Gregory Rodriguez: A political history lesson

God bless the American media. Over the last two weeks, thousands of well-educated journalists and political experts have made their mortgage payments by commenting on the antics of an idiot congressman who tweeted a picture of his genitals, and an idiot ex-governor who sloppily manipulated history for ideological ends.

I get the obsession on the first story. Sex always sells. Illicit sex — or something close to it — by arrogant politicians sells more. That’s a constant.

But what about Sarah Palin’s goofy history lesson? It’s not like her version of “one if by land, two if by sea” was the first time the ex-Alaska governor showed she has a loose grip on the facts. And when did being accurate about Paul Revere become a litmus test for anything?

For all Palin’s foolishness, I found the intellectual one-upmanship of the peanut gallery almost as lame.

But that’s before I realized how much we all use and abuse history to justify our stances and actions in the present. I think Americans piled on Palin because her lame manipulation of history implicated us all.


As a young republic that fought a revolutionary war, America is short on tradition and skeptical of those in power. It has substituted it’s own story, heroes and “facts” as the prime source of moral and political authority.

But given our supreme lack of historical knowledge — a 2009 survey on civic literacy gave 71% of respondents an F — that’s a tricky habit indeed.

According to Canadian historian Jean Matthews, it all started before the Civil War, when “history became something of a national preoccupation as the generation which had inherited the new nation worked out a conception of its nature and destiny.” The very history we looked to supported the gesture: In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton heralded history “as the least fallible guide” and James Madison dubbed it the “oracle of truth.”

But the historical record can also be a shaky platform on which to construct a future. Mark Twain captured the self-serving way history is manufactured. “The very ink with which all history is written,” he wrote, “is merely fluid prejudice.”

This isn’t so much a comment on historians as an acknowledgment that any act of recording, recollecting or, especially, interpreting history invites falsification. In 1907, historian and novelist Henry Adams cheekily warned that the “historian must not try to know what is truth, if he values his honesty; for, if he cares for his truths, he is certain to falsify his facts.”

Marshaling past heroes for today’s cause du jour — as Palin did when she tied Revere to a defense of “our arms” — has been remarkably common over the years. Poor Abraham Lincoln. In 1914, white supremacist and Mississippi Sen. James K. Vardaman twisted Lincoln’s opinions to recruit him to the Southern segregationist cause. In an attempt to put himself in good company after his resignation, Richard Nixon used Lincoln, pointing out that the Kentucky-born leader was another vilified president. As historian John Hope Franklin put it, this amounted to “little more than a tasteless and self-serving effort to make Nixon himself innocent by association.”

As bad as all that was, there are signs that the level of abuse of history for political ends is only getting worse.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz calculated that candidates were “evoking history more than ever.” The Republicans tended toward allusions to Ronald Reagan that had “more to do with nostalgia for happier times for conservatives than with historical accuracy.” Barack Obama’s camp fudged even more. In particular, Wilentz found the campaign’s glowing comparisons of Obama with Lincoln and John F. Kennedy “to distort the past beyond recognition.”

None of this excuses Palin’s aggressive ignorance, but it goes a long way in explaining why her garbled Paul Revere story got so deeply under our collective skin. As voters if not politicians, we’re all guilty of cutting history to fit the shape of our politics. When you see your sins spotlighted, amplified and rerun again and again, it’s hard not to cringe.