Whenever I’m asked about the new Clinton Library here in Little Rock, I find myself thinking of an old professor of mine. In the 1950s, I thought Lewis Atherton must be the dullest member of the University of Missouri history faculty, though he taught what must be the most dramatic period of American history: Civil War and Reconstruction.
Mr. Atherton didn’t teach the course in the usual way. He left it to the students to get the names and dates and battles right; that’s what the textbook was for. He devoted his lectures to showing how each successive generation of historians had depicted the War — from their own regional and political and ideological perspective.
His was really a course in historiography, the history of history. And over the years, he has come to loom larger and larger in my mind. His general message has stuck with me: Our interpretation of the past may be determined most of all by our attitudes and interests in the present.
All this brings me to the Clinton Library’s exhibit on Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Its slant is obvious from the first: “From the start of the Clinton presidency, the administration’s opponents waged an unprecedented fight for power. Seeking to steer America sharply to the right, Republican leaders pursued a radical agenda through radical means. … ” And so partisanly on.
Even to call what’s on display at the Clinton Library revisionist history would do it too much honor; it’s just one more political shtick, one more campaign speech, this time not to win public office but a respected place in history.
A professor at a school whose name is resonant with the American past, Michael Birkner of Gettysburg College, notes that the library’s version of history “is written from the perspective of a Clinton partisan, not from the perspective of balanced historical analysis.”
Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, however, claims the Clinton Library presents the debate over impeachment with — get this — “accuracy and clarity.” He would. A long-time apologist for Bill Clinton’s presidency, Professor Wilentz organized the petition drive among historians that netted 400 signatures against his hero’s impeachment. His historical judgment isn’t easy to differentiate from his political activism.
The line in the museum’s official, expurgated version of Bill Clinton’s impeachment that jumped out at me was this reference to the prosecutions that convicted so many — more than a dozen — of the president’s friends and associates: “None of these efforts yielded a conviction for public misconduct.” The one-word Clinton Clause isn’t hard to spot: for public misconduct. Using the Clintonistas’ specialized vocabulary in these matters, one could just as easily defend how Enron was run.
A fairer appraisal of the Clinton Library’s view of its namesake’s impeachment comes from Lynn Scott Cochrane, whose academic specialty is presidential libraries. “This text,” she said, “reads as biased, and that’s normally not what you want in a museum exhibit.”
Bruce D. Schulman, who teaches history at Boston College, noted one of the many glaring omissions from the museum’s version of the impeachment debate: Mr. Clinton’s agreement to a five-year suspension from practicing law in Arkansas.
The suspension of his law license came of Bill Clinton being found in contempt by Judge Susan Webber Wright, who concluded he gave “false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process. … ” He was ordered to pay some $90,000. But you’ll find nothing about that in the Clinton Library’s sanitized presentation.
James Hilty, a history professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, says most people realize going in that any presidential library will present a one-sided view of its subject. And, as he put it, “You don’t go to a Tupac Shakur concert expecting to hear Beethoven.” Perfect. The professor may have put his finger on the difference between this presidential library and others. It’s the difference between classical and rap, between historical interpretation and interpretation with as little history as possible.
Surely we can all still recognize the difference between the kind of history that presents the facts according to its own lights, bright or dim, and the kind of propaganda that completely ignores inconvenient facts, or tries to write around them. It’s a difference an old-fashioned historian named Lewis Atherton tried to teach his classes long ago.
Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.