Boston There is history everywhere you look here. On these streets you can feel the hoofbeats of Paul Revere. In Faneuil Hall you can hear the echoes of Samuel Adams’ pleas for American independence — and of John F. Kerry’s concession to George W. Bush.
One of the season’s best books is Dennis Lehane’s “The Given Day,” a gripping account of the 1919 Boston police strike, which catapulted Calvin Coolidge to national prominence. There are people here who can still tell you about the horror of the Cocoanut Grove fire, where 492 perished in a nightclub in the late autumn of 1942. You cannot pass Boston Common without thinking of the great antiwar marches of 1969 and 1970, or of the huge crowd that gathered when in 1988 Ted Kennedy pronounced Michael Dukakis the next president of the United States.
These pages from the frayed American scrapbook seem more vivid than ever in times like these, when we have the sense — the conviction — that we are living through times that will be remembered by history.
We have an economic crisis our grandchildren surely will find in their history textbooks. We know that when they read the phrase “first black president” they will be looking back at our times. The heartbreak in India late last month, occurring poignantly as Americans gathered to give thanks, was another reminder that we are not living in the blank pages of history.
Don’t live in the past
But now history requires us to say: Enough with history. History is too much with us. This is not a time to live in the past.
Not long ago the editors of Time magazine put Barack Obama on its cover in a distinctly Franklin Roosevelt pose with a cigarette holder held in his lips at FDR’s trademark jaunty angle. The new president has been talking about assembling a “Team of Rivals,” a reference to the first Illinois president, Abraham Lincoln, who had the courage and character to assemble many of his political opponents around his own Cabinet table. Not long ago the planners of the Obama Inaugural made references to that of Andrew Jackson, who lent his name to an era in a way that the Obama crowd surely finds appealing.
Stop. Our troubles are so great that they do not need to be paired with those of other times. They stand on their own. If history has a utility right now, it is as a comparison. It should give us perspective, not prescriptions.
Obama seemed to understand this the night he stood before hundreds of thousands and acknowledged his election in Chicago’s Grant Park, named for a Civil War general who was elected president in 1868 and the site of one of the Democratic Party’s most tragic rendezvous with history a century later. He spoke of Lincoln and the divisions the former one-term member of the House faced when he returned to Washington as president, and he pronounced them greater than the crisis we face today.
Obama was right. Everyone heard that speech but no one listened to that line, perhaps the most important.
The point is that just as 2008 is not 1860, 2008 is not 1929, either. This is a Wall Street crash, not the Wall Street Crash.
Another Roosevelt run?
Obama’s election in 2008 may begin a new Democratic era the way Franklin Roosevelt’s did in 1932, but we won’t know for three decades or so (although a repudiation of Obama in 2012 would suggest this thesis is wrong). Obama could be a new FDR, but he could also be a new JEC (Jimmy Carter, whose term between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan now appears to be an interregnum, and surely not the beginning of an era).
So the course for us in these historic times is not to ignore history but to resist the temptation to let history be our guide. That’s good advice at any time, because history is rarely a guide to the future, only a way of looking at, and explaining, the past.
Our new president needs the chance to be Barack Obama, not to be Andrew Jackson (with a new crowd descending on Washington in a celebration of the people’s rule), not to be Woodrow Wilson (a brainy ingenue with some good books on his resume, some idealistic notions and a whole lot of trouble from abroad), not to be John Kennedy (with the rhetorical flourishes of Ted Sorensen and an attractive, sophisticated family to boot), not to be Ronald Reagan (a Great Communicator but maybe not a Great Manager).
Obama is only our 44th president, which is a measure of how young this country is, how short is its history and how unreliable are any lessons that can be gleaned from our past. But with only 43 presidents before him, he also comes to office with the knowledge that Americans want an American original as their president. They may yearn for the confidence, the freedom from fear itself, that Roosevelt provided, or the muscular confidence of FDR’s cousin Theodore, or the normalcy that Warren G. Harding promised, but they elected Barack Obama as president and they deserve to get him, not a cheap knockoff of someone else.
Put history aside
So in my plea to abandon history, let me summon history to my argument. In the difficult days of the Reagan years, conservatives, worried that their man was being pressured to veer off course, used to quote the only memorable phrase that former National Security Adviser William P. Clark left to history: Let Reagan be Reagan.
We owe the new president, and ourselves, the same courtesy. Let’s leave history in a dustbin and let Obama be Obama. We live in interesting times, and my guess is that Obama will be an interesting president — on his own terms, not on someone else’s.