This is the second time in the last 20 years that Ms. Roberts has, shall we say, brought me up short. The first occasion was during the Presidential campaign of 2000, when Al Gore was dueling it out with George Bush in what turned out to be one of the most fateful elections in American history. The panel of pundits on the ABC Sunday show was discussing the last debate between them, in which they had sparred over health care, and specifically, over a patient's bill or rights. Bush had claimed to support one; Gore had attacked Bush for failing to endorse the Dingell-Norwood bill before Congress, which would have guaranteed one. Sam Donaldson decided to educate the American public about the provenance of the bill, and the following exchange took place.
DONALDSON: Well, you talk about the message. I mean, remember during the last debate, Gore kept talking about 'the Dingell/Norwood bill, the Dingell/Norwood bill.' And we thought, as a public service, we'd just show you who Dingell and Norwood are. Let us tell you about them. Representatives of Dingell and Norwood introduced the Patients' Bill of Rights favored by Gore and the House of Representatives. John Dingell, from Michigan, is the longest-serving Democrat in the House. His father, who was a House member before him, was a sponsor of Social Security in the '30s, and pioneered the idea of national health insurance back in 1943. Charlie Norwood from Georgia, a Republican, is a dentist. He served in Vietnam and was first elected to the House in 1994 as part of the Republican revolution. So that's who Dingell and Norwood are. Now I'll tell you...
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But the important...
ROBERTS: Yeah, but...
DONALDSON: But there's a guy named Greg Ganske who's also on the bill. It's actually the Dingell/Norwood/Ganske bill.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But the import--the important point...
DONALDSON: But I don't have time to start telling you about him.
ROBERTS: He's from Iowa.
STEPHANOPOULOS: The important point there is that George Bush didn't answer the question about the Dingell/Norwood bill, which is a Patients' Bill of Rights that allows people to--the right to sue.
ROBERTS: Actually, I don't think that is the important point there.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?
ROBERTS: Because that's not what comes across when you're watching the debate. What comes across when you're watching the debate is this guy from Washington doing Washington-speak.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But it's...
ROBERTS: And you know, it's having an effect not just at the presidential level, but at the congressional level as well. Because the Republicans did a very smart thing, which is that they voted for their version of a Patients' Bill of Rights, and they voted for their version of prescription drug coverage. So they get to go out and tout all these issues, and then the Democrats are left saying, 'But you didn't do Dingell and Norwood.'
Now Cokie Roberts's father Hale Boggs had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1940, served one term while the United States was preparing for the Second World War, went into the Navy after losing his re-election bid, and served once more in the House from 1946 until his death in a plane crash in Alaska in 1972. During that long career, he had to take positions on the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin Acts of 1947 and 1959, which severely cut back on the rights of organized labor, and the McCarran Act, which tried to force the Communist Party underground. Liberals, interestingly enough, seem to have stopped naming their favorite pieces of legislation after legislators, but in the 1930s, they had passed the Norris-LaGuardia and Wagner Acts, which had increased the rights of labor, and the Wheeler-Rayburn Act,. which had forced holding companies to divest themselves of public utilities. Congress had also passed the Glass-Steagall Act, which had recently been repealed at the time of the 2000 campaign, and which we have subsequently had time to regret. Hale Boggs had also been involved in deliberations on civil rights bills (which he, a representative from Louisiana, had opposed), on the interstate highway system, the space program, Medicare, poverty programs, and much more. He and my father came from a generation that took politics and legislation very seriously, and which,. as a result, managed to do great things. Al Gore's father, Albert Gore, Sr., belonged to that generation as well.
Now sadly, what Ms. Roberts said in 2000--that to many Americans, the reference to Dingell-Norwood sounded like a "guy from Washington doing Washington-speak"--probably had an element of truth. But to me, then and now, that was something for journalists (and historians) to fight against, for the simple reason that a citizenry that no longer cares about the legislation Congress does or does not pass will yield the field to lobbyists and contributors who still do. Yet Cokie Roberts was not only accepting, but welcoming, the new world of the 21st century in which journalism--especially tv journalism--began pandering to an uninformed public. Indeed, the implication of what she said was that politicians would be foolish to try to do educate voters. And I was amazed that someone with her background could take such a position--but there it was.
There is a real link, it seems to me, between what she said in 2000 and her attack on Hamilton this week. In my opinion as a historian there is no one who more deserves to have his picture on US currency than Hamilton, for the simple reason that he created the financial structure of the United States., and in so doing defined the relationship between the federal government and the economy in lasting ways. He created the first Bank of the United States, the ancestor of the Federal Reserve, to allow public finance to proceed more effectively. When Washington asked Hamilton and all his other cabinet members to give him written opinions as to the constitutionality of the legislation that created the bank, Hamilton's reply kicked off the debate on the role of the federal government that has dominated politics ever since, arguing that it fell under the Constitutional provision enabling Congress to pass all legislation "necessary and proper" to carry out its enumerated powers. While Jefferson argued that the Bank obviously was not necessary to collect taxes or borrow money, since the government was already performing those tasks, Hamilton replied that the bank would enable it to perform them far more effectively, to the benefit of all. He carried the day, and the same philosophy has informed activist periods of American government ever since.
But this, and the rest of Hamilton's historical role, means nothing to Cokie Roberts, who wants him eliminated from our currency because he cheated on his wife. This is not an entirely new idea for her either: I have heard her on the air bragging that when female reporters first went on the campaign trail, it forced their married male counterparts to restrict their extramarital sexual activity--or at least to be more discreet about it. Denying, in effect, that Hamilton had any serious ambitions in public service at all--surely a remarkable statement to make about one of the key figures at the Constitutional Convention and one of the authors of the Federalist papers--she says that "All he ever wanted was to be 'in'," that is, a member of the establishment, and that only his marriage into the Schuyler family allowed him to do achieve that goal. In fact, while Hamilton, like so many great statesmen in every modern nation, led less than an exemplary personal life, he was a key figure in our early history, one to whom we do owe some of our most important institutions. Paul Krguman has pointed this out today as well.
What people like Ms. Roberts (not to mention most of the current historical profession) have utterly forgotten is that issues like racial and gender equality only have any meaning at all within the context of an established system of law, government and society. If we continue to treat those blessings as a given and to ignore how we secured them, we shall lose them--something which is already happening, thanks to the influence of corporate power. That, as it happens,. was a danger that another President, Andrew Jackson, warned us of most eloquently, but he is being downgraded as well because of his ownership of slaves and his role in the ethnic cleansing of Indian tribes. To me, there is a nice symmetry involved in the presence of Hamilton, who founded the US bank and favored financial power, on the $10 bill, and Jackson, who killed the Second US bank, on the $20, but that's because I think the relationship between government and banks remains important. Indeed, it seems to me, retrograde fellow that I am,. that it turns out to be very important to all Americans, regardless of their gender, race, or sexual orientation.
Cokie Roberts is far more in touch with the ethos of contemporary liberalism than I am--even if Bernie Sanders has provided a most welcome echo of the traditions in which I was raised. And yes, the elite of our society is more open to women, minorities and gays than it has ever been. We are also nearing the point where white maleness alone will define--negatively--virtually ever major figure in American political history. But we shall still be faced with the task of finding political leaders who, whatever their demographic characteristics, can manage our affairs with the skill and vision of the great leaders of our past, who bequeathed us our country and our institutions. And at the moment--based upon the course of this year's election--we seem to be unable to do so. Trashing Alexander Hamilton will not help.