Teddy Roosevelt, Obama and Historians’ Retreats

Earlier this week it was revealed that Labour leader Ed Miliband had given his senior aides a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new biography of Teddy Roosevelt as a Christmas present. Teddy Roosevelt was a gung-ho war hero, an adventurer, a frontiersman, Nobel peace prize winner, and – perhaps most famously – the inspiration for the teddy bear.  

Fleet Street’s hacks soon took to the revelation with relish, implicitly juxtaposing geeky, ginkish Miliband with a Republican president of the United States. It was a lazy journalist’s dream story. One of the most famous paintings of Roosevelt has its subject as a Rough Rider leading troops into battle and his head is carved into Mount Rushmore; Miliband, by contrast, exudes schoolboyish awkwardness. It’s ‘the way Mr Miliband actually sees himself’ guffawed Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer, while highlighting the obvious differences between Eddie and Teddy with typical gossipy fervour.

More interestingly, when Radio 4 covered the story as part of its review shoe The Week in Westminster, they interviewed Doris Kearns Goodwin. The historian revealed that she did not know Miliband but was on good terms with President Obama. When the interviewer pushed her, she revealed that Obama is a president who places great importance on history and learning from it. Kearns Goodwin said that every year Obama charges her with organising a Historians’ Retreat, where she and 8 to 10 other historians go away for a weekend in some secluded log cabin to talk history and its relevance to contemporary issues.

It might surprise you, but I was somewhat dismayed to hear this. Learning from history is one thing, from historians quite another. The past is the past, but a historians’ ‘spin’ on that past is another matter altogether. I began to agonise over what historians were actually advising Mr Obama. Were they ‘proper’ historians, or sexy tabloid friendly historians who do not use footnotes or endnotes? Are this select bunch a conservative grouping or good left-leaning academics, the likes of which our own education secretary Mr Gove likes to criticise? Finally, for all the parallels between the age of Teddy Roosevelt – rapid technological change, the ascent of irresponsible globalised monopoly capitalism, class divides, America and its uncertain imperium – wouldn’t Obama, and Miliband for that matter, be better off realising that the Age of the Great Man in that mould has also passed. I think I’m more comfortable with politicians staying in the moment. Or maybe I’m just jealous when contemplating that log cabin retreat …  



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