then they died. The research is just filling in the blanks.
Do not get me wrong; I love biographies too, and I read them when it is rich characters like Ron Chernow's book on Ulysses S. Grant. But one of the issues with biographies is that often the writer can fall in love with their subject losing their subjectivity. A worse issue is when they personally know or support the person their ostensibly critiquing.
To take this one step further, instead of having to track down all of that nasty primary research, if only there were a library to explore, something which American presidents have. And let's go ONE step further. I will call this the Schlesinger Kearns model after Arthur Schlesinger Junior, whom we will meet later, and Kearns Goodwin. In this model, the historian gains direct access to the presidential subject to get the inside "I saw it with my own eyes" model. Huzzah! As they say on the semi-realistic history self-titled Hulu show about Catherine the Great.
This brings us to a piece by Jack Butler in the National Review this month, 'We are only passing through history," says the villainous archaeologist René Belloq of himself and his rival (and our hero) Indiana Jones near the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. "This," he says, pointing to the Ark of the Covenant, which Jones threatens to blow up unless Belloq releases Marion, Indy's flame, "this is history."
Today, there is a group of historians not content merely to pass through history. Instead, they want to help make it. Toward that end, they have attached themselves to the presidency of Joe Biden, the presidency having become essentially sacralized as an office of near-spiritual significance."
Though this is a bit of a hit piece by Butler on the soft-headedness of Biden's historians, this touches on yet another recurring theme of this podcast. The conversion of the office of president into a more regal creation.
"They have consulted with him and guided him, as recently as this month. And they presumably hope that, with their help, he can become a world-historical figure. But in this endeavor, they have dishonored their profession and even damaged the country.
Even before Biden became president, one of this crew was already leveraging a historian's knowledge of the past in service of a glorious Biden future. Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, formally endorsed Biden in March 2020. "Donald Trump won't be the last American president," he wrote in The Washington Post. "But history — ancient and recent — tells us that, come November, we ought to make Joe Biden the next one." (Convenient!) He then gave a speech for the 2020 Democratic National Convention. He called the upcoming contest "a choice that goes straight to the nature of the soul of America." (Subtle.)
When Biden became president-elect, Meacham was there to affirm for us, through a Biden speech he helped write, that it was now time to "rebuild the soul of America, to rebuild the backbone of this nation, the middle class, and to make America respected around the world again." ("Soul"!), The stage was set for a new era — or so Meacham would have us believe.
And onto this stage, historian Jon Meacham rushed with friends, hoping to act out their predetermined drama. In March 2021, according to Axios, Meacham organized a meeting of fellow historians in which they deliberately inflated President Biden's pretensions. We do not know all that Meacham, Michael Beschloss, Michael Eric Dyson, Joanne Freeman, Eddie Glaude Jr., Annette Gordon-Reed, and Walter Isaacson discussed with Biden. But the excerpts Axios provides give a nice flavor:
Hosting historians around a long table in the East Room earlier this month, President Biden took notes in a black book as they discussed some of his most admired predecessors. Then he said to Doris Kearns Goodwin: "I'm no FDR, but . . ."
Why it matters: He'd like to be. The March 2 session, which the White House kept under wraps, reflects Biden's determination to be one of the most consequential presidents. Biden told this crew that "he knew the gravity of the multiple crises facing America," and, despite knowing "a lot" about FDR, he "peppered Goodwin with questions about the World War II leader." Then, ominously, "they talked a lot about the elasticity of presidential power, and the limits of going bigger and faster than the public might anticipate or stomach.
In a speech regarding voter's rights, Biden put the choice for America in stark terms: ‘History has never been kind to those who have sided with voter suppression over voters' rights. And it will be even less kind for those who side with election subversion. So, I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered? At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?’
A month later, Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals, spoke similarly stark, hyperbolic terms. Noting that one of the last speeches Abraham Lincoln gave before his assassination by John Wilkes Booth — who heard the speech and acted out of fear of its portent — argued for giving freed slaves the right to vote, she then made a direct parallel to today. "And here we are, 150 years later, and there are people in the country now trying to get the idea that voting rights should be pulled back, rather than pushed forward. Allegedly professional interpreters of the past, Biden's court historians have instead contorted and corrupted it in service of their present biases. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends, in their narrative, toward the 2020 Democratic Party platform. We often hear it said that something or other is on the "wrong side of history." Any honest study of the past, with its contingencies and improbabilities, disinclines one to think in such terms though historians do.
Butler concludes, "The allure of living presidents is the possibility of using historians to become part of history yourself. History should humble us, not embolden us. Invoking it should be a scrupulous exercise, not a foray into partisanship. By flattering Joe Biden, misleading him, by striving openly to become part of a history tailored to their own biases, the president's historians haven't just dishonored their profession. They have damaged the country. Thus, a final irony in their conduct: They have made history, all right, but they're likely to be remembered in a bad light. For our and their sakes, they should not set foot near the White House again."
I want to say this historical sycophancy began in the 1960s with Kennedy and "Camelot." But, as we saw earlier, the concept of a historian lauding a person in power goes back, at least to the Romans with Livy. And even before Livy, Marcus Terentius Varro served as a tame historian for Pompey the Great.
As for that descriptor of the Kennedy White House as a fictional British castle and the seat of the King of the Britons, Has there ever been a dumber term for a role that is temporary, an office, and one of three co-equal branches of government? We got rid of monarchies because, in the end, they are stupid. So we again turn to the genius political insight of Monty Python on monarchies in general and on Camelot in particular.
Arthur, King of the Britons, extolls: We are all Britons! And I am your king.
Woman: I didn't know we had a king! I thought we were an autonomous collective.
Man: I *told* you! We're an anarcho-syndicalist commune! We're taking turns to act as a sort of executive-officer-for-the-week--But all the decisions *of* that officer' have to be ratified at a
special bi-weekly meeting…
An aggrieved Arthur, in search of the Holy Grail. does not have time for this and exclaims, BE QUIET! I *order* you to be quiet!
Woman: "Order," eh, 'oo does 'e think 'e is?
Arthur: I am your king!
Woman: Well, I didn't vote for you!
Arthur: You don't vote for kings!
Woman: Well 'ow'd you become king then?
(holy music up)
Arthur: The Lady of the Lake-- her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king!
Man: (laughingly) Listen: Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some... farcical aquatic ceremony!
Arthur: (yelling) BE QUIET! Yells Arthur
Man: You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!! I mean, if I went 'round, saying I was an emperor, just because some
moistened bink had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!
Frankly, a woman throwing the sword at some worthy is about as effective as a governmental system in which the accident of birth provides power over the system of government, and the rest of the people are their "subjects." All we need to do is look at the Windsor family to know how common actual royalty is. The divorces or Harry being led around by the nose by a pretty actress who was not even the star on her cable TV show. And what was Andrew doing on Epstein Island? We do not know, but it could not have been good. And forget these modern day mediocrities. Edward II, Henry VI, Mary I, or James II. I could on.
We do not have kings. We have a temp worker assigned for either one or two four-year terms. I hate it when they call Trump or Obama president today instead of the more accurate former president. It is not a title; it is an office.
Camelot, or the representation of the Kennedy administration, was exemplified by tame Kennedy historian Arthur Schlesinger Junior. Schlesinger's work explored the history of 20th-century American liberalism. In particular, his work focused on, you guessed it, biographies of leaders such as Harry S. Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy. In the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns, he was a primary speechwriter and adviser to the Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson II. Again, historians not as detective but political operative. Schlesinger served as special assistant, and "court historian" was the term used to President Kennedy from 1961 to 1963. He wrote a detailed account of the Kennedy administration, from the 1960 presidential campaign to the president's state funeral, titled A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, which won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. Part of the Kennedy mythology is that he was killed so young. No dumb statements like that of Carter or senility of Reagan, forever young. The second was that Schlesinger dictated the narrative, something Biden hopes for as well.
In 1968, Schlesinger actively supported the presidential campaign of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, which ended with Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles. Schlesinger wrote a popular biography, Robert Kennedy and His Times, several years later. He later popularized the term "imperial presidency" during the Nixon administration in his 1973 book of the same name.
Keep in mind the contrast here with another Ron Chernow biography called Titan about John D Rockefeller Senior. Chernow had no skin in the game. Whether he set out to clear up the calumnies extolled by Ida Tarbell or other muckrakers, Rockefeller comes off as both hero and villain. He did good things and bad things. But what is undeniable is his influence on business history and our national history, and that he was a fascinating subject.
This concept of presidential worship began with Schlesinger's father. A 1948 poll was conducted by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. of Harvard University in which the historian, for the first, but not last, time, ranked the presidents. A 1962 survey was also conducted by Schlesinger, who surveyed 75 historians. Schlesinger's son, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., conducted another poll in 1996. Interestingly, when the son went into presidential histories nearly full time, the Senior Schlesinger was more of a social historian and, in many regards, one of the leaders in the alteration of history as handmaiden to progressive causes and ideology.
Schlesinger Sr. taught at Harvard University, pioneering social history and urban history. He was a Progressive Era intellectual who stressed material causes (such as economic profit and conflict between business people and farmers) and downplayed personal agency as motivation for historical actors. He was a reverse of Horatio Alger, an American author who wrote young adult novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through good works and virtue.
In the progressive canon and Marxist ideology, we are feathers in the wind, victims of our circumstances. In one of his books, the Rise of the City, Schlesinger rejects the rural individualistic pattern of American politics, believing it no longer fits the collectivized nature of urban life. In his view, Cities were not without problems. However, such urban dilemmas as traffic, lighting, waste disposal, pure water, communications, fire protection, policing, and housing, provoked urban dwellers to seek solutions. In place of vanished rural neighborliness, the anonymity of city life gave birth to "a spirit of impersonal social responsibility which devoted itself, with varying earnestness and success," to solving urban problems. Senior was highly influential as a director of Ph.D. dissertations at Harvard for three decades, especially in the fields of social, women's, and immigration history. In this milieu, his son grew up and, not shockingly, embraced liberal presidents though Kennedy was probably the most conservative of the lot. But to achieve the progressive Utopia, one needs power and since progressives mostly seek it in the executive, it is logical that their historians would like to be part.
I noted consistent themes in this podcast, but here is the central one. When those swamp creatures on social media see "Conservative" before the term "historian," they automatically assume that I do what progressive historians do, cherry-pick facts to fit a narrative. That is not the central premise. Instead, I am trying to conserve the core of historical work as that of the detective. The assembly of these pieces from all kinds of sources can be complicated, but the concept is simple. Bring together the known facts and then build a narrative. Not the other way around.
That is the core of the Conservative Historian. Take the New Deal, for example. Because it entailed the extensive expansion of national government, progressive historians laud the programs and its craft master, FDR. But the facts tell a different story. Five years after its inception, from GDP to unemployment to agricultural improvement, it had not brought the country to recovery. That is what the facts tell us.
There is simply no way that a historian, regardless of how clever their wordsmith or how many books they have sold, can properly be an advisor, nee a supporter of any president and simultaneously be a historian in that space. One need not list the facts of the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle, inflation, rising crime, immigration issues, massive deficits, or a regressive tax from student loan transfers and conclude categorically that Biden is successful. Yet, that is what history is showing us.