An epic year? Historians debate 2008's legacy

Historians in the News

... This year "probably is going to be one of those years like 1929, when the chapter ends and you take a breath before moving on to the Depression and the New Deal," says Paul Boyer, noted historian of the Cold War and editor of a U.S. history textbook, The Enduring Vision.

The election is a milestone — "in 50 years, a major fixture in the textbooks," says Brian DeLay, a University of Colorado history professor and co-author of Nation of Nations, another college text. "I think we're heading down a totally different road."

To Columbia University historian Eric Foner, editor of The Reader's Companion to American History, Obama's election "changes the framework" of American politics, like Thomas Jefferson's in 1800, Abraham Lincoln's in 1860 and Ronald Reagan's in 1980.

Brent Glass, director of the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington, is working on a timeline of American history for an exhibition. He's pretty sure this year will be on it.

He and other historians say, however, that despite their collective hunch that 2008 was a turning point, it's too early to be certain of the year's exact place in history, or even if it will have much of one.

"People always say at the end of a year, 'My goodness, this was it! This year will be remembered for generations.' And usually it's not," says historian Peter Stearns, George Mason University's provost. "Caution is warranted, because we're so close to it now."

Too close, says Larry Schweikart, a University of Dayton professor and co-author of A Patriot's History of the United States. "The danger is when people in the present think they have a big, sweeping view of history. It's really like writing a story about a football game at the half."

He cites an example of short-term myopia: "In 2004, with the way the Republicans were rolling, more than a few people were predicting the breakup of the Democratic Party. Look how that changed in two years."

Schweikart's a political conservative. A liberal, Mark Lytle, a co-author of Nation of Nations, agrees: "Now that the Democrats are in power, they'll be running against George Bush for the next umpteen years as the new Herbert Hoover."...

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