Now and Then: A Hankering for History
By Tina Brown
Thursday, May 20, 2004; Page C01
History is hot. And not just because of Brad Pitt's flying thighs.
There's such an outpouring of books from historians at the moment, you can't throw a canape in Manhattan after 6 p.m. without hitting a tweedy scholar wearing the dazed expression that comes with a sudden release from the past.
The city has been crawling with superstar academics peddling their tomes at tonier-than-usual launch events and overstuffed gigs at the Council on Foreign Relations. Everybody's looking for lessons to support wherever they stand on the meltdown in Iraq, and they're drawing them from books as disparate as Ron Chernow's "Alexander Hamilton," Niall Ferguson's "Colossus," Simon Sebag Montefiore's "Stalin," David Fromkin's "Europe's Last Summer" and James Chace's "1912" -- to name just a few.
The history men have surfaced in the nick of time. As the Iraq crisis deepens, the pundits are either wringing their hands or theatrically recanting. First, the inside dopesters of the spring (Paul O'Neill, Richard Clarke and Bob Woodward) cranked up our anxiety, then the 9/11 commission hit the road to torment New York with a thousand might-have-beens. In an era blinded by news-crawl, only history's depth can give solace to a nation hungry for perspective.
British historians are particularly in demand for the international back story. Floppy-haired Scottish pinup Ferguson has had rapturous receptions for "Colossus." Audiences coast to coast are alternately gratified and rattled by his thesis that America has become an imperial power and had better come out of the closet and deal with it. America, he says genially, has attention-deficit disorder and will fail miserably as an effective liberal empire unless it soon adjusts its culture and its institutions to responsibilities it cannot escape. "People in America are fascinated by the ideas in my book as if by a particularly venomous snake," Ferguson told me from his sanctuary in Oxford, where he has now returned. "They've been thinking about rebuilding Iraq in two years. So when I talk about how the British arrived in Iraq in 1917 and left in 1955, it's bound to make their flesh creep."
"Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar" has also been feted on both coasts. "I was amazed at the respectful seriousness my book got on American radio shows and that C-SPAN book show," said young Montefiore, a brainy, balding Brit from a posh family. "In London all you get on is a snide late-night chat show where you have to be funny. Americans are so receptive." He offers the salient tidbit that Saddam visited all 15 of Stalin's palaces, plus this discomfiting parallel: "Bolshevism was religious fanaticism in disguise. And the biggest danger in the world remains religious fanaticism backed by violence."
Boston University professor and historian David Fromkin's new book provides a more oblique contemporary frisson. It's about three men with an obsession, plotting a war in secret -- this time two German generals and an Austrian foreign minister whose machinations sent millions to their deaths in World War I. But it's Fromkin's earlier history, "A Peace to End All Peace," that has the most resounding echo. I'd always had a soft spot for the British explorer and Orientalist Gertrude Bell, rushing about the desert in her bloomers with her pal Lawrence of Arabia, but it's startling to read Fromkin's account of her being rebuked all of 80 years ago -- by an American missionary, no less -- for stubbornly insisting that the warring tribes of Mesopotamia could be corralled into a new nation called Iraq: "You are flying in the face of four millenniums of history if you try to draw a line around Iraq and call it a political entity."
Donald Rumsfeld, after the shell-shocked week of the Abu Ghraib hearings, declared that he is "reading General Grant" rather than the journalistic dispatches from his own front line. But publisher Michael Korda, who has written a short biography on Grant that will come out in the fall, remarks that it's a pity Rummy wasn't reading the general's memoirs 18 months ago. Grant, who believed in applying massive force, would surely have put more boots on the ground -- and his boss, President Lincoln, would have backed him up. (At the launch of Harold Holzer's new account of "Lincoln at Cooper Union," former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who will publish his own book on Lincoln in June, was sighted sparring fiercely with financier Richard Gilder about whether Honest Abe was a liberal or a conservative.)
All the historians are eager to redirect Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz on their night table reading. James Chace's regret about 1912 is that Woodrow Wilson won the presidential election that year and kick-started democratic evangelism. Ron Chernow prescribes a dose of Federalist Papers realism: "Hamilton had a darker, more pessimistic view of human nature and foreign policy than Jefferson. While he felt the world had an enormous amount to learn from the U.S., he also felt the U.S. had a lot to learn from the world."
Ferguson sees the Bushies trapped in a tunnel of American self-reference. "It is a very confining thing to understand your own history only in its own terms," he says. It's what Columbia's polymath historian Simon Schama calls "the fallacy of reading history for self-confirmation -- America as God's plan for providence."
Schama has assigned some summer reading for Rummy once he's through with Grant: Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War," Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Steven Runciman's "A History of the Crusades" and, for a case of imperial nerves, The "Meditations" of Marcus Aurelius. Also, E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" and Lytton Strachey's essay in "Eminent Victorians" on the loony Maj. Gen. Charles Gordon of Khartoum.
"We have had a triumph of political theory over history," Schama told me. He faults the administration for viewing history as self-emasculating thoughtfulness as against the virile approach of pure principle. "What was needed," Schama says, "was principle chastened by the lessons of the past."
©2004, Tina Brown
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Images of Horror, Glimmerings of Hope (The Washington Post, May 13, 2004)
'Friends,' Letting The Good Times Roll On and On (The Washington Post, May 6, 2004)
Taking the GOP Bait, Hook, Line and Stinker (The Washington Post, Apr 29, 2004)