I was touched when John McCain during the debate on Friday recalled the two letters that Dwight David Eisenhower wrote on the eve of D-Day. I liked it when he mentioned George Schultz and called him. “a great Secretary of State.” And, of course, when he later mentioned Ronald Reagan. McCain keeps right on making such references. On ABC’s This Week, he compared himself to Teddy Roosevelt at least three times.
But every time he reaches back into history for an anecdote or a comparison, I fear it is not working in his favor. In fact, it is probably working against him. Obama chided McCain during the debate for “20th-century thinking,” never acknowledging that America’s “20th-century thinking” vastly improved the lives of all Americans and also managed to save the world from the black night of fascism and then communism.
But, hey, 21st-century thinking — whatever it means — sounds so much more . . . today. And Obama, with his youth, his background, his reference to a “Google for government” seems like such a “right-now” guy. And in our current moment-by-moment time frame — which was so apparent this past hectic week — having wisdom based on experience can be made to seem almost valueless, perhaps even an impediment. Cable-news commentators kept shouting that we are experiencing a financial crisis like none other, and everyone was worrying about his own 401K. The thought that prevailing on the beaches of Normandy in June, 1944, just might have presented a greater challenge for our civilization than our current woes didn’t make it onto the radar of most of the media. I don’t doubt that there were many living rooms where viewers simply didn’t know General Eisenhower led that great invasion; others where they didn’t even know who he was.
Not knowing much about history has become a theme in this campaign. Senator Joe Biden, the vice-presidential candidate – who isn’t getting slammed daily by the media or being told by former friends to pack up the diaper bag and go home – said during an interview with Katie Couric, “Part of what a leader does . . . to instill confidence is demonstrate that he or she knows what they’re talking about and communicates to people, if you listen to me and follow what I’m suggesting we can fix this. When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the princes of greed. He said, ‘look, here’s what happened.’ ”
Funny that Katie, who hammered Sarah Palin for her less-than- illuminating answers, didn’t point out to Senator Biden — and to the millions watching — that Hoover, not Roosevelt, was President in 1929; that no one at the time was yet watching television; and that it was shocking that someone who had been a senator for 35 years did not know some basic facts of history. If Sarah Palin had made such a mistake, Katie (and the rest of the media who pass over Biden’s serial gaffes) would have pounced, and it would have led the news, hour after hour.
I am not sure I found McCain’s performance Friday night successful but I found it deeply moving. He looked like a man who has lived very hard and learned a lot from what he has experienced, who has been very brave and has tried to accomplish a great deal for his country. He cares so much that it sometimes leaves him fumbling and somewhat inarticulate. Clearly history — his own history and the nation’s — are with McCain at every moment.
Obama’s history, by contrast, is at once so exotic, so contemporary, and so ill-defined that it doesn’t seem to matter very much. He keeps telling us he is all about going forward and all about change, which he tells us is what we all want. But as we all know (or maybe we don’t), as George Santayana famously said, “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Those who go even further, and disdain the past, are even more unprepared for the challenges of a difficult future.
– Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness – and Liberalism – to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.