Tina Brown: History Is Hot Right Now

Roundup: Talking About History

Tina Brown, in the Wash Post (May 20, 2004):

History is hot. And not just because of Brad Pitt's flying thighs.

There's such an outpouring of books from historians at the moment, you can't throw a canape in Manhattan after 6 p.m. without hitting a tweedy scholar wearing the dazed expression that comes with a sudden release from the past.

The city has been crawling with superstar academics peddling their tomes at tonier-than-usual launch events and overstuffed gigs at the Council on Foreign Relations. Everybody's looking for lessons to support wherever they stand on the meltdown in Iraq, and they're drawing them from books as disparate as Ron Chernow's "Alexander Hamilton," Niall Ferguson's "Colossus," Simon Sebag Montefiore's "Stalin," David Fromkin's "Europe's Last Summer" and James Chace's "1912" -- to name just a few.

The history men have surfaced in the nick of time. As the Iraq crisis deepens, the pundits are either wringing their hands or theatrically recanting. First, the inside dopesters of the spring (Paul O'Neill, Richard Clarke and Bob Woodward) cranked up our anxiety, then the 9/11 commission hit the road to torment New York with a thousand might-have-beens. In an era blinded by news-crawl, only history's depth can give solace to a nation hungry for perspective.

British historians are particularly in demand for the international back story. Floppy-haired Scottish pinup Ferguson has had rapturous receptions for "Colossus." Audiences coast to coast are alternately gratified and rattled by his thesis that America has become an imperial power and had better come out of the closet and deal with it. America, he says genially, has attention-deficit disorder and will fail miserably as an effective liberal empire unless it soon adjusts its culture and its institutions to responsibilities it cannot escape. "People in America are fascinated by the ideas in my book as if by a particularly venomous snake," Ferguson told me from his sanctuary in Oxford, where he has now returned. "They've been thinking about rebuilding Iraq in two years. So when I talk about how the British arrived in Iraq in 1917 and left in 1955, it's bound to make their flesh creep."...

All the historians are eager to redirect Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz on their night table reading. James Chace's regret about 1912 is that Woodrow Wilson won the presidential election that year and kick-started democratic evangelism. Ron Chernow prescribes a dose of Federalist Papers realism: "Hamilton had a darker, more pessimistic view of human nature and foreign policy than Jefferson. While he felt the world had an enormous amount to learn from the U.S., he also felt the U.S. had a lot to learn from the world."

Ferguson sees the Bushies trapped in a tunnel of American self-reference. "It is a very confining thing to understand your own history only in its own terms," he says. It's what Columbia's polymath historian Simon Schama calls "the fallacy of reading history for self-confirmation -- America as God's plan for providence."

Schama has assigned some summer reading for Rummy once he's through with Grant: Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War," Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Steven Runciman's "A History of the Crusades" and, for a case of imperial nerves, The "Meditations" of Marcus Aurelius. Also, E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" and Lytton Strachey's essay in "Eminent Victorians" on the loony Maj. Gen. Charles Gordon of Khartoum.

"We have had a triumph of political theory over history," Schama told me. He faults the administration for viewing history as self-emasculating thoughtfulness as against the virile approach of pure principle. "What was needed," Schama says, "was principle chastened by the lessons of the past."

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