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Q+A: Interview with historian Simon Schama

Published: 2:32PM Sunday March 14, 2010 Source: Q+A

Dr Simon Schama interviewed by PAUL HOLMES
PAUL Dr Simon Schama is one of the world's most widely read historians, he's an Englishman, lives in New York City, he's Professor of Art History and History, Columbia University, he's a writer and presenter for the BBC Television, they famously paid him three million pounds for a combined television and book deal. His value is his knack of making stories of the past hugely entertaining, and of the present. Professor Schama's written a number of books including, A History of Britain, The Power of Art, and most recently The American Future, a history a fascinating engaging look at the world's most powerful nation, there's also a television series with this. Dr Schama is in New Zealand for the International Arts Festival, and he's with us in our Wellington studio where he's been watching the debate about federation or not, so welcome Dr Simon Schama, thank you very much for coming on this morning.

DR SCHAMA Thank you for having me.

PAUL What do you make of this debate, I wasn't scheduled to ask you about this, what do you make of the debate.

PROF. SIMON SCHAMA - Historian
No but the unscheduled is the most thrilling, it was absolutely riveting to me really and I wish I'd known more about it. The fact is we always used to think really whether in Europe or not Europe, are sort of nations really set in concrete, China is always China, Britain is always Britain, that's not the case really there's a lively debate and it may be even livelier after the next election in Britain, about Scottish separation, Scottish independence. So nations are organic things. I was interested to hear someone say, it's almost impossible to get serious debate about constitutional reform, and that is the problem, we have that same problem with the House of Lords, with whether or not there should be a written constitution in Britain. But, I have to say, you are talking to someone who loves the peculiarity of sovereign memory, to actually trade in the distinctiveness of your shared memory because of what's perceived to be a difference in the standard of living, seems to me a sorry deal, it's Esau selling his birthright for a mess of pottage. That's my uninformed message - don't do it Kiwis, just don't do it.

PAUL So you are anti federation. Obama - let's talk about Barack Obama, of whom you are a keen student, he's been President for what nearly a year, just over a year, and on the matter of Obama he's called off his trip of Asia and I think Melbourne for I think three days, this is because the White House seems to think Simon that he can possibly get his health reform through very shortly. Is he going to be able to do that do you think, realistically.

SIMON I think he is actually, we're in act three of Obama actually Paul, I think act one was the extraordinary campaign he ran, the unrealistic expectations that him as some sort of American messiah, someone who'd bring Americans together at a moment of multiple crises. Act two was Obama being so convinced that he could bring Americans into that great national cuddle and getting on as a policy wonk person with the day to day business of governing that he forgot about politics. Act two between Spring and Christmas last year he absolutely lost the political plot, he lost all the toughness which is there underneath the rather philosophical lofty nice guy. Act three he's decided to be much more of a fighter, and the business of health care reform is he's using a process called reconciliation, which is sort of the opposite of what it sounds. It is a way to use the budgetary process to get through pieces of legislation that don't require a super majority of filibuster proof majority, just a simple majority. It was thought to be so-called nuclear option, something that could blow back in political disadvantage, but George Bush used it to enact taxcuts and that takes away an issue from the Republicans, he's gonna use that for health care reform, and he's gonna use it for financial regulation reform, and my bet is even though Republicans think it will polarise the country more, the country will actually be grateful for seeing a tougher more decisive President.

PAUL But you were very interesting about him becoming quite professorial and I think you described him as having governed last year with a noble fastidious and that that won't work, you know the American policies about sound interfering we've got have a few slogans and calls to arms.

SIMON That's my feeling, I mean it's a contradiction, but it's a contradiction everybody living in a hurly burly democracy understands. We like to hear the pieties and the platitudes, we must all come together, but democracy is electors to top &. noticed in the 19th century in America, is an argument, there's nothing wrong actually with partisan argument, and the arguments go to the electors and the electors decide. Obama really never had to fight a kind of slug it out campaign, the only one who did fight for Congress in Illinois and actually lost he's always had the opposition collapse and fall into his hands, including John McCain. The democratic presidents who were great reformers and men of action from Franklin Roosevelt who'd been a Wall Street lawyer in an early life and therefore had no problem about taking it to Wall Street, to Harry Truman to Jack Kennedy who came from a family of political thugs really, knew what it was like to fight a tough, no holds barred campaign, when you were President. Ronald Reagan was a genius about, because he was extremely tough, but he did it of course with a Hollywood smile, so people felt the velvet glove more than a mailed fist. Obama has to learn that if he's to be a great president.

PAUL The 21st century, does the future of the US make you optimistic or rather does the history Simon of the United States make you optimistic about its future. Some of course are pontificating at the moment that the 21st century will see a decline, you know this will be the end of the American period, that the 21st century will see a decline in the power, the wealth, the prestige of the United States, so you agree with that?

SIMON Well I think there's certainly going to be - there already is - a relative decline, but you know as Edward Gibbon, if you were interviewing him this morning Paul would say, it took the Roman Empire a long time to go from decline to fall, many many centuries. I'll take five centuries. It's a truism and it's a correct truism that we're living in a much more multi polar world, that China, India, your own region, you know is going to sort of establish much more of a capacity of presence with the United States. That doesn't mean to say though that you can write off the United States as something very distinctive in the world. It is the most extraordinary empire of immigrants there's ever been, it still retains it's sort of democratic feistiness, it is despite attempts from you know the Christian rite to turn it into a Christian state, into a bastion of religious pluralism essentially, religious activity is alive and well, perhaps for some people's taste too much alive and well, but it's essentially a weapon for religious co-existence in a world that's threatened by theocracies. So what has to happen though which is difficult for Obama and any successor, is the management of the expectation of limits. Limits is not an American word, and America has to learn to make it one, that's a tough and pithy thing to do.

PAUL And indeed one of the problems President Obama has, one of the problems the United States has around the world is that America's vilified around the world at the moment as being a military bully, when America decides to go and thump people it goes and thumps people, but I was very interested in your book and how fastidiously if I can use the word again, you paint the picture that America was at its inception, after the founding fathers had established the republic, was not militarily driven.

SIMON No that's right, I mean there was a great debate between famously which I talk about in the book, and I would say the book is a sort of marriage of history and reporting as you know Paul, precisely because unlike the image some people have of America, many Americans are saturating history, the great Summer blockbuster beach reading books, another huge biography of Alexander Hamilton. At the beginning to the republic the issue was would America preserve its moral virginity by separating itself from the slaughters of Europe, of the old world, and the debate was between Alexander Hamilton, a tough rather British and grown up in the West Indies, who said grow up, America is destined to be a great power, why will we tie one hand behind our back and not give us ourself a professional army, and Jefferson said, if that's the America you want, I cannot recognise it as America, my America is an America that will only ever fight a war of last resort, and we will send our civilian sons to die. If we're going to do that it'd better be for a good reason. That's the same debate that Obama had with John McCain about Iraq, whether that was a just war
or an unjust war, and it still goes on.

PAUL You talk about being an historian who's also a reporter I think, well you mix journalism, called yourself a reporter from the past, Simon can you define that a little.

SIMON Well I do think you know, I was brought up to believe that two things could never coexist, but if you think about the way history began in Europe at least, with Thucydides. Thucydides was not some remote professor sitting in a college, he was actually a retired general, actually a general who'd been sacked and what he wanted to write about the Peloponnesian war was a kind of guide against cock-ups basically, namely the expedition to Syracuse, he wanted to say history lives and breathes, it's not this kind of remote kind of cultural furniture polish, it's something that's in our kind of wiring every day. Your debate about whether Australia and New Zealand go their own way, or whether they become one nation, is essentially a debate about memory and history. I've actually been a sort of journalist, I worked for the Sunday Times before I was a Don at Cambridge way back in the 60s, and it's a sort of personal thing. I've always felt that the past and the present really were fused together in mutual excitement.

PAUL Fantastic, now thank you very much for your time Dr Simon Schama, enjoy your time in New Zealand, it's been wonderful listening to you and I thank you very much for your advice about the merger with Australia and we shall abandon it completely.

SIMON I expected no less, thank you so much for listening to me.

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