The Coalition Column

Some Parting Thoughts on Capitol Hill

Bruce Craig, January 2007

As readers of Perspectives may be aware, at the end of December 2006, I will have relinquished the executive directorship of the National Coalition for History (NCH) to pursue new career trajectories. This, then, will be my last regular contribution to Perspectives.

My wife Pat and I are both looking forward to our new lives on Prince Edward Island, Canada. There, in addition to helping to run our Harbour Lights bed and breakfast operation (and soon to be launched artists and writers retreat) that overlooks Northlake harbor, I will be battling the snow drifts as I commute a couple days a week to the provincial capital, Charlottetown, where I will be teaching on a part-time basis. I will also be working with members of the University of Prince Edward Island history department in creating what may well develop into one of the few undergraduate programs in public historical studies in North America. I hope to devote considerable time and energy to several writing projects as well. These will include a biography of accused Soviet spy, Alger Hiss, a project that for far too many years has languished in the form of various piles of papers on my desk, closet, and floor.

I am very pleased that the National Coalition for History has hired Leland J. White to succeed me. Lee—as he is known—comes to the NCH with a law degree, a recent master's degree in history from George Mason University, and considerable experience in working on Capitol Hill. During several recent discussions, I have come to realize that Lee has a passion for history—perhaps the single most important qualification for the director of the National Coalition for History to possess.

With the U.S. Congress now firmly in the hands of the Democrats for the first time in 12 years, the National Coalition for History has both opportunities and challenges in advancing the cause of history and archives. Some may think that now that the Democrats control Congress, history advocacy will all of a sudden become easier. Frankly, I doubt it; in fact, history advocacy faces considerable obstacles.

During my seven years at the helm of the NCH, Congress and the White House have both been in the control of the Republicans. The truth is, throughout these years both Congress and the White House have been generally supportive of history—though clearly the Bush administration's particular interest has been in advancing what is termed "traditional" American history. To that end, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) was able to enact legislation creating his presidential and congresssional academies to benefit outstanding students and teachers of American history. With Bruce Cole as its steward, the National Endowment for the Humanities has been implementing its "We the People" initiative, which has brought renewed vitality to history as a vital segment of the broader humanities community. In the Department of Education, Senator Robert C. Byrd's "Teaching American History" grants initiative (in excess of 500 million dollars has been devoted to this program by now) has been competently administered by administration officials and their efforts have done much to boost the teaching of history in our elementary and secondary schools.

Of course, not everything has gone as well as I had hoped with the Republicans in power. For example, year after year the Office of Management and Budget (and hence the White House) has ignored the requests of the Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein and zeroed out all funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). As a consequence, every year the NCH, the Association for Documentary Editing, a few other member organizations as well as the National Humanities Alliance visit scores of congressional offices in order to convince Members that some level of funding needs to go to this small but important National Archives program office. Now that Senator Byrd will once again be master of the Senate Appropriations Committee, we have a very powerful friend on our side; we clearly have an opportunity to see to it that the NHPRC receives the funding it needs and deserves now and in the future.

Another disappointment with the congressional Republican leadership is what they have done (or perhaps more accurately not done) with the Higher Education Act. For several years now a proposal introduced by Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), titled the Higher Education for Freedom Act (S. 1209), held the promise of generating a large pool of new funds for the support of the study and teaching of history at the post-secondary level. But Gregg's proposal, along with the Higher Education Act in general, was relegated to a back burner by the Republican majority. Just weeks ago, Congress passed its third extension of the act and we have yet to see reauthorization hearings in Congress to discuss the important issues that need to be addressed.

And then there is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act—the centerpiece of the Bush administration's education program—which ever since its inception has been a thorn in the side for history educators. Perhaps the NCLB legislation has made some progress in improving some students' reading, math, and science skills, but it has certainly done nothing to improve (in fact, it has harmed) the teaching of history in the public school system. But now, with Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) slotted to become chair of the Senate committee responsible for formulating the nation's education policy, we have an opportunity to open some new doors that could ultimately lead to innovations in how history is funded and taught in America's schools from elementary school through college.

In retrospect, 25 years on Capitol Hill have reinforced in my mind a great truism—no matter what party is in the majority, life on Capitol Hill goes on. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. points out in his book Cycles of American History that power in Congress and the White House swings like a pendulum between the Republicans and Democrats. How true it is! Members come, members go, and there always are new and eager young staffers waiting in the wings to fill the places left behind by retiring pros.

My departure from the history coalition brings this aspect of my public history career to a close. It has been a memorable and satisfying experience, but frankly, I'm ready to be settling into what I hope will be a less hectic but equally rewarding experience.

—Bruce Craig was until recently the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at rbcraig84@hotmail.com.