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History As Drama

June 2024
2min read

American Heritage was perfectly right in declaring that “during his years as a broadcaster, [Walter Cronkite] was the most trusted figure in American public life” (“He Was There,” December 1994). It seems worth a moment’s reflection about why this should have been so. He was regarded as more avuncular than Uncle Sam, and a good deal more respectable. There was, in the timbre of his voice, in the firmness of his composure, something that seemed deeply reassuring to anxiety-ridden American citizens. And his measured optimism seems somehow confirmed by the outline of his life, which emerges in the course of the interview as blessedly fortunate.

Nevertheless, I recall feeling an uneasiness that has lingered with me ever since Mr. Cronkite covered the Watergate hearings. When, near the end of many sessions, the whole tawdry story began to unravel, Mr. Cronkite, with imperturbable calm, assured us that “the system works” and that the truth, for all the deceptions that had been played on a hoodwinked public, would infallibly emerge.

What actually occurred was that a prosecutor chanced to ask a witness if any of the Oval Office conversations had been recorded, and the witness acknowledged that they were. Had the question never been asked, or had it been asked of some other witness who did not know the answer, the full Watergate scandal might never have been exposed. To call this fortuitous inquiry proof that the system works is not only puzzling but rather alarming.

Perhaps the puzzle it presents can be understood by reference to some remarks Mr. Cronkite makes in the course of his interview. American Heritage asks: “You’re not happy with the current state of history teaching?” and he replies, “Fm not happy with the way history has ever been taught, in any class I ever went to. I mean history is the drama, for heaven’s sake, of human existence. And history is the story of people. … With all the emotions—jealousy, hate, love. And it’s never taught this way. It’s taught in this dull rote—dates and places.”

Someone who believes, as Mr. Cronkite says he does, that history is “drama” believes not only that it is full of suspense and excitement but that, like drama, it has a plot . Its story is linear, shapely, determined. It may be that his confidence that “the system works” is due to such assumptions as these. Yet the assumptions themselves are by no means clear. To what extent do humans actually shape the course of events? Historians are not of one mind about this, some positing inexorable and cyclic patterns in which the human actors play merely symbolic parts, while impersonal, heartless and immutable forces govern everything. Others, like Carlyle, believed that history is given shape by “great men,” but this view is not much respected among scholars today. Between the antipodes of these views lie countless others in which economics, social ideologies, theologies, and other doctrines play important parts.

There is a lot to history that is very real, deeply important to the course of human events and, at the the same time, profoundly unexciting. And Mr. Cronkite must suspect as much, because at another point in his interview he says, “We went for the stories that could be illustrated and left alone the ones that required careful examination through text. This distorted the whole value of television news, to my mind. And distorts it to this day.” As John, Viscount Morley of Blackburn (1838–1923) once observed, “Historic sense forbids us to judge results by motive, or real consequences by the ideals and intentions of the actors who produced them.’” Mr. Cronkite’s shrewd sense that not all history, and perhaps not even the most important part of history, can be “illustrated,” along with a marked lack of consensus about what the actual forces of history may be, is just what troubled many people, historians and others alike, about the Disney Company’s plan to establish an American-history theme park somewhere in the vicinity of Washington.

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