Vic Henningsen

Commentator

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

For commentaries from Vic from before April 2013, visit the VPR Archive.

Earlier this month, the nation was jolted by a Tweet from President Trump, notable for a questionable historical reference. He wrote: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

With a new democratic spirit sweeping the land, I thought it might be helpful to offer town moderators and selectboard members a little practical advice so New England won’t be left in the dust come Town Meeting Day.

All presidents seek to employ new media to enhance their power to connect directly with the public. Few were more successful than Franklin Roosevelt with radio and John Kennedy on television.

President Trump’s recent immigration restrictions may be an irrational and perhaps unconstitutional response to an imaginary threat, but they’re certainly consistent with our history. Lady Liberty may lift her lamp beside the golden door but too often that door’s been slammed shut.

At inaugurations history turns a page. Think of mobs overrunning the White House exuberantly honoring Andrew Jackson; of Franklin Roosevelt rallying Americans to fight “fear itself”; of celebrating our first black president.

And then there was 1921.

The late William McNeill, one of our greatest world historians, once told me that he only understood how hard it was to teach history when he realized his students no longer had any connection with the central historical event of his life – the Great Depression.

Pearl Harbor was one of those events history sets its watch by - a moment so unnerving that everyone old enough to understand what’s happening knows that reality has just been permanently - and violently - rearranged. John Kennedy’s assassination was such an event; as was 9/11. But history always tells what happened; rarely how it felt.

Nelson Mandela once observed that resentment is like drinking poison and expecting it to kill your enemy. That’s why the despairing, outraged anger we’ve seen following the Presidential election worries me, much more than the unexpected outcome. Yes, we’re honoring the peaceful transfer of power, but many of us are allowing anger to cloud our judgement.

Here’s my Inauguration nightmare. One night it’s Clinton-related; the next Trump, but otherwise it’s identical. At the end of the inaugural address, the House Speaker asks, “Mind sticking around? We’re starting impeachment.”

We’ve heard a lot about “two Americas” recently: haves versus have-nots, “makers” against “takers”, natives versus immigrants, those convinced government is evil against those believing government can help.

These days I flinch when I hear “You’re a historian”, words prefacing a bid for supposedly professional insight into the current election. Alas, to mix the words of historian Barbara Tuchman with those of St. Paul, history is a distant mirror into which we see darkly.

Here are some people who never would’ve become president had the public known of their medical problems or the extent to which they’d gone to conceal them.

Ah, hiking with my dog – just the two of us rambling through the woods to a peak with lovely views. Talk about living the dream!

Trying to explain today’s divisiveness, some pundits point to an information revolution permitting us to choose news that mirrors our own beliefs and gives us our own facts. Others suggest the roots of incivility lie in income inequality and its ripple effects.

“Soon the Boomers will be gone and we’ll get what we want. We’ll disrupt the status quo and change the political landscape.” So spoke a young activist lamenting Bernie Sanders’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton.

At the moment Americans seem to agree that we’ve somehow lost our way. Beyond that, we quarrel.

On June 29th 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the “Federal-Aid Highway Act” authorizing “a national system of Interstate and Defense Highways”. Today, and $500 billion later, that system extends almost 48,000 miles through all fifty states and Puerto Rico.

Recently, a northern goshawk attacked me for straying close to the nest. When I posted this to the local birding list-serv, experienced birders told me I shouldn’t be specific about location and behavior.

Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and other famous American women will soon grace our paper currency. And it’s about time!

At a time when we’re increasingly concerned with economic inequality, Vermonters might want to consider the difficulties faced by 51% of our state’s population – women and girls. 

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