Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Should it matter when politicians make history mistakes?

George Stephanopoulos used his time interviewing Michele Bachmann to quiz her about a couple of gaffes she'd made about American history. She had said that the Founding Fathers who wrote the Declaration of Independence and Constitution worked tirelessly to end slavery. When reminded that several of the Founders were in fact slave-owners, she defended her point by using John Quincy Adams as an example of a Founding father who had worked tirelessly to eradicate slavery. While he was a prominent abolitionist in his post-White House career, by no stretch of the imagination can he be included in with the Founders who wrote the Constitution and Declaration. And it's rather difficult to ignore that the author of the Declaration of Independence, the president of the Constitutional Convention, and the acknowledged father of the Bill of Rights were all slave-owners.

Rather than reaching for JQA as her example of a founder who opposed slavery, she could have brought in his father, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin, all of whom were opponents of slavery. She could have talked about Washington's freeing his slaves after Martha's death in his will, or talked about Jefferson's own distaste for slavery though he didn't know what to do to end it. She could have taken the position that Lincoln did, that our founders sought an ideal of an end to slavery and established principles such as the concept that all men were created equal that could be used later to recognize the natural rights of black men and women. But she didn't. Perhaps she doesn't know these examples or just could not come up with them in the short time of an interview. Maybe she wanted to keep the focus on her campaign positions rather than getting sidetracked.

I'm still shaking my head over her inexplicable error in campaigning in New Hampshire by congratulating them "You're the state where the shot was heard around the world at Lexington and Concord." How could she not know that that was in Massachusetts? Has she never actually studied the Founding Era and simply gathered some sloganeering language wrapped up with an appeal to the Founders as support for her political positions today?

Now it would have been nice if Stephanopoulos or any journalist had shown as much focus on historical gaffes that Obama has made. Here are a few reminders.

During the 2008 campaign he'd claimed that we should meet face-to-face with those we oppose just as Kennedy had met with Khrushchev when "We were on the brink of nuclear war." Except Kennedy's meeting with Khrushchev had occurred more than a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis and was regarded even by JFK as a failure. In fact, Khrushchev concluded from his meeting with JFK at Vienna that the young president would not be a barrier to an increased Soviet hardline as he went on to approve the building of the Berlin Wall and the placement of missiles in Cuba.

Also during the campaign he bragged about his uncle being part of the liberation of Auschwitz when it was the Soviets who liberated the camps in Poland. His uncle helped to liberate a satellite camp of Buchenwald. I would have thought that, if he were truly so proud of his uncle's service, he might have read up on those experiences and learned more about what actually happened.

At his inaugural, he didn't know how many men had been president double-counting Cleveland. That was a small error, of course, but you'd think that for an Inaugural Address he or his speechwriters would get it right.

Obama's aides seem so impressed with the boss that they have lost all historical perspective. Remember Rahm Emanuel telling Obama that he had faced the toughest times that any president has ever faced. Apparently, Obama and his aides only remember Abraham Lincoln when they want to reach for some strained comparison between the two.

Obama's sense of himself seems so grandiose that he can make boneheaded comments like claiming that the reason he was so unpopular in Texas is that "Texas has always been a pretty Republican state, for, you know, historic reasons." Apparently, this man who supposedly learned so much from the civil rights movement was unaware that the Democrats were the party of the solid South and that Texas had been a Democratic state since its admission in 1845 until Nixon's election in 1972. That was the historic gaffe that led Scott Johnson of Powerline to say that "Obama's historical ignorance could be a full time beat for somebody who does this work for a living".

More importantly, his whole approach to the Middle East displays a vast historical ignorance. In that same Inaugural he talked about seeking a "new way forward" for our relations with the Muslim world and a return to the "same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.". As Charles Krauthammer pointed out at the time, Obama seemed ignorant of the true history of our relationship with the Muslim world.
Astonishing. In these most recent 20 years -- the alleged winter of our disrespect of the Islamic world -- America did not just respect Muslims, it bled for them. It engaged in five military campaigns, every one of which involved -- and resulted in -- the liberation of a Muslim people: Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The two Balkan interventions -- as well as the failed 1992-93 Somalia intervention to feed starving African Muslims (43 Americans were killed) -- were humanitarian exercises of the highest order, there being no significant U.S. strategic interest at stake. In these 20 years, this nation has done more for suffering and oppressed Muslims than any nation, Muslim or non-Muslim, anywhere on Earth. Why are we apologizing?

And what of that happy U.S.-Muslim relationship that Obama imagines existed "as recently as 20 or 30 years ago" that he has now come to restore? Thirty years ago, 1979, saw the greatest U.S.-Muslim rupture in our 233-year history: Iran's radical Islamic revolution, the seizure of the U.S. Embassy, the 14 months of America held hostage.

Which came just a few years after the Arab oil embargo that sent the United States into a long and punishing recession. Which, in turn, was preceded by the kidnapping and cold-blooded execution by Arab terrorists of the U.S. ambassador in Sudan and his chargé d'affaires.

This is to say nothing of the Marine barracks massacre of 1983, and the innumerable attacks on U.S. embassies and installations around the world during what Obama now characterizes as the halcyon days of U.S.-Islamic relations.

Look. If Barack Obama wants to say, as he said to al-Arabiya, I have Muslim roots, Muslim family members, have lived in a Muslim country -- implying a special affinity that uniquely positions him to establish good relations -- that's fine. But it is both false and deeply injurious to this country to draw a historical line dividing America under Obama from a benighted past when Islam was supposedly disrespected and demonized.
Obama's recent trumpeting of desiring a return to the pre-1967 borders as a basis for peace between Israel and the Palestinians was another example of the result of having a president who is so ignorant of history.

So historical ignorance can be both embarrassing and crucial for a president. Critics shouldn't ridicule Michele Bachmann's errors unless they've also spent some time on Obama's errors. But that isn't stopping Bachmann's liberal critics from jumping all over her for her mistakes. Add in the blunder about claiming John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa when it was really the murderer John Wayne Gacy and it hasn't been a smooth opening to her official announcement for president.

But does it matter that she seems to be rather clueless about the history of the Founding Era even as she cloaks herself in the mantle of the Founders? Perhaps not. Maybe I'm just overly sensitive because I'm a history teacher and I so want my students to have a fuller understanding of the our nation's history than just a few slogans and nice stories. A candidate's ideological approach is more important than his or her knowledge of historical facts. And I'm certainly much more in sympathy with Bachmann's conservatism than with Obama's approach. And there is much to admire about her personal biography. I admire her spunk as she deals with criticism and mockery. And I applaud her for regularly running the gauntlet of hostile interviews rather than trying to remain within a cushioned bubble of softy interview from her ideological soulmates in the conservative media as Sarah Palin does. I thought she handled the unfortunate phrasing of Chris Wallace's question about being a flake rather well. I didn't think it was so very objectionable a topic for a question. That's the rap on her and he, as an interviewer, was well within the bound to give her a chance to respond. His choice of words was poor, but it was clear what he was trying to do in that question. And it certainly was easier on her than what Stephanopoulos did by using her own words to demonstrate the holes in her historical knowledge.

I must confess that I find her gaffes cringe-making and reading her rather robotic responses to Stephanopoulos's questions as she tries to talk about what she wants to rather than address her historical blunders was not encouraging. A leader of a movement based on a return to the founding principles of our nation should be more familiar with that actual history. In addition to reading von Mises and Hayek, she should add in some history to beach reading. I am so tired of the GOP candidate being someone whose remarks so often make me cringe. She's fine for her role of being a leader of the opposition to the Democrats in the House and rallying Tea Party supporters but she doesn't strike me as ready to defeat Obama. And that is my prime concern in choosing a candidate to support. Since I usually end up having to pick a candidate to support who is the least objectionable to me, I'd also like to support one who could oust the Obamanians from the Executive Branch. I shudder to think where our country will be after another four years of all of them and another four years of his appointees to the courts and all the administrative agencies which seem to be constantly expanding their unelected reach into every aspect of government. If I had to trade one who knew history for one who had the right policies and could defeat Obama, that would be fine for me.

Meanwhile, I won't be holding my breath waiting for all those who are enjoying their opportunities to ridicule Bachmann's historical gaffes to subject Obama's pronouncements on the Middle East to the same historical examination.

But being able to point fingers and say "your guy's also a historical ignoramus" shouldn't be all that supporters of a political candidate have to fall back on when she goes out there and starts making us cringe.