Simon Schama on the Republican War on History

eastwood-rnc-co05-schama
Eastwood chats with “invisible” Stan Honda / AFP-Getty Images

Nice to know, isn’t it, that the fate of the Republic might be in the hands of a nominee and his crackerjack team who thought it a great idea to crown the most serious night of their convention with the delusional, painfully lame, witless ramblings of a valetudinarian film star to an empty chair? Personally I would have preferred George Santayana, who famously warned that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In Mitt Romney’s breathtakingly edited version of the recent past, Republicans secretly rejoiced at Obama’s election, while only reluctantly coming to the conclusion that his policies had wrecked the economy. Yet history tells us that four years ago the American financial system was hanging over the abyss by the thread of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that a Republican administration and secretary of the Treasury had put in place—and for which the hypocritical deficit chickenhawk Paul Ryan had voted, even as he strained every muscle to get his district’s share of the stimulus package that he now denounces Obama for perpetrating. And recall also that the whole near-terminal calamity was caused by the unregulated derivative market whose freedom to destroy what’s left of the American economy the likes of Ryan and Romney cannot wait to reinstate.

Then there were all those stirring stories of bootstrap self-improvement, the upward mobility of the hard-working immigrant, the opportunities seized by the disadvantaged—they were precisely a product of the New Deal America that Franklin Roosevelt instituted, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson consolidated, and the Republican administrations of Dwight Eisenhower (not a snowball’s chance of winning a primary these days) and Richard Nixon never dreamed of repudiating. The America of the G.I. Bill, of a college education that didn’t require an enslavement to debt, of a consensus that the poor might actually be entitled to some form of medical assistance from the Leviathan Government—the America, in short, that the Republicans cannot wait to abolish—was the social foundation on which the parents and grandparents of the Christies and Rubios and Haleys could rise up and prosper.

One man who understood how government might lend a hand in fostering upward social mobility went by the name of George Romney. As secretary of housing and urban development in the first Nixon administration, he didn’t hesitate to use government muscle to combat segregation, even when it led him to cross swords with the president. But then that Romney was also unafraid to run for president as a Republican who opposed the Vietnam War.

Yeah, I know, ancient history. Who needs it? Ryan, who has the gall to pose as the champion of hard truths while cynically perpetrating one deception after another (see Janesville plant, date of closing; failure to mention his own vote against Simpson-Bowles; etc.), said “it doesn’t matter how we got here.” (That’s no doubt in part because of his record of voting in favor of tax and spending policies that helped to run up our current deficit.) The sometime pro-choice, sometime individual-mandate-supporting, sometime climate-change-believing Romney would love his piece of Massachusetts history to go away. The disease of American politics is to confuse personal history with political history, public-relations campaigns with true debate. The result is politics as placebo and a fake history that is one part humbug and the other part hoodwink.

True history is the enemy of both. True history hurts. True history rips you out of an echo chamber ringing with juvenile platitudes and forces you to grow up. But then history reminds me that among the other pieties optimistically uttered by Barack Obama in his inaugural speech was his invocation of St. Paul recalling that “when I was a child I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man I put away childish things.” Even then I thought: fat chance, buster. Now that we have had a week of fabulists romping in the playpen of their sentimental delusions, the chances of growing up and facing American facts look dimmer than ever. If true history lives, Obama wins. If its nemesis—fairy tales and fibs—prevail, it’s curtains. And not just for the incumbent.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that George Romney didn’t use government muscle to combat segregation.

Join the Discussion