Category Archives: history and current events

August 20, 2012, 9:38 pm

Seven Questions And Comments I Might Write If This Salon Article On “America’s Worst Historians” Was A Student Paper And I Was Grading It.

This article.

1. Why do you assert that journalists aren’t able “to investigate in depth”? Whether they do it well or badly, isn’t that exactly what they’re trained to do?

2. You claim to be talking about journalists, but, as you note, your two lead examples (Doris Kearns Goodwin and Fareed Zakaria) are both political science Ph.Ds. Are you critiquing journalism or political science?

3. You cite Peter Hoffer’s Past Imperfect to criticize Doris Kearns Goodwins. How does Hoffer’s discussion of Joseph Ellis in the same book affect your argument? How does Jon Wiener’s approach in Historians in Trouble differ from Hoffer’s?

4. In your comment “David McCullough, formerly of Sports Illustrated,” what is the connection to SI intended to evoke?

5. Your example of the problems with McCullough’s work is the HBO series based on his biography of John Adams. Is he responsible for the…

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August 20, 2012, 4:34 pm

Winston Churchill thinks Paul Ryan says stupid things.

For historians, the fun of presidential election season comes when candidates start playing games with history. Often this takes the form of “you don’t know me, but remember that great guy? I’m like that guy.” The thing is, politicians generally don’t know squat about that guy; they’re just looting the iconography of civilization for their own momentary convenience.

Case in point: Paul Ryan tries to get voters to understand him by saying,

“You know what I’m a big fan of Winston Churchill. I have a bust of Winston Churchill in my office right now,” Ryan said. “Winston Churchill probably got it right when he said the Americans can be counted upon to do the right thing only after they’ve exhausted all the other possibilities, so I think we’re at that point. This is an inflection point, this is a choice of two futures.”

Winston Churchill, of course, did not have politics anything like…

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August 13, 2012, 4:05 pm

A stimulus is not a New Deal: on Mike Grunwald and the Obama record

Mike Grunwald has a post at FP summarizing his new book, The New New Deal. The basic argument (of both the post and the book) seems to me clear and unassailable: the President’s “stimulus package,” or the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is an under appreciated success for two reasons.

First, as to recovery, the jobs stimulus averted much worse unemployment than we would otherwise have had; this is widely understood.

Second, as to reinvestment, it will bring real and lasting “change” — Grunwald uses this word deliberately, arguing that (unlike FDR) Obama has scrupulously kept his campaign promises. ARRA has transformed the energy sector, giving renewable energy a new lease on life; it modernized medical records, it put money into high-speed rail, and pushed high-speed internet out to poorer areas. This is the more original part of Grunwald’s book and the most valuable; it’s…

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August 1, 2012, 1:07 pm

Gore Vidal: pretty good historian, and a great character in US history.

I read Henry Adams before I read Gore Vidal, but I liked Vidal better. Both were funny, but only Vidal was having fun. Which is not something everyone understands, that you can have great fun at the apocalypse. It was perhaps his least American trait.

A critic complained about the versions of Henry Adams and Henry James that Vidal made up. Vidal responded, but they made me up. He shared with Adams an apparent sense that American politics ought to have belonged to him, and as it didn’t, American history would. As motives to write history go, it isn’t the worst. He knew that the affairs of the republic were run by a small group of people who wanted to protect its property. He judged each faction of the group more or less by its tendency to agree with him.

In consequence, he had mixed feelings about FDR, who employed his father and disagreed with his grandfather; he held enduringly…

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June 22, 2012, 5:06 pm

Some notes on Woodrow Wilson and the underappreciated harms Presidents can do.

Regular readers will know we frequently give time and attention to the best of presidents, with special regard to the underrated Franklin Roosevelt. But perhaps we should give equal time to the bad presidents whose badness goes insufficiently remarked – not just the mediocre presidents, but those whose harms go underappreciated.

Entirely coincidentally, I have an essay in the current Reviews in American History on Woodrow Wilson, apropos Cooper’s biography. Here’s the beginning of the essay, for the record:

In the 1912 election, the Democrats gained sixty-one seats to increase their majority in the House of Representatives and seven seats to get a majority in the Senate. Yet their presidential candidate, Woodrow Wilson, won fewer votes than William Jennings Bryan had in 1908, 1900, or 1896. Wilson also underperformed Democrats in Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, and elsewhere,…

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June 20, 2012, 3:33 am

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed*

Silbey has explained the wonderful possibilities that await a technologically proficient historian who visits a technologically advanced archive.

I wish I could say that I only visit archives where my widely acknowledged technological prowess is encouraged and feted, but alas, this is not the case. There are still many archives in my world that remain firmly rooted in the twentieth century.  For example, UCLA special collections has a number of manuscript collections I need, but does not allow cameras in the reading room. So I find myself spending much of my time in the basement of Young library, frantically taking notes while the non-historians above enjoy the sunshine.

Then there’s the copyright problem for anyone doing newspaper research after 1923. Thanks to the Sonny Bono copyright act of 1998, everything produced since 1922 is under copyright protection, which means…

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June 14, 2012, 4:46 am

New students for an Orwellian tomorrow.

Seen on campus.

June 12, 2012, 1:18 am

On liberalism and history, and Kazin and Alterman & Mattson.

Not to pile on, but there’s also this, in the new Democracy. Unlike the aforementioned TLS essay, the whole thing is online; here’s a short excerpt:

The single moment that made postwar liberalism feel most like a cause worth fighting for came in the darkness of April 4, 1968, when an Indianapolis crowd, assembled to hear Robert F. Kennedy campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, instead met a man obliged to tell them that Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered. When Kennedy broke the news, a desperate wail burst from the throats of those gathered, a sound unlike any other, bespeaking the tide of anguish and anger about to rush over the republic, sweeping reason before it—but not yet, or not here, not if Kennedy had his way.

Speaking off the cuff, he claimed a shared sorrow—his own brother had been killed in the line of political duty, at a time when he had begun…

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May 17, 2012, 12:06 am

A Euroskeptical note, from the archives.

Seems appropriate unto the day, or week anyway. Robert Henry Brand, of the UK Treasury delegation in Washington, to John Maynard Keynes, March 3, 1945, about Jean Monnet returning to France

to ‘think’. He is deeply interested in the future political organisation of Western Europe, having in my opinion some not very well-thought views, and wants to clear his thoughts on this subject with the object of exercising some influence with regard to it later. To find a solution will certainly test even his persuasive powers.

It’s easy to snark, and it’s hard to call your shots, but just at the moment it seems a sadly apt sentiment.

May 14, 2012, 10:00 pm

Louis Brandeis would have words with JPMorgan Chase.

Ninety-nine years ago Louis Brandeis explained why letting investment bankers ruin the country was a bad idea. Bankers were lousy managers; they ran companies with an eye to increasing the value of stock, rather than efficiently providing a service or product; they – contrary to stereotype – exhibited “financial recklessness.” By their very bigness alone they posed a threat to politics and the economy. Running his eye over and over the various problems with the money trust, he kept coming up with the name J.P. Morgan.

It is enough shame that we are facing the exact same problems the Progressives and the New Dealers laboriously fixed. But it adds an extra pain to the historically aware that we are dealing with zombie malefactors bearing the exact same names as their forebears.

May 14, 2012, 1:07 pm

Are there any drachmas?

As everyone knows, money is a medium of exchange as well as a store of value. Suppose Greece leaves the Euro: are there any drachmas around to serve as a medium of exchange? As of January, apparently, no. (Though rumors say otherwise.) Have some been printed or minted meanwhile? Probably not; it would create a panic.

“I don’t think you could do it much faster than four months,” says Mark Crickett, one of De La Rue’s consultants.

But a government could not commission and take delivery of a new currency without word leaking out and panic spreading.

It is much more likely that a withdrawal for the euro would be announced suddenly, and then there would be an interim period – those four months, say – during which a temporary national currency would be used.

Euro notes previously in circulation in a withdrawing country might be overprinted, or have special stickers added.


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May 1, 2012, 8:34 pm

With A Straight Face

The New York Times, April 28, 2012:

Presidents running for re-election typically boast of programs they created, people they helped or laws they signed. They talk about rising test scores or falling deficits or expanding job rolls. President Obama is increasingly taking the unusual route of bragging about how he killed a man.

To be sure, that man was Osama bin Laden, and he is not mourned among either the president’s supporters or detractors. But in the days leading up to the first anniversary of the raid that finally caught up to the Qaeda mastermind, Mr. Obama has made a concerted, if to some indecorous, effort to trumpet the killing as perhaps the central accomplishment of his presidency.

The article does nod to previous Presidents running on their toughness, but then goes completely off the rails when talking about a recent Obama interview in the Situation Room:

Tony Fratto, …

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April 17, 2012, 1:11 pm

USS Lyndon B. Johnson

Following up to this article, the Navy has continued its streak of not naming carriers after Democratic Presidents. LBJ now has a ship named after him, but a destroyer, rather than a carrier:

The Navy has named the third ship in its class of state-of-the-art destroyers after the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, who served as a naval officer during World War II, the service said in a press release Monday.

“I am pleased to honor President Johnson with the naming of this ship,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a statement. “His dedication to a life of public service included bravely stepping forward to fight for his country during our entry into World War II.”

No word on whether the ship would have a tendency to report attacks by imaginary torpedo boats, but some folks have been unable to avoid the sniggering locker room humor that the name might inspire:

That doesn’t mean it’s …

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April 5, 2012, 4:43 pm

Paging Mr. Kafka

The Transportation Security Agency, in all its glory:

A spokesman said the agency has its reasons for still requiring that traditional laptops go through X-ray machines in a separate bin. But he declined to share them, saying the agency didn’t want to betray any secrets.


April 4, 2012, 5:14 pm

“Hmm. At UC Davis you get an F if you’re not gay.”