"All the Past we leave behind." So insisted America's bard, Walt Whitman, a man who refused to be encompassed by any one identity, refused to be constrained by birth, by place, by experience.
Americans, following Whitman, have long celebrated their nation as a place of regeneration, where the past leaves no mark, where everyone has shadowy antecedents and almost no one cares. After all, millions immigrated to the United States, altering their names, their stations and their destinies, inspiring in us a tremendous faith in people's capacity to remake themselves and nothing but admiration for those who do.
The novelist Henry James was so overwhelmed by how lightly Americans bore the weight of history that he fled to Europe. To him, Americans lacked ties to place and family. No memories were stored communally, none were extended beyond a generation. The family, in its aristocratic or European sense, did not exist. People live less for the remembrance of what has been, than for the care of what they wish to become.
We feel free to fashion ourselves anew. A segregationist speech writer becomes an American Indian memoirist. David Duke transforms himself from klan wizard to racial moderate and champion of the dispossessed as easily as Arnold Schwarzenegger's evil "Terminator" metamorphoses into a noble android in "Terminator II." Millions of Americans are reborn each day, eradicating the past by following Whitman to the West, or by entering a 12-step recovery program.
This lesson was not lost on the nation's politicians. Candidates and their handlers have long abused the electorate's belief in the regenerative power of American life. Ol' Tippecanoe, William Henry Harrison, won the presidency in 1840 by remaking himself as the "poor farmer of North Bend," summoned from his log cabin to oust opponents from "the presidential palace." Even though Harrison represented the Whig Party--that era's champions of wealth and privilege--and himself came from one of the F.F.V. (First Families of Virginia), Harrison rode his hard-cider image to the White House.
A century later, Gary Hart changed his name, age and resume. Richard M. Nixon continually recast himself as the "New Nixon." And George Herbert Walker Bush set out from Yale for West Texas, emerging, in 1964, as a wildcat oil man and Goldwater Republican. Six years later, he resurfaced as a moderate "Action Republican," modeling his can-do, shirt-sleeves image on New York's liberal mayor, John V. Lindsay. In 1988, he became the pork-rind-munching outsider--assailing Michael S. Dukakis and those snobby Harvard liberals. No European of comparable station would do so; none would get away with it.
This is not to claim self-recreation as an exclusively American trait--one thinks immediately of Kurt Waldheim erasing his Nazi record or the thousands of Frenchmen who, after the fact, "became" heroes of the Resistance. But those transformations required the dislocation and devastation of total war and were accomplished in secret. Americans reinvent themselves in public.
The South, however, long appeared as the singular exception to this American contempt for the past. History had happened to those people in that part of the world; Southerners bore the inescapable burdens of their past. Every Southern family had suffered under slavery or been complicit in it. Southerners lived, in William Faulkner's words, among defeated grandmothers and freed slaves and bullets in the dining room.
But, surprisingly, the South would itself spawn a new style of politics, one that would take to extremes the nation's capacity for political rebirth. This was Populism, the tradition which produced Tom Watson and Huey Long, Tom Harkin and David Duke.
Watson, the father of American Populism, rose to power in the 1890s, calling for an alliance between black sharecroppers and poor white farmers. "You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings," Watson declared. "You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a system which beggars you both." When a young black preacher was threatened with lynching, Watson defended him. But after a crushing electoral defeat and eight years of enforced retirement, Watson re-emerged as a virulent white supremacist and anti-Catholic. He rebuilt his political career, touting "the superiority of the Aryan" and "hideous, ominous national menace of Negro domination."
George Wallace, who ran his first, unsuccessful, gubernatorial campaign as a racial moderate, won statewide office and national prominence by promising to stand in the schoolhouse door to block integration. His brash style fit the tradition of Southern populist orator--promising to toss bureaucrats into the Potomac and threatening to step on the accelerator if he were President and one of them hippies lay down in front of his limousine. But in the mid-1970s, after an assassin's bullet confined him to a wheelchair, Wallace re-emerged as an almost statesmanlike father figure, and recaptured the Alabama statehouse with an overwhelming mandate from black voters.
Today, Louisiana's Duke, one time grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and American Nazi Party sympathizer, claims he is a new man. "Because of my past . . . you can trust what I'm saying today," Duke insists. "I've always stood up and said what I've believed, whether it was popular or not." Duke assures us he is a man of principle, and that his detestable principles are no longer relevant. He exploits our faith in self-renewal--our willingness to offer second chances--even though his objective is to foreclose such opportunities for others. He does not repudiate his views, he merely seeks greater advantage from them.
The gravest danger, then, is not that Duke, like Wallace and Watson before him, changes with the times. The promise of American life is that people can and should transcend their pasts. Hugo L. Black, once a klan member, became a great Supreme Court justice and voted to dismantle the racial caste system. Even Wallace, to his credit, admitted his mistakes and revealed a willingness to heed the voices he had once tried to silence.
But there is a big difference between overcoming one's past and forgetting it, between facing the responsibilities of transgressions and repudiating those responsibilities, between changing oneself and inventing a new self. We could forgive Black because he remembered and triumphed over his youthful indiscretions. But we must reject those who demand that we forget. True forgiveness requires remembering. True change demands a sense of history.