Historians Team Up to Back Obama

In unusual move for this stage of a campaign, scholars join those issuing endorsements and trying to rally support.
November 27, 2007

In the weeks approaching the 2004 and 1992 elections, among others, groups of educators issued formal statements of support for the Democratic nominees for president, taking public stands as members of their profession. In recent elections, groups of scientists have also weighed in -- after the party nominations were settled.

But in a move that is unusually early and specific, a group of prominent historians on Monday issued a joint endorsement of Barack Obama's bid for the presidency. The endorsement, released through the History News Network, was organized by Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University, and Ralph E. Luker, a historian who is one of the leaders of the popular history blog Cliopatria. The scholars who signed included two past presidents of the American Historical Association -- Joyce Appleby of the University of California at Los Angeles and James McPherson of Princeton University -- and many other A-list scholars in the field.

Officials of the AHA (which was not a party to the endorsement) and several other long-time observers of the discipline said that they could not think of a comparable example of historians collectively taking a stand in a political race in this way. Historians, either through formal and informal groups, have spoken out about many issues, but they tend to be more closely tied to their field, such as appeals on behalf of historians abroad in countries where their rights are threatened, demands for easing visa rules so scholars can enter the United States, and so forth. A list of such actions by historians is on the History News Network site.

Officials with the John Edwards campaign said that they knew of individual historians backing their candidate, but did not have a formal group. The Clinton campaign did not respond to an inquiry. The Republican campaigns have not been active in seeking academic support, although they too have individual backers and in at least one case a semi-formal group of backers. The Fred Thompson campaign has a Lawyers for Thompson group that includes a Legal Professors Committee, several of whose members are prominent bloggers in the law professor world.

The Obama campaign's support from historians follows numerous reports about the Illinois senator's popularity not only with students, but faculty members. He has raised far more money from academics than have other candidates and he has plenty of academic connections himself -- he taught at the University of Chicago law school and his wife, Michelle, held a series of positions at the University of Chicago Hospitals, rising to the position of vice president for community and external affairs.

In the historians' endorsement, the scholars quote William James and reference the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, but the history noted (the Emancipation Proclamation, the creation of Social Security) doesn't require graduate-level knowledge. Georgetown's Kazin, one of the organizers, said that while he and other scholars felt an obligation as "scholar/citizens" to speak out, they did not want to imply that historians are uniquely qualified to pick a president.

In fact, one of the parts of the endorsement in which the historians cite their knowledge of the field is where they note the limits of what presidents can accomplish. "As historians, we understand that no single individual, even a president, leads alone or outside a thick web of context. As Abraham Lincoln wrote to a friend during the Civil War, 'I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.' "

The general theme of the endorsement is that the country is in particularly bad shape, and that Obama has unique abilities to bring about change. Of the difficulties, the historians write: "Our country is in serious trouble. The gap between the wealthy elite and the working majority grows ever larger, tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance and others risk bankruptcy when they get seriously ill, and many public schools do a poor job of educating the next generation. Due to the arrogant, inept foreign policy of the current administration, more people abroad mistrust and fear the United States than at any time since the height of the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, global warming speeds toward an unprecedented catastrophe. Many Republicans and overwhelming numbers of Independents and Democrats believe that, under George W. Bush, the nation has badly lost its way. The 2008 election thus comes at a critical time in the history of the United States and the world."

Of Obama, the statement says that "it is his qualities of mind and temperament that really separate Obama from the rest of the pack. He is a gifted writer and orator who speaks forcefully but without animus. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness -- or provided Americans with a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry older than the nation itself. Like Kennedy, he also inspires young people who see him as a great exception in a political world that seems mired in cynicism and corruption."

The statement added that "Barack Obama would only begin the process of healing what ails our society and ensuring that the U.S. plays a beneficial role in the world. But we believe he is that rare politician who can stretch the meaning of democracy, who can help revive what William James called 'the civic genius of the people.' "

Kazin said that about half of those he and others approached agreed to sign the statement. Of those who declined, some haven't decided whom to support, others were unsure about making such a statement jointly, and some were backing other candidates. Kazin said several historians were backing the Edwards campaign and one the Clinton campaign.

One professor who was approached and who did not sign on is Maurice Isserman of Hamilton College. He shared his e-mail about why he declined. "Edwards is the most appealing candidate at the moment," Isserman wrote. "It's not just the vacuous 'new generation' rhetoric emanating from the Obama camp that disturbs me -- worse is his flirtation with the notion of a 'Social Security crisis.' Let's leave the Republican talking points to the Republicans for a change. Of course, I'd take him in a heartbeat over Hillary, just as (I suspect) I will be taking Hillary The Inevitable in a nano-second over whichever scary guy the Republicans finally go with."

Another historian who passed, Casey N. Blake of Columbia University, said via e-mail: "While I am likely to vote for Obama in the New York primary, I am reluctant to endorse any candidate in my professional capacity as a historian."


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