Since Rick is our in-house historian and he raises the example of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. -- no stranger to the pressures of politics on historical analysis -- I thought I might ask him for a comment about something I raised in today's column. I wrote "The inability of leading liberal historians to understand their own times is a fascinating subject and worth discussing more elsewhere." Maybe this could be elsewhere?I think Brookhiser offers a very good answer.
So, Rick, if you don't mind, what do you think about the issue?
We can look at historians of their own times, and historians of other times. Obviously the former are hampered if they do not understand a lot about their own times. One could argue that the latter are hampered too: aren't your judgments of past events enhanced by your feel for the events under your nose? I think writing about the politics of the 1990s helped me write about the politics of the 1790s. Stabs in the back, deals, personal destruction--the founders did it all too. Michael Barone and Kevin Philips help us put Timothy Pickering and Aaron Burr in context.
And yet, engagement with the present can be a distraction from focusing on the story of the past. It can even be a distraction from focusing on the story of the present. It loads you up with assumptions, which may turn out to be wrong or right. But your job is to get inside your subject's head and see where he takes you.