Jewish World Review May 27, 2003/ 25 Iyar, 5763
History in the eye of the reporter
I've often exhorted students to read both newspapers in towns where two newspapers are available, to see the differences of opinion on everything from soup to stew, from nuts to avocados (and mangos, if available). My newspaper, The Washington Times, has a conservative editorial page and The Washington Post, our competitor, has a liberal one. Neither newspaper shies from controversy; indeed, both relish the thrust-and-parry of passionate argument. But a reader can quickly see distinctions in more than the clearly labeled opinion columns.
Just the other day, David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, came to town to make the prestigious Jefferson Lecture, under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The lecture, established in 1972, is the highest humanities honor our government can bestow. Robert Penn Warren, Sydney Hook, Lionel Trilling, Barbara Tuchman and Saul Bellow have preceded Mr. McCullough to the podium. The lecture is expected to inform and inspire. Mr. McCullough didn't disappoint anyone.
He spoke to reporters before the lecture about his concerns about historical illiteracy and what he calls the resulting "national amnesia." Dissenting from the intellectual fashion of the day, he criticized textbooks as dull and dreadful, generally lacking the connecting threads of history that enliven the story of human conflict and achievement. Teaching history in segments, as in "women's issues," he said, deprives the young of a sense of cause and effect and an understanding of the struggles that illuminate changing perspectives.
James Billington, the librarian of Congress, has described Mr. McCullough as "an independent scholar," beholden neither to ideological causes nor methodological fads. He writes and talks with the taste of the times he writes about.
He cites the famous painting "The Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, a popular stop on the tourist's tour of the Capitol. It's stunning for its errors - wrong chairs, wrong curtains, wrong date. The scene is all wrong because there was no actual gathering of the signers; they signed the document at different times. But the symbolic power of the painting is irrefutable. Here was a decree without a king, a sultan or a czar, "a declaration of political faith and brave intent freely arrived at by an American congress."
These men were putting their lives on the line-calling on patriotism and courage as the "most enduring testaments to their humanity." Their pursuit of happiness was not about the "good life" but about the love of learning, the freedom to think for oneself, the "life of the mind and the spirit." History, Mr. McCullough reminded us, turns on the character of our leaders and on our understanding of them. "For a free, self-governing people something more than a vague familiarity with history is essential, if we are to hold on to and sustain our freedom."
My newspaper put the story about the historian on the front page under the headline "McCullough calls national 'amnesia' threat to liberty." It emphasized his observation that a generation that grows up without an understanding of our history is "ungrateful" for our blessings and dismissive of democracy's triumphs.
The other paper put their story on the front page of its feature section, under the headline "Repeating History at Jefferson Lecture." The reporter smugly accused the historian of merely repeating himself and his stories, of harping on familiar themes of history as pleasure. Mr. McCullough quoted John Quincy Adams telling his son that he'll never be alone "with a poet in your pocket." The reporter plays soldier in the Gotcha! Patrol: Anyone who read his Adams biography, he wrote, "will remember it from Page 260."
We can presume that this scribe interviewed not the historian but went to the archives to choose preferred earlier Jefferson lecturers, playwright Arthur Miller and historian James McPherson who, he says, didn't "rehash" their work. The last lines gave away his politically correct interpretation of the speech: "Here, in distilled form, is the kind of history that turns off people who don't belong to the establishment, history that presumes we're all charmed by the same stories of flawed but decent White Men founding an imperfect but noble union ... lively, yes, and richly anecdotal, but it is also clubby, complacent and platitudinous."
That's one view, of course, but not every reader wants the politically correct view. That's why once upon a time we had competing newspapers, and why we mourn today for readers who don't.
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