Blogs > Cliopatria > Robert Byrd and the AHA

Jan 10, 2004 1:20 pm

Robert Byrd and the AHA

My main objection to Robert Byrd being honored by the AHA isn’t his segregationist past, authentically troubling as that is. If I were going to object to Byrd as Byrd, it might be as much for the fact that he’s one of the most over-the-top practicioners of pork-barrel politics in the last fifty years. When we drove through West Virginia this last summer, I began to wonder if there was anything in the state that wasn’t named for Byrd. My main objection than I don’t see why he in particular deserves an honorific from historians for his service to historical scholarship. I don’t doubt that the AHA leadership was able to come up with various and sundry alleged contributions they can attribute to him. Anybody who has dispensed as much federal largesse as Byrd must have dumped some of it in the laps of historians, over the years. I'm sure that the Association of Left-Handed Birdwatching Pipewelders For the Preservation of Albino Gophers could similarly honor Byrd. I’ll be curious to see if Jim McPherson’s remarks are published on the AHA website, given that I’m not at the meeting this week. It would take a lot to convince me that Byrd is somehow distinctively worthy of being honored above all other"public officials or civil servants" by an association of historical scholars. Can't we just give Daniel Patrick Moynihan a posthumous award? So my default assumption is that this is some kind of kiss-up undertaken for political reasons, scholars being amateur courtiers. Anybody at the meetings or elsewhere have any sense of what the motivations here are?

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Ben Keen - 1/14/2004

I grew up in WV. That's what these projects are called... Nobody there even really takes them all that seriously.

Timothy Burke - 1/10/2004

Truthfully, I'd rather the award didn't exist, though once again my membership to the AHA has lapsed through inattentiveness on my part, so I suppose I should re-up before I blather too much about what the AHA should or shouldn't do. It just strikes me that it's always going to involve some unseemly ass-kissing and "you gave us stuff or might give us stuff, so we'll give you some rubber chicken and a medal", unless the award is very much about recognizing the otherwise unrecognized, say, the everyday work of public history. I'd rather some local official who has made a labor of love out of preserving a battlefield or some such get recognition of this kind than a member of Congress. But even if it's going to be the big guns, I'd rather it weren't quite so obvious an example of feeding at the trough. Demoscerosis strikes again.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/10/2004

Tim, I agree with you that a belated acknowledgement of Daniel Patrick Moynihan would have been a worthy gesture. But candor obliges us to admit that this is, as the little fellow in Fantasy Island would put it, about da pork, da pork. In a larger sense, it is right pitiful that historians are bought so cheaply. $100 million, I think it was. I might be corrected on that figure. But it is nothing in the current budgetary visions. Just as we were being assured that the Bush administration intends to pay attention to its imbalances, it discovers the need to place people on the moon and Mars. No one is giving hard estimates of the cost, but I hear $1 trillion. At this rate, it will be possible to bankrupt the American republic and it and its history profession will have gotten so little in return for their bankruptcy!

Timothy Burke - 1/10/2004

I see, digging through the relevant issue of Perspectives, that this is largely about Byrd's sense of the history of the Senate, which he's spoken about on the Senate floor and published about (and also has written about the senate in Roman republican tradition), and about a particular bit of largesse directed at the teaching of American history. So it's not a complete fiction, but it still strikes me that this doesn't outweigh Byrd's negatives. If the AHA is going to do this sort of thing, the logic of it ought to be pretty airtight.