Not quite the end of 'history'

The presidential race shows history to be both the deeds and the writing about them.

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Have you been getting enough history lately?

Historic was surely the word last week on the US presidential campaign trail. Hillary Clinton "suspended" her "historic campaign" for president, gave an "unconcession" speech, and then finally Saturday endorsed Barack Obama, who hailed her "valiant and historic campaign," and who has been "making history" himself.

Indeed, "Obama Makes History for African Americans" was the headline on an online chat session of The Washington Post hosted by Prof. Stephen L. Carter of Yale. (The headline prompted a participant in Bridgewater, Mass., to muse, "Hmmm, actually, he's making history for all of us," a point with which Mr. Carter readily concurred.)

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Now that it's clear that Senator Obama is the nominee, pundits are pointing us toward more history. The Register-Guard, of Eugene, Ore., noted editorially last week: "As the campaign now pivots toward the November contest between Obama and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, Americans will pause to reflect upon this historic primary election contest. There's never been another like it, and voters across the country, including in Oregon, had a chance to participate in the making of history."

It is a moment to savor in the life of the nation. But is history the facts, the deeds themselves; or the telling of them? Of course they made history, one wants to say; the US presidency is always "historic." Consider Franklin Pierce, the obscure 14th president. Amazon lists a dozen biographies of him, including a new one due out in August, plus two compilations of his papers.

Herodotus was "the father of history." The Greek word from which our English history is descended developed to refer to the kind of writing Herodotus did. I've long thought of history as organized primarily along a timeline, as primarily chronicle. But the Greek roots of history have to do with research and inquiry – what a wise man or woman goes to find out about.

I also expected to find history to be more about "story," about those little narrative units that stick in the mind. But no. History as Herodotus practiced it seems to be more about the sublime messiness of a reporter's field notebook than of a perfectly plotted finished narrative with all the loose threads tied up neatly at the end. That was rather more the style of Thucydides and modern academic historians.

In its review of "Travels with Herodotus," by the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Economist had this to say: "Herodotus taught Kapuscinski certain human and reporting skills which no amount of technology could have offered. Among these were tenacity, humility and the simple art of having first asked one source a question, to ask it again of another and compare the answers. It sounds almost disarmingly simple: to wander, to talk, to look, to listen. Herodotus also taught Kapuscinski the value of self-doubt and – the two go hand-in-hand – rabid, insatiable curiosity."

During the last presidential cycle, Jay Rosen, the community journalism guru, blogged about having failed, in a BBC interview, to make sense of all the political events of the day – events being covered, as never before at that point, by bloggers and other new media. He apologized for his inability to talk in sound bites: "There's too much happening. The public world is changing faster than we can invent terms for describing it."

And that was four whole years ago. We have not reached the end of history yet – the making of it or the writing of it.

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