Water Man Spouts

Monday, March 31, 2008

American Democracy: Reprise

{1} "Sean Wilentz is well known as a leading historian of his generation. With this magisterial work, he establishes himself as a major figure in all of American historical scholarship." – Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law School; author of "Race, Crime, and the Law"; from his review of Sean Wilentz’s 2005 book "The Rise of American Democracy"

On Wednesday, February 27, Sean Wilentz’s article "Race Man: How Brack Obama played the race card and blamed Hillary Clinton" was published on The New Republic. In the days since, supporters of Senator Clinton have held the article up as proof that their candidate’s campaign has not engaged in gutter politics. Some of her supporters have pointed to Wilentz’s status as the director of American Studies at Princeton as lending credibility to the position he took in the article.

A number of other people, including supporters of Senator Barack Obama, have disagreed with Wilentz. Among those opposed the Princeton historian is Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson. The two’s heated exchanges have been published on The New Republic.

Other Obama supporters have made snide remarks about Wilentz’s credentials, including comments that "Race Man" is evidence that Wilentz will do anything in his quest to be the Clinton’s version of Kennedy historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Schlesinger is my favorite political historian. I also think very highly of Wilentz’s work. Though I disagree – strongly – with his "Race Man" article, I do not think it takes away from his value as historian. And rather than continue with a debate that should have ended when Senator Clinton apologized for her husband’s offensive comments, I think it might be more interesting to put Wilentz’s position into a historical context.

{2} "But modern study of the subject owes the most to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s Age of Jackson, published in 1945. Before Schlesinger, historians thought of American democracy as the product of an almost mystical frontier or agrarian egalitarianism. The Age of Jackson toppled that interpretation by placing democracy’s origin firmly in the context of the founding generation’s ideas about the few and the many, and by seeing democracy’s expansion as an outcome of struggles between classes, not sections. More than any previous account, Schlesinger’s examined the activities and ideas of obscure Americans, as well as towering political leaders. While he identified most of the key political events and changes of the era, Schlesinger also located the origins of modern liberal politics in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and in their belief, as he wrote, that future challenges ‘will best be met by a society in which no single group is able to sacrifice democracy and liberty to its interests’." – Sean Wilentz; The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln; 2005; page xix.

In the debate regarding Wilentz’s "Race Man" article, some of his supporters have focused on his being a "professional" historian. I do not think that does justice to his work. "Professional" simply means that he gets paid for what he does; "amatuer" comes from "amatus," meaning "to love." Wilentz’s passion for US history is what makes it outstanding.

While I am acquainted with some of his other works, it is "The Rise of American Democracy" that stands out for me. In it, he documents the shift from the United States being a republic to a democracy. In the book’s preface, he notes that republic comes from "res publica" meaning :public thing"; this implied the public good would be secured through the efforts of "the most worthy, enlightened men."

Democracy, on the other hand, comes from "demos krateo," or "rule of the people." His book traces the struggles between the end of the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the Civil War. It is far more than a list of the people and events involved in the transformation of American politics. Wilentz is brilliant, and he is able to interpret and explain how these events unfolded, in a manner that is of value to everyone interested in the struggle to restore our Constitutional democracy today.

The best historians are able to channel their passion for their topic, yet remain objective in reporting on it. I think that "objectivity" in this sense can be defined as someone standing outside of a frame describing a picture. "Subjectivity," on the other hand, is defined as a person trying to describe a picture from a position inside the frame.

Wilentz is an outstanding historian. He is objective and passionate. However, in his role as a Clinton campaign supporter, he is by definition subjective, and that, added to his passion for his candidate, is why I view the two roles as distinct. I also recognize that there are difficulties inherent in attempting to fill the "Schlesinger role" with any politician.

{3} "Of course the old rigmarole did not disappear. I was sworn in as Special Consultant behind closed doors and it was hinted that I not follow the usual practice of hanging my commission in my office. When the time came to move from EOB to the White House, President Johnson made one emphatic stipulation: I was not to occupy the part of the suite previously used by Schlesinger." – Eric F. Goldman; The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson; 1969; pages 159-160

There was a front-page story in the January 2, 1964 Washington Post, announcing that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was going to resign from the Lyndon Joghnson administration, and that he was going to be replaced by Princeton historian Eric Goldman. The story angered members of the administration. "You are not the Johnson Arthur Schlesinger," Walter Jenkins told Goldman. "Nobody is going to be the Johnson Schlesinger. Nobody is going to be the Johnson anything of Kennedy. This is a different administration." (Goldman; page 34)

Goldman was aware of the role that his friend Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., had played in the Kennedy administration. He remembered JFK telling a journalist, William White, that, "Arthur has nothing to do with making policy. He works over there (the East Wing) and he is a good writer. Period." (Goldman; page 477) But LBJ was also aware of the role that Schlesinger had played, and after his attempts to secure Arthur’s services failed, he was intent upon replacing him. President Johnson believed that loyalty to his administration was gauged by submission, and Goldman didn’t measure up. When Goldman was unable to meet his needs, and the two split under less than friendly terms, Johnson would hold a grudge. LBJ’s "off the record" attacks on Goldman were likely a major reason that no attempts to re-create a Schlesinger in the White House were made after 1968.

{4} "[Back in New York] Sean Wilentz, a bright and lively historian at Princeton, had been talking to me during the week of the 12th [of October] about the constitutional implications of lowering the bar to impeachment. We decided that this is a point that might well be made publicly by a group of historians. Sean drafted a statement along these lines; I revised it a bit; we called the group Historians in Defense of the Constitution and added Vann Woodward to the team of sponsors. Then we circulated the statement during the week of the 19th. The response was astonishing, as iff historians had been waiting the chance to express their outrage over Kenneth Starr. In a few days, aided by E-mail and the Internet, over 400 historians were on board." – Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; Journals; November 2, 1998; page 834.

When the republicans in Congress were pushing for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, Professor Wilentz helped lead a brave stance in exposing their effort as a sham.

In November of 1998, Schlesinger was among those who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution. There were other legal scholars and historians who argued for and against impeaching President Clinton.

In his journals, Schlesinger tells of how a republican from South Carolina viciously attacked him for expressing his opinion on impeachment. Schlesinger also tells of Washington journalists such as Christopher Hitchens attempted to discredit him by stating he "was not known to me before as a historian of any kind." An ugly article in the November 11 National Journal had one "nice quote," Schlesinger writes: "He is the great liberal Democratic intellectual of our time," the article quotes Sean Wilentz as saying.

"I have not enjoyed such a fusillade for a third of a century," Schlesinger wrote. "It makes me feel young again." He knew that he had accomplished his goal. He had presented the members of Congress with a history of impeachment; expressed his opinion on the current events; and got parts of the media to shift the focus of their coverage away from President Clinton.

{5} "So why Hillary?"

"I think Hillary is important because the election really is the culmination of what’s been a 40 year struggle for the Democrats to rediscover who they are. …"

"Why (not Obama)?"

"It’s like Adlai Stevenson. In some ways, Barack reminds me of Stevenson. …There’s always a Stevenson candidate. Bradley was one. Tsongas was one of them. …It’s beautiful loserdom. …" –Sean Wilentz; Making the Case …for Hillary Clinton; Newsweek blog; November 16, 2007

It’s almost ironic that Professor Wilentz chooses the first presidential candidate that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was closely associated with, to compare Obama to. More, he goes back to the LBJ era, in saying that Clinton represents a solution to the democrats’ 40 years of struggle in the republican wilderness.

Even as an Obama campaign supporter, I can appreciate that Professor Wilentz was making a sincere and intelligent choice in backing Hillary Clinton. He enjoyed a close association with President Clinton and Hillary, and was among a core group of party activists who had been planning for Senator Clinton to recapture the presidency in 2008. His motives were because he believed that she offered the best option for leadership for this country, after the severe damage that republicans like Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes have done to our democracy.

If he had thoughts of being a Schlesinger-like figure in the Clinton 2 administration, I think that it was from a passion for providing the public with information about the need to struggle – to reclaim our Constitutional democracy ("rule of the people") rather than the republican elitists’ "res publica."

And, if it were not for Senator Barack Obama, I believe that Hillary Clinton would be our party’s candidate, would win the election, and would be a very good president.

But as Professor Wilentz notes in "The Rise of American Democracy," there are struggles between groups of people within the political parties themselves. The Clinton campaign did not anticipate the strength of the Obama campaign. More, Professor Wilentz wrote about certain individuals who rise up from the soil of America, and play outstanding roles in our nation’s history. The citizens who are in the Obama campaign are convinced that Barack Obama has the potential to be such a historic figure.

Time will tell. And, at some future point, another great historian will record if President Obama is in the ranks of our nation’s great leaders.


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