by Bob Schoone-Jongen.
Fernand Braudel sits high on my list of historian heroes. While I don’t assign his works to my classes, I make sure to mention him in every class I teach. His idea that history proceeds along three tracks appeals both to the historian and the railroad fan in me.
I find the presidency fascinating enough to include a great deal about it in my American history survey course. I even read books about James Buchanan for the shear enjoyment of the experience. And Calvin Coolidge remains my perennial favorite among all the White House occupants. My love affair with our forgotten and reviled Chief Executives helps me endure all the hype and hoopla of the horserace version of history the news media thrives on during our quadrennial winters of discontent. In the grand scheme of things, the world will little note, nor long remember most of what we are daily enduring at the moment. After all, even Millard Fillmore was once front-page news. And now?
But, Braudel also noted that history operates in cycles. Mark Twain preferred rhyming as a simile. And right now historical rhymes abound in the land. Another big business tycoon wants to be president. In 1904 it was William Randolph Hearst. In 1916 the Republicans considered Henry Ford, briefly. Some Democrats wondered if Lee Iacocca should lead the charge against President Reagan. Any one over the age of forty remembers Ross Perot’s role in defeating a Bush and electing a Clinton.
And we have seen callow senators staring down Pennsylvania Avenue from a Capitol Hill office, young folks hitting the hustings while their hair retained a youthful color, and before the lines on their faces deepened. Lacking gravitas they exuded an energy bred of inexperience. To them “due season” meant “now.” Stephen Douglas believed “popular sovereignty” would pave the way down to the White House, the way some folks thought another government shutdown would do the same in these latter days.
There have been grouchy old guys and connected relatives before. An eighty-year old Henry G. Davis and a less than highly qualified Franklin D. Roosevelt each ran for vice president, either too late or too early in their lives. Ambitious governors? Political phenoms from Madison, Annapolis, Richmond, or Columbus have antecedents from Boston, Sacramento, and Nashville who actually grasped the brass ring in their day.
Looking beyond the individuals, both actual and wannabe presidents, stands the presidency, since 1789 the ultimate political prize—a geologic time span in Braudel’s view of history. The office is more than the individual occupants/captives who temporarily sit behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. All the bravado and exaggerated candidate promises confront this unalterable, harsh reality before the Inaugural Parade passes the White House’s front porch. Because of whom George Washington chose to be, President Obama ceased to be “Barack” and became “Mr. President.” And for the rest of his life, only Michelle (or possibly his mother-in-law) will ever be so familiar with him. There are the sins predecessors inflict on their successors. Lincoln inherited a Buchanan-made mess. Lincoln, in turn, bequeathed only sketchy post-war plans to his woeful replacement, Andrew Johnson. On a happier note, in 1953 Dwight Eisenhower basked in the public glow of not being Harry Truman.
All of which is to say, as befuddling as this year’s primary season seems to be, we have sort of been here before. Today’s configuration may be unique, and the personalities of the contenders are certainly singular, but they all echo and rhyme as well. Not all elections are equally epic, at least not in hindsight. And what’s to say that this one won’t be a historical milestone on a par with 1800, or 1860, or 1932, or 1980, or 2008? Some of these milestones were happy occasions demonstrating the strength of the political system, others pointed toward fragility, death, and destruction. Only time will tell where our headlines will fall on the historical spectrum of outcomes. The future’s indispensable historical lenses will suggest that answer.
Meanwhile, the headlines will pile up and the Twitter feeds will accumulate as the primaries and caucuses pass. By this summer the field will be narrowed to a few candidates who will duke it out until November. Sadly, the Democrats won’t kick off the fall campaign on Labor Day in Detroit’s Cadillac Square, the way they did for decades. And whistle-stopping from the back of a Pullman car will only be a faint echo of the way Harry Truman connected with the voters. The vice presidential candidates will still function as verbal hit men, as their running mates look presidential. At least that’s the way it is supposed to be. There are no guarantees the actors will follow the script; after all, the current crop of issues and aspirants have permanently altered the script.
Braudel was right. History does flow along several tracks. But we are stuck with just the headlines for now. Only later will we see if the winner is someone memorable, forgettable, or regrettable. Someone sit behind that big desk in the West Wing; the others will join William Jennings Bryan and Michael Dukakis in obscurity. We may someday wish that the loser had been the winner, especially if the winner turns out to be a loser. That sentence sounds ominously like one of the current candidates! So, on that note I’ll go back to reading the headlines, and another book about a former headliner. Grace Coolidge sounds like a good choice.
Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his thirteenth year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency.