Thursday, December 4, 2008

What histories should Obama be reading as he prepares to become President?

A sociologist friend and colleague writes with a great question: "I've noticed Obama has been photographed carrying around a biography of Lincoln (or a history of Lincoln's administration). I've also heard him reference what he's been reading as he makes appointment decisions. If you were given the chance to influence Obama's reading, what historical works would you hope he should be consulting?"

Well, first of all, the much ballyhooed "team of rivals" discourse currently pervading stories about Obama's cabinet selections stems from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005). In it, she suggests that Lincoln's selection of political opponents or challengers to work with him in his cabinet was a stroke of managerial genius. William Seward, Edwin Stanton, Edward Bates, and Salmon Chase couldn't get along with each other, let alone Lincoln. Nonetheless, according to Goodwin, the president skillfully transcended partisanship and personalities, which allowed him to tap into the ideas of the best and brightest in a time of national crisis.

It's a problematic thesis, to say the least. Historian James Oakes rightly demolished it in a brief op-ed for the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. But the "team of rivals" story lives on.

What histories should Obama be reading instead of Goodwin's? A few come to mind.

The first would be Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (1999), by David Kennedy (which I'm finishing right now). As an accessible overview of the Hoover-Roosevelt years, it is simply stunning. The number of parallels between the early 1930s and right now are striking. History doesn't repeat itself (only historians do), but there is still much to be learned from that moment in U.S. history.

Given the nation's energy problems, Alfred Crosby's Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity's Unappeasable Appetite for Energy (2005) would be another good choice. It's a quick, but important, read that places the energy question in a deep context.

Shane Hamilton's new book, Trucking Country: The Road to America's Wal-Mart Economy (2008) offers an innovative interpretation of the decline of New Deal liberalism through the examination of agriculture, food, and transportation in relation to political economies.

Given the complicated relationship between leftist and liberal politics in Obama's candidacy, Doug Rossinow's Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (2007) seems appropriate. He lays out the tensions between the left and liberalism since the 1880s with a keen eye. This is the political history Obama needs to negotiate the fragile coalition he seems to have cobbled together.

Finally, since many wonder how Obama will translate his grassroots organizing into institutionalized national politics, I would suggest Barbara Ransby's Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (2003) for insights on the possibilities and limitations of such an intersection.

But what do YOU think, fellow rye drinkers? Which histories should Obama be reading?

3 comments:

evdebs said...

I remain partial to Nick Salvatore's classic, Eugene V Debs: Citizen and Socialist (1982).

I would also recommend, Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn From the Past (2007), edited by Lloyd Gardner and Marilyn B. Young. Even very well informed people on the events of the last eight years will learn from these essays.

What none of these essays could reveal, was the recent vote in the Iraqi Parliament in the "Status of Forces" agreement calling for the withdraw of all US forces by January 1, 2011.

This request to leave Iraq is a monumental difference between the wars in Vietnam and Mesopotamia. Why the Bush team negotiated for a longer timetable for withdraw than the Iraqi government wanted is a crime. A soon as we were asked to leave (and just this week the Afghan government made its first tentative steps in that direction) we should have packed up our bags and declared an unambiguous victory.

This is a great opportunity for Obama to fully get out of Iraq with no lingering presence and if he does not take it there should be massive civil disobedience.

It is clear that the Bush team did not want to be asked out as their goal from the start was empire. Now we get to see if empire is part of a Obama's bipartisanship.

Michael N said...

I would like to suggest "The Autobiography of Bigfoot" by Bigfoot (AKA: Grahm Roumieu). The history of such a complex, misjudged icon of Americana is something to learn from indeed. When he ponders to smash a man "with rock...maybe log.", my god, the tipping point of all humanity hangs on his choice of weapondry in such a way that parallel's Obama's finger hovering precariously over a large red button sometime in the near future. Something to learn by not appointing Lou Ferrigno to your cabinet as well.

A rye-drinker said...

Michael N--

You are mistaken. Lou Ferrigno was my choice for Secretary of State. He'd bring our enemies into line, pronto.