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
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.