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Bad History Matters

David Barton’s book “The Jefferson Lies” is a New York Times bestseller. It was also recently voted “the least credible history book in print.” The book has been widely panned by real historians, but still it sells and sells.

David Maraniss, an Associate Editor of The Washington Post, is just out with a completely sourced, deeply researched reporting job called “Barack Obama: The Story.” Maraniss, a Pulitzer winner for his reporting on Bill Clinton, has written a shelf full of fine books on Clinton, Al Gore, Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi, among other subjects. He’s a pro and turning to the footnotes in his books tells you all you need to know about how seriously he takes the research that is the super structure of his reporting.

Yet, Maraniss’ book, well-reviewed and critically praised, hasn’t broken through as a big seller. For that book on Obama you’ll need to turn to Edward Klein’s book “The Amateur,” which has been on the Times bestseller lists for weeks despite the fact that is based on anonymous sources and little real reporting.

Klein’s highly-critical polemic about the President is nevertheless outselling Maraniss’ even-handed, yet critical biography. Actually, outselling is an understatement. Klein’s book has sold 137,000 copies and the Maraniss book has sold 19,000.

Garbage sells seems to be the lesson.

Part of the explanation for the sales success of Klein’s Obama book is the still apparently widespread notion that major elements of the President’s life – his religion and his birth, for example  – are phony, made up, invented. Maraniss picks through his pile of conspiracy and myth making and concludes that the real frauds and fabricators are those, like Klein, who keep repeating the lies, inventing new ones and passing it off as history.

Same goes with Barton’s book about Jefferson in which he concocts the story that Jefferson’s real beliefs about God and the place of religion in our public life have somehow been hidden all these years. Rather than believing in a strict separation of religion and government, Barton would have us believe Jefferson was really “an Orthodox Christian.”

As distinguished religion scholar Dr. Martin Marty points out a “real”
historian of the American founding, Gordon Wood, had this to say about Jefferson:  “It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the ‘priestcraft’ were always in alliance with despots against liberty. For him the divine Trinity “was nothing but ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘hocus-pocus’. . . Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it.”

Barton and Klein write what they pass off as history in order to advance a cause and, of course, to sell books with the help of Glenn Beck and others with a political or religious agenda. It’s a free country and we do have a First Amendment after all, but what they do is not history and to pass it off as such is also a fraud.

One of the great and pressing problems with our politics is the inability of too many people to agree on even the most fundamental facts. How can we fix out-of-control federal spending unless we agree on what is causing it? Is it some of the lowest real tax rates in history? Or runaway spending on entitlements? Or both?

Is climate change real? Is the Earth warming and, if so, has man contributed? What to do?

The beginning of solving problems is to agree on at least a few fundamental facts. Silly books that pretend to report history don’t help, nor do book sellers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon who treat phony history like we should really take it seriously.

Next time you’re browsing for a new read check out the cover, of course, but then turn to the back before you buy. Has the author really sourced the book? Do the footnotes, if there are any, pass the smell test? Is there a bibliography, meaning that the author consulted other books on his subject? Are sources named? Does the writer have an obvious agenda?

If you want to read fiction, you should, but don’t fall for fiction that passes itself off as history. There is too much good and important history being written to let the frauds and fabricators make all the sales.


Calvin Trillin

Deadline Poet, Funny Guy, Serious Reporter

Calvin Trillin has covered the civil rights movement, produced some of the best long form journalism in recent times for The New Yorker, and written about food, travel and politics.

And oh, yes, he just may be the funniest guy in print in America. He’s coming to Boise next week.

Here is one of Trillin’s latest “Deadline Poems” from the Nation magazine.

Newt’s Surge

The pundits all can confidently speak

Of Gingrich as the flavor of the week.

The people who want anyone but Mitt

Now say, in desperation, Newt is it.

Yes, Newt’s astute – a crafty wheeler-dealer.

His baggage, though, would fill an eighteen-wheeler –

Affairs and ethics problems and, to boot,

His mouth is something often he’ll shoot.

And if he’s scratched because he lacks decorum?

What happens then? Get ready, Rick Santorum.


Trillin will present the Idaho Humanities Council’s 15th annual Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities on December 8 at the Boise Centre. Tickets are still available.

Trillin’s humor may be his trademark, but his body of work is truly impressive, including one of his U.S. Journal pieces for the New Yorker written from Boise in 1979. His little book on his late wife – About Alice – will have you laughing on one page and tearing up on the next. It is one of the sweetest pieces of writing you will ever hope to read.

Trillin relates the story of first meeting Alice at a party and pursuing her to another party days later.

“At the second party, I did get to talk to her quite a lot. … Recalling that party in later years, Alice would sometimes say, ‘You have never again been as funny as you were that night.’

“ ‘You mean I peaked in December of 1963?’ I’d say, 20 or even 30 years later.

“ ‘I’m afraid so.’ ”

Many of Trillin’s essays on food are classics of the genre. He once said: “The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.”

He completely subscribes to the sensible notion that the higher the restuarant the more mediocre and costly the food. “I never eat in a restaurant that’s over a hundred feet off the ground and won’t stand still,” he says.

Trillin was Johnny Carson’s guest 30 times on the old Tonight Show and he’s a semi-regular now on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.

If you want some fun in the company of an American original, order up a dose of Calvin Trillin next week. His latest book – Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin– is a collection of pieces dating back 40 years. It’s funny, profound, literary – all quite like Calvin Trillin.


A Little History

Idaho in the Age of McCarthy

Edward R. Murrow famously said of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy that he had not created the fear of Communism that swept the nation after World War II but that McCarthy “had merely exploited it, and rather successfully.” Joe McCarthy had lots of help in Idaho.

Next week the Idaho Humanities Council hosts its annual summer institute for teachers at the College of Idaho in Caldwell and Joe McCarthy is on the agenda. Nearly 40 Idaho teachers will spend the week in an intensive, multi-disciplinary look at the age that still carries the name of the junior senator from Wisconsin – McCarthyism. The Institute’s title: “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…Fear, Suspicion and Incivility in Cold War America.”

On Tuesday evening, July 26th, I’ll have the pleasure of presenting a talk on Idaho’s politics in the early 1950’s that will focus on McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate, Idaho Sen. Herman Welker, and the Idaho politician who most suffered the guilt by association and out-and-out smears that defined much of the age, Idaho Sen. Glen Taylor.

My talk – drawing upon the nicknames of both Idaho Senators – is entitled “The Singing Senator and Little Joe from Idaho.” The event is scheduled for 7:00 pm at the College of Idaho’s Langroise Recital Hall. My talk is one of several during the week. You can check the full schedule at the IHC website.

I’m going to make the case that Welker and Taylor, a very conservative Republican and a very liberal Democrat, were the two most controversial political figures in the state’s history. They both came of age in the dawn of the Cold War and each flamed out as McCarthyism began to diminish as a political force. Between these two flamboyant men, one a rough, tough former University of Idaho athlete, the other a homespun, charismatic country music performer, the space was created that was necessary to allow the 32-year-old Frank Church to win a seat in the United States Senate and stay there for 24 years.

If you’re interested in Idaho political history and particularly how the McCarthy period in the early 1950’s influenced the political development of Idaho, you should plan to attend some of the events next week in Caldwell.

Other speakers include Nicholas Thompson, Senior editor of The New Yorker, who has written a fine book on his grandfather, Cold Warrior Paul Nitze a great foreign policy hawk, and George Kennan, one of the great figures in 20th Century American diplomacy. Thompson speaks Sunday night, July 24th.

Ellen Schrecker, Professor of History at Yeshiva University, speaks on Wednesday, July 27th. Professor Schrecker is one of the foremost historians of the Cold War period and has written extensively on McCarthy.

And Idaho native F. Ross Peterson speaks on Thursday, July 28th on McCarthy’s influence on politics across the Mountain West. Dr. Peterson is the author of a great book on Sen. Taylor.

One of the enduring lessons of the McCarthy period, a lesson we continue to struggle with as a nation, is the confusion, as Murrow so eloquently said in 1954, of dissent with disloyalty. Idaho was fertile ground for Red Baiting in the 1950’s. The charge of being “soft on Communism” or entertaining thoughts even slightly out of the mainstream could be enough to torpedo a political career. Making the charge against an opponent, on the other hand, was a proven strategy to advance a career.

The years when Joe McCarthy was a dominate figure in American politics are not among prettiest chapters of our history, but the period is one worth revisiting, understanding and evaluating in the never ending quest to create “a more perfect Union.”



Survey Says

Don’t Know Much About…Us

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to travel a fair amount – Europe several times, South America, Canada – and after every trip I’ve returned thinking its good to be home, but man we sure don’t know much about the rest of the world.

I remember a trip to Canada a few years ago and engaging in serious conversation with friendly Canadians who seemed to be up on everything happening in the USA from our politics to popular culture. By contrast, most Americans couldn’t find Saskatoon with a GPS device let alone name the Canadian Prime Minister – Stephen Harper – or that the national capitol is Ottawa, not Montreal or Toronto.

Now it turns out we don’t know much about ourselves, either. Newsweek has surveyed 1,000 Americans on the most basic details of our history, government and politics. We flunked. Badly.

The questions aren’t exactly PhD level, either, but are questions that are asked in the official U.S. citizenship test. Questions like: What happened at the Constitutional Convention? How could 65% of those surveyed not know that the Founders wrote the U.S. Constitution at the Constitutional Convention?

Or, how about this. Fully 88% in the survey couldn’t name one person who authored the Federalist Papers. Hint: his wife’s name was Dolley, as in Madison. Maybe those 65% know her donuts and cakes better. And, don’t ask what the Federalist Papers were.

I’ve railed in this space in the past about America’s historical ignorance, but 29% not being able to name the current vice president or 73% not know why we “fought” the Cold War. This isn’t funny. It is worrying.

Newsweek blames several factors for American ignorance, including a generally complex political system that unlike Europe tends to spread control among local, state and federal governments. I guess this is confusing and there is much to keep track of, but that hardly seems an excuse for the fundamental lack of knowledge exposed in the survey.

The decentralized education system gets some blame. What we teach in Idaho they might not teach in Maryland. Some of the blame should go, I think, to those who have de-emphasized history, social studies and the humanities in favor of science and math. Kids need it all, in big doses.

And there is the income and media reality. A growing percentage of Americans are poor, not of the middle class. Poorer Americans have less access to information and knowledge. In Europe, where a larger share of the population lives in the middle, people are generally better educated and much more knowledgeable about their politics and government.

The mass media is both part of the problem and could offer a slice of the solution, but we mostly have a pure market driven media that features much more American Idol than Meet the Press. It is, after all, difficult to take politics seriously when so much of it is trivialized over the air and on the web.

The Newsweek analysis concludes, and maybe this is the good news, “the problem is ignorance, not stupidity.“ One expert who has studied this American ignorance says, “we suffer from a lack of information rather than a lack of ability.”

The real problem here isn’t knowing James Madison authored many of the Federalist Papers, it is not knowing enough – as the current budget debate in Washington, D.C. makes so clear – about our federal government and our political system. It’s impossible to assess, for example, what must be done to fix the budget if we have no idea how the government spends and taxes.

Survey after survey says Americans want Congress to cut the budget by reducing foreign aid and by stamping out that old standby waste, fraud and abuse. At the same time they say whatever you do don’t touch Social Security or Medicare where the real money gets spent. Too many politicians pander this ignorance and we get the endless debates we now witness in Congress.

Simple fact: Americans need information and real knowledge to make sense of their government and then they must care enough to act on the knowledge. Ignorance isn’t a strategy for a great country.

Symbolic Cuts

burnsMinimal Money, Real Impact

Noted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has waded into the fray over eliminating federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and sharply reducing the measly dollars we spend on the national endowments for the humanities and the arts.

In a piece in the Washington Post, Burns – his Civil War documentary may be the best long-form television ever – asks us to remember that during the Great Depression somehow the country found the dollars to support artists, writers and photographers who produced some of the most enduring work of the 20th Century. Surely, he says, we can afford a fraction of a cent of our federal tax dollar for CPB and the endowments.

In the interest of full disclosure, loyal readers need to know I have a strong bias here. I cut my journalism teeth years ago with a daily half-hour broadcast on public television. I have volunteered for 15 years on various boards dedicated to the mission of the public humanities and the bringing of thoughtful programs on American and world culture, history, literature, religion and philosophy to Idahoans and Americans. I’m a true believer in these well established and minimally funded institutions and I also understand the federal budget.

The $420 million we spend on CPB, almost all of which goes to local public TV and radio stations and programs like those Ken Burns makes, and the $168 million we spend on each of the endowments is a total drop in the federal budget bucket. The Pentagon spends that much in an afternoon.

Case in point, Boeing just got an award from the Defense Department to build a new generation of aerial tankers – price tag $35 billion. Assuming Boeing builds a full fleet of 179 tankers, that averages out to about $195 million per plane. That buys a whole lot of what the endowments and CPB provide Americans.

I know, I know, we need new aerial tankers to replace those in service since Eisenhower was in the White House, but don’t we also need a place – for a tiny fraction of the cost – where Ken Burns’ documentaries reach a huge audience or where the humanities endowment supports a local museum or library?

Congress and the president continue the gandy dance around the real need to address the federal budget deficit. We have a crisis in three areas – defense spending, Medicare and Social Security. We need to address a combination of very difficult tradeoffs. Extend the retirement age, means test Medicare, reduce the size and scope of our military power on every continent and raise taxes. It’s easier to say than to cut, but there you have the real issues.

Anyone who tells you we can address the dismal federal deficit by cutting CPB and the National Endowments is practicing demagoguery on the scope of Huey Long, the subject, by the way, of a Ken Burns’ documentary.

Much of this debate, it must be noted, is about ideology rather than real budget savings. Some conservatives assail public broadcasting or the pointy headed humanities and arts community as the preserve of “liberals.” Nonsense. William F. Buckley found a home on PBS. Were the great man alive today, do you think he could find a place on Fox or CNN? Not a chance. Listen to a week of The NewsHour or Morning Edition and really consider the range of views, opinion and ideology you hear. Public TV and radio have become one of the few real clearinghouses of ideas about the American condition. Not liberal, not conservative, but truly fair and balanced.

America is a country of ideas. We have thrived for as long as we have because we value the big debate, the chance for lots of voices – from Ken Burns to the Red Green Show (on PBS) to the Trailing of the Sheep Festival and a summer teacher institute in Idaho (funded by the Idaho Humanities Council) – to be heard, considered, rejected and embraced.

We must get serious about the federal deficit. We must also recognize that a guy as talented as Ken Burns would never have a chance in the “marketplace media.” A long-form documentary on baseball, jazz, the National Parks or World War II simply won’t find a place in modern commercial broadcasting. So, eliminating that platform is really a decision to eliminate the ideas represented there.

If we lose what a Ken Burns represents, we lose a connection with our history and our culture that simply can’t be replaced. We will regret it, but not as much as our children.

The Importance of Being Borah

borahA Senator Worth Remembering

I’ll be speaking on Wednesday night at the Main Boise Library on the life and career of Idaho’s longest serving U.S. Senator, William E. Borah. That’s him, third from the right, in a photo taken in Sandpoint. I’m going to guess is was in the middle-1920’s.

The Borah talk is one I have put together as part of the Idaho Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau. I’ll talk about Borah’s career and lasting importance, but also about his view of the Senate in our form of government. Borah was a progressive Republican, somewhat in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, but he was also fiercely independent and more than willing to buck his own party.

I’ve been reading and writing about Borah for a long time. In fact, I began his journey into blogland more than a year ago with a piece on his approach to Supreme Court appointments. I continue to find him a fascinating character. And, of course, there is that business with Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

The Library event is a 7:00 pm in the Main Auditorium. Staff at the Boise Library have also created a great Borah bibliography of books, articles and writings about the man known as “the Lion of Idaho.”


Honoring Borglum

BorglumArt and Politics in a Different Time

You can be forgiven if you didn’t know that Idaho has a Hall of Fame. Apparently the group only gets real attention when they decide, as they did in 2007 and again last week, to honor an individual with Idaho connections who has generated controversy.

The last time the group was in the news, they had decided to induct Larry Craig into the Hall while the former senator was still daily enduring the brunt of jokes from late night comedians.

This year its Mt. Rushmore sculptor John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum who has generated the headlines because of his 1920’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Borglum, born in Bear Lake County, Idaho Territory in 1867, was a man of enormous talent, even greater ambition and – I know this will be a shock – some serious shortcomings as a person.

As the superb PBS series The American Experience noted when it broadcast a piece on Mt. Rushmore some time back, “Borglum liked to tinker with his own legend, subtracting a few years from his age, changing the story of his parentage. The best archival research has revealed that he was born in 1867 to one of the wives of a Danish Mormon bigamist. When his father decided to conform to societal norms that were pressing westward with the pioneers, he abandoned Gutzon’s mother, and remained married to his first wife, her sister.”

The rest of Borglum’s life was just as confused and, frankly, in keeping with the west of mythology, just as disordered and contradictory. Why else would a elfin-size man consider it possible (not to mention desirable) to carve 60 foot high heads of American presidents on the side of a slab of granite in the Black Hills of South Dakota? Borglum also believed he had the ability and political skill to create a monument to the heros of the Confederacy at Stone Mountain, Georgia. That’s where the Idaho native met up with the Klan.

Carving portraits on the sides of mountains requires some kind of ego, not to mention showmanship, artistic and engineering skill, political connections and impossibly good public relations. Borglum had all that and then some.

I grew up in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore, a National Monument about 25 miles from Rapid City. The monument, to my eyes, is one of the most fascinating tourist sites in the United States and draws nearly 3 million visitors every year. Yet, the place is an incredible study in contradiction. At Mt. Rushmore, it requires real effort not to confront all the tension and dissention inherent in the American story.

When the project was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in the summer of 1927 he cast Borglum’s breathtakingly complex endeavor in patriotic, nationalistic terms.

“Its location will be significant,” Coolidge said. “Here in the heart of the continent, on the side of a mountain which probably no white man had ever beheld in the days of Washington, in territory which was acquired by the action of Jefferson, which remained an unbroken wilderness beyond the days of Lincoln, which was especially beloved by Roosevelt, the people of the future will see history and art combined to portray the spirit of patriotism.”

Silent Cal lavished praise on the “people of South Dakota” and the four American presidents who would soon take their places on the mountain. He did not deign to mention the Lakota Sioux, the original “people of South Dakota” who considered – still consider – the Black Hills theirs by right of a treaty signed with the United States government in 1868.

So, in the extreme, Borglum’s incredible artistic and engineering accomplishment is a shrine to American democracy and all the best that stands for and a mountain-sized reminder of what the “American” experience has meant for Native Americans.

Borglum story was every bit as much a contradiction as the story of his greatest accomplishment. All the news coverage of Borglum’s induction into the Idaho Hall of Fame prominently mentioned, as it should have, his involvement with the Klan while he was attempting to construct what eventually became the Stone Mountain Memorial in Georgia – a monument to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.

The Idaho Statesman’s Kevin Richert and the editorial page of the Idaho State Journal chided the Hall of Fame pickers for, at a minimum, a lack of due diligence in selecting Borglum for any honor.

Here’s my take. The Klan represents a ugly, ugly period in American history, but it is our history and a fair and more complete – not to mention more interesting – reading of that history requires us to struggle with context and motivation. The “perfect” vision afforded by hindsight can blind us to nuance. History, after all, is often about finding a balance; in Borglum’s case human frailty versus great accomplishment.

Borglum, a politician as much as a sculptor, surely felt he needed both the political and financial help of the Klan in Georgia in the early 1920’s if he were to succeed with his Stone Mountain tribute. The three Americans honored there, not to put too fine a point on it, had participated in an effort to violently overthrow the government of the United States. And Stone Mountain isn’t just another hunk of granite. The modern Klan was re-born in a ceremony on top of the mountain in 1915.

Borglum took on the Stone Mountain project for several reasons; for money no doubt, surely for prestige, maybe even for his art. He set out to create an heroic monument to the leaders of the War of Rebellion at the same time he was contemplating a monument to one of the presidents who put down that rebellion. In the process, in the case of Stone Mountain, he made a deal with the Klan. Today we might well say Borglum made a deal with the devil and, yes, you might get an entirely different read on these same details in part of the old Confederacy. That, too, is part of our history.

Consider one more contradiction. Borglum abandoned work on Stone Mountain in 1923 in large part because of financial disagreements with the project’s sponsors. He had also gotten enthused about the prospects of an even more grandiose art project in the Black Hills championed by a very progressive Republican United States Senator named Peter Norbeck. Norbeck, a friend and political supporter of Teddy Roosevelt and his brand of liberal GOP politics, worked – most of the time, anyway – closely with Borglum to push the Mt. Rushmore project and raise money to complete the monument. Norbeck in his politics and priorities was about as far removed from the Klan as South Dakota is from Georgia.

In 1924, to further confound the modern reader of Borglum’s life, the sculptor happily endorsed the presidential aspirations of Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette who ran as a third party candidate on the Progressive ticket. Borglum cast quarter-sized bronze reliefs of the very liberal La Follette and his equally liberal running mate Sen. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. The likenesses of the two progressives – they supported strong unions, child labor laws and a non-interventionist foreign policy – were used as campaign buttons and you can still occasionally find Borglum’s handsome work in second hand shops or on eBay.

It’s also worth noting that during that 1924 election only the Progressive Party platform condemned the Klan. The Democratic and Republican platforms were silent because, rather than condemn the white sheet crowd, the major parties actually hoped to appeal to Klan members.

As historian Stanley Coben has pointed out, in the 1920’s the Klan “enrolled more members in Connecticut than in Mississippi, more in Oregon than in Louisiana, and more in New Jersey than in Alabama.” In the 1920’s, Klan backed candidates won races for governor in Oregon, Kansas and Colorado.

Shakespeare wrote, “the evil men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”

Borglum, as is well document, had many flaws, including ego and self aggrandizement and he flirted, and maybe more, with the Klan. We have been recently reminded that as a young, ambitious man, the late, great Sen. Robert Byrd did much the same. Hugo Black, arguably one of the greatest Supreme Court justices in our history, and certainly one of the greatest civil libertarians to ever grace the Court, had to explain his Klan membership in 1937. He spent the rest of his days living it down.

We shouldn’t excuse such errors of judgment, youthful indiscretion or rank opportunism, but a fair reading of history – and in this case Gutzon Borglum’s accomplishments – also requires consideration of the man’s total life. If further proof of Borglum’s artistic achievement it necessary, note that he sculpted two of the 100 statues in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. This guy, born near Paris, Idaho, had some serious talent.

Borglum and the Klan are part of our history; the good and the not so good. So too the mountain he carved on disputed ground in the Black Hills of Lakota territory featuring other worthy – and very human – white men Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. Turns out our history is just as confused and contradictory as Gutzon Borglum’s.

Civilization Requires Civility

leachNational Civility Tour Comes to Idaho

Jim Leach is on a mission. The former Republican Congressman from Iowa, now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), has the passionate belief that we’re shaking the foundations of our democracy by the way we handle our political discourse. Leach is on a mission for civility.

In a speech last fall in Nebraska, appropriately entitled “With Malice Toward None,” Leach said:

“The public goal should be to recognize that it is great to be a conservative or libertarian; great to be a liberal, a moderate, or progressive. But it is not great to hate. It is not great to refuse to respect one’s fellow citizens at home and refuse to endeavor to understand fellow peoples abroad.

“The decency and fairness with which political decisions are made are generally more important than the outcome of any issue. The ‘how’ almost always matters more than the ‘what.'”

Leach should know. He spent 30 years in Congress, rose to the top ranks, lost re-election in 2006, taught at Princeton and was tapped by President Obama to run the Endowment last year. Almost immediately he launched a 50-state “civility tour” talking about the importance to a functioning democracy of understanding and not demonizing your political opponents. He talks about the search for “the common good,” not just partisan advantage. Leach has a politician’s experience and a scholar’s disposition. Believe me, that is a rare but valuable combination.

The Andrus Center for Public Policy – I serve as the Center’s volunteer president – will host Leach for a lunch and talk on June 11th at the Grove Hotel in downtown Boise. The Idaho Humanities Council, the state – based affiliate of the NEH – has been instrumental in getting the chairman to Idaho. Leach will speak on “Civility in a Fractured Society.”

Leach doesn’t call for the abandonment of fiercely held political principles, but rather that we not start the political discourse by assuming that the other person’s position is automatically suspect and therefore not worthy of consideration. It is a message the Andrus Center embraces. The Center was formed in 1995 to help carry on the approach to public affair that the four-term former Idaho governor embodied – vigorous, but civil debate that sought to find win-win solutions.

Seating for the luncheon and speech is limited and you can reserve a spot online at the Center’s website.

As columnist Jamie Stiehm noted recently in U.S. News – to steal Dr. Samuel Johnson’s phrase – “we’ve become good at hating,” but not so good at being civil. Jim Leach is trying to save us from ourselves. Let’s hope he’s making progress.

Why History Matters

YaltaKnowing the Past…

For much of the 1950’s and 1960’s, this photo – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin together at Yalta in February 1945 – served as the iconic evidence that hard headed, authoritarian Russian Communism rolled over idealistic western democracy at the end of World War II.

In the most popular narrative, largely unchanged for more than half a century, the Cold War started at Yalta and the U.S. and Britain were easily rolled by that cagey Commie Uncle Joe Stalin.

The truth, of course, is much more complicated, more nuanced, and much more important. A new book – Yalta – The Price of Peace by Harvard historian S.M. Plokhy tells the nuanced story of Yalta and the account helps explain why the famous gathering in the Crimea was neither a victory nor a defeat for the west, but rather one step in the long march of history that helped shape the post-war world.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others exploited many of the myths about Yalta, including the notion that FDR was naive about dealing with the Russians and that somehow Churchill and Roosevelt should have been able to get a better outcome for Poland.

Plokhy’s research makes clear that FDR was far from naive. He went to Yalta to make a deal in the interest of getting Russian approval of his outline for the creation of the United Nations and, under intense pressure from his military advisers, to get Stalin to commit to joining the war in the Pacific against the Japanese. He accomplished both objectives. He also got agreement on post-war occupation of Germany and secured for the French, who Stalin wanted out of the picture, a major role in both the U.N. and western Europe. By contrast, neither Churchill nor FDR had much leverage over Stalin when it came to Poland, since, by early 1945, Red Army troops were occupying much of the country and would win the race to Berlin.

That is the history and the nuance, yet as recently as 2005, George W. Bush, choosing to read (or remember) history with an ideological bias, was declaring that Yalta led to some of “the greatest wrongs of history.” No word on what the former president thinks of Karl Rove’s new book that acknowledges no Bush-era culpability for American military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that’s another history lesson.

Still, both cases – Yalta and the post-war and Iraq today – prove a fundamental truth: where there is no nuance, history gets distorted; where history is abused in the pursuit of ideological ends there can be no truth.

“History can help us be wise,” Margaret MacMillan, the Canadian historian, writes in her new book – Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuse of History. “It can also suggest to us what the likely outcome of our actions might be.”

MacMillan is the best kind of historian; a skilled researcher and a lively writer on the search for truth. Her last book – Paris 1919 – tells the story of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I and helped set the stage for the next war. The book should be required reading for every American politician, since all seem to need to understand the rule of unintended consequences.

Ultimately, history is about trying to arrive at truth, which is why MacMillan tweaks Bush and Tony Blair for invoking Munich of the 1930’s to justify an invasion of Iraq in the 21st Century. But she is no ideologue, also pointing out that a “liberalizing” China is unwilling to deal with the legacy of Mao and that even normally circumspect, mild mannered Canada experienced a full-throated controversy in the 1990’s when a documentary suggested that there might be questions of morality associated with Canadian aircrews and their wartime strategic bombing of Germany.

I think Margaret MacMillan might agree that one of the profound challenges facing the American Republic is a deepening and profoundly troubling lack of understanding of our history coupled with the fact that history is ever more regularly twisted to suit some need to score immediate partisan politic points.

Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times over the weekend, made this fundamental point in a starkly effective way. Rich quotes a former Bush White House press secretary and the ever present Rudy Giuliani, as saying “we did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term.” Say what?

Obviously, this ultra selective “abuse” of history was rolled out in an effort to portray the current occupant of the White House as “soft or terrorism.” Barack Obama may or may not be soft on terrorism, but abusing the reality of recent history to make that case is beyond comprehension and should be labeled for what it is – a distortion or, if you prefer, a lie. As the old saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts, or their own history.

The recent race to raise America’s educational standing in math and science has generally meant a diminishment of teaching of what we normally call the humanities, most importantly history. I’m all for better math and science education, but I also know that too many Americans, as surveys and Jay Leno’s sidewalk interviews have shown us, don’t know much about their history.

No less an historian than two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough said a while back that the lack of knowledge about our history is jeopardizing our way of life.

We don’t all need to ponder the real impacts of Yalta in 1945 or know in detail the terms of the Paris peace conference in 1919, but we do need to know enough about our own history to call foul on those who would distort it. We can’t rely exclusively on historians to hold the ideologues of the right and the left to account for “abusing” history. Democracy doesn’t – or can’t – work that way.

If we fail to know enough of our history, or, as David McCullough has said, to “know who we are” or we misunderstand “how we became what we are, we’re going to start suffering from all the obvious detrimental effects of amnesia.”

That truly is a threat to our way of life.