Contemporary history is the ultimate attempt to nail jelly to the barn door. A pair of Princeton profs recently team-taught a history seminar on The Dubster (and The Dickster). We cannot understand the United States of America without understanding The Dubster and we cannot understand German history without understanding Adolf Hitler. If this is a (fair & balanced) Old Nassau version of the Curse of Clio, so be it.
[x The Cronk Review]
Teaching "W" As History
By Sean Wilentz and Julian E. Zelizer
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Even before the 2008 election, debate had begun about how President George W. Bush would be remembered in American history. There were many reasons that so many people were so quickly interested in Bush's historical reputation. Given how intensely polarized voters were about his presidency, it was natural that experts and pundits would scramble to evaluate it. Bush's spectacular highs and lows—the stratospheric rise in his public approval following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the erosion of that support by 2005—seemed to beg for explication and assessment. Our media age's round-the-clock coverage and weakness for superlatives has also encouraged perpetual introspection, and often sensationalized reporting, about Washington.
We plead guilty to sharing this interest. Both of us teach American history at Princeton University, and both of us were among the first historians to jump into the debate over Bush. In addition to op-ed pieces and quotations for news stories, Sean wrote a cover story for Rolling Stone in 2006 that asked if Bush was the worst president in American history. In addition to his own commentary pieces, Julian convened a small conference of historians, whose papers placing Bush's presidency in broader historical context will be published in the fall. Both of us have recently published books—Sean on the age of Reagan and Julian on the politics of national security since World War II—that end with President Bush and begin the process of situating him in long-range political narratives.
So last semester, we embarked on an intellectual adventure by offering seniors and juniors a history seminar about the Bush presidency. We wanted to work closely with undergraduates to explore some of the themes that we had taken up in our research and commentaries. By starting a conversation with students, most of whom were just entering high school during Bush's second term, we hoped to help them, and ourselves, evaluate the basic chronology, the turning points, and the major areas of change that defined this administration—to take the leap from understanding the Bush presidency as current events, understood almost entirely through the lens of journalists, to interpreting it as contemporary history. Above all, we wanted to examine how much the seeming innovations of the Bush administration were rooted in historical trends that had been taking shape for years, even decades, as well as to understand what about the Bush White House was truly distinctive.
Indeed, the challenge of contemporary history has been of growing interest to the historical profession. Scholars have often shied away from the recent past, feeling that they have not had enough time to gain a perspective on times they have lived through or to understand which events are of truly enduring importance, and which not. But in recent years, more historians have been questioning those presumptions, realizing that the markers distinguishing history from current events are often artificial, and that some of the best work on periods like the New Deal was written soon after the moments passed. The startling fall of Communism in the 1980s and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, pushed historians to realize that events transpiring before their eyes called for some kind of historical analysis to make sense of them.
Thus a growing number of historians have started to look at the United States since the 1960s. James T. Patterson's wonderful synthesis Restless Giant: The United States From Watergate to Bush v. Gore, which appeared from Oxford University Press in 2005, attempted to juxtapose the polarization and political conflict that shaped the polity even as the nation enjoyed new levels of economic comfort. A number of recent books about the 1970s argue that the decade was more important to contemporary history than the 1960s, because it was during those years the conservative movement took hold and began its long domination of American politics. A few studies on the 1980s focus on Ronald Reagan to explain that period's changing political culture as the terms of political debate shifted to the right.
Together, such works offer broad contours for serious historical debate that can engage undergraduates. Above all, they show that most college programs in United States history will need to start extending their time frames later into the 20th century—and even into the 21st—if they are to make the world and the national realities we live with even vaguely comprehensible.
We anticipated that our most difficult challenge would be the polarized feelings that persist, even among undergraduates. Our students—as we did—began the semester with strong opinions, informed and uninformed, about the Bush years. Many shared a media bias against Bush when we began. During the seminar, those feelings were both amplified and modified by revelations from the release of classified material (like the torture memos) or memoirs (like those of the administration participants Karl Rove and Henry Paulson Jr.). Yet we also designed the course mindful that fresh reading material alone would not sufficiently shake up hardened preconceptions. To do that, we invited a wide range of guests, including high-ranking officials (Joshua B. Bolten and Philip D. Zelikow), an award-winning journalist critical of the administration (Jane Mayer), and a leader of the Democratic opposition (Howard Dean). Students began to see Bush as a more deliberative, intelligent, and thoughtful president. At the same time, they were forced to grapple with starkly contrasting interpretations by the various guests about a series of events like the Bush tax cuts and the politicization of national security.
The guests also humanized events, impressing upon all of us that what might appear to be simple decisions are, like all history, the work of human beings who have flaws and limitations as well as ideals and desires. Our seminar was riveted as Bolten recounted how he experienced the crisis moments of September 11, and the leadership skills that he saw firsthand as he worked beside President Bush. Everyone was horrified when Zelikow recounted the missed opportunities before September 11 to capture the terrorists who were responsible. Mayer challenged several students who were convinced that the interrogation techniques used by the administration were effective at stopping threats. Dean's discussion called into question preconceptions of his own politics and campaign in 2004. Although most of his supporters had thought of him as a dove, Dean reminded us that he had supported most major military efforts since the 1980s, other than the Iraq war. Such sessions showed how one advantage in learning about recent events is the opportunity for students to get a taste of oral history.
We were also able to tap into a wealth of audiovisual materials, like the Abu Ghraib photographs and the tape of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's resignation speech, in 2006. Unavailable for earlier periods of U.S. history but now representing an avalanche, such materials helped us further identify—as well as challenge—strong preconceptions. So did new forms of written evidence, composed in ways unimaginable before the 1990s, not least administration officials' e-mails that have been released to the public.
What have we discovered? One of the biggest questions was the extent to which September 11 shaped Bush's presidency. Early conventional wisdom saw a profound impact: Everything was different from that day on. Some of our visiting experts held that view, especially those who worked inside the administration or covered it on a daily basis. Yet our reading and classroom debates indicated many important continuities in the Bush presidency. Dynamics certainly change, as do priorities. But the students, in their midterm papers, came to terms with how many of the political strategies, policy ideas, and personnel that were dominating deliberations before September 11 maintained their hold in the weeks that followed.
Take the expanded role of the vice presidency. During the early months of 2001, Vice President Richard Cheney set out to centralize more control of decision-making in his office and lodged loyal staff members in important posts throughout the executive bureaucracy. Cheney's influence remained powerful at least through 2006, but it hardly began on September 11. He continued to pursue the policies that interested him from the start of the presidency. The class also examined the origins of Iraq policy in the early months of 2001, discovering how an assault was being discussed long before the terrorist attacks. Similarly, students saw that a series of moves toward deregulation and supply-side economic policy, like loosening clean-water standards, were not shaken by the events of September 11.
The class also puzzled over Bush's place in the history of American conservatism. While many scholars have written about the rise of the right during the 1970s, comparatively little has appeared about the difficulties as well as the opportunities that conservatives faced once they were in power. Bush's presidency began at least two decades after conservatives had seized the political initiative in Washington. By 2001 the right had become comfortable with the trappings of power—and many leaders had come to understand that, no matter how they might rail against "big government," certain kinds of government spending—like agricultural benefits and Medicare—were helpful in maintaining strong electoral coalitions. The GOP, moreover, had become enmeshed in networks that connected the party to Washington's interest groups and lobbyists. After several decades of operating from within the corridors of power, rather than against them, conservatives had learned to make aggressive use of political institutions to pursue their political objectives.
One of the most interesting aspects of a seminar on contemporary history is to watch students begin to connect broader historical trends to the specific events they have lived through. Most history courses must work hard to help students imagine what it was like in some distant period. The challenge is reversed when teaching contemporary history—getting students to understand that events with which they are intimately familiar are also a part of history.
During our discussion of Hurricane Katrina, we watched students make that powerful leap. We talked about the people and images vividly captured in Spike Lee's masterful "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" (2006). But then we brought the students back to the ideas and politics of the conservative revolution that took hold in 1970s and 1980s America. It is fair to say that while most of the students had thought about Katrina primarily as a botched effort by the administration, by the end of the class many were re-evaluating the disaster in the light of arguments about government that had been ascendant ever since Reagan took office in 1981. As opposed to just looking at a natural disaster and a failed response by government, the students thought more about how public policies toward urban America and the poor, as well as the weakening of the infrastructure of government agencies (let alone the weakening of the nation's physical infrastructure), helped explain what went wrong.
For their term papers, students were required to develop narratives that explained the origin and implications of a crucial decision or turning point during the Bush presidency. One student wrote a compelling analysis of the origins of the troop surge in Iraq and how the decision marked one of President Bush's most successful moments as a leader. Another used the story of the failed nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court to explore how political strategies that benefited Bush in his first term—like the use of executive power and secrecy—had turned into political problems by 2005. The pedagogical applications of the Internet became clear as the students gained access to available primary sources like newspapers, blogs, Congressional hearings, and declassified material from investigations. All of those helped them to conduct primary research about contemporary events in an unprecedented way.
Both of us have also strengthened our own understanding of Bush as a result of the seminar. For Julian, who tends to see long-term trends and patterns that shape entire periods as more powerful than individual presidents, our discussions about the significant transformations on issues like taxation and interrogation helped him see the difference a president can make. For Sean, it became increasingly apparent how deeply the disastrous year 2005 shook the Bush presidency—and marked the beginning of the end of what Sean had written about as the age of Reagan—even as it may have prepared the way for the president to take forceful, unpopular, and independent stands in the final two years of his administration.
All of us were surprised to learn the paradox of Bush's final two years in office. During 2007 and 2008, when his approval ratings were at historic lows, our studies suggested that the president demonstrated crucial moments of strong leadership: first with the decision to push for a surge of troops in Iraq and reorient the mission of soldiers to protect local civilians rather than to pursue insurgents, and second with passage of the TARP legislation, over the opposition of House Republicans and the campaign machinations of John McCain, at the height of the financial meltdown. As the country prepared for a new administration, and public perceptions of the president further deteriorated, Bush had some of his most successful moments. Even after Democrats took control of Congress, in 2006, he was able to protect key elements of the war on terrorism from retrenchment. We came away wondering whether those two years will become more important in future decades as historians evaluate his legacy.
However one evaluates George W. Bush, it is clear that his was a meaningful presidency whose policies will have a long-term impact. Though many Americans wondered upon his election whether he was capable of the job, his administration initiated changes in public policy—tax cuts that weakened the fiscal strength of government, radical changes in interrogation policies, a strong commitment to stabilizing financial markets—that now shape the environment within which President Obama must operate.
A seminar like ours is just the beginning of the conversation—of both the Bush presidency and the study of contemporary history. Political questions are too often left in the hands of economists, political scientists, and other social scientists. But historical analysis is extraordinarily valuable as well. Analyzing our recent political past is not just an important intellectual exercise. It can help scholars, policy makers, and citizens gain a stronger foundation for making vital political decisions in the coming years. Ω
[Sean Wilentz is Dayton-Stockon Professor of History at Princeton University. He earned one B.A. at Columbia University in 1972, before earning another at Oxford University on a Kellett Fellowship. In 1980, he earned his Ph.D. at Yale University. He is the author of The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (2008) and Bob Dylan in America (forthcoming September 2010). Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs in both Princeton's Department of History and Woodrow Wilson School. Zelizer, received his B.A. at Brandeis University and Ph.D. at The Johns Hopkins University. he is the author of Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security—From World War II to the War on Terrorism (2010) and editor of The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment (forthcoming September 2010].]
Copyright © 2010 The Chronicle of Higher Education
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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves