An Elderly Historian Ponders “What’s Next?”

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One of our older contributors (age 91), the author of this piece, holds the Stanford doctorate from 1951 and has specialized over the years in labor and politics, social welfare, and the presidency. He lives quietly in small town Ashland, Oregon, where he tries to write daily. Three of his long essays have appeared in History News Network, on race relations, the year 1960, and political parties.

I write two days after Election Day, 2008, not a day that will live in infamy, but one hopefully that will live in the bright rays of yearning long delayed and faith finally fulfilled.  It has been a very long path from the slave ships to this moment.  Indeed it has.  Most of us, I dare say, long since ceased to believe that anything truly monumental could happen in our lifetimes.

Yet happen it did, not by accident, but by careful design, and through the efforts of the masses as well as the planning and heartfelt activities of many leaders of both races.

I have been troubled, I confess, by apprehension these past few days, for I am all too aware of the fate of Lincoln and King at the pinnacles of their success.  There was a poll in HNN which asked whether it has been irresponsible for the candidate to expose himself to the masses of mankind in these moments of triumph; would the opportunity be seized by one intent on mayhem?  It has happened before, in a corridor in Los Angeles in 1968, for example.  When the acceptance remarks were over in Chicago's Grant Park on election night, and the happy winner’s family retired to the shadows,  I breathed a sigh of relief and finally went to bed.

Now we come to the hard part:  fulfilling at least a few of the dreams of those who have yearned so long.  What will be satisfying?  Is the symbolism in finally holding the land’s highest office enough?  If so, will it long remain enough?  Watching that charming First Family as they live in the White House is going to bring to many an emotional rush.  As quantifiable results from statecraft are inevitably postponed, will there be backlash from chagrined partisans?  Hopefully, there are going to be some consequences in the almost immediate future, that is, after January 20, 2009.  First, there will be the address of national greeting on that memorable day, an address the incoming president always hopes  (mostly in vain) will stir the world and the nation and start his administration on the road to changing the very nature of  things as they have been for centuries.

My own hopes are modest enough, for I recognize the limits to power.  Perhaps implementing a new Cuban policy would be quickly possible, one that disregards voting percentages in one of our states, a new direction that undoes the faction-gratifying policies of so many decades.  Here is a chance to do good without much in the way of costs or even serious backlash. 

Not as simple as that, not by any means,  I do wish we could exit Afghanistan, for I see no possibility of that adventure working out well no matter how long we apply force.  It is a situation that doesn’t respond to military action very well, and involves us in the creation of a suffering population.  And the poppies endure, no matter what.   Promises have been made by our incoming president that point in exactly the opposite direction to any withdrawal, sadly.  More troops have even been promised!   I am headed for certain disappointment on this matter.  (Maybe I can focus on those pleased Afghan women who are in school or who have responsible employment at last.)

Iraq’s future seems to be dependent on the fatigue among its people.  When will they say in their religious groupings that they have had enough of chaos arising from the mindless murder of the innocents?  Surely we can leave before too long. No one on high decreed that the United States has an obligation to remake all the world by military action, country by country.  I am convinced that enterprises to remake the Muslim world and many discordant portions of the earth are quite impossible.  The training and equipment and morale of our American armed forces, unexampled as they may be, are not sufficient to remake the Middle East, country by country, in anything like our image.  It is clear as it can be that the other countries of the planet have no intention of joining us massively to bring “democracy” to the earth, country by country.  Our statecraft can never bring the armies of the world into this enterprise, whatever our unrealistic but praiseworthy intention to “do good.”  Contingents helping from a handful of nations does not equate to vast arrays of soldiery and military muscle from America.   In the last analysis, we are on our own.  We must stop pretending that others are prepared to sacrifice with us in our idealistic enterprises.  Will our mothers and fathers stand for this charade much longer?  Are our young men to spend their adult lives fighting deprived peoples with rifles in places the bulk of our people can scarcely locate on a map or identify beyond a hesitant word or two?  Permanent war in remote places is certainly not what I hoped would be our preoccupation in the 21st century (in case I lived that long).

It is certainly not too much to expect that the United States of America can come to enjoy a slightly better image and reception worldwide.  There seems to be agreement throughout our diplomatic circles and our media that we have had quite enough of foreign relations that reflect very badly on our government and ourselves.  The image of America as self-appointed savior, or court of last resort, or a vast military machine that can and intends to modify and change things—for the better, of course—is a totally unrealistic conceptualization born in offices inside America, but it has proved impossible to implement.  Maybe in the long run….

Global warming, in which the United States is both perpetrator and pioneer in seeking remedies, is a profound matter unlikely to be responsive to a single presidential power change or to even profound legislative action.  We can count on the new administration, one would certainly think, to head us in the right direction and provide leadership in sensible directions—whatever they may seem to be!

Those of us who have long sentenced ourselves to read the serious daily news from Washington, D. C. can continue to hope that the national habit of extreme partisanship will yield to new ways of conducting the nation’s business.  The ultra serious among us have been ashamed of political leadership in legislative halls, pretty much coast to coast, but especially in the national capitol.  Unfortunately (yet inevitably), the new leaders of Washington came in after a monumentally partisan struggle; they will arrive as victors.  Does history tell us that we can reasonably expect non-partisan, fair-minded, relaxed, and generally pleasant federal leadership beginning next year?  It is not impossible—or is it?  Let’s see.

What kind of appointees are going to surround, that is, shore up and implement the coming executive leadership in Washington?  In time we will know.   Is yesterday’s partisanship to be the norm?  The people seem to have said, loud and clear, that they expect better henceforth.  There are Great Expectations!  Much depends on whether our new leader follows his own inclinations, born of growing up with a different shade of skin as augmented by an elite education.  His time spent mingling with thousands of ordinary people in a giant city will blend with what he learned as part of the governing class in Illinois and more briefly in the corridors of Washington.  Prediction is beyond this writer, yet hoping for the best is quite possible in this astonishing day and age.

Watching the cable channels, idly, post election, it was evident that the biases that were so evident over long months are still being nurtured.   Must we in the listening audience live with this forever?  Picking out instances of the very worst; distorting events to make the narrative serve some other purpose; seeking out very minor misconduct of long ago to blacken today’s reputations:   is this what we must endure in the first year of the bright and shining new administration and forevermore?  Am I alone in hoping for something better from those commentators of TV and radio and their ratings-obsessed employers?  We as a people must insist that if newspapers are to fade gradually from view, those who inhabit and control other media must rise above easy chatter and crass entertainment as they transmit news and information to the public.

I am not qualified to comment wisely on the vast changes in the Internet during this election.  I can tell by my incoming email, however, that there is some appalling stuff “out there” that can hardly be regulated.  Only self-restraint and new norms will do it, and that is going to take time and new habits.  It is unthinkable that our youth will come to substitute Internet blogs and transmissions for yesterday’s orderly and largely responsible newspapers with their wire services and careful editorials.   Bad as they sometimes were, the newspapers received at our front door were vastly better than what emerges on my computer screen, unsought,  these days. 

In summary, I think I understand many of the problems that now face us; what I can’t possibly know is what it all means.  I ponder how it is all going to turn out.   The economy is downright frightening.  Nuclear concerns long quiet are reawakening.  At the same time, there is a sense that this is a time for hope. 

 It is so trite to repeat the old slogan, “These are great times to be alive.”  Yet they ARE.  Like the great American public, I endured those two years of electoral process, with their strains and nonsense, and the quite staggering outcome at the end.  I (like most everyman) lack the ability to change anything that may lie ahead; but I am prepared to observe, to judge, to complain, sometimes to explain, and hopefully to enjoy.  History is unfolding, much as it always does, but this time it is outsized and—overall-- quite astonishing.                                   

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vaughn davis bornet - 1/22/2011

Somehow, one doubts there will be many readers at this late date. But I have several things to say.

One of the postdoctorate activities I slid into then and later was summary and appraisal of the nature of our Nation during full years. I had done 1928 as part of my dissertation. The Britannica offered 1956 in its Yearbook; then 1957. I did 1960 for a different book.

I commend this valuable exercise at appraisal to trainees in History. One's failings will be revealed by Events! And rather soon.

Anyway, I just reread my November, 2008 evaluation with humility. But the past two years were dramatic in ways unanticipated, and not so in a variety of ways I expected.

And coming back I did find in my final letter printed here an error. It was Kenneth P. Williams who wrote Lincoln Finds a General.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

Arnold Shcherban - 11/23/2008

The "constitutional democracy" created in Iraq is a reality to the same degree as the contents of the book Psalm 115 is taken from.
What sounds like more or less good joke for the overwhelming international majority and feels like a disaster to Iraqi nation is "seriously" pondered by the Pan-Amerikana historians as a great humanitary achievement of the American "idealism".

vaughn davis bornet - 11/20/2008

That was a sturdy asseveration put together by Mr. Hughes. I'll overlook the several putdowns aimed, it appears, at me--nominated to be one of the "heathen" to whom the Psalmist addressed his sage advice, it appears, with everything "for your information."

Let's all hope that Iraq the "constitutional democracy" now exists, although I think most cautious observers will want to reserve final judgment on that.

I suppose there are everywhere "high hopes for Afghanistan," but I have to say that determination to double the number of our combat soldiers there is not reassuring.

As to "great general," I recall premature worship of General MacArthur that later melted when it turned out that we were to fight China very seriously indeed in addition to North Korea. I adored Professor Hesseltine's Lincoln Finda a General, in its day; each was alleged to be the ONE.

I am not trying to draw out Mr. Hughes, but I wonder if he would put some muscle behind his judgment that something has "proved it can be done in Iraq."

Again, a very nice commentary. I hope he's right on everything substantive.

Vaughn Davis Bornet

Arnold Shcherban - 11/19/2008

With the all characters rotated from the previous administrations the President-elect associates now there won't be much of a new social, economic, or foreign policies - I can bet you on that.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/19/2008

Psalms, 115:5
"...eyes have they, but they see not."

For your information, a Status of Forces agreement has just been signed between the U.S. and Iraq, and peace is now descending over Mesopotamia. A new nation has been created there, which looks very much like a constitutional democracy.

And there are high hopes for Afghanistan, also, thanks to Bush's great general, David Petraeus. Both President-elect Obama and the worthless West Europeans have said they will put their shoulders to the wheel in Afghanistan. We shall see. It doesn't hurt to have proved it can be done in Iraq.

Maarja Krusten - 11/18/2008

My compliments on a beautifully written essay, Dr. Bornet. As a current federal employee, I must add a clumsy disclaimer: that my posting here need not be construed as agreement with every statement you made. But I can say that I enjoyed reading your piece. Although I may feel limited in what I can say on the substance of your essay, I *can* convey my thanks for your sharing your thoughts and insights with us on HNN. It means all the more because of what you know professionally and what you have seen personally.

Best regards,

Maarja Krusten

vaughn davis bornet - 11/18/2008

It is humbling to consider that I seem to have played a role in stimulating a mature commentary like that of Mark Reitz.

In the "old days," one had to wait three to six months for a book review reaction in, say, the Annals of the American Academy. Then a reply, if indicated, took more months. Dialogue could not really develop very well under such circumstances. I can recall books of mine where the wait was two years!

Thank you so much.

V. D. B. November 18, 2008 (A single day after publication.)

Mark Reitz - 11/18/2008

Although I did not support President-elect Obama's campaign, he will be the president and it is still my country. He is deserving of our respect and his policies should be given the benefit of the doubt. What I truly hope will happen is that with his historic election, we can finally stop judging people by the color of their skin, but rather on the quality of character.

News of recent days makes one wonder if this election is one of hope and change. With the names of Hillary, Richardson, Emanuel, Cantor, Kerry, Craig, Klain, Holder, Gorelick, Napolitano, Summers, and Rubin being mentioned for the new administration, what's old is now new again.

Obama has also backed off many of his campaign statements on how he will govern the country, implying that Guantanamo does have a place, that we still need some domestic spying, and we can't abandon Iraq to potential genocide. Hopefully the voters who wanted change won't be offended by this change and will not treat Obama the same way they treated Bush.