It was Clausewitz, the military strategist, who famously defined war as politics by other means. Politics in turn could be defined as history determined by other means. For each present political choice tends to come with its own view of the past. It would be hard to find a better example of that tendency than Tuesday night's presidential debate, which was not only a clash of candidates but of pasts. Which explains the competing narratives on display as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney came out of their respective corners and started swinging, each presenting a different past. You pays your money, or rather you cast your vote, and you takes your choice.
Our once and, he surely hopes, future president had a lovely past to narrate -- the story of a great young president who, after the worst economic downturn of this still young century, the worst since the Great Depression, set America aright during the past four years, lifted the economy out of this Great Recession, and put us on this golden course we're enjoying now, getting better every day in every way as we proceed with this Great Recovery.
Now that's the way to write history, or at least rewrite it.
The president's is a beautiful story, grand and uplifting, sweeping and inspiring, complete with brave hero and happy ending. Welcome to the Land of Hope and Change, where history is made to order before your eyes. (Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.) In the president's telling, the past four years acquire a roseate glow.
Sound familiar? Isn't that the way we all see it? If not, maybe the rest of us just experienced a different four years. That doesn't mean the president is lying -- he may just have a different perspective. Maybe he had a better four years than the rest of us.
It was left to the president's challenger to spoil the story by introducing a few of those dull, gray facts that can drain the color from even the brightest of fancies. Mitt Romney had more than a few such details to relate. The man is a glutton for data, spreadsheets, stats, graphs, percentages ... you'd think he was some kind of investor, mainly the successful kind, an expert at turnarounds and reorganizations who now wants to turn around the whole, gigantic enterprise and experiment called the United States of America.
The man rolls out facts and figures like a pocket calculator, flooding the conversation with them, as if he were out to transform the historical romance his opponent has just produced into a tragedy by the numbers: