History brought to life

History brought to life

January 15th, 2009 in Opinion

Doris Kearns Goodwin's finely honed scholarship in the histories of great presidents has endowed her with unique insights not just into the lives of Lincoln and Roosevelt, Kennedy and LBJ. It also ably informs her view of how history may judge the presidency of George W. Bush, and of the crisis-laden opportunity for Barack Obama to make his mark in history. Her perceptions seem unerringly on the mark.

In her view, Mr. Bush's legacy already is freighted with squandered opportunity and neglect, yet still awaits judgment on the outcome of Iraq and its future course in the Middle East. History's view of Mr. Obama's White House years, she believes, will depend on his handling of the great economic crisis thrust upon him at the outset, and also on his success in mobilizing and improving the nation through his rare gifts of eloquence, persuasion and ability to inspire.

Mrs. Goodwin, a world-renowned historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has brought history and its applicable contemporary lessons to life through half-a-dozen best-selling books and a broad range of frequent television commentary. She visited Chattanooga Tuesday to deliver this season's keynote address in the George T. Hunter Lecture Series at UTC, a series of lectures by four notable speakers funded by the Benwood Foundation and co-sponsored by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies and CreateHere. The lectures are free and open to the public.

Mrs. Goodwin drew her remarks from her book, "Team of Rivals," on Abraham Lincoln's rise to the presidency. She focused on Lincoln's remarkable strength of character and his decision to install in his Cabinet the three principle presidential rivals he had defeated. His decision, she explained, enriched his presidency with strong, diverse views, shaped his broad accomplishments in office, and enlarged his life and legacy.

Given the benefits that President Lincoln and the nation enjoyed as a result, it's no wonder that Barack Obama's admitted devotion to "Team of Rivals" has shaped his approach to forming his own Cabinet. (If limited to two books in the White, he's said he would take the Bible and "Rivals").

In an earlier media interview and in response to the audience's questions following her lecture, Ms. Goodwin candidly gave her thumbnail assessment of the historical parameters for Mr. Bush and the opportunity for Mr. Obama.

Mr. Bush, she noted, failed to use the epic historical moment in the aftermath of 9/11 to mobilize the nation around a higher or more useful purpose. He made no call for shared sacrifice, or for volunteers for the wars that he unfolded. He squandered the good will of other nations, and he failed to initiate a "Manhattan"-style push for energy efficiency to wind down America's dependence on Middle East oil.

Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, who responded to the ravages of the Great Depression and the burden of World War II with calls for large public works for the former and 24/7 war factories for the latter, Mr. Bush called for Americans "to go shopping." Instead of asking citizens' participation in national goals, he borrowed money for the war and failed to crank up a round-the-clock factory that could get an armored Humvee to troops in Iraq until after soldiers were forced to jerry-rig their own.

Had he called for more citizens to engage in public life, resources for the war - and for managing Hurricane Katrina - might have been readily available when they were needed. He also failed to push domestic initiatives that might have ensured his legacy, as Lyndon Johnson did with civil rights and Medicare legislation even as the Vietnam War's unpopularity eroded his presidency.

Even so, she said, Mr. Bush's place in history will not be determined until Iraq's post-war course in the Middle East becomes clear.

Mr. Obama's presidency will be equally shaped by the crises that confront him. His challenges are to reverse the economic crisis, reconstitute relations with other nations, and mobilize and inspire Americans toward crucial domestic reforms. The rare magnitude of those daunting challenges could thrust him, if his presidency is successful, to a high place in history.

Mrs. Goodwin, to be sure, delivered her assessments without a partisan edge. Rather, she spoke with the even, insightful candor of a well-informed and immensely entertaining scholar-storyteller, one popular across a broad segment of the city. That was clearly evident in the enthusiastic reception of her by Chattanoogans who crowded the aisles of three auditoriums at UTC - one in which she spoke, and two which featured a large-screen for a remote-feed of her lecture. That rare event on a cold January night suggests the power of Mrs. Goodwin's art of bringing history to life, and the value of a such a public venue here.