From an early age I have regarded History as one long camp-fire story. From mouth to page little was lost. I nearly shivered at Valley Forge and took the bullet for Lincoln at the Ford Theater. Events jumped off the page directly onto the canvas of my mind.
After WW II CBS produced a radio program called, You Are There in which they re-created a singular event from the annals of history. It later became a TV show hosted by Walter Cronkite and ran until 1958. The first one televised depicted the explosion of the Hindenburg dirigible (1937) over New Jersey. Later broadcasts brought us Paul Newman as Brutus in the assassination of Julius Caesar, John Cassavetes as Plato, James Dean in the Capture of Jesse James and Kim Stanley as Cleopatra. The program always ended with Cronkite saying, What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with events that alter and illuminate our time……and you are there.
No matter the medium, the drama unfolded on the stage of my head. But even then it had a certain remoteness set back in time. In fact I wasn’t really there. I probably had three sweaters on while reading about that winter at Valley Forge.
Where is Walter Cronkite now that these days are filled with events that alter and illuminate our time? I want his reassuring voice to tell me I’m not there, this is not happening, not in America eighty-four years after the Nazi Party took over Germany. I love history but I don’t want to be in it. Of course, we are always in it, eye-witness or not.
Never before in my lifetime has History felt so close. Even though the man was elected with 46% of the vote, this has the feel of a coup. Long-held precepts are being undermined, constitutional guarantees put aside, executive edicts issued, agencies gagged, the mechanics of governance dismantled. Our acts of resistance, or inaction, are being noted and given paragraphs in the great chronicles, in real time.
For a number of reasons we have raised a generation of young voters with little interest in what has preceded them. They can’t be bothered with the past when the present is so dazzling with gadgetry, with so many celebrities to follow, so unlike anything seen before. Antecedents are too yesterday in this altogether new age. Or so it may seem to them.
So why know history? Because you learn that the Middle Ages was not the time when everyone was middle age, that Aristotle was not alive when Lincoln was, that there are trends and progression and you can find yourself in that larger context. And when you get a handle on it you don’t vote because of a candidate’s hair or if he’s a nice guy to have a beer with but more by policies, platform and experience. You might even fear the consequences of a particular candidate handed over the power of the office.
In fact all this has a familiar whiff. In 1933 Adolph Hitler, with 37% of the vote, formed a coalition government. It could have been stopped had the Communist Party been willing to join with other left-centrist groups to form a majority. What ensued is the abomination of the Holocaust. Of, course his rise to power was abetted by certain elements in Germany who thought they could use him for their purposes. In fact he used them. The Republicans think the same thing and so does Trump. We shall see.
Millennials did not show up in our November election. Their numbers were the lowest since 1972. When they did, almost half, among whites, voted for Trump or third party candidates. Perhaps they never heard about Adolf and his deplorables or the civil rights movement or the women’s rights struggle. A slumbering society is exactly what elects a Trump.
Many have asked how a cultured nation like Germany with composers, thinkers and scientists, could have abdicated their power over to a ranting, ruthless dictator. It was, in part, his full grasp of the power of the new media, radio. One might also put the question to us. It took a perfect storm; the confluence of an aggrieved work force, a bit of misogyny, foreign interference and a man who tweeted his ill-tempered blurts to a forgiving electorate.
Too bad Walter Cronkite isn’t around to Tweet or text a camp-fire story, in bit-sized pieces, of how it was, how it is and how much worse it can get.