Show Clio the Money!

In lobbying for the historical profession, it's all about the dead presidents.

May 31, 2005

A member of Congress who says “history” is not necessarily thinking of the same enterprise as a professional historian. This is no Beltway-induced conceptual blockage: For civilians, the important thing about history is story, not methodology. (Even the most devoted viewers of the History Channel have no sense of the century-long debates over the "the objectivity question.")

But the stakes of mutual incomprehension are higher when the federal budget is involved -- when the member of Congress is voting on whether or not to fund initiatives designed to improve history education, mainly at the primary and secondary levels. For example, there is the $11.2 million that the National Endowment for the Humanities has requested for next year for We the People. And then there's the $119 million in the president’s budget slotted for the Teaching American History, a program of the Department of Education.

In such cases, it really matters whether legislators understand history to mean (1) a field producing new knowledge about the past or (2) a really cool holographic diorama of the Pilgrims at prayer.

The smart money would, of course, bet on the diorama. But history in the other sense is represented in Washington by the National Coalition on History, representing the interests of more than 70 professional organizations for historians and archivists. As it happens, all of this lobbying clout is exercised by one person, Bruce Craig, usually with the assistance of an intern.

Craig took over as director (and de facto staff) of the coalition in early 2003 -- just as it was shedding its earlier, clunkier identity as the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History. Like its predecessor, the NCH runs out of an office in the American Historical Association building on Capitol Hill.

I recently interviewed Craig by telephone from his home in West Virginia -- an excellent choice of residence, since it makes him a constituent of Sen. Robert Byrd, whose baby Teaching American History really is. But I happen to know that is a coincidence. It turns out that we met a dozen years ago, when his wife and I both worked as archival technicians in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress. (Our job was history at the lowliest level: sorting dead people’s mail.)

Back then, Craig was working on a dissertation about Harry Dexter White, a Treasury official and co-founder of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who was accused by Whittaker Chambers of being a Soviet operative.

Craig's findings (available in a book published last year) were that White engaged in “a species of espionage” for the Russians, yet was not guilty of subverting American policy in their favor. It is a nice distinction -- one likely to offend those who prefer a simpler estimate, one way or the other, of Joseph McCarthy’s place in history.

But that studied indifference to ideological default settings is not just a scholarly stance. Listening to Craig, it sounds like the best tool in the lobbyist’s kit.

In the course of our discussion, I tried to draw Craig out on whether the mid-1990s battles over multiculturalism, the Enola Gay exhibit, and such still echo around Capitol Hill. His response is ... well, not evasive, exactly. But he has an impressive knack for finding finds terms that are practical, nonpartisan, and diplomatic.

The culture war "doesn’t come up often," he said. "Congress is very concerned with school kids, with whether or not they know American history. And of course they should be concerned with that. Part of our role is to make sure that ‘history’ doesn’t end up being defined narrowly, as just American history -- that the ancient world, and comparative history, also get included."

With the Teaching American History program, of course, the national (if not nationalistic) focus is evident from the very name. Craig says the challenge is to keep “from too narrow an emphasis on particular types of American history, so that it just becomes a kind of civics lesson.”

By meeting with Congressional staff and getting historians to testify in committee, the National Coalition for History is trying to recalibrate what legislators mean by “traditional American history.” It's a matter, in effect, of making sure that the term covers both the doings of white guys in powdered wigs at the Constitutional Convention and the slave revolts that sometimes kept them from getting a good night's sleep.

Quite a bit of the NCH’s activity concerns matters that are upstream from the classroom – with issues, that is, affecting how history gets “done” by researchers. Craig lobbies in support of the Open Government Act, designed to bolster the Freedom of Information access to documents. Organizations belonging to the coalition are up in arms, understandably enough, about a renewed effort to zero out the budget for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which provides grants for the preparation of editions of historical documents. And the NCH appears to be making progress in saving the program.

And in preparing the coalition’s weekly electronic newsletter, The NCH Washington Update (archived here), Craig keeps up with the corridor politics of government agencies involved in historical matters. Did you know, for example, that the National Parks Service is a hotbed of internal conflict over grants for historical preservation projects? Chances are that, no, you did not know that -- let alone that a recent major reorganization of one section of the Park Service is known as "the May 3 massacre.” (Read all about it here.) It's the sort of inside-the-beltway news that helps keep historians connected with the bureaucratic developments indirectly shaping their field.

From talking to Craig and reading the coalition’s press, the impression forms of a lobby that is, as the saying goes, “post-ideological.”

You know the drill: Pragmatism is all. Politics is the art of compromise in pursuit of the possible. That sort of thing.

But my own instinct is always to historicize such “post-ideological” thinking. To see it, first of all, as taking shape in a specific historical period (the 1990s, pretty much), and to understand it as reflecting a particular set of vested interests. In short, the "post-ideological" outlook is precisely the ideology of the professional-managerial class, i.e., extremely skilled brain workers who want to do their jobs without having to dread weird lurches in political governance.  

Now, some of my lingo here (“historicize,” “class”) is faintly marxisant, of course. But for what it’s worth, similar notions do pop up even when conservatives think about the recent past. As a case in point, check out the conservative historian Richard Jensen’s analysis of the culture wars.

Historians don’t all share the same, presumably leftist, politics -- no matter what the polemicists say. But they do share the same interest in seeing that libraries and archives stay open, and that “history” be understood to embrace a range of periods and topics. And also that new generations be encouraged to develop an appetite for learning about the past.


Given all that, there is an incentive to play down ideological fractiousness, as the National Coalition for History does with some finesse. The consequences are a little paradoxical -- creating “an ironic role [for] Washington, D.C.,” in the words of Rick Shenkman, editor of the History News Network.

“The larger story here in my opinion,” Shenman told me in an e-mail note a couple of weeks ago, “is the ironic role of Washington, D.C. in the history wars.  It has been the Right that has largely been behind the fantastic increase in appropriations for history over the last few years. Lynne Cheney has played a role as has Sen. Lamar Alexander. Robert Byrd, though a liberal of sorts, has pressed his history agenda on quite conservative grounds. And the beneficiary of the funds?  It's those liberal historians across the country whom David Horowitz thinks are undermining the Republic!”  

Not that the National Coalition for History, or anybody else for that matter, is being exactly Machiavellian about any of it. In the end, it’s all about the dead presidents. At the risk of being crass, you might best understand even the politics of scholarship by following the money.

“We have no space Hubble to rally around,” as Shenkman puts it. “So historians have used the easiest arguments at hand in support of their projects -- and that happens to be the patriotic argument.”


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. His last column explored the intellectual legacy of Paul Ricoeur.


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