The rise of provisional history

Randall Enos

ONE day last fall I found myself in a radio station waiting to go on the air. It was shortly before Thanksgiving, and in an adjacent room two Native American activists had just finished taping a commentary assailing the European encounter with America -- an annual Thanksgiving Day tradition on public radio. The commentary was running about thirty seconds too long, and a technician was fielding suggestions and excising words and phrases to shorten the tape. I could hear the conversation over a loudspeaker. One of the activists would say, "Let's cut 'including defenseless women and children.' What would that give us?" A few moments later the technician would reply, "Okay, that was three seconds." The activist again: "What about 'and destruction' after 'environmental rape'?" Technician: "Good. We're close. Two more syllables." Activist: "Maybe kill 'brutal' before 'slaughter'?"

I was reminded of this episode recently after coming across a new book called In Our Own Words, a collection of twentieth-century American speeches edited by Senator Robert G. Torricelli and Andrew Carroll. One of the items in the book is the original draft of President Bill Clinton's speech to the nation in August of 1998, when he finally admitted to an extramarital relationship. It contains unfamiliar sentiments such as "I should have acknowledged that I was wrong months ago, but I didn't" and "I also want to apologize to all of you, my fellow citizens. I hope you can find it in your heart to accept that apology." This draft was eventually discarded, in favor of the more aggressive version the President actually delivered.

Like "defenseless women and children," the original Clinton speech exists in a nether realm -- the realm of reality that never quite became real. "Provisional history," "standby history," or simply "outtakes": whatever the name, it denotes an existential sphere that is vast and growing. Think of all the newspaper stories that editors have decided to spike; the millions of words that have been cut out of books; the miles of footage yanked by directors from their movies. Think of all the caps, manufactured but never sold, proclaiming the Buffalo Bills to be the champions of Super Bowls XXV, XXVI, XXVII, and XXVIII.

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History is an endeavor in which establishing "how it really was," in Leopold von Ranke's famous phrase, is fraught under even the best of circumstances. History that actually occurred remains an active part of the environment, constantly reinterpreted and ever on the move. The parallel domain of what was about to happen but didn't is in some ways easier to get a handle on. It is bounded and inert -- a specimen in a display case.

Presidential history is filled with examples, if only because the lives of Presidents are so amply documented. There is the scorching letter Lincoln never sent to General George Meade after the Battle of Gettysburg. Meade had won a tenuous victory, but then failed to pursue Robert E. Lee's retreating army. "Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape," Lincoln wrote. "Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it." The letter was discovered years later in an envelope bearing a notation in Lincoln's hand: "To Gen. Meade, never sent, or signed."

The Harry Truman papers are littered with messages that never hit their targets. "He called them his 'longhand spasms,'" the historian David McCullough writes, "and there appears to have been something sudden and involuntary about them. They seemed to serve some deep psychological need, as a vent for his anger, and were seldom intended for anyone to see." The famous letter to the critic Paul Hume, who had criticized Margaret Truman's singing, was probably meant to be one of these. Truman's press secretary, Charlie Ross, would ordinarily have intercepted it, but he suffered a fatal heart attack a few hours before Margaret's recital.

In 1998 a Texas public-relations executive who had been an advance man during John F. Kennedy's 1963 visit to Dallas reopened some old files and found the jokes that Kennedy was supposed to tell at the luncheon he never attended. The University of Texas and the U.S. Naval Academy had been ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in college football at the time, and were scheduled to meet in the Cotton Bowl. "I like the idea of the Navy-Texas game, personally, and I'd like to do what I can to help," Kennedy was going to say, "except that I know how you folks feel about federal intervention."

Two speeches that Richard Nixon never gave surfaced not long ago in the National Archives. One was the text of the grim public statement Nixon would have made had the 1969 moon landing gone awry, stranding two astronauts on the lunar surface. The second was the speech that Nixon would have given in August of 1974 had he decided not to resign the presidency: "We must not let this office be destroyed -- or let it fall such easy prey to those who would exult in the breaking of the President that the game becomes a national habit."

It used to be routine -- and maybe still is -- for newspaper reporters to compose two stories on the eve of a presidential election, to cover both eventualities. Somewhere in the files of The New York Times sits the text of a "Man in the News" article, datelined "Sioux Falls, South Dakota," that was prepared for the November 7, 1972, edition but never published. The article, by Douglas Kneeland, begins:

As it turned out, George Stanley McGovern, the preacher's son from Avon and Mitchell, really was "right from the start."

He kept saying he would win, serenely, earnestly, convincingly.

In October of 1992 President George Bush readied an arsenal of one-liners for use in his first televised debate with Bill Clinton -- lines that in the end he could not work in. If Clinton had stumbled in the area of foreign affairs, Bush was prepared with ripostes. "Now I know what to get you for Christmas -- a world globe," was one possibility. Had a Clinton gaffe involved the name of some world leader, Bush was ready with this: "If you ever go on Jeopardy, don't choose the category Foreign Heads of State."

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The examples cited here suggest a rough taxonomy. Some things (the sending of Lincoln's letter) don't happen simply because of second thoughts. Other things (the telling of Kennedy's jokes) don't happen because the natural course of events is altered by the unforeseeable. A third category (the Clinton and Nixon speeches, the McGovern article, the Bush ripostes) consists of things that went as far as they did with the prior understanding that existential fullness might well be denied them. This is the arena of provisional history's fastest growth -- the arena of contingency planning, of unrewarded anticipation.

Devotees of counterfactual history -- that is, the asking of "What if?" questions about the past -- argue that the exercise constitutes a powerful defense against the dangers of "hindsight bias": the illusion that because events unfolded in a certain way, they had to unfold in just that way. Provisional history springs from a very different impulse -- call it "foresight hedging." It results from playing out "What if?" questions not about the past but about the future, and taking account of the likely possibilities.

It is hard to think of an aspect of modern life that isn't helping to write provisional history. The awarding of each Oscar statuette sends four written-but-never-delivered acceptance speeches into provisional history's archives. Nearby are stacks of Y2K worst-case scenarios, and aging cassettes of political "attack" advertisements -- recorded and held at the ready, like a nuclear deterrent, but for some reason never aired. The archives hold the detailed plans the White House drew up for Nixon's state funeral, in the event he died in office (the plans called for "California, Here I Come" to be played "softly and slowly" before the President began the journey to his final resting place). They hold the discarded endings to Fatal Attraction and Patriot Games that only focus groups have seen.

Outtakes are commonplace these days under movie and television credits -- you see them after Fresh Prince and The Parent 'Hood, and after anything with Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung. Even A Bug's Life, an animated film, concluded with cartoon sequences that seemed like outtakes. It is refreshing to see such things become a noteworthy feature of the historical record. Provisional history offers just as many cautionary lessons as any other kind.

We are all of us great strutters on provisional history's stage. The archives of anyone's private history contain speeches that were almost made, jokes that were nearly told, phone messages that came close to being left. Attics and basements and bookshelves everywhere are shrines to provisional history, to false starts and flagging ambition. That moldering object in a dark corner of the garage may look to some like an exercise treadmill. But to the trained historical eye it says, "To Gen. Meade, never sent, or signed."

Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor. His most recent book is (1998).

Illustration by Randall Enos.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; Outtakes - 00.07; Volume 286, No. 1; page 14-16.