According to recent reports, George W. Bush has brought history back to the White House. Encouraged by adviser Karl Rove, himself an avid history fan, Bush has been reading up on previous American leaders. Edmund Morris' new book about the Roosevelt presidency, Theodore Rex, supposedly holds a prominent place on Bush's bedside table.
After Sept. 11, Bush and his aides wanted to know what qualities led some leaders to succeed - and others to fail - in times of national crisis. During the Great Depression, Rove asked recently, why was Herbert Hoover unable to "rally the country"? Why did Franklin Roosevelt thrive in the same role?
As an historian, I applaud the President's renewed interest in my discipline. But I'm also troubled by his apparent assumption that history simply provides models of timeless personal virtues: "leadership," "strength," "virtue" and especially "character."
Yes, character matters. But history is not just about great men or women. It is also about broad social changes in the past that should raise new questions about the present.
Even as millions of Americans lost their jobs in the Depression, for example, Hoover and his fellow Republicans refused to support federal unemployment relief. Like many members of his party today, Hoover argued that government assistance would erode Americans' work ethic and their sense of personal responsibility. Was he right? The question moves us beyond Hoover's personality into the realm of history.
If Bush and Rove believe Hoover erred by resisting welfare measures during the Depression, we might ask them: Why was welfare something that would help Americans in 1929 but hinder them in 2002?
Likewise, I'd love to hear Bush evaluate Theodore Roosevelt's efforts to regulate large corporations. Bush routinely condemns "big government," but I have never heard him say an ill word about big business.
True, Bush did express "outrage" last week at the behavior of Enron, the energy giant with close financial ties to Bush and Rove. As Bush correctly noted, Enron misled employees and stockholders - including, it now seems, the President's mother-in-law - about its financial status.
But Bush stopped short of demanding new federal controls that would prevent such malfeasance. Instead, he added a typical GOP warning that the government should "not overregulate those who are trying to create work." Yet Bush's own hero, Theodore Roosevelt, led one of the greatest bursts of business regulation in American history. From drugs and meatpacking to forestry and coal mining, dozens of industries came under federal purview for the first time.
And that raises another historical issue: Why should we celebrate Teddy Roosevelt for regulating "malefactors of great wealth" a century ago but lambaste anyone who seeks to curb corporate excesses today?
Tonight, when Bush gives his State of the Union address, we should listen closely to what he says - or does not say - about the Enron crisis. Will he use his bully pulpit - a term Theodore Roosevelt coined - to demand stricter controls upon businesses that have lavished him with campaign dollars? The answer will tell us a lot about Bush. You might even call it a test of his character.
Jonathan Zimmerman (Jlzimm@
aol.com), author of "Whose America? The Culture Wars in American Education," teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth.