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History's Romance: Why Politics Past Beats Politics Present History's Romance: Why Politics Past Beats Politics Present

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Columns / CAMPAIGN 2012

History's Romance: Why Politics Past Beats Politics Present

photo of Gwen Ifill
May 21, 2012

Is it just my imagination, or have politics and politicians grown smaller?

I've been flirting with this conclusion after diving into two enjoyable presidential history books by night while covering 2012 politics by day. The books, Robert Caro's The Passage of Power and The President's Club by Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs, take us inside the West Wing in a way that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s fictional White House never could.

Caro, in the fourth of what is scheduled to be a five-volume retelling of the operatic life and times of Lyndon B. Johnson, guides us through assassinations, missile crises, and doomed wars--all while peeling back the layers on one of America's most complicated presidents.


Duffy and Gibbs spread their story over decades, providing us with a rare look into the tiny club of men who know what it's like to hold nuclear codes and wear the Air Force One flight jacket.

Each book challenges our assumptions of what it takes to be president. These men are statesmen, but they are also--without a doubt--skilled and consummate political operators.

Johnson, as Caro tells it, was never more depressed than when he was a power-deprived vice president, never more insecure than when he was a powerful president on the brink of war.

And Gibbs and Duffy describe how presidential membership has its unique privileges. Every president from Hoover to Obama recognized that it would be essential to rely on the only other men who had occupied the Oval Office, even if they distrusted the politics or personality of those predecessors.

Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman’s bad blood faded only in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, when the men and their wives met for a drink at Washington’s Blair House after the somber funeral.

In the end, the presidency is the loneliest and craziest job on earth, and once the oath is taken, it is sealed in quiet return visits, public photo-ops, and anguished phone calls.

It is all very dramatic. But when I set aside these books and turned to my day job in recent weeks, this is what I saw:

• Senate aspirants who denounce bipartisanship.
• Campaign advertising that cast candidates in the worst, most sinister light.
• Endless debates about cultural hot buttons that most voters say don't matter to them.
• Fifty million dollars in super PAC spending that will pollute swing state airwaves for 26 more weeks.

Perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps it is the veil of history that makes the challenges that confronted Herbert Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Richard Nixon seem so much more consequential than what we are seeing now.

I'm fairly sure that reporters of the time did not, for example, appreciate the full scope of the enmity between Johnson and Robert Kennedy.

“You hate to use words as a historian like hatred,” Caro told me on the PBS NewsHour. “But hatred isn't too strong a word to describe the relationship between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. They hated each other.”

And even the reporters who covered the rise of a charismatic California actor could not have known the full extent of the dance he and a fellow Californian executed as they both clawed toward the presidency. “Nixon clearly did not think Reagan was in his league,” former Nixon aide Patrick Buchanan told Gibbs and Duffy.

Yet, there is a pretty good argument to be made that things were not so dramatic then and not so puny now.

Caro, Duffy, and Gibbs had the advantage of looking at their subjects through that most wonderful detritus of hindsight, presidential libraries, and the work of dozens of other historians who have previously excavated the lives of our most powerful leaders.

For history's sake, I await the books that tell me the real arguments under way now. I'm not sure I could bear it if it turns out this period of history really was about hockey moms, birther debates, and debt-ceiling standoffs.

Over to you, historians.

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