by Kevin | 1/26/2008 08:23:00 AM
[Cross-Posted at Civil War Memory]

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has a thought-provoking Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times in which he criticizes the Obama team for making comparisons between Obama's lack of experience with both Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Wilentz is one of many notable historians who over the past few weeks have publicly declared their support for one of the presidential candidates - in his case the choice is Hillary Clinton.

Few will disagree that it is very rare for a candidate with as little experience in politics and government as Obama to capture the imagination of so many influential Americans. One way for a candidate like this to minimize his lack of experience is to pluck from the past the names of great presidents who also, supposedly, lacked experience. Early in the campaign, Obama's backers likened him to the supposed neophyte John F. Kennedy. More recently, some have pointed out (as did New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, among others) that Abraham Lincoln served only one "undistinguished" term in the House before he was elected president in 1860.

Wilentz notes that Kennedy had extensive experience owing to his three terms in the House and two in the Senate and the extensive committee work that comes along with 14 years in the legislature. In the case of Lincoln, Wilentz suggests that while it is true that he only served two years in Washington he had extensive experience on the state level and within both the Whig and Republican parties before winning the presidency in 1860. There is no doubt that even a slightly broader perspective on the past beyond the narrow comparative claims made by the Obama team give us a more complicated picture of the public careers that led both Lincoln and Kennedy to the White House.

That said, is the Obama team's referencing of Kennedy and Lincoln (as well as the Reagan years) really to be characterized as "absurd"? In fact, couldn't one argue that Wilentz himself is necessarily engaged in the same "misuse of history" that he directs at the Obama team as a result of his public statement of support for Clinton? Wilentz is treading on slippery ground here depending on how he wishes to be identified by his readers. In my own case I find it close to impossible to identify Wilentz as a historian rather than as a Clinton partisan. Wilentz's criticisms must be understood as a reflection of his support for Clinton rather than as a commentary on how to properly interpret the past. In other words, there is no fact of the matter in these comparative claims or to put it another way, Wilentz is far from carving the past at its joints. For example, while Wilentz emphasizes Lincoln's earliest years in the state legislature of Illinois, including his election as captain of the local militia (which Lincoln himself downplays) as relevant he says nothing as to why or how it should be considered. It begs the question of what we even mean when we talk about relevant experience. In the end it is much too easy to imagine Wilentz agreeing with the comparative claim if he happened to be an Obama supporter.I've commented on the recent public declarations of support for the various presidential candidates by historians. I don't have a serious problem with such declarations; however, if you choose to enter the public debate please don't ask me to interpret your words as those of a historian rather than as just another political hack.

Historians cannot expect all politicians and their supporters to know as much about American history as, say, John F. Kennedy, who won the Pulitzer Prize for a work of history. But it is reasonable to expect respect for the basic facts -- and not contribute to cheapening the historical currency.

What basic facts is Wilentz referring to? The misuse and abuse of history is the bread and butter of politics. If the Obama team wants to praise Reagan or compare their candidate's history with Lincoln and Kennedy than so be it. There is no fact of the matter here. Wilentz would have us believe that his support for Clinton plays no role in the way he interprets the comparative claims made by the Obama camp. I find that to be a "cheapening" of Wilentz's "historical currency."



Links to this post:

Create a Link


Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/26/2008 1:25 PM:

Kevin, thanks for this post, much of which I agree with. But I have to say, as one of those who entered the "Historians for X" debates (though I support none of the current crop of candidates), how exactly is our background as historians irrelevant to our political-historical arguments in a campaign season? As I argued in The Value of Informed Opinion, our very knowledge and background makes our own biases and political preferences better-informed, or at least more useful, than those of laypeople:

For historians, at least, the "classroom" is not merely our students at the academy but the public at large -- the people who look at the world with confused and downcast eyes, who open a newspaper looking for enlightenment and find, all too often, only more muddled emptiness. Certainly it is our professional duty to provide them through our scholarly work with the most accurate, unbiased, and incisive historical knowledge available; but I think it is also our duty to offer for their benefit our informed opinion on the world around us, on editorial pages and television news and in the public square, without fear of seeming "impartial." As historians, with our bird's-eye view of decades and centuries and millennia, we have literally "seen it all," or at least seen more of "it" than the average person. We owe it to the public whom we serve to offer up our informed opinions as lights in the darkness of uncertainty.

I don't agree with Wilentz, but why do his historical bona fides disappear just because he's supporting Hillary Clinton? That decision, just like most others in his life, came out of his knowledge and learning as a historian. In many ways, he does have a more informed opinion than the rest of us on these issues, and his bias isn't an argument against that, it's informed by the same knowledge base that informs his article.


Blogger Kevin M. Levin on 1/26/2008 2:09 PM:

Hi Jeremy, -- I am not suggesting that Wilentz's background is irrelevant just that it in this case his historical bona fides fail to add anything relevant in terms of evaluating the comparative claims made by the Obama camp. My central point is that Wilentz's public statement of support for Hillary makes it difficult to understand his argument as purely historical rather than political. On what grounds is Wilentz's opinion "more informed"? I fail to see it as anything other than a reflection of his support for Clinton.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/26/2008 3:13 PM:

Kevin, you make a good argument for that case, which was the portion of your essay that I agreed with. My only objection was that you seemed to be suggesting Wilentz has forfeited the right to use his historical knowledge on American politics because of his support for Clinton. However, it seems I misread your argument there, and if so I apologize.


Blogger Kevin M. Levin on 1/26/2008 3:38 PM:

Jeremy, -- I guess I am just having difficulty picking out where that "historical knowledge on American politics" is located.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/26/2008 3:49 PM:

Fair point. Wilentz has been getting on my nerves lately too.


Blogger Joe Gabriel on 1/26/2008 8:09 PM:

Hi Kevin,

I'm curious as to why you think politics and historical knowledge can be separated out from one another to begin with. If we take seriously the critique of epistemology leveled by.. well, the list is pretty long, but we can start with Richard Rorty... then it doesn't strike me as particularly persuasive to critique Wilentz for blending his history and his politics. When you really get down to it, aren't all historians political hacks of one sort or another, and vice versa?


Blogger Kevin M. Levin on 1/26/2008 9:21 PM:

Hi Joe, -- Thanks for the comment. I'm not sure we have to worry about questions of epistemology in this case. We could analyze Rorty, Putnam, and others but that won't tell us anything about how to analyze what Wilentz wants us to believe is a purely historical claim. I don't believe in the "noble dream" objectivity, but that does not necessarily rule out the steps that one can take to properly interpret the past that does not directly reflect a political commitment. My political beliefs have little to do with my current research project on the battle of the Crater and Civil War memory. While I don't claim complete neutrality, my research and results are not built simply out of my political convictions.

Again, I don't consider Wilentz's claims to have much to do with history. They are purely political and do not point to any historical fact of the matter. No mistake has been made by the Obama camp in comparing their candidate with Kennedy and Lincoln. In fact, neither does Caroline Kennedy who will endorse Obama in tomorrow's New York Times.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/27/2008 12:16 AM:

aren't all historians political hacks of one sort or another

Oh, come on: not this "everything is political" junk again!

Not all commentary on politics is necessarily partisan; not all partisan commentary is necessarily unfounded.

Can we get beyond sophomore epistemology, please?


OpenID academicbench on 1/27/2008 11:17 AM:

Surely we're all on the same page here: we all know that our politics informs our work, yet we also know how to identify poor historical methodology and interpretation. I'm not sure that "Wilentz would have us believe that his support for Clinton plays no role in the way he interprets the comparative claims made by the Obama camp," as Kevin writes in the original post. Wilentz is not hiding his support for Clinton; he's also not making any foolish claims to complete objectivity. He's done what we all should do: when relevant (that is, nearly always!), state your politics, then get on with your argument. In this case, Wilentz's argument is sound, but only to a point; comparing "experience" is necessarily a fool's errand in setting apples next to oranges (Obama as community organizer vs. JFK as torpedo boat captain: what's even the point of looking at that?).


Anonymous Geschichte Grad on 1/27/2008 11:25 AM:

Oops: I mislabeled the authorship of that last comment. Still figuring out the comment system and Blogger/Wordpress relationship. Wouldn't want you to think that I wasn't being upfront...oh, and I'm an Edwards supporter. He's just SO the anti-poverty thing.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/27/2008 2:58 PM:

GG, thanks for your thoughtful contribution, and great to see you here. Come around often!