Clockwise from top left: Soldiers inspect a vehicle in Baghdad in June; Barack Obama boards his campaign plane in San Antonio in March; Hillary Clinton gets emotional during a campaign stop in New Hampshire in January; A foreclosure sign is seen at a house in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in July; Sarah Palin and John McCain campaign in Hershey, Pa., in October.
If you voted for president or saved for retirement or bought gas, if you were in Detroit or on Wall Street, if you were an Obamaniac or a hockey mom or a pit bull, a client of accused Wall Street swindler Bernie Madoff or the guy who changed the price sign at the gas station, this was a year to remember.
Almost everyone agrees 2008 was one for the history books, including those who write them. The historians who eventually decide what’s history and what’s not — textbook authors, encyclopedia editors, museum curators — don’t like tight deadlines, because history is only obvious long after it’s happened, and at the moment the wheel’s still in spin.
With that caveat out of the way, many of them would agree with Fran Kennelly, 52, a New York advertising salesman, whose verdict on 2008 is: “Unforgettable.”
No wonder. He voted in the Democratic primary for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman with a serious shot at the presidency, and in the general election for Barack Obama, the first African American elected president.
Kennelly paid as much as $4.10 and as little as $1.75 for a gallon of gas; lost about one-third of the value of his retirement fund; bought a hybrid car; watched Tiger Woods win the U.S. Open playing with a double stress fracture in one leg, and saw China host the Olympics, where Michael Phelps won a record eight gold medals.
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To the experts as well, 2008 looks like a keeper, largely because of the confluence of two related but distinct events: the election of Obama and the global financial crisis.
This year “probably is going to be one of those years like 1929, when the chapter ends and you take a breath before moving on to the Depression and the New Deal,” says Paul Boyer, noted historian of the Cold War and editor of a U.S. history textbook, The Enduring Vision.
The election is a milestone — “in 50 years, a major fixture in the textbooks,” says Brian DeLay, a University of Colorado history professor and co-author of Nation of Nations, another college text. “I think we’re heading down a totally different road.”
To Columbia University historian Eric Foner, editor of The Reader’s Companion to American History, Obama’s election “changes the framework” of American politics, like Thomas Jefferson’s in 1800, Abraham Lincoln’s in 1860 and Ronald Reagan’s in 1980.
Brent Glass, director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington, is working on a timeline of American history for an exhibition. He’s pretty sure this year will be on it.
He and other historians say, however, that despite their collective hunch that 2008 was a turning point, it’s too early to be certain of the year’s exact place in history, or even if it will have much of one.
“People always say at the end of a year, ‘My goodness, this was it! This year will be remembered for generations.’ And usually it’s not,” says historian Peter Stearns, George Mason University’s provost. “Caution is warranted, because we’re so close to it now.”
Too close, says Larry Schweikart, a University of Dayton professor and co-author of A Patriot’s History of the United States. “The danger is when people in the present think they have a big, sweeping view of history. It’s really like writing a story about a football game at the half.”
He cites an example of short-term myopia: “In 2004, with the way the Republicans were rolling, more than a few people were predicting the breakup of the Democratic Party. Look how that changed in two years.”
Schweikart’s a political conservative. A liberal, Mark Lytle, a co-author of Nation of Nations, agrees: “Now that the Democrats are in power, they’ll be running against George Bush for the next umpteen years as the new Herbert Hoover.”
What’s really historic?
Predicting history is notoriously tricky.
On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote that the day before, July 2 — when the Continental Congress declared independence from Britain — would be “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty … with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other.”
Adams was just unlucky that the eloquent Declaration of Independence was dated July 4, but there are many other pitfalls to writing instant history:
• A perfectly historic year can be obliterated by a more historic one. DeLay cites 1846, the first year of the Mexican War, a conflict that Lincoln and others at the time considered pivotal — to its critics a step from republic to empire, to its supporters a step toward Manifest Destiny. Fifteen years later, the Civil War made it comparatively inconsequential.
• Historians’ political views can influence their take on current events.
Foner, a liberal, happily says 2008 marked “the end of the age of Reagan” — an era of deregulation, tax cuts and trickle-down economics. Schweikart suggests 2008 will be remembered as “the year Iraq was pacified” by U.S. and Iraqi army forces.
• A specific year’s events become historic only if they lead to other historic events. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the death of Elvis Presley in 1977 — all in their way seemed momentous at the time but have faded in prominence.
No early bets are certain
A year is remembered over time not because of how vivid or terrifying or wonderful it seemed to those who lived through it. History is not about us; it’s about those to come.
Over the long run, nothing is certain to live in memory, not even the landmark events of 2008: the financial crisis and the presidential election featuring Obama, Clinton, Republican Sen. John McCain and his vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin.
Stearns says Obama’s election could be obscured by others to come that could result in the first female president, the first Hispanic president, the first gay president.
The ultimate significance of Obama’s election depends on his presidency. His deeds, not his race, will determine whether he’s another Franklin Roosevelt, another Franklin Pierce (president from 1853 to 1857) or something in between.
“Obama’s election could be a turning point,” Foner says, “but he has to make it a turning point.”
Similarly, the economic meltdown, however unsettling with its hundreds of thousands of home foreclosures, has yet to produce many scenes of epic calamity — bread lines, bank panics, wheelbarrows of inflated currency.
The year 2008 eventually may be lumped with the many financial crises of the past 200 years, including a dozen major panics between the end of the War of 1812 and the beginning of World War I.
All but forgotten today, “they seemed to people then as the towering events of their lifetimes,” DeLay says.
This recession, Stearns says, “may turn out to be just an unusually bad example of what we’ve seen every 15 years or so.”
Pivotal years — or not
American history is filled with two kinds of years, each of which should give pause to those who’d rush to judgment on 2008: years that seemed more important at the time than they really were, and years that seemed less important than they really were.
Among those overrated at the time:
• 1957: As the Soviet satellite Sputnik orbited overhead, it seemed Americans were perilously far behind their Cold War rival technologically. But the Soviet Union eventually turned out to be an economic, military and technological paper tiger.
• 1962: The Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, has “all but disappeared” from public memory, Lytle says.
Last year, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino acknowledged confusing the crisis with the Bag of Pigs, the ill-fated U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba one year earlier.
• 1976: The election of Jimmy Carter, a moralistic outsider who told Americans he would never lie to them, promised to bring a new politics to Washington. Instead, Boyer says, Carter’s presidency “turned out to be an interlude” that Lytle says is “getting squeezed out of the texts.”
Even 2001, that most jarring of years, is not guaranteed entry into the historical canon, Stearns says: “It’s significant primarily because we overreacted” to unprecedented terror attacks by invading Iraq. “Over time, it’s going to recede.”
Among years underrated at the time:
• 1912: Woodrow Wilson’s election as president led to the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Trade Commission, the 16th Amendment (allowing the income tax) and the 17th Amendment (direct election of senators).
• 1970: U.S. domestic oil production peaked, Lytle says, meaning America would be increasingly dependent on foreign oil.
Some years identified with one event are more significant because of another.
Foner argues for 1960 not because John F. Kennedy was elected president but because of the first civil rights sit-ins at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.
In two months, the movement spread to 15 cities in nine states, ushering in a decade of political protest.
A few years are immediately and correctly identified as historic — those that Schweikart says, “I tell my students, ‘You have to know these’ ” — such as 1914, 1941 and 1945 — the start of World War I, the year of Japan’s sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, the end of World War II.
Forty years later, historians even debate the significance of 1968, which, with its riots, rebellions, assassinations and elections, would seem nothing if not memorable.
Foner, a Columbia graduate student during the campus protests there that year, recalls wondering, ” ‘What’s going to happen next?’ You got a sense of living through history.”
Now, he calls 1968 “a turning point at which history failed to turn. It was tumultuous, but it did not produce the change people expected.”
To the contrary, Boyer says, the year is notable mostly for the backlash it spurred, including the election of President Nixon and the beginning of a culture war that continues today.
He calls it “the year of unintended consequences.”
However perilous it is to turn current events into history, someone has to do it — the historian who writes the textbook’s last chapter. Lytle calls it “a bit of crapshoot.”
Several texts were scheduled for revisions or new editions this year, including Nation of Nations and The Enduring Vision.
Boyer is the closer on the latter, in its seventh edition. This year it’s been tough, he says, and not just because of “the sort of distortion that creeps in when the most recent events loom very large.”
The problem is that he likes to end on a positive note “not to be a Pollyanna, but to have some hopefulness.”
Given the challenges of 2008, he says — everything from a continuing war to a deepening recession to a warming planet — “it’s an ominous year to be facing that task.”
Students of history like to say it’s unfair to expect people to anticipate the future when they can’t even agree on what happened in the past.
The communist Chinese leader Chou En-lai once made that point when asked what he thought of the French Revolution.
Chou died in 1976, but his reply lives on: “It’s still too soon to tell.”