The Obama Watch

Obama as Hoover: The Importance of Storytelling

A lesson in narrative from the works of liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

By 12.2.08

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You may have heard of the late liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. How about Charley Michelson?

As the Obama era takes shape, the roles of both Schlesinger and Michelson deserve attention. Particularly as Americans are seeing newsmagazines with cover stories comparing the President-elect who campaigned on a dour vision of scarcity with Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, a considerable leap to understate.

So who was Charley Michelson? There is no better source on Michelson than, yes, kindred soul Schlesinger himself. Already a Pulitzer Prize winner at 28 for writing The Age of Jackson, Schlesinger was a liberal's liberal. Over the course of his long career as academic, professional historian and Kennedy White House aide turned biographer -- and iconographer-- of both JFK and brother Robert, Schlesinger used three books in a series he called The Age of Roosevelt to glorify big government and its alleged marvels. The first, The Crisis of the Old Order, focused on Herbert Hoover, the stock market crash of 1929, and the subsequent arrival of the Great Depression. Schlesinger says this of Charley Michelson, who was hired as "a full-time publicity director" for the Democratic National Committee:

Michelson, who had worked for [William Randolph] Hearst in San Francisco…had been for a dozen years head of the Washington bureau of the [newspaper] New York World. A hard-bitten cynic with a wintry, satanic smile and a dry humor, who had seen everything and lost all illusions he brought a new professionalism to political publicity.… Michelson turned out an uninterrupted stream of interviews, statements and speeches in Washington. These releases -- over 500 in the first two years, signed indifferently by leading Democrats in the House or Senate -- poured ridicule on the Hoover administration. Michelson himself, playing interminable bridge or dominoes with newspapermen at the Press Club, saw to it that his best wisecracks received full circulation. This barrage undoubtedly had something to do with fixing the Depression image of the Hoover administration…

Schlesinger does admit that, well, Hoover had created his own image problems in the first place. But Charley Michelson took the ball and -- with considerable help from his fellow scribes who were in the tank for FDR (sound familiar?) -- the image of Herbert Hoover and capitalism were sturdily fixed in the minds of Americans.

It was Schlesinger himself who took the Michelson method to the next level. Using his academic background and writing skills, Professor Schlesinger became Charley Michelson-as-historian. The Age of Roosevelt series spent well over a thousand pages professionally crafting a portrait that so glorified the theory of Big Government while demonizing the politically hapless Hoover, the free market, Wall Street, and capitalism itself that any evidence to the contrary was received by future historians as unworthy of discussion, much less serious historical consideration. Not to mention as possible government policy. This approach of history as expanded political PR, reflecting not the facts but the author's personal liberal political bias as it effectively excluded governing alternatives, was so successful Schlesinger would later use the method to turn both JFK and brother Bobby into demi-gods, their policies as unquestioned successes.

The lesson for conservatives as the Obama crowd begins to run the government is unmistakable.

The power of narrative -- of repeatedly telling the true story of an Obama administration -- cannot be left to the Charley Michelsons and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s of our day. Using the bias and power of liberal journalists, academia and the media of the time, these two very different yet very similar men were key players in the initial phases of the sanctification of big government liberalism. Their successors are at work today in the same venues as well as the new outposts of technology. With the inaugural not even had, they are busy re-creating a freshman U.S. Senator and his announced political policies from the campaign as the new gold standard of American and global life.

What they are pushing here is not, to say the least, true.

And unlike the days when conservatives were effectively shut out of the media world, it will now become both possible and critical to meet the daily barrage of distracting falsehoods as well as the long term assaults on conservatism that are to be expected. Assaults on individual freedom, on capitalism itself, on the free-market and, in foreign affairs, the time-tested principle of peace through strength.

The narrative -- the storytelling of history -- cannot be left unchallenged in the hands of those who will use the potency of the presidential bully pulpit and the media to convince Americans that up is down, left is right, the earth is flat and gravity -- really, truly, cross-their-hearts -- simply doesn't exist.

The next four years of opposition for conservatives should and surely will summon forth an even more sharply formed talk radio, as well as creative uses of the Internet, video, television, film, books and simple written composition. One would hope that someone at Fox News is already at work on a new perspective of the Great Depression and Hoover and FDR, using smart folks like writers Amity Shlaes, Ben Stein and George Will, all of whom have been in print the last few days on the subject.

Unlike the economic chaos of the 1930s, the inevitable result of government meddling in the free market cannot be seen as a wonderful thing that is the Ultimate Solution. The narrative of today should and must reflect that story in a way Schlesinger and friends did not.

In years gone by, Charley Michelson and Schlesinger had the field to themselves. No more. Conservatives have a much different and well-researched story to tell. They have also learned the hard way about the power of narrative, the simple power of telling a story. Telling the truth.

This time the truth will be told. Not the fairy tales of big government economics or, for that matter, of the appeasement style policies that induced the disaster of Vietnam.

Obama as Lincoln? Obama as FDR?

How about Obama as Hoover? Now there's a real story.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.