Newt Gingrich and the politics of history

Yesterday, Reuters ran a really dumb story, “Gingrich’s nods to history don’t impress scholars.” I am not an apologist for Newt, and do not take this as an endorsement.  Rather, I object to a story designed to assail Gingrich’s intellect generally, rather than address his policy proposals and ideas.  The folks at Reuters should ask whether articles like this truly add value to the public discourse.

Reporter Jason Lange interviewed a historian that I respect very much, NYU’s Jonathan Zimmerman.  Professor Zimmerman observed, “It isn’t that he plays fast and loose with the facts.  What he does is exclude the context and the complexity in interpreting these facts.”  Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, went one step further.  He added that Gingrich uses history  “as much a political weapon as anything else.  Many people (in academia) shake their heads frequently when they hear him talking about history.”

It is not suprising that Gingrich does not have the approval of academia.  Academics like Zimmerman and Zelizer are not Gingrich’s audience.  He doesn’t write or speak to impress them or get them to nod in approval.  Frankly, it does not matter to anyone (other than Lange and Gingrich’s opponents) that he does not impress academics.  I am sure that Gingrich does not impress many other groups of professionals – mimes, surfers, hand models, etc.

Of course, it is impossible for stump speeches to the general public to include the kind of “context and complexity” that Professor Zimmerman desires.  And Professor Zelizer knows that politicians have used (and misused) historical narratives since the beginning of recorded history.  Even Barack Obama does it!  President Obama recently claimed, “I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president – with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R., and Lincoln.”  I wonder – does Professor Zelizer witnesses his colleagues shaking their head in disapproval when Obama says things like this?  Does Professor Zimmerman object to Obama’s failure to provide “context and complexity” to this statement?

Or do professional historians make exceptions for those who share their political ideology?

Terry Stoops / Vice President for Research and Director of Education Studies

Terry Stoops is the Vice President for Research and Director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the Locke Foundation, he worked as the progra...

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