In Honor of Bernard A. Weisberger: "People Are Crazy and Do Damn Fool Things"

Comments About Historians
tags: Bernard Weisberger

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. 

In the spring of 1929 a famous economist named Irving Fisher, held in high esteem by his colleagues, predicted that stock market would keep going up and up and up.  “Fisher Says Prices of Stocks Are Low,” proclaimed a New York Times headline.  Two days later the stock market crashed.  Fisher had been wrong as wrong can be. Ever after he has been held in contempt.  Oh, to be so wrong!

But he hasn’t been alone, has he?  Some years ago a social scientist at the University of Pennsylvania decided to find out if experts are good at making predictions.  He sent them questionnaires about scores of subjects and then he sat on the answers, waiting to see just how good they were at predicting the future.  He awaited ten years.  Then he collated the results.  The upshot was that his experts were terrible.  With few exceptions these putative pundits did little better than chance in predicting the course events had taken.

Despite their paltry record of success none of the experts suffered from their record of failure.  They still appeared on television as pontificators.  The newspapers still featured their op eds as if their authors were fountains of wisdom.  The public still bowed before them as luminaries of knowledge.  Why?  The conclusion of the social scientist who had proven they were not terribly good fortune tellers was that there is little to no cost when a pundit blunders.  With only a few exceptions, one of them being what happened to Mr. Fisher, whose reputation as a failed prognosticator has become legendary, we don’t remember when pundits mess up.  No one (except for our Penn social scientist) keeps score.

But if we did, who might come out on top?  Who has been right far more than he’s been wrong?  If asked I would nominate Bernard Weisberger.

I first came to know Bernie, as he’s known to one and all, forty years ago.  I was a student at Vassar.  He was a teacher there.  Later, he became a columnist at American Heritage, where he wrote about events in the news.  He has also written for this website.  In all that time I cannot recall his ever getting any major event or trend wrong.  I don’t say this because we agree on things.  We have always seemed out of step with one another politically.  When first we met I was a conservative supporter of Nixon and he was a liberal opponent of Nixon.  Later, he moved left and joined the ranks of Nader supporters.  By then a liberal myself, I enthusiastically backed Al Gore.  But Bernie always understood the main currents that pulsed through the American electorate.  No one was better at figuring out the forces driving the country this way and that than Bernie.

The best example I have of his perspicacity was a piece he did for HNN back in the summer of 2002.  It was pure Bernie.  George Bush had proposed that the giant surpluses the government was accumulating be spent on tax cuts.  Bernie thought this was short-sighted.  So did many others.  But Bernie’s opposition wasn’t based on a hunch or blind partisan posturing.  It was rooted in his knowledge of history.  Most Americans, suffering from an ignorance of history, thought that surpluses were a new phenomenon.  Bernie knew better.  We’d had three discrete periods when the government had found itself flooded with cash.  Each time, Bernie showed, the politicians in Washington had dreamed up ways to spend the money only to discover thereafter how short-sighted they’d been.  The surpluses didn’t last.   The title of the piece was, "What History Tells Us Will Likely Happen to Those Giant Surpluses.”  You can read it here on HNN.  The number associated with the URL indicates it was the 91st original essay we published.  It remains one of the best.  Twelve years later it still holds up.  And as we all now know, sadly to our regret, Bernie was right.  The surpluses did not last.

In the concluding paragraph of the piece Bernie notes that while “it does look as if a more prudent and less political use of the surplus would have made better sense,” such “self-abnegation was hardly to be expected.”  Do you detect the world-weariness with which this was said?  It’s there, but it’s hidden.  In person Bernie was often more direct.

Not long ago my husband and I were in Chicago and Bernie came down from the suburbs to share a meal.  He was already in his nineties, but still able to hop on a train and make the journey.  Shortly after we fell into deep conversation Bernie turned to me and said, “people are crazy and do damn fool things.”  I shot up.  I have been quoting this line of his for years and turned to my husband to see his reaction.  Here was Bernie himself saying those now famous words.  Alas, my husband had not heard them.  Age had taken its toll on Bernie’s once vibrant delivery.  The words came out too softly.  But they had come.  And I had heard them.  A broad smile crossed my face.  

Bernie has seen it all in his long life.  War.  Depression.  Bungling politicians.  At times it turned him into a pessimist.  In recent years events have made him fearful of what the future would bring.  But he has never succumbed to a harsh verdict on humanity.  “People are stupid and do damn fool things,” perhaps, but they aren’t despicable.  They are just human.

To a historian the tale of history is often crammed with sorrowful events that easily could have been avoided had reason prevailed.  Bernie has understood this as well as anybody.  But it's never made him a sourpuss.  I've always appreciated that about him more than anything.  It suggests great wisdom.  As a young man wondering what to do with my life, it occurred to me that I could do worse than follow in Bernie’s footsteps as a journalist cum historian.  I’ve never had cause to regret my decision.  Thanks Bernie.  It was your example I was following.    

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