Of Politics, Baseball, and War

IT’S SAFE to say that the presidential election for the year 2000 will be one for the history books. Look for an article about it in American History sometime around November 2050. Perhaps by then people will be able to look at the event in a reasonably objective fashion, something hard to do in the heat of a contentious campaign and its even more trying aftermath.

For me, the most fascinating aspect about the whole post-election process was the relevance of history. Never in my life have I heard so much discussion about what the Founding Fathers intended, or about Grover Cleveland, Rutherford B. Hayes, or Samuel Tilden. Hayes and Cleveland, who both won disputed elections, have long been regarded as two of the country’s more obscure presidents. Tilden was never president, although he came close in 1876 by winning the popular vote over Hayes. In the end, the state of Florida and its electoral votes played an important role in giving the election to Hayes, an outcome so controversial that Hayes was sworn in as president in a quiet White House ceremony before his official inauguration. In the uncertainty of last year’s election, I sensed that people found history’s parallels to be somewhat reassuring. It was good to know that the country wasn’t adrift on uncharted seas, that it had found itself in similar situations before and had come out all right.

Watching the post-election situation play itself out, I realized how much history acts as the invisible ghost at the political banquet. This time not only were the close races of Cleveland in 1884 and Hayes in 1876 brought up repeatedly, so was the election of 1824, when the presidential contest ended up in the House of Representatives, which gave the election to John Quincy Adams.

The only other activity I can think of for which the past takes on such weight is sports, especially baseball. America’s pastime is obsessed with the past. What are those ever-present player statistics but history reduced to numerical form? In the bigger picture, baseball matches today’s players against the greats from the past—Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Cy Young. In Boston, Red Sox fans still look back to 1918, the last year their team won the World Series. Tradition holds an honored position on the diamond.

Another age-old activity that respects the past is war, something our cover subject, General George S. Patton, knew quite well. In fact, as Patton biographer Carlo D’Este wrote, Patton believed he was “a reincarnation of soldiers of the past, that he had served in bygone armies and fought in the famous battles of history.” And Patton was aware of the history he himself was creating. I have no doubt he waged his race to Messina against Britain’s General Bernard Montgomery, detailed in Eric Ethier’s article, with one eye fixed firmly on the historical record.

In the famous and often misquoted words of philosopher George Santayana, “Those who forget the past are condemned to fulfill it.” I think Patton might have disagreed with that. It is actually those who remember history who have the best shot at fulfulling it.

P.S. Starting with this issue, American History will include a free supplement, HistoricTraveler.com, four times a year. This is a revived version of our old Historic Traveler magazine. We intend this new and improved Historic Traveler, like the previous incarnation, to inspire you to go out and discover some history for yourself. You’ll find the first supplement in the center of this magazine, and you can find even more on the Internet at www.HistoricTraveler.com.


Tom Huntington, Editor, American History

 

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