Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Historians for JFK...I mean, Obama

Historians for Obama has been formed to, well, support Barack Obama for President (h/t Ralph Luker). Scott Jaschick has more.
...in a move that is unusually early and specific, a group of prominent historians on Monday issued a joint endorsement of Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency. The endorsement, released through the History News Network, was organized by Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University, and Ralph E. Luker, a historian who is one of the leaders of the popular history blog Cliopatria. The scholars who signed included two past presidents of the American Historical Association — Joyce Appleby of the University of California at Los Angeles and James McPherson of Princeton University — and many other A-list scholars in the field.

Officials of the AHA (which was not a party to the endorsement) and several other long-time observers of the discipline said that they could not think of a comparable example of historians collectively taking a stand in a political race in this way.
It turns out that about half of the historians approached by Kazin and Luker signed on. The other half abstained or were supporting other candidates like Edwards and Clinton. Some historians even thought Obama was too "Republican." No Republicans were mentioned as having the support of any of the historians who declined.

That's surprising.

According to Jaschick, Kazin said "while he and other scholars felt an obligation as 'scholar/citizens' to speak out, they did not want to imply that historians are uniquely qualified to pick a president." Sounds like a little bit of false modesty: why call the group "Historians for Obama" unless you're trying to cast a certain air of expertise about your whole endorsement. Not a big deal, really.

In reading the HfO statement, it seemed to me that they believe in the power of Obama's personality above all else. His domestic agenda seems of the typical, mainstream liberal variety and his foreign policy agenda seems both naive and overly-idealistic (for instance, they reference his idea to abolish nuclear weapons). No matter. To these historians, he's JFK: The Sequel.

But it is his qualities of mind and temperament that really separate Obama from the rest of the pack. He is a gifted writer and orator who speaks forcefully but without animus. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness - or provided Americans with a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry older than the nation itself. Like Kennedy, he also inspires young people who see him as a great exception in a political world that seems mired in cynicism and corruption.

Presumably, Obama's power of personality will be enough to both abolish nuclear weapons ("Wait 'til the Chinese and Russians meet him, they won't be able to resist!"). If only.

But to be fair, the desire for the HfO to see the qualities of a past (beloved) champion (JFK) isn't unique: the GOP has been trying to find "the next Reagan" since he left office. Ideologues of all stripes have their own pantheon of personalities and it's only natural to try to recapture what--to our own minds--seemed to work before. But I think history shows that past performance of one individual doesn't predict the future performance of another--even if they seem so similar to our (rose-colored) eyes.

But maybe I'm just a cynical GenXer. This is just my opinion, anyhow, and the HfO are entitled to theirs.

Finally, I think I see what's really going on here. Oprah Winfrey is a high-profile Obama supporter and--through her "book club"--she can single-handedly vault a book into bestseller status. This is nothing more than a clever network marketing campaign on the part of these historians. Watch for a deluge of scholarly history tomes getting recommendations from Oprah in the coming months. It's a conspiracy based on self-interest and materialistic gain, I tells ya!

No comments: