Tuesday, November 14, 2000

History takes a back seat

        Suddenly it's cool to know something about presidents with screwed-up elections. Unfortunately our history teachers spent about 47 seconds on Rutherford B. Hayes, and many of us were dozing at the time.

        That makes it tough to sort out news reports comparing today's nearly tied race with those of the past.

        The media are trotting out names like Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, Samuel Tilden — all candidates in controversial elections. But who can keep the dead guys straight? It's tough enough remembering everything Al Gore invented.

        To see what the public knows about this, I visited that bastion of learnedness, the Florence Mall.

        My first subject was Marvin Pospishil, a retired Wisconsin dairy farmer in town to visit his daughter.

Prefers Donald Duck
               Mr. Pospishil is tired of politics. When his wife turns on the news, he and the grandkids watch Donald Duck in the next room.

        So, what about all this history, Mr. Pospishil? Ever wondered why all our forgettable presidents are from Ohio?

        Nope, he said.

        “Talking about Ohio, did you happen to see The Millionaire the other night?” he asked.

        Nope, I said.

        As he tells it, a contestant was asked which state borders the Ohio River. She picked Michigan over Ohio.

        “What's-his-name just sat there with his mouth hanging open,” Mr. Pospishil says.

        So much for presidential history from the Wisconsin dairy-farmer demographic.

        Next I spoke with Gary Buck, 21, of Fairfield, who took a stab at recalling some of the TV commentary.

        “I want to say Kennedy and Nixon had a close election,” he says.

        Gary and his friends are mostly concerned with the dissing of third-party candidates, though.

        As for past elections, “it's done and over with,” says Mike Brake, 17, of Erlanger. “The only thing we can do is learn from it, and we obviously haven't.”

Historians unhappy
               By contrast, the Hoerleins of Fort Mitchell say history is important, but they're a bit confused by the random snippets on TV.

        “The one with Adams, John Adams, wasn't that a close race?” Joann Hoerlein asks. “And there was one where there was a duel. One guy was shot and killed. Was it Hamilton?”

        All this fuzziness has historians cringing. It's their big moment to be useful, and instead they're hearing the media recycle irrelevant comparisons again and again.

        “If they had any sense, they would have a professional historical consultant,” huffs Roger Daniels, a history professor at the University of Cincinnati.

        He says the 1876 race between Mr. Hayes and Samuel Tilden was the most similar to today.

        Mr. Tilden, a Democrat, won the popular vote. But Republicans claimed Mr. Hayes had taken key states, putting him one vote ahead in the electoral college.

        Fraud was pervasive, and a few states submitted two sets of election results. Congress bickered. A commission was set up to decide the disputed numbers, and Mr. Hayes finally won.

        “They didn't settle the (darn) thing until the second of March,” Mr. Daniels says.

        He notes that the country survived. If nothing else, let's remember that.

        E-mail ksamples@enquirer.com.


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