by Kenneth Weisbrode on Dec 25, 2008
American presidents have been known to want a loyal follower close at hand to record their achievements for the ages. Lincoln had Nicolay and Hay. Grant had Twain. Franklin Roosevelt had Sherwood and Rosenman. Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan each had Edmund Morris. What about Barack Obama? Who will write his history?
The answer is simple: Obama himself.
It’s hard to recall a recent president entering office with so heavy a historical burden. No fewer than half a dozen major books about him reportedly are in the works. They’ll try to define Obama’s presidency before he’s had his own chance to do so.
Leave it to Obama to take it all in stride. It’s easy to imagine him suggesting casually, as John F. Kennedy did to his would-be iconographer, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that he hopes someone is busy getting it all down. The hint was vintage Kennedy. For surely there was no better reason to employ Schlesinger, the historian who had already done wonders for Jackson and FDR.
Of all the recent presidents, Kennedy was the most historically sensitive — if we’re to agree with Schlesinger — in that he possessed an almost existential sense of himself. Yet out of his mere one thousand days in office a powerful legend was born that survives to this day. That wasn’t by accident.
Other post-World War II presidents have fared less well. Who today remembers the histories of Eric Goldman (on LBJ), or Emmet Hughes and Stephen Ambrose (on Eisenhower)? Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Clinton and both Bushes each lacked a successful court historian, Haldeman, Woodward, Bernstein and Rove notwithstanding.
Judging by what we’ve seen so far, Obama won’t suffer their lot. He’s been lucky in the quality of his admirers. No, he has a different problem. In contrast with Kennedy, Obama has substituted ambivalence for subtlety where history is concerned.
He pays regular homage to it but doesn’t seem taken with historians, as Bush II or Truman were. He’s conscious of his own prominent place in the nation’s history but has gone out of his way to downplay the legacy issue. From what we’ve seen so far, Obama prefers to show, not tell.
That’s why he’ll end up writing the history of his presidency himself. Which won’t be so bad. Obama’s already an accomplished memoirist. He evidently prefers to be his own foreign minister and his own in-house intellectual. So why not his own historian?
In this he reminds us of Kennedy’s famous remark to a group of high achievers that the White House had not seen so many great minds in one place since Thomas Jefferson dined there alone. But even Jefferson came to suffer from the whims of history — and historians.
Obama won’t let that happen. Instead, he’s likely to take his cue from Winston Churchill, who is said to have said, history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it. But he risks doing so at a disadvantage unless he begins to take the historians’ craft seriously.
The president-elect must make sure that he, or a trusted associate, really does get it all down. For no history or president can have lasting value without leaving behind an honest and thorough record which stands the test of time. This could prove to be Obama’s biggest challenge of all.
Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian at the European University Institute and the author of The Atlantic Century (2009) and is a writer for the History News Service.