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Gingrich and the Use of History

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Newt Gingrich is an embrassment to the historical profession. Not only is he corrupt, but his dissertation defended Belgian rule of the Congo, which really sums up the man. He throws historical references around with abandon, but it’s entirely unclear whether the gasbag knows what he’s talking about. Revolution here, Civil War there, ancient Rome, Churchill, whatever half-baked comparison helps him make his point. What bothers me though is that actual historians find this charming. Here’s Sean Wilentz:

Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian, said in an interview, “I have a weakness for any public figure who talks about history in any way that is at all serious.”

“I find the Speaker is serious,” said Professor Wilentz, who has written books about Andrew Jackson and the age of Ronald Reagan. “I don’t find him profound in any way.”

This is not a forgivable weakness. I do not share it at all. There is nothing inherently great about history. I study history as a way to understand why the nation is as it is today. I love history, but that love is not enough. To me, a study of history provides a necessary component to crafting good public policy. You simply cannot create good policy without an in-depth understanding of the past. I think Wilentz more or less believes this too. But I also think Wilentz has bought into the “game” side of politics and of history a bit too much. His utter hackishness in attacking Obama because it got in the way of him being the Clintons’ Arthur Schlesinger was icky. And I don’t think that you want public figures talking about history if they are talking about it wrongly. Gingrich is utterly unserious in everything he does, except for hawking his wares. That includes his history. There’s nothing noble about it.

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