According to recent headlines, Barack Obama is a man on the "cusp" and in the "swirl" of history. True enough. But for a man poised to make American history, Obama has an alarmingly tenuous grasp of it.
He has portrayed himself and his candidacy as an inventible, almost predestined force of history. From launching his campaign on the steps of the Old Illinois State Capitol, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his legendary "House Divided" speech, to basking in the youthful shadow of John F. Kennedy while sharing stages with that martyred president's relatives, Obama has placed his and his family's story firmly in the context of the most noble and heroic aspects of America's past.
However, even casual fans of U.S. history will notice that Obama's understanding of his country's story is riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies. On March 4, 2007, speaking at the Selma Voting Rights March Commemoration, Obama, claiming that the legendary march brought his parents together, said, "There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama..."
(Sorry Barack, but if that's your only claim on Selma, you don't have one. The bridge protest took place in 1965, four years after you were born.)
In the same speech, Obama linked his father's arrival in America and his own birth to Camelot. "So the Kennedys decided, 'We're going to do an airlift. We're going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is," he said. And thus his Kenyan father met his transplanted Kansan mother and history was made.
Not quite. It was Kenyan nationalist Tom Mboya who lobbied Americans to bring Africans to the states to create a new class of educated African elite, resulting in the 1959 airlift that brought Barack Obama Sr. to Hawaii. President Kennedy did not take office until 1961, and there is no evidence to suggest that before he took office he or any members of his family supported the program.
This past Memorial Day, Obama, speaking in New Mexico, claimed his uncle was one "of the first American troops to go into Auschwitz and liberate the concentration camps." Awkwardly, Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz, not Americans forces.
WHILE OBAMA STRUGGLES with dates and facts, even more disturbing is his cockeyed view of past U.S. diplomacy, which he uses to defend his own vision of its future.
Shunning the current administration's strategy for dealing with foreign dangers, Obama recently said "Change is realizing that meeting today's threats requires not just our firepower, but the power of our diplomacy -- tough, direct diplomacy where the president of the United States isn't afraid to let any petty dictator know where America stands and what we stand for." He called this the noble "legacy of Roosevelt, and Truman, and Kennedy."
So Obama uses the collective legacies of past Democratic presidents as a shield to defend his proposed presidential get-togethers with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar-al Assad, Hugo Chavez, the Castros and any other murderous dictator that wants to have tea with the leader of the free world.
But Roosevelt never met with Hitler, Mussolini, or Emperor Hirohito. Neither did Truman, who also never met with Kim Il Sung. The inexperienced young Kennedy's Vienna summit with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 is now considered a failure. In fact, reflecting upon the debacle, Kennedy himself later admitted, "He beat the hell out of me."
In fact, it was Kennedy's disastrous interaction with Khrushchev that led the Russian leader to believe that America wouldn't interfere with the construction of the Berlin Wall or take decisive action to stop Operation Anadyr -- the secret deployment of Soviet missiles to Cuba.
While Obama freely appropriates history to suggest his coming place in America's pantheon of great leaders, his cheerleading section in the American (and international) press has been rather quiet, only egged on to call Obama on his distortions when conservative bloggers point them out. (One wonders what type of reaction John McCain would get if he were to present a similarly skewed version of American history?)
Obama's capture of the Democratic presidential nomination is indeed historic, as would be his victory in November. But the would-be maker of American history is no student of it.
How can someone whose understanding of our history is so hazy now be poised to reshape it?
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