Historically (and Geographically) Challenged Republicans

Historically (and Geographically) Challenged Republicans

By Carl M. Cannon - March 15, 2011

"What we need in our nominee," Michele Bachmann was saying in New Hampshire the other day, "is someone who understands and comprehends the seriousness of the times we live in."

The darling of the tea party set will get no argument on that score from her fellow Republicans eyeing a 2012 presidential bid - or from Democrats. It's just that Bachmann's point would carry more weight had she not prefaced it by placing the battles of Lexington and Concord that started the Revolutionary War in New Hampshire.

As every American schoolchild should know, Massachusetts and not New Hampshire is where "once the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world."

Historical revisionism is supposed to be the currency of liberal, America-bashing university faculty members. Not this year. Already, the nascent 2012 campaign trail is littered with gaffes, slips of the tongue and lapses in historical and geographical knowledge more worthy of the Tonight Show's "Jaywalking" segment.

It started, as it often does these days, with Sarah Palin. In a speech last summer to an audience at California State University at Stanislaus, Palin proclaimed: "A special place in my heart is California, because this is Reagan Country! And perhaps it was destiny that the man who went to California's Eureka College is so woven within, and interlinked, to the Golden State."

Many in her audience were confused, and not only by the odd syntax. California's state motto is "Eureka," and there is a city of Eureka along California's north coast. But the school located there is a community college founded when Reagan first ran for governor. Reagan did attend a Eureka College, of course -- in his native state of Illinois.

This was more than a Bachmann-esque geography goof. Reagan entered Eureka College in 1928, matriculating four years later after being active in the school's drama department, athletic programs and student government. He once proclaimed, "Everything that was good in my life began at Eureka College." He returned to the school frequently, served on the board of trustees, and spoke there once while running for president, twice while serving as president, and he made one of his last public speeches there in 1992 at the 60th anniversary of his graduation. President Reagan's May 9, 1982 "Eureka Speech" announcing his goals for a START treaty -- and for deep cuts in the strategic nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and the Soviet Union -- is credited by many as a key step in ending the Cold War. 

These are not trivial lapses.

The even bigger problem for Palin is that she is always invoking Reagan, but in ways that make it clear that she is oblivious to how he approached issues, what he accomplished, and why he did it. In a February keynote speech at the National Tea Party convention, for example, Palin said, "It's easy to just kind of sum it up by repeating Ronald Reagan when he talked about the Cold War. And we can apply this now to our war on terrorism, you know, bottom line -- we win, they lose."

She invoked that line again, this time on Fox News, after President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the new START treaty. "No administration in America's history" would have supported such a reduction in nuclear arms, Palin stated confidently. "We miss Ronald Reagan, who used to say when he would look at our enemies and say, ‘No, you lose, we win.'"

Palin's distillation is not only garbled, it entirely misses the point. President Reagan didn't bully the Soviets, he negotiated with them. The large reductions in doomsday weapons Reagan successfully negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev were denounced by noisy conservative commentators at the time. These are the voices Palin is emulating, not Reagan's.

The we-win, they-lose line was not spat out at Gorby - it was spoken in a philosophical context in 1977 to conservative scholar Richard V. Allen. ("My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic," Reagan told Allen. "It is this: We win and they lose. What do you think of that?") This was a visionary notion, not a taunt, and it was always accompanied by his call to lessen, even dismantle, the nuclear arms that Reagan feared would lead to Armageddon. This vision he proclaimed in 1982 at Eureka College -- in Illinois.

Next up was Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who sought to explain to Weekly Standard writer Andrew Ferguson why his hometown of Yazoo City had managed to integrate its schools without violence. This much was true, but Barbour overstated his case.

"Because the business community wouldn't stand for it," Barbour asserted was the reason for the peaceful integration. "You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you'd lose it. If you had a store, they'd see nobody shopped there. We didn't have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City."

Not quite. In Yazoo City, as legendary journalist David Halberstam reported at the time, 53 African American residents signed a petition in favor of integration -- and 51 of them subsequently withdrew their names from the document after Yazoo City's White Citizens Council pressured the signers' white employers to fire them.

"I just don't remember it as being that bad," Barbour told Ferguson. Maybe he wasn't looking hard enough.

Mike Huckabee, the fourth GOPer to stumble over the facts this campaign season, was probably looking too hard. His foray into historical fiction began with his recent book, "Simple Government," which might be better titled "Simple Candidate."

In one passage, the former Baptist preacher embarks on this stream-of-consciousness rap about why President Obama returned a bust of Winston Churchill loaned to the White House by the British embassy after 9/11 and displayed in George W. Bush's Oval Office.

Huckabee quotes approvingly from The Daily Telegraph, a British broadsheet, which riffed off a theory making the rounds in the U.K. that because his Kenyan grandfather was reportedly imprisoned by British colonials, Obama identified not with Churchill, but with the Mau Mau rebellion. In his book, Huckabee takes this dubious theory...and runs with it:

"Every president is the keeper of our American narrative, "our story." He is the commander in chief, yes, but he is also commemorator in chief. Our wartime partnership with Winston Churchill and the British people is part of our story; the Mau Mau rebellion is not. When we elect a president, we entrust to him not just our security but also our story. The two are inseparable because our security depends on the story that we believe in, that inspires us, that we teach our children, and that we, as a nation, are willing to fight for."

But Huckabee's history is askew.

First, the Mau Mau rebellion was waged by the Kikuyu, an ethnic tribe unrelated and geographically far removed from Obama's grandfather, a member of the Luo tribe. Obama's grandfather apparently was imprisoned by the British, although the evidence that it had anything to do with politics is thin -- and it happened three years before the Mau Mau uprising. Moreover, even someone who harbored resentment against the British over Kenya wouldn't take it out on Churchill: he favored negotiations with the Kikuyu. In an able deconstruction by Salon reporter Justin Elliott, Oxford historian David Anderson is quoted as dismissing Huckabee's interpretation as "stir-fry crazy."

Finally, who says the Mau Mau uprising is not part of the American narrative? The Kenyans' rebellion, like the Americans' rebellion of 1775 -- you know, the one Michele Bachmann believes began in New Hampshire -- was fought against the British. Lacking modern weapons, not to mention a general like George Washington, the Kenyans lost nearly every battle against the British -- but they won the war, gaining independence in 1963. Just like us.

While defending these dubious assertions Huckabee blurted out additional factual errors, the most memorable being that Obama grew up in Kenya. Called on his bloopers, a testy Huckabee claimed that he meant to say "Indonesia" and that he had obviously misspoken, and that the "left-wing" media gave his gaffe more play than Obama's inexplicable reference in 2008 to visiting "57 states."

That doesn't quite explain Huckabee's confident President's Day claim on Good Morning America that "people tend to forget that only one time since 1868 has an incumbent president been taken out who ran for re-election, and that was when Jimmy Carter ran in 1980."

Um, no, again, Huck. Apparently he forgot George H.W. Bush's 1992 defeat. And he was airbrushing out of U.S. history the one-term presidencies of Herbert Hoover and William Howard Taft, while ignoring Grover Cleveland's tainted loss in 1888.

Is having a historically literate presidential nominee important? At least one Republican contender seems to think so. At Saturday night's Gridiron Dinner in Washington -- in a speech written before Bachmann's boo-boo -- Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels reprised Huckabee's inaccurate claim about Obama's Kenyan childhood, adding this zinger: "Sarah Palin pounced and says, ‘Wrong, Mike-he's never been to Europe.'"

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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