History's Back—and It's Still Bunk

A friend of mine tells a story about the time she visited a beautiful corner of Hawaii. It was a lava field perched dramatically over the Pacific, where the waves rush into a certain rock formation and shoot high in the air through a blowhole. From the same place, you can sometimes see whales offshore.

It was hard for her to enjoy these wonders, however, because of two tourists from Ohio who happened to be there at the same time. This pair was noisily exchanging personal observations about the spot, every detail of which reminded them of Cincinnati. The rocks were just like certain rocks indigenous to Cincinnati. The view was highly reminiscent of one of that city's excellent vistas. The tropical air had a certain scent that whispered "Cincinnati." And so on. Years have passed, but even today, when my friend recalls that moment in paradise, what she remembers is Cincinnati.

I think of this story lately when I pick up the paper or turn on the tube and see journalists trying to make sense of the enormous news that's breaking more or less every day. No matter the topic—corporate scandals, the war on terrorism, the Bush presidency, Mideast politics—everything seems to remind journalists of some other event from the distant past. Rather than appreciate the news of the day for its freshness and singularity, more and more it seems we see every story as a replay of events that have happened before. History is our Cincinnati, and it's getting a little tiresome.

This week, on the day before President Bush gave a speech on corporate wrongdoing, The Wall Street Journal reported in a news story that this was a pivotal moment for Bush. Here's how the paper framed it: "The battery of corporate scandals during the past year is forcing an evolution in Mr. Bush's presidency. The Texas Republican rode into the White House as a philosophical heir to Ronald Reagan, promising tax cuts, less regulation, and limited government. He embraced big business—raising more in campaign contributions than any American politician in history and filling several Cabinet seats with chief executives. But circumstances (Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing) are forcing Mr. Bush to sound more like Teddy Roosevelt, the progressive Republican president who took on corporate America a century ago."

The Journal wasn't alone. When a Republican president starts making regulatory noises, the Roosevelt comparison is obvious, and similar allusions were all over the media. On CNN's Inside Politics, Judy Woodruff interviewed a congressman who tried to take credit for the president's transformation, though he disagreed about which president Bush had been before he became TR. "Up until now, President Bush has been Cal Coolidge," said Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-N.Y. "It is not too late for him to be Teddy Roosevelt. And that's exactly what I told his chief economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey."

The media can't and shouldn't control the fatuities of pols who wander into our space, but we can control our own impulse to turn all news into a rerun. Is it really necessary for every media person from Maureen Dowd to Bill O'Reilly to trot out the robber barons of a hundred years ago, whenever Enron, Martha Stewart, and WorldCom are under discussion? Are the constant references to the Gilded Age (or the "second Gilded Age," as Robert Novak called it) doing anything to make this story more compelling or understandable?

To me, they're doing the opposite. To label the current global political situation "the Great Game"—a phrase coined by Rudyard Kipling to describe a completely different world—as The New York Times did recently in a headline is to cover it with dust and cobwebs. Aren't writers supposed to invent new ways of describing the world? Every time I see one of these creaking references, I get the same sinking feeling I have when a historian comes on TV to observe, with studied sagacity, that if you think the current scandal is wild, you don't know about Teapot Dome. It's all happened before, you see.

But it hasn't, not really. There has never been a company precisely like Enron, or a career just like Martha Stewart's, or a war that remotely resembled the current one, or a president who, when you come down to it, was at all like George W. Bush. Each is its own unique and unprecedented story. By offering them up as retreads, journalists rob the news of its essential power, which is newness.

Not that we should pretend history never happened. It's natural for human beings to look backward, especially when they're afraid. Rudy Giuliani has said that before going to bed on the night of September 11, he read a little Churchill. When you're living through hard times, it's helpful to know that others have been there and survived. Last fall, when the media took refuge over and over in World War II analogies, our motives were good, and we probably helped people cope.

In normal times, too, some context is helpful. Nobody wants journalists to pretend every story is like nothing ever seen before. That would be idiotic. But a little bit of the past goes a long way.

There's a certain kind of pompous media hack who is fond of saying that he (they tend to be men) produces "the first draft of history." It's one of the great canards of this business. News is the opposite of history. It's the idea that there really is something new under the sun. And there always is.