I have just started reading Ted Sorensen’s memoir, “Counselor,” and was struck by several things written in the Preface that deal with the potential loss of America’s history.
“A friend – and gifted writer – advised me: ‘Just tell stories.’ I have always liked telling stories, and have lots of stories to tell. Historian David McCullough has worried that ‘we are losing the national memory of America’s story, forgetting who we are and what it’s taken to come this far.'”
The fine art of storytelling opens the doors of history to many who might otherwise pass on by. Recording others’ stories and relating those stories in a highly readable format creates a powerful resource. A place remains for studious, academic, footnoted histories of people, places, and events. But the style of writing popularized most recently by the likes of David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose makes history accessible. Ultimately, that is at least as important as documenting the details, for history that is not remembered cannot be understood.
Unfortunately, the modern political environment discourages the proper recording of history. Sorenson notes that he kept no diary as an aide to Senator and later President Kennedy. Today, that would be more the norm than the exception. Indeed, the culture of political investigation that has existed for the past several decades in Washington, DC threatens to stymie historians who do not dig into the stories of those involved sooner rather than later. Political aides simply don’t put pen to paper as they did in times past for fear that some prosecutor or investigator might get their hands on candid thoughts and observations.
“When I wrote ‘Kennedy,’ my 1965 memoir on my eleven years with John F. Kennedy, the pain of his assassination in Dallas still seared my mind; Lyndon Johnson was still president; Robert F. Kennedy was still in politics; Jacqueline Kennedy was still in mourning; and I did not want to offend any of them. The passage of time has made a broader, more candid perspective possible.”
And that, of course, is the risk in getting the story down too soon. All too often it will be shaded by contemporary concerns, both personal and professional. In previous eras where communication occurred more frequently in writing – World War II for instance – paper records exist. In later years, we had the incredible benefit of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon’s egotism or paranoia that led to taping of many major White House conversations.
Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were frequent diarists and letter writers, opening up a bit of their personal perspectives to future historians. But in the Clinton and Bush Administrations, the major actors have feared the subpoena so much that very little of real significance gets permanently recorded.
Scott McClellan, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, has received considerable attention in recent days for his own memoir in which he refers to the “permanent campaign” as something that drives poor decision-making in Washington. He may have a point to some degree, though many would argue with his own approach to storytelling.
What should concern us more, however, is the criminalization of politics, both because it has a negative impact in the present, but the side effects also threaten the ability of historians to tell the story correctly in the future. Those interested in the tragically short presidency of John F. Kennedy have the benefit of being able to blend Ted Sorensen’s 1965 and 2008 views on his former boss and his administration. But many former presidential aides and senior administration officials of the past two presidencies may not be around in thirty or forty years to deliver a less varnished account of their experiences.
Those who believe in the power and importance of history would be wise to consider the challenges of getting accurate accounts from the key players of current administrations. Frequently, history takes a different – and longer – view that results in conclusions altogether different than may be possible in the contemporary political reporting. How can we preserve our history while not contributing to the current partisan fighting?
It would be heartening to see a panel assembled by the President and Congress to examine this important issue. Perhaps bringing together leading historians and political statesman would lead to creative solutions. For instance, could Oval Office taping be mandated with a law sealing those tapes for a minimum of 50 years? Could some carefully crafted protection be established for diaries kept by government officials?
We must not lose the “national memory of America’s story” as David McCullogh describes it. It will take our collective effort to record and report these stories to ensure our nation’s history does not become lost and inaccessible.