Is Sean Wilentz Playing History or Politics?

[Cross-Posted at Progressive Historians]

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has a thought-provoking Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times in which he criticizes the Obama team for making comparisons between Obama’s lack of experience with both Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.  Wilentz is one of many notable historians who over the past few weeks have publicly declared their support for one of the presidential candidates – in his case the choice is Hillary Clinton. 

Few will disagree that it is very rare for a candidate with as little
experience in politics and government as Obama to capture the
imagination of so many influential Americans. One way for a candidate
like this to minimize his lack of experience is to pluck from the past
the names of great presidents who also, supposedly, lacked experience.
Early in the campaign, Obama’s backers likened him to the supposed
neophyte John F. Kennedy. More recently, some have pointed out (as did
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, among others) that Abraham
Lincoln served only one "undistinguished" term in the House before he
was elected president in 1860.

Wilentz notes that Kennedy had extensive experience owing to his three terms in the House and two in the Senate and the extensive committee work that comes along with 14 years in the legislature. In the case of Lincoln, Wilentz suggests that while it is true that he only served two years in Washington he had extensive experience on the state level and within both the Whig and Republican parties before winning the presidency in 1860.  There is no doubt that even a slightly broader perspective on the past beyond the narrow comparative claims made by the Obama team give us a more complicated picture of the public careers that led both Lincoln and Kennedy to the White House. 

That said, is the Obama team’s referencing of Kennedy and Lincoln (as well as the Reagan years) really to be characterized as "absurd"?  In fact, couldn’t one argue that Wilentz himself is necessarily engaged in the same "misuse of history" that he directs at the Obama team as a result of his public statement of support for Clinton?  Wilentz is treading on slippery ground here depending on how he wishes to be identified by his readers.   In my own case I find it close to impossible to identify Wilentz as a historian rather than as a Clinton partisan.  Wilentz’s criticisms must be understood as a reflection of his support for Clinton rather than as a commentary on how to properly interpret the past.  In other words, there is no fact of the matter in these comparative claims or to put it another way, Wilentz is far from carving the past at its joints.  For example, while Wilentz emphasizes Lincoln’s earliest years in the state legislature of Illinois, including his election as captain of the local militia (which Lincoln himself downplays) as relevant he says nothing as to why or how it should be considered.  It begs the question of what we even mean when we talk about relevant experience.  In the end it is much too easy to imagine Wilentz agreeing with the comparative claim if he happened to be an Obama supporter.

I’ve commented on the recent public declarations of support for the various presidential candidates by historians.  I don’t have a serious problem with such declarations; however, if you choose to enter the public debate please don’t ask me to interpret your words as those of a historian rather than as just another political hack. 

Historians cannot expect all politicians and their supporters to know
as much about American history as, say, John F. Kennedy, who won the
Pulitzer Prize for a work of history. But it is reasonable to expect
respect for the basic facts — and not contribute to cheapening the
historical currency.

What basic facts is Wilentz referring to?  The misuse and abuse of history is the bread and butter of politics.  If the Obama team wants to praise Reagan or compare their candidate’s history with Lincoln and Kennedy than so be it.  There is no fact of the matter here.  Wilentz would have us believe that his support for Clinton plays no role in the way he interprets the comparative claims made by the Obama camp.  I find that to be a "cheapening" of Wilentz’s "historical currency." 

Update: Caroline Kennedy apparently believes that Obama is enough "like my father" to issue an endorsement in the New York Times.  According to Wilentz, she is misinterpreting the past.

Click here for Brooks Simpson’s thoughtful response to this post.

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19 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Feb 15, 2008 @ 6:52

    Tony, — First of all I said nothing in my post re: the authorship of anything. I think the operative point is that Kennedy’s book was intended as a contribution to the scholarship on the subject while Clinton and Obama authored autobiographies. Seems to me to be a comparison between apples and oranges.

  • Tony Faber Feb 15, 2008 @ 0:14

    Kevin: Your comment that neither Kennedy, Obama or Clinton wrote all their own books is simply untrue. Kennedy had Sorensen; Hillary had Barbara Feinman; Barack Obama actually wrote his book by himself.

    And why is it that Hillary partisans always refer to Obama’s “slim portfolio” when she has spent considerably less time in elected office? Does Clinton’s time as first lady somehow make her a more experienced legislator than Obama?

  • Ari Jan 30, 2008 @ 19:04

    What a wonderful post and discussion. I may try to think of something interesting to say on the subject later. For now, though, thanks Kevin. And also: Larry I agree with everything you’ve written above. Which should probably make you rethink all of your arguments, as I’m always wrong.

  • Larry Cebula Jan 28, 2008 @ 15:20

    Heather and Sean: I think you both move too quickly past the question of Wilentz’s honesty in the piece. When he states that “John F. Kennedy . . . won the Pulitzer Prize for a work of history” he is presenting something that he surely knows to be false. That other politicians have had their ghost writers is hardly the point, the point is that Wilentz presents Kennedy as a accomplished historian, while knowing this not to be the case. This is no matter of interpretation, it is a matter of intellectual honesty.

  • Sean Dail Jan 28, 2008 @ 12:27


    I never said that Wilentz’s piece was a sophisticated analysis. As far as I can tell, his only intention was to refute the claim that Obama’s lack of experience is comparable to Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s supposed lack of experience. And I think he did just that. Whether it is useful to make such a comparison is up for discussion. As I saw it, Wilentz was simply responding to a dubious assertion being made by Obama’s supporters.

  • Kevin Jan 28, 2008 @ 11:23

    I have not read the Ellis piece. In terms of whether the content included in his piece reflects a sophisticated understanding of the past, well, I guess we will have to disagree. What did he do besides simply cite a few facts about Lincoln and Kennedy?

  • Sean Dail Jan 28, 2008 @ 11:16

    Well, I would certainly agree that it is difficult to compare political experiences in the present day to those in the mid 1800s. And more to the point, I think political experience today is much more crucial in a presidential candidate that it was in Lincoln’s day, or even in Kennedy’s day. So to that extent I agree with you.

    However, I doubt strongly that just any “political hack” would have been able to write Wilentz’s piece. Most of them, like most Americans, don’t seem to have sufficient grounding in our history.

    I haven’t read the piece by Joseph Ellis that Wilentz refers to. Is it worth tracking down?

  • Kevin Jan 28, 2008 @ 10:56

    My concern is that the comparative points made by Wilentz are rather simplistic without any explanation as to why the comparison should be made on those grounds. A friend pointed out to me yesterday that it is important to know whether serving in the House or Senate in the 1950s or time spent in a state legislature in the 1830s is worth comparing at all, and if so, why.

    Again, my problem is that any political hack on MSNBC or CNN could have made that point. I expect more from a historian of Wilentz’s caliber. I really don’t know what else to say on this.

  • Sean Dail Jan 28, 2008 @ 10:31

    I understand your point, Kevin, but I think Wilentz makes his case rather well. What is it about his argument that you take issue with on the facts, aside from the passing reference to Profiles in Courage?

  • Ken Noe Jan 28, 2008 @ 8:26


    Ted Kennedy also will endorse Obama today. Perhaps he’s misinterpreting the past too, but I tend to think that he’s simply focusing on a different past. According to reports at least, he’s decided that Bill Clinton has to be stopped from using race to divide Democratic voters in some intra-party version of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, as he did in South Carolina.


  • Kevin Jan 28, 2008 @ 6:52

    Sean, — First, let me be clear I am not suggesting one way or another whether Obama’s “experience should be of great concern to voters.” I agree that historians can play a crucial role in reigning in the way the past is used for our own purposes. My problem is that I don’t believe that Wilentz’s Op-Ed piece rises to that level or even approaches it.

  • Sean Dail Jan 27, 2008 @ 22:50

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with you here, Kevin. I think Obama’s lack of experience should be of great concern to voters, and the fact that his campaign has decided to try and alleviate that concern by spinning history is also a cause for concern. Isn’t Wilentz’s article exactly the kind of speaking out by historians that you have advocated in the past?

  • Kevin Jan 27, 2008 @ 14:05

    Heather, — I just want to clarify that I don’t in any way believe that Wilentz’s comments pose any threat to his standing as a historian. Wilentz is an incredibly talented historian and I highly recommend, _The Rise of American Democracy_. Again, I just don’t believe that Wilentz was doing history in his Op-Ed.

  • Heather Michon Jan 27, 2008 @ 13:55

    Mock Con was a blast, and going as part of the press was really fun. History loomed large in many of the speeches I heard, especially Jim Webb, Geraldine Ferraro, and Charlie Wilson — although it was clear that a lot of it went over the heads of the student audience. Most of them were not even born when Ferraro ran for Veep, and were younguns when the Cold War ended. As soon as Webb started talking about the role of the Scots-Irish in the development of a vibrant democracy, I think I could actually hear some eyes start to glaze over.

    To just briefly to revisit the Wilentz issue: while I don’t disagree with you that it is important to take his comments with a grain of salt given his stated support of Hillary Clinton, I think we need to stop talking about process and just get down in the mud and wrestle it out.

    If someone wants to counter Wilentz’s arguments or his interpretations, that’s great. That’s what should be happening.

    But if we get balled up over whether he loses his credibility as a historian because he happens to support Candidate A, B, or C, we lose an opportunity to make a contribution to the democratic process. We end the historical discussion before it even gets off the ground.

    And with that, I’ll pipe down for a while, and we can get back to the Civil War where we belong. 🙂

  • Kevin Jan 27, 2008 @ 6:26

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. The facts of Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s pre-presidential public careers are well established. No one debates the facts. My concern is that Wilentz wants us to see his evaluation of those facts in comparison with Obama as historical – that his credentials as a historian add weight to his claims. I don’t see that. I saw a short news report about the W&L mock convention and it looked like a real blast.

  • Heather Michon Jan 26, 2008 @ 22:39

    I’m probably going to be in the minority here, but I liked Wilentz’s piece.

    Ultimately, these comparisons are meaningless….like “alternative” histories. That being said, if a candidate comes on the scene and begins eliciting comparisons to Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln and Kennedy, than there should be some examination of the claim.

    Nothing in the op-ed seemed to me to be off-base from a standpoint of factual accuracy. He is drawing a comparison between a junior senator with a slim portfolio and a great stump speech to some of the great leaders of our history. Maybe “absurd” is a loaded word, but I don’t know that he’s slanting the facts to suit his argument.

    Did Kennedy write “Profiles in Courage” No, not entirely. Did Hillary Clinton write every word of “It Takes a Village?” No, she didn’t. Did Barack Obama write every word of “The Audacity of Hope?” Probably not. Most politicians in the modern era have used speechwriters and wordsmiths to do the heavy lifting.

    (And in the spirit of full disclosure: I’m a supporter of Hillary Clinton, and I just spent the last two days at the Washington & Lee Mock Convention over in Lexington for a magazine I write for….and in my off hours, I’ve studying the breakdown of the relationship between African-Americans and women over suffrage in the 1860s. So I’ve been pretty much obsessed with how race and gender have been playing out in this contest so far.)

  • Kevin Jan 26, 2008 @ 19:13

    Larry, — Thanks for the thoughtful comment and for the Sorenson connection.

  • Larry Cebula Jan 26, 2008 @ 10:49

    Bravo, Kevin, Wilentz is indeed misrepresenting the past for partisan advantage, which is exactly where all these “Historians for X” efforts end.

    The worst hackery in the piece is the section you quote near the end: “Historians cannot expect all politicians and their supporters to know as much about American history as, say, John F. Kennedy, who won the Pulitzer Prize for a work of history. But it is reasonable to expect respect for the basic facts — and not contribute to cheapening the historical currency.”

    John F. Kennedy did not write that book! The vast bulk of it was composed by his speech writer Ted Sorenson. Cecil Adams writes a nice summary of the evidence in a Straight Dope column:

    “The most thorough analysis of who did what has come from historian Herbert Parmet in Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980). Parmet interviewed the participants and reviewed a crateful of papers in the Kennedy Library. He found that Kennedy contributed some notes, mostly on John Quincy Adams, but little that made it into the finished product. “There is no evidence of a Kennedy draft for the overwhelming bulk of the book,” Parmet writes. While “the choices, message, and tone of the volume are unmistakably Kennedy’s,” the actual work was “left to committee labor.” The “literary craftsmanship [was] clearly Sorensen’s, and he gave the book both the drama and flow that made for readability.” Parmet, like everyone else, shrinks from saying Sorensen was the book’s ghostwriter, but clearly he was.”

    Wilentz knows this perfectly well. He discards “respect for basic facts” for cheap political points. He seems to be applying for the position of court historian to the Clintons, and he has proven himself worthy of the role.

  • matthew mckeon Jan 26, 2008 @ 10:40

    Obama comparing himself to Kennedy or Lincoln is not “absurd” it’s inevitable.

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