Satire is a difficult form these days. Reality keeps calling, and raising. Let me tell a story that illustrates the difficulty.
Last November, when President Reagan’s Teflon began to wear thin, pundits began to write about how his “place in history” was being jeopardized. My buddy Tim, a historian, casually suggested that a President really needs professional historians on call to warn him about how history will judge his actions. I thought that was a funny idea. Tim and I started goofing on it, and we wound up writing a proposal to establish a “Council of Historical Advisors.”
We pointed out that such a body would answer a real need. After all, every politician above the state legislator level wants to be regarded with favor by history, and Presidents in their final years in office, especially, seem to worry about it a lot. They’re not running for anything, and posterity doesn’t even have a PAC, but they just can’t kick the habit: They start to suck up to the electorate of Yet-to-be.
But history takes time (as Gertrude Stein remarked), and that makes them nervous. Since we can’t poll the Great Unborn, obviously, we have to rely on speculation. But Tim and I argued that the judgment of history is too important to be left to well-meaning amateurs. We suggested that a panel of historians could be engaged to deliver official preliminary verdicts of history. If nothing else, that would free Presidents to worry about the things they’re hired to worry about, and it might even save us in the future from embarrassments like high schools named after Warren G. Harding.
As we saw it, a Council of Historical Advisors would be like the Council of Economic Advisors—a body of experts to make the close calls and hard decisions and assess for the President how he’ll stand in the past of the future. We suggested a set-up like that of the Supreme Court: a fixed number of members, nominated by the President and approved by the Senate, serving for life, contingent on good behavior. (Sure, the criteria for good behavior might be hard to establish, but those for life aren’t self-evident either.) We wanted these provisions to guard against “council-packing” by Presidents tempted to believe that adverse judgments were the work of small-minded pedants trying to deny them their historical due.
Day to day, we suggested, the council could make itself useful by, for example, finding historical precedents for administration proposals, or making sure that policies said to be unprecedented really were. It could also remind busy Presidents and other top-level administration figures of the historical events commemorated by holidays like Thanksgiving, Columbus Day, the Fourth of July, and Christmas. Speechwriters could call the council with questions about the current state of historiography: “What’s the latest on Squanto?” “William Bradford in Plymouth—still an important player?” “Remind me: What happened at Munich?” With answers in hand, speechwriters could use phrases like “history tells us” or “the lessons of history” in full confidence that, in a pinch, they could buck responsibility to the council.
But, we argued, it would be in times of crisis that the historical advisors would really earn their keep. A President could call in the council’s chairman: “I want to invade,” he might say, or “I want to cut a deal.” Then: “What will be the judgment of history? Will it threaten my place in history?” The chairman would summon the advisors. (Robes of office—perhaps tweed—might be appropriate.) The council would solemnly deliberate and by formal vote determine history’s verdict. Like economic forecasts, of course, it could be subsequently adjusted.
Proposals of this sort had come up before but had never gotten anywhere. When Fritz Hollings was running for President in 1984, he promised that he would shoot all the economists in government and replace them with historians, but this shameless pitch for historians’ votes wasn’t enough to get him the nomination. Eight years earlier, in 1976, we learned, a group of historians had actually, seriously urged President-elect Garter to set up a formal body like the one we were proposing, but historians were one special-interest group to which Carter did not respond.
We concluded that this could be a bold initiative, one that President Reagan could use to put his mark on the closing years of his administration. We predicted confidently that history would applaud. We wrote our proposal as an op-ed piece and fired it off to a number of your high-class dailies.
All of them turned us down. Every last one of them.
Now, I can understand the conservative ones doing that. Everything but the stock market seemed to be falling apart at the time, and they weren’t in the mood for satire. But I must say that it was a bit of a puzzle when the New York Times didn’t want it. I’ve never seen the Times pass up the chance to kick a conservative when he was down, and I thought anything that poked even mild fun at the Reagan administration would be a shoo-in. Tim and I began to think maybe the idea wasn’t as amusing as we thought it was.
Then, lo and behold, nearly two months after we’d sent our piece to the Times, on last January 14, that paper’s op-ed page carried a piece by Stuart E. Eizenstat. Eizenstat (whom some may recall as a figure from the forlorn Carter White House) called for the creation of a “White House secretariat . . . charged with providing the political appointees on the National Security Council and domestic policy staff with historical analogues, thereby helping keep Presidents out of trouble.” Such an “institutionalized memory,” he argued, would “reduce the likelihood that past mistakes would be repeated.” Sound familiar?
Now, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the Times pilfered our idea and farmed it out. Great ideas often occur to many people more or less simultaneously; anyway, as I said, the idea was not a new one. But I do conclude from this episode that the Times appreciates flaky ideas only when people aren’t facetious about them. Keep that in mind the next time you read what is unfortunately our nation’s most influential newspaper.