Story Lines

Liberal Art

Americans need a narrative. Seeking patterns and repetition in history is rooted in the American tradition, ever since the Puritans sought to explain current events in terms of Biblical precedent. Known as typology, their method of reading history, literature and scripture reinforced the idea of divine providence by showing how current events were history in the making, repeating events from earlier, usually in the Bible. Fueled by this method of seeking precedent for everything, they came to see America as literally a new Israel. Finding moments in America’s infant history that lined up with scriptural prophecy, the Puritans were able to create a narrative in which God himself smiled on their program.

Now, the modern day prophets are up to the same thing, using the scripture of political legend to explain every twist and turn leading up to tomorrow’s New Hampshire presidential primary. These days, pundits’ obsessive use of history reminds one of sportscasters talking about the postseason: “only one winner of the Iowa caucuses has actually gone on to become President,” and “the candidate with the most money has won the nomination ever since 1970” and “the average gain in national polls for the New Hampshire winner is 9% since 1988.”

It seems like our whole vocabulary for setting expectations is historically dependent. Is Gore sitting out 2004 so he can be like Nixon in 1968? Is Dean another McGovern in waiting? Just how much of a Bill Clinton can John Edwards be? Could Bush go the way of his father? My personal favorite is an emerging parlor game about whether this year could have a perfect storm of primaries that would return us to the days of Adlai Stevenson, when the party’s nominee was not determined until the convention itself.

Sometimes in politics, history really does seem to repeat itself, like last week when Republicans were caught digitally snooping in politically sensitive Democratic files on the Senate Judiciary Committee computer, in a digital-age version of Watergate. But the pervasive abuse of the suffix “-gate” to describe everything from Iran-Contra to Monica signals that our dependence on history to understand the present often outstretches its usefulness.

Too often, the press acts prematurely in writing its proverbial “first draft of history.” Seeking to give current events the narrative clarity of a history book, journalists are quick to impose patterns and generalizations to help them tell a story. Often, the media adapt the facts to fit their narrative, rather than the other way around. Take the story of Al Gore’s famous “exaggerations,” first reported in The New York Times and Washington Post. That strange beast, the press, had determined early on in 2000 that Gore’s narrative would be about dishonesty. The story was perfect: Clinton lied, Gore lies. So, when he made three accurate claims about helping to fund the Internet, knowing the writer of the film “Love Story” and investigating a toxic disaster at Love Canal, the media exaggerated his claims, then wrote about how he exaggerates. The papers, not just misquoting him but doing so out of context, wrongly said he claimed to have invented the Internet, inspired “Love Story” and discovered Love Canal. The errors were eventually sorted out, but the damage was done. George W. Bush had some whoppers of his own at the time (like denying he had been arrested), but his “story” was more about faith, Texas and incompetence, so the scandals never stuck.

If a candidate has the misfortune of actually encouraging a pre-established, unfavorable narrative, it’s all over. This happened to Michael Dukakis, whose calm answer to a hypothetical death-penalty question about his wife being raped became fodder for the running story that he was dull and dispassionate. (If you’ve seen him speak at Harvard, as he often does, you probably were surprised at how different he seems from the Jon Lovitz caricature which helped to sink him.) On the opposite end of the spectrum, Howard Dean’s perhaps-fatal mistake was not to behave badly in Iowa, but to do it in a way that plays into the type that the media had already chosen for him: the angry Dem. Strictly speaking, his speech was enthusiastic, not angry. But like a passage from scripture, that wild glint in his eye could be made to support any number of claims—and the media’s interpretation was ready and waiting before he even took the stage.

One hopes that voters can act independently of the story handed to them, but lately they’ve been conforming to their sources of information. Take Dean’s precipitous fall in Iowa—a surprise third-place finish which risks being overshadowed by his less important but more televisual “I Have a Scream” speech afterwards. Not to be conspiratorial, but his fall in the polls from a commanding lead to a depressing finish more or less followed the shift in the media’s narrative, from the “inevitable front-runner” story running this summer and fall to the winter of doubt, characterized by a mountain of negative news, including the cover stories of both Time and Newsweek in the same week of January: “Doubts About Dean” and “Who Is the Real Dean?” Dean’s plummet followed close behind. If John Kerry pulls out a victory in New Hampshire, part of it will be because the press hasn’t gotten around to developing a negative narrative for him. As long as the events can outpace the media’s ability to construct a novelistic story around them, the voters may have some control; but it doesn’t take long to spin a tale.

What no one seems able to explain is why some narratives are chosen, and others aren’t. The stories of JFK and George W. could have been told in terms of privilege and wealth, but instead their narratives were about the charming senator and the down-home governor. Even now, events in one area are writing themselves into a pattern any historian or journalist should admire: the White House’s repeated dismissal of our own intelligence community. On Aug. 6, 2001, Bush received warnings about a possible al Qaeda attack in the U.S. and took a vacation. When the CIA objected to the inclusion of a false claim about Saddam buying uranium, it was ignored. Thursday, newspapers reported that CIA officials believe Iraq may be careening towards civil war. Will history repeat itself this time?

Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears regularly.