Venerable historian Garry Wills recently posted a piece revealing his role at an off-the-record meeting President Obama convened with nine professional historians over a year ago. Though a frequent critic of President Obama’s policies, I reacted to Wills’ piece with a kind of tingling cognitive dissonance: sympathy for the President and, frankly, disdain for the profession I admire enormously.
Wills breaks his silence because “there has been no follow-up on the first dinner” (and if Wills’ account is accurate, I can understand the president’s reluctance to break bread again), “and certainly no sign that he learned anything” from the June 2009 dinner. Oh my, the professors’ lectures failed to impress! The president will have to settle for a Gentleman’s C.
The whiff of self-aggrandizement in the piece is understandable — Wills has written over 40 books, more than the average American has read. He is a truly distinguished historian and acquires his self-importance honestly. I forgive the “Barack really should have listened to me” petulance of the piece.
I find it harder to forgive the squandered opportunity of professional historians bringing to bear the wisdom of their craft for the benefit of a president eager to learn. Credit to the president. In principle, a gathering of accomplished historians “to discuss what history could teach [the president] about conducting the presidency” is a tremendous idea.
In practice, the gathering seemed to have little to do with history and much with current-events talking points — in some cases, counter-historical talking points.
The “main point the dinner guests tried to make” that night, Wills tells us, was “that pursuit of war in Afghanistan would be for him what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson.” No other issue “rose to this level of seriousness or repeated concern.” As Wills elaborates: “the President might have been saved from the folly that will be his lasting legacy. But now we are ten years into a war that could drag on for another ten, and could catch in its trammels the next president, the way Vietnam tied up president after president.”
Really? Our best historical minds gather at the president’s invitation, and their most urgent contribution to the President’s understanding was a counter-historical cliché? I want so much to write about urgent contributions from history that might have been. But too much of what was demands attention.
First, regarding Afghanistan and Vietnam, in the former, we successfully ousted the brutal Taliban from power and made possible truly historic democratic elections that installed the beginnings of democratic governance in Afghanistan. We are now fighting a counter-insurgency and contending with a kleptocracy — but a government that steals beats a government that throws acid in women’s faces for being insufficiently modest.
In Vietnam, even though we won the Tet Offensive and crippled the Viet Cong, we were limited to fighting against an invasion of South Vietnam and were never able to target and take out the brutal North Vietnamese government because of the specter of nuclear retaliation from the Communist bloc. We’ve already won in Afghanistan what we were never permitted to win in Vietnam.