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The Historian-President

President Obama must have heard of my disappointment. He heard how my slothful and procrastinating ways lost me the opportunity to essay a therapeutic fisking, and considerately stepped in to give me another chance. I refer, of course, to this gushy article in the Times by Ben Macintyre. I meant to comment when it appeared on May 28 but I was busy and the moment passed.

I will get to Obama, but Macintyre first. After some mostly unexceptionable stuff about the importance of history in schools, Macintyre wrote:

History follows politics, and the Bush-Blair years were Dark Ages for the subject.

O frail flickering light of knowledge, only kept aflame by the devoted labours of Channel 4 documentary producers! I would say that we were a teensy weeny bit lacking of a sense of proportion here, except that all the history nobs these days say the Dark Ages weren’t. Plagues, Normans etc. can happen to anyone after all.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed scant understanding of the history of those regions.

Mr Macintyre wrote a well-received book on the American adventurer who was the inspiration for Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. So I suppose he cannot really be promoting the currently popular racial theory that Iraqis or Afghans are essentially “unconquerable” or “untameable”. But let us put it this way, he is content to leave most of his readers with that impression. Personally it seemed to me that Afghan women were pretty much conquered and enslaved by the Taliban but I have high hopes that their untameable Afghan nature will be proved by their never again returning to that state.

Both Bush and Blair were technocratic leaders, more concerned with the mechanisms of power than the human context in which it was wielded. Neither possessed a historical hinterland.

Hinterland is one of those irritating words that dates the person writing it, usually to a wet Monday. Actually Bush read so much history that a professor of history at Yale had trouble keeping up with him. Blair, I suspect, is a man more fond of thinking about History than history, but all the same, I expect he reads enough to power his reveries.

Today history is suddenly central to politics again. Gordon Brown repeatedly invokes Adam Smith, an earlier son of Kirkcaldy, in his defence. David Cameron refers to the essential importance of “a shared history” in building a coherent society.

“Central to politics again” my hinterland. More like two routine examples of politicians ticking the boxes marked “famous person with connection to self” and “buzz word.”

And Barack Obama is the historians’ president, the apostle for a distinct view of the world seen though the prism of the past. His election campaign was firmly based on his own history.

A little too much so, some might say. His life prior to the presidency seemed to consist mostly of writing autobiographies.

His historical allusions are occasionally inaccurate,


but his references to Abraham Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals”, to the horrors of Auschwitz, to Churchill, to the Crash of 1929, are not merely political positioning (although they achieve that too), but a subtle recasting of politics that invokes a shared historical memory.

Anyone know what this means? When trying to work out what something means it usually helps to ask “as opposed to what?” but that gives no answer here. How does the new, recast politics invoke a shared historical memory in a way that the old politics did not? And does he mean any historical memory in particular?

Next week Mr Obama comes to Europe to mark the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings, and to Ohrdruf, a satellite of the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald that his Uncle Charlie helped to liberate at the end of the war.

The visit is a clever melding of personal and general history, evoking shared aims, spectacular heroism and the defeat of evil.

When Bush came to Europe for the 60th anniversary five years ago, was that a clever melding too?

But more than that, the historian-President will be enlisting the past to a cause, at a time when the power of history to shape our lives has never been greater, or more necessary.

Despite evoking so much gush that you would think Mr Macintyre had struck oil, the historian-President sometimes comes out with rather odd views. It might be more accurate to say that he does not notice when his speechwriters come out with some rather odd views. One example came up in the (generally pretty good) speech he just gave to the Muslim world. He said, “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.”

Hmmm. I do not claim to know much about Spanish history but I do know that the Reconquista was practically over – and was certainly long over in Cordoba (by more than two centuries, I see from Wikipedia) – by the time the Inquisition came along. To my chagrin, David T of Harry’s Place spotted the same gaffe while I was writing this post, and he seems to know a good deal. There are at least four comments before anyone makes a Monty Python reference.

16 comments to The Historian-President

  • Historian President?

    I am sorry to be so blunt about it, but Barry and/or his speech writers demonstrates time and again that he doesn’t know dick about history.

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    Just for you: Hinterland Who’s Who
    It’s been available for nearly fifty years, so history can be cited.


  • Relugus

    No religions have a history of tolerance. Religion is all about conformity.

    Humanity will not advance until religion is expunged from this Earth.

    Bush clearly had not read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, for if he had he would have sacked Rumsfeld for stupidity and the entire staff of the Spentagon for stealing $3 trillion of taxpayer dollars.

    This supposedly well-read Bush did not understand that giving Cheney’s buddies at Halliburton lucrative contracts (all at the expense of the US taxpayer) is crony capitalism, or that bailing out banks with taxpayer dollars is fascism.

  • Alice

    Tough luck, Natalie. This blog managed only 2 comments before some raving lunatic wandered by, muttering obscenities to himself. A Monty Python reference would have been much preferable.

    Great piece! — by the way.

  • Vercingetorix

    Gordon Brown repeatedly invokes Adam Smith, an earlier son of Kirkcaldy, in his defence.

    He can invoke all he damn well pleases, but the Prime Squanderer ought to have the decency to read the man once.

    And Barack Obama is the historians’ president, the apostle for a distinct view of the world seen though the prism of the past. His election campaign was firmly based on his own history.

    Precisely the problem: Obama is the Little Prince and his make-believe world has no relation to the facts of this one. He has his own history, reality be damned.

    And if, in the next four years, he somehow chances upon getting a single historical fact right in a single speech, I will eat my laptop.

    Humanity will not advance until religion is expunged from this Earth.

    And yet we’re not sending smoke signals and living in caves despite all of the religion in the world. Strange, that.

  • the other rob

    Historian President. Right. ISTR that Obama was at Harvard during a period when history was dropped from the curriculum.

  • Capt. Heinrichs, no disrespect intended to the abode of the painted turtle and the leopard frog. I should have made it clear that I meant “hinterland” in its new fangled sense of what I used to call general knowledge. Searching the Times I find it has been used in that sense three times already in the month of June, and it’s only the 5th.

    …when sport could accommodate men with a varied hinterland

    …Boys really want a hinterland to their studies…

    …His problem is that he has never had a proper job so he has no perspective or hinterland…

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    I know, I know; I’m sorry now.


  • thefrollickingmole

    I had a minor fisk of his speech up.

    The point Id like to see him hammered for as “historian president” is this little bit

    I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796,…

    (Quoting this is possibly the silliest thing I think Ive seen. The treaty he refers to was meant to stop the Islamic inspired Jihad against American shipping in the Mediterranean, and when it failed to stop it resulted in this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Barbary_War. I’d recommend the book “White Gold” [http://www.amazon.co.uk/White-Gold-Giles-Milton/dp/0340794704] which details the extent of the piracy and slaving in the area. I also believe the Marines sing a song referring to it as well…)

    …our second President John Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.” And since, our founding American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our Universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers – Thomas Jefferson – kept in his personal library….

    ( He might be a bit remiss in pointing out it was probably for the same reason Churchill would have kept a copy of “mein kampf” around, “..but one cannot get around what Jefferson heard when he went with John Adams to wait upon Tripoli’s ambassador to London in March 1785. When they inquired by what right the Barbary states preyed upon American shipping, enslaving both crews and passengers, America’s two foremost envoys were informed that “it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise…”( http://www.city-journal.org/html/17_2_urbanities-thomas_jefferson.html )

    So is he really that bad at checking history (I for one wouldnt quote a treaty that was repeatedly violated by the Muslims until a war errupted as a starting point myself..), or is his naccissim so complete he thinks no-one will notice?

    Thats a pretty big dose of ignorance right there, and who checks his speeches for gaffes anyway?

    Full fisk here, its only average though..

  • Paul Marks

    Wipe religion from the Earth says Relugus – well that sums up his view of “tolerance” (no tolerance for nonathieists).

    For the record the Iraq war was won not lost – although I still think it was a bad idea. And no one has come up with any better ideas for winning the Afghan war.

    As for the B.S. about Halliburton- well it is par for the course.

    Bush and history:

    An endless reader of history works (although that does not mean he made the right judgements).

    However, I agree that Barack Obama knows nothing about history.

    Whether it is the history of Islam – or anything else.

    He does not even know his personal history – claiming (for example) that his parents met at the Selma bridge protest, which was untrue and the protest occured after he was born anyway.

    It is up there with the 54 States of the Union, and America is one of the largest Muslim nations on Earth.

    As for the media (such as the Times).

    This there-is-no-God-and-his-name-is-Obama stuff is not only contradictory, it is also boring.

  • Yeah, expunge all religion…

    Whitewash the Sistine chapel, turn Durham Cathedral into yuppie flats, tear-up Bach’s works, build a call-centre on the site of the Taj Mahal, time-shares on the site of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, redevelop the Hagia Sophia, torch the great Buddhist temples of Japan, smash the windows of the synagogues…

    I don’t believe in God either Relugus but I’m not an arsehole about it.

  • El Gordo

    Until about a year ago, any president or candidate who compared himself to Lincoln, FDR and Washington at Valley Forge without actually having done anything would not have been praised for being a historian-president-genius. He would have been laughed off the stage and carted off to the padded palace.

    Obama doesn´t have much knowledge and not the slightest respect for history. He uses whatever comes handy and is not afraid to make stuff up to fit his message of the day. And he displays an inhuman shamelessness that is shocking even in a politican.

  • renminbi

    There is no limit to the shamelessness of politicians. They are as animals,not human beings.

  • renminbi

    There is no limit to the shamelessness of politicians. They are as animals,not human beings.

  • Paul Marks

    Politicians often just follow the ideas they were taught in school and university – and it is not just politicians.

    For example, before the Harvard Prof who is giving the Reith Lectures on the BBC this year (on a new “morality” in politics and society – and in the first few minutes of his lecture, which has just finished, the man pointed to Barack Obama as a source of hope in politics without mentioning Barack Obama’s decades of service in the corrupt Chicago machine) the fawning B.B.C. presenter said the following:

    “30 thousand students have taken your course on justice at Harvard – and some of them went on to be writers for the Simpsons where they based the character Mr Burns upon you”.

    General laughter of course – but there was a serious point hinding here.

    Mr Burns is an owner manager (not a corporate manager) and he owns a nuclear power station – i.e. if people really were concerned, as the Harvard Prof claims to be, about the “pollution” of CO2 emissions they would support him.

    No argument about “short sighted corporate managers” or “corporate welfare” or even “globel warming” can possibly apply to Mr Burns.

    Yet the character is presented in the worst possible light – indeed as a hate figure.

    “Lighten up Paul, it is only a joke”.

    Accept that the best and the brightest (and sadly they are highly intellgent – Harvard and the rest of the elite universities pick they young minds, that they “educate”, carefully) whether they go into politics or into entertainment (or anything else) work to build Hell on Earth.

    A “new morality” of tyranny.

  • Tony Shaw

    Dear Natalie

    I think you may enjoy the punch line of this recent, er, news-report from Hayibo.com (motto: “Breaking news. Into lots of little pieces.”) Here goes:


    MERDE, DRC. African dictators say they are disappointed that after 100 days in office US President Barack Obama is still showing no signs of embracing his roots by adopting a traditional African leadership style, featuring aviator sunglasses, an oversized Brigadier’s uniform covered with medals, and a private zoo containing one mangy lion called Simba.

    Obama still enjoys strong support from most Americans, although recent polls suggest that many citizens are beginning to wonder when he will deliver on such campaign promises as the introduction of a four-hour working week, the end of premature ejaculation, the mass execution of estate agents, and a financial system based on hugs.

    However, many African dictators say Obama has betrayed his roots, and have slammed his penchant for wearing suits instead of an oversized Brigadier’s uniform and aviator shades.

    The statements were made at a sitting of the African Union in Merde, Democratic Republic of Congo, this morning, where leaders have gathered to decide which ethnic minorities to persecute in order to extract humanitarian aid from Western donors.

    According to the despots, Obama has shamed Africa by allowing 100 days to pass without ordering the detention and accidental machine-gunning of the Republican Party’s leadership.

    “Every day we watch CNN, and every day we see the counterrevolutionaries in Congress exploiting Brigadier Obama’s naïve mercy, making eye contact with him and so on,” said Brigadier Hamish Banana, ruler of Gabon for the last 45 years.

    Brigadier-General Amos Mwanasa, military leader of Sierra Leone since 1959, said that Obama needed to “get a move on”, and said he was sending him a mangy lion called Simba for his private zoo.

    “We assume he has a private zoo,” said Mwanasa. “I mean, that’s something you sort out in your first month in office. That’s what a new administration is all about: invite your enemies for dinner, garrotte them over dessert, design your mausoleum, and supervise the construction of your private zoo.

    “It’s basic leadership,” he explained.

    Wing-Commander Bambi Bumbasa, President and Commander-in-Chief of Chad since 1926, said Obama had the potential to “leave an enduring legacy” in Washington DC.

    “Perhaps a 50-metre bronze statue of himself holding an AK-47 in one hand and a dove in the other, in the middle of a large traffic circle,” he suggested.

    “At night they could switch on floodlights in the head so beams of light would shoot out of his eyes and light up his mausoleum next to the Lincoln Memorial.”

    However, according to Field-Marshal Rambo de Bolognaise, who took control of Mali in 1978 by sawing off the head of his brother King Louise de Bolognaise, Obama would have to put on some weight before he sat for his statue.

    “He is so skinny. He looks like a woman. A hot woman. Like a model. Good breeding stock.”

    He added that he was “not into men who look like women”, and said he would prove it by exterminating the last of his country’s homosexuals to “make a point”.

    Obama was not available for comment as he was busy whispering to wild horses