Saturday, January 26, 2008

Sean Wilentz. Good Historian, Political Hack

It's probably not in my best interest to come after famous historians, but I can't help myself. Not when they decide to use their historical knowledge in service of political hackery. Sean Wilentz does just that. It's clear that Wilentz wants to be the Clinton's Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a historian in service of the nation's most powerful Democratic family.

That's fine and all. But don't bend your historical interpretations and make dubious assertions to do so. That's what Wilentz does in his Los Angeles Times op-ed. Wilentz attacks Obama for comparing himself to Lincoln and Kennedy, saying that Obama is wrong in claiming that they didn't have tons of experience before becoming president. Wilentz is just not right about this. In fact, Lincoln's experience matches up quite reasonably with Obama's, for whatever that is worth. Wilentz is also wrong, like the Clintons, in discussing Obama's claim that under Reagan, the Republicans were the party of ideas. Obama is, of course, exactly right. Clinton attacked him for saying this, accusing him saying they were good ideas. Obama never did that. Yet Wilentz reinforces that bogus argument.

Allow me to quote Kevin Levin on this issue.

"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."