AHA Roundtable: The Presidential Debate of October 22, 2012

Last night’s debate began with a reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.   My inner (or perhaps not so inner) AHA geek immediately jumped to recent efforts to make accessible to the public government documents relating to that event that are still classified.  But I also was drawn to recent reflections (here, and here) on whether flawed historical interpretations have yielded equally flawed policy lessons – conventional wisdoms that were on display once again last night.  It’s all about manhood and steely resolve, rather than the subtleties and occasional humility of collaboration and negotiation.

More than a quarter of a century ago, Joan Scott published “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.”  As the AHA offers its final set of historians’ commentaries on the 2012 national election debates, I lament the failure of the candidates and the media analysts to have read that widely cited (and still the most-downloaded) article in the American Historical Review (1986).  Or to have read anything by the many historians who have pointed to the importance of gendered language in American political discourse.   If any of these individuals had read such work – and learned even a little bit – they might have questioned the mindless invocation of strength as the cornerstone of American foreign policy.  Not legitimacy; nor trust; nor cooperation. Nor all sorts of other words that suggest an ability to work together on an international stage to achieve common goals.  When these values were invoked (as they were occasionally), they still took a back seat to the central dichotomy of strength vs. weakness. 

The AHA’s series on the debates, however, is more than a rehearsal of how historical understanding and thinking might have generated more thoughtful conversation. We have asked our writers to set aside their own partisanship, as well as to resist the temptations of punditry and historical fact-checking.  They have instead offered insights into the importance of silences; the appeal of certainty, and the imperative of understanding partisanship itself in historical context.

This experiment is part of a broader initiative which rests on the assumption that historical thinking is essential to well-rounded civic discourse.  We encourage our members to speak  – as historians and as educators – in newspapers, in blogs, or on the radio, on topics from the latest film to show up in local theaters to school curricula to national and world affairs.  “Advocacy” has long been a central aspect of the AHA’s mission, and we urge all of our members to consider themselves advocates of the importance of our discipline in public culture.

—James Grossman, Executive Director

The Respondents:

“If the White House treats Iran, as Governor Romney claimed last night, ‘the same way we treated . . . apartheid . . . South Africa,’ then Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his regime…have nothing to worry about.”

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—Carol Anderson, Emory University

“As an international lawyer, perhaps the most surprising moment of this debate for me was when Romney suggested that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be ‘indicted’ under the UN’s Genocide Convention for incitement. Seriously?”
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—Elizabeth Borgwardt, Washington University in St. Louis

“I returned from Beirut, Lebanon this past Sunday, October 21, a Lebanon where a grotesquely huge bomb triggered by cowardly fanatics shattered the tenuous tranquility that the vast majority of ordinary Lebanese crave…”
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—Leila Fawaz, Tufts University

“As moderator Bob Schieffer observed, a debate held during the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis can offer compelling reminders, but President Obama and Governor Romney seemed to be reading outdated books.”
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—Max Paul Friedman, American University

“What was evident throughout was that the goal of neither Obama nor Romney was to enlighten and stimulate thinking. The tenor of the debate was consistently pedestrian. Rather than arguing about whether the U.S. should place any daylight between itself and Israel, the candidates made sure that there was no daylight between the two of them.”
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— Richard H. Immerman, Temple University

“In short, the debates seemed to assume nearly complete freedom in many of the ways that history suggests we need to recognize constraints; and, on the other hand, it remained stuck within a very narrow chronological window, without much thought about where we have come from historically … or about where the large sweep of history might be taking us.”
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—Kenneth L. Pomeranz, University of Chicago

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