Archive for the ‘Historians’ Category

By Gil Troy, HNN, 5-18-09

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com.

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  • HNN Doyen: David Herbert Donald
  • One of the first real history books I ever bought was Why the North Won the Civil War, edited by David Donald. I was nine and, did not open the book for years. Still, Professor Donald was probably the first historian I ever heard of, so studying with him in graduate school was like learning hitting from another boyhood hero, Mickey Mantle. Those of us lucky to have learned from him knew we were blessed. For many of us, he remained a powerful presence in our lives, decades after he finished supervising us. Moreover, despite having been born in1920, he was still publishing, and there seemed to be many more books in him, germinating in his still sharp mind. All of this explains why it was a shock to hear that Donald died suddenly this past Sunday.

    David Herbert Donald faced a formidable obstacle as a dissertation adviser. We his students knew we could never equal him. He was so dedicated, intelligent, and accomplished in his lecturing and his writing. To watch David Donald as he conjured up the Jacksonian era, what he called “the Age of Ambiguity,” to hear him map out the road to disunion, to see him in action dominating the lecture hall or the seminar room, was intellectually inspirational – yet professionally intimidating.

    To his credit, Professor Donald used his high standards to empower us as future historians rather than demoralize us as potential failures who better seek different lines of work. Donald stretched us, widening our horizons so the seemingly unattainable became possible. He never talked about our dissertations, but about our “books.” Appalled by academic prose, he urged us to write for intelligent people not three colleagues in elite universities. When we, his graduate students, threw a lunch celebrating his second Pulitzer Prize, he deflected our praise with a toast – and elegant challenge – that he looked forward to hosting a lunch in the future when one of us won such a prize. Hearing these words from this gentleman fiercely committed to excellence, this pipedream somehow seemed reachable, despite our healthy awareness of our inadequacies.

    Professor Donald was a model academic, using his scholarship to teach us how to be better historians. One day, Professor Donald recalled how when writing his Sumner biography he wondered what made a radical radical during Reconstruction. Were radicals younger, wealthier, nobler, or crankier than their moderate peers? To show us how he answered the question years before personal computers were invented, Professor Donald whipped out a knitting needle, a hole puncher, and the note cards he made for each congressional Republican, recording particular characteristics or actions in different areas of the card. He then punched holes in one particular spot, say, for Midwesterners, another for Northerners. Using his knitting needle, he poked through his stack, seeing which group of congressmen emerged depending on which hole he poked. His conclusion that congressional moderation emerged from electoral vulnerability resulted in his influential book, The Politics of Reconstruction. In this scholarly and educational tour de force, Professor Donald showed us how to think through a problem, improvise around the methodological thicket, inject the excitement of scholarly discovery into the classroom, and turn the problem-solving he was doing in writing one book into a second book.

    What made Donald legendary was his tremendous ability as a master storyteller. His description of how the Southern Congressman Preston Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate still gives me chills when I read it — or feebly try to recreate it in my own lectures. Nevertheless, Professor Donald taught that truth comes before showmanship. Without theorizing or bloviating, and simply by example, he taught that a meticulous commitment to accuracy is the historian’s primary obligation. Without it, there is no history. When I was writing my thesis, Donald once chided me for a footnote that inaccurately referred to two consecutive pages, when, because I had edited down the text before submitting it to him, the actual quotation I used came from only the first page. Moreover, as an adviser, the time and skill he invested in going over our drafts was breathtaking. In addition to checking our footnotes, he caught our errors, corrected our style, improved our structure, sharpened our arguments.

    David Donald was popularly known as a “Lincoln scholar” and he will probably be most remembered for his majestic 1995 best-seller Lincoln. When I studied with him in the 1980s, his reputation rested on his vivid Pulitzer-Prize-winning two-volume biography of the Northern abolitionist and radical Senator Charles Sumner, as well as the 1969 revision of the classic 1937 textbook he inherited from his mentor James G. Randall, The Civil War and Reconstruction. Perhaps the most personal of his books, was Look Homeward: a Life of Thomas Wolfe, published in 1987, for which he won his second Pulitzer in 1988. Wolfe’s story of a Southern boy achieving tremendous success among the Northern elite, paralleled Donald’s equally unlikely climb from being born in Goodman, Mississippi, graduating from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, and spending his career at Columbia, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard universities.

    Nevertheless, I think my favorite of Donald’s thirty or so books is the second edition of Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, published in 1961. Each essay is a gem, beautifully structured, elegantly argued, resonant and convincing. “A. Lincoln, Politician,” anticipates the Lincoln book he wrote three decades later, seeing Lincoln as a working politician not a martyr or a saint. “An Excess of Democracy: The American Civil War and the Social Process,” gives his interpretation of the causes of the Civil War – and some of the inherent weaknesses in freewheeling, democratic America. A few years ago, trying to show a prominent journalist how historians work, I gave her Lincoln Reconsidered, saying the essays reflected historical storytelling at its best, while also offering brilliant, stimulating analyses.

    A few years ago, honoring Donald as one of HNN’s first “Doyens,” I wrote that while teaching, researching and writing, I often recall what I learned from Professor Donald, or wonder how he would have approached particular questions. David Herbert Donald turned me into a thief. I regularly find myself stealing his lines, echoing his analysis, appearing smart based on his smarts. This is most apparent to me when I hear my students “stealing” from me what I “stole” from him. This echo chamber, with each successive generation adding its own accent or twist, is education at its best.

    It is hard to believe that David Donald is gone. But he will live on in his lively works of history – and in the seeds he planted within me and so many others of his grateful students over generations.

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    HNN, February 18, 2008

    With the glee of a conservative in the 1990s catching Bill Clinton with a new girlfriend, the Hillary Clinton campaign has accused the 21st century Teflon man, Barack Obama, of plagiarizing one of his speeches from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. As reported by the Politico’s Mike Allen, and others, the Clinton campaign publicized two YouTube links showing the two friends’ overlapping rhetoric.

    On October 15, 2006, speaking of his female opponent Kerry Healey, Patrick said: “But her dismissive point, and I hear it a lot from her staff, is that all I have to offer is words — just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, [applause and cheers] that all men are created equal.’ [Sustained applause and cheers.] Just words – just words! ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words! ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Just words! ‘I have a dream.’ Just words!” Last Saturday night in Milwaukee, Obama said: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter! ‘I have a dream.’ Just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Just words! [Applause.] ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words — just speeches!” In response someone only identified as “an Obama official” said: “They’re friends who share similar views and talk and trade good lines all the time.”

    Plagiarism is a serious charge, especially to those of us in the academy. But this is a confusing case. On the one hand, as historians familiar with the history of campaigning, we immediately think of Senator Joe Biden, who withdrew from the 1988 campaign in disgrace when the Dukakis campaign circulated a videotape of Biden stealing a biographical riff from the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. (It turns out that Biden usually did acknowledge Kinnock but that particular time lapsed – and watched his campaign implode). Like Biden, Obama should be held to a high standard because so much of his political identity rests on his rhetoric. On the other hand, as historians who assess many speeches, we know that great oratory resonates because it builds on our collective memory banks, offering original twists on familiar phrases. Moreover, as lecturers, we know that when we speak spontaneously we cannot be as scrupulous about not echoing others as we are in our writing – and Obama’s riff was spontaneous, it was not written out in his prepared remarks.

    On a personal note, I was particularly intrigued by the Obama defense that, in essence, this was part of an implicit collaboration, an ongoing partnership and brainstorming with a friend. Without mentioning names so as to avoid embarrassing the reporter yet again, I was once contacted by a reporter who accused another reporter of plagiarizing my work. The alleged plagiarist mentioned me twice in his article, but then had an unattributed riff that clearly echoed my work. I emailed the accuser, saying, that given the other citations, and the fact that I had been interviewed by the reporter numerous times, and was always mentioned in the ensuing articles, I was not offended, did not consider it plagiarism, and often gave journalists more slack considering their time and space constraints. The accusing reporter then called me up and asked me, “would it be okay if one of your students did not document part of a paper?” Cornered, I admitted that no, it would be “unacceptable” if a student submitted a paper without properly attributing a paragraph that was based so clearly on someone else’s work. With that, the accuser had his “j’accuse.” He ran the story, embarrassed his colleague, and the accused reporter never interviewed me again.

    According to Peter Slevin of the Washington Post, Obama dismissed the plagiarism charges. “Well, look, I was on the stump,” he said. Speaking of his friend Governor Patrick, Obama said: “He had suggested we use these lines. I thought they were good lines. I’m sure I should have. Didn’t this time.” All in all, Obama doubted “this is too big of a deal.”

    In thinking this issue through, I think it is a bigger “deal” than Obama concedes. His campaign – in fact the stolen riff itself – emphasizes just how important his words are to his campaign, and words are to American politics historically. Obama missed an opportunity with his airy dismissal. He could have said, “I’m sorry, that was wrong.” In so doing, he would have distanced himself from both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton – two of the leading American politicians least likely to apologize. In one classy moment, Obama could have proven that his rhetoric is real, that he really is the candidate of change. Instead, the usually nimble junior Senator from Illinois gave us all the same old Washington shuffle. What a pity that he chose to imitate the ways of his new hometown when trying to defend his occasional penchant for mimicry on the stump.

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    HNN, January 9, 2008

    Perhaps the best thing that happened in the marginal, unrepresentative Iowa caucuses was that Senator Barack Obama defied all that media speculation about Senator Hillary Clinton’s “inevitability.” Perhaps the best thing that happened in the marginal, unrepresentative New Hampshire primary was that Senator Hillary Clinton disproved all that media speculation about Senator Barack Obama’s momentum. The results for Republicans were similarly surprising, with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee supposedly coming from “nowhere” to win in Iowa, and Senator John McCain “coming back” to win after pundits pronounced his candidacy dead. The 350,000 citizens who caucused in Iowa and the half a million or so New Hampshirites who voted in their state’s Democratic and Republican primaries reminded the pundits that even in modern America’s “mediaocracy,” the power remains with the people.

    The late historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” to describe the modern media’s bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland distortions of reality. Pseudo-events are moments staged for the cameras and to shape the ensuing coverage, reducing the actual participants to props. The media gabfest about the campaign, which injects idle speculation about who’s hot and who’s not between the candidates and the citizens, is a massive sustained exercise in turning America’s most sacred democratic event into a tawdry pseudo-event.

    Of course, rather than apologizing for their inaccurate predictions, reporters reward candidates for exceeding the false journalistic expectations. Thus Senators McCain and Clinton became “comeback” kids on Tuesday, having bounced back from reporters’ premature eulogizing – and pollsters’ seemingly authoritative predicting.
    Thanks to the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic race is shaping up as a clash of the titans, led by but still not yet limited to Senators Obama and Clinton. Even though she lost in Iowa, Hillary Clinton remains the beneficiary of one of the greatest modern political machines. Clintonites not only know how to win – they know how to lose, nimbly turning setbacks into opportunities for comebacks. And even though he lost in New Hampshire, Barack Obama remains a dazzling political talent, a silver-tongued, honey-smooth, hope-generating political thoroughbred. Both his Iowa victory speech and his New Hampshire concession were rhetorical gems, while Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire victory speech had a lumpy, clunky quality that suggests that she has not yet learned from her husband or her chief rival how to sweet-talk the American people.

    For all the obvious political talent displayed on the Democratic side, the foreign policy experience of Senators Clinton, Obama and Edwards is perilously thin. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton went on foreign trips but she rarely made policy. Claiming she has considerable foreign experience is like a bleacher bum presuming he can master center field – watching, even from up close, is not the same thing as playing. Barack Obama’s foreign policy experience – having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia – is even less impressive, akin to presuming that just because you love ice cream you know the recipe for making it taste so good.

    It is disturbing how irrelevant a healthy recognition of the Islamist threat appears to be for Democrats. John Edwards, for one, went so far as to dismiss the “war on terror” as merely a slogan. Only a few short years ago, that kind of thinking would have been derided as so “September 10,” meaning buried in yesterday’s delusions. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, for all the Republican candidates’ flaws, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have at least pitched their campaigns on national security credentials and concerns.

    Inevitably, the next few weeks will bring on even more idle speculation, journalistic oversimplification, and candidate confrontations. But amid all the cheesy spectacle of the American nominating campaign, the people’s input makes the whole carnival profound. Thanks to the ornery, swim-against-the-tide, expectation-defying citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire, these campaigns have become very real. With luck, the process will not only be empowering democratically but will result in a quality leader capable of meeting America’s challenges. There are no guarantees, but as Obama has shown, hopes themselves can be not just inspiring, but transforming.

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