By David M. Shribman
Executive Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A famous statue of Russian Czar Alexander II was dismantled during the Bolshevik revolution. So was a statue of Alexander III. A statue of Josef Stalin was removed from his hometown as recently as 2010. And this year in New Orleans, a fierce debate is raging over statues to Confederate heroes such as President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard.

Fights over the past have always been part of the present. At Yale, student and faculty pressure resulted in removing the name of John C. Calhoun -- politician, philosopher, but also a man who regarded the slavery system as "a good, a positive good" -- from one of the university's storied colleges. And last week, Watergate, which began 45 years ago next month, began to be invoked in the capital and around the country.

History is always with us, but it is not always the same. The search for a "usable past" -- a past that conforms to contemporary needs, values and desires -- is a constant part of the human condition. As a result, we celebrate Andrew Jackson, a hero of Donald Trump's, for his populist instincts and his personification of the democratic ideal in one generation, only to excoriate him a few generations later for his brutal attacks on Indians as a soldier and his policies toward Native Americans as president.

A generation ago, Thomas Jefferson was universally celebrated in this country as the avatar of democracy, a philosopher-king from Charlottesville worthy of a majestic monument on the bank of the Tidal Basin in Washington, the bard behind the Declaration of Independence and the spokesman for the peculiar but intoxicating American idiom of freedom. Today another aspect of his life -- his relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings -- is part of the Jefferson legacy, along with the contradiction between the way he wrote and the way he lived.

The new David McCullough volume, "The American Spirit," a compendium of the historian's speeches, is notable for several reasons, but especially for a single sentence from a 1998 speech at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where he warned that we should "not look down on anyone from the past for not having the benefit of what we know."

That doctrine perhaps should be applied as well to people from the past who do not have the benefit of thinking the way we do.

All of which brings us back to the debate in New Orleans over Confederate statuary.

The destruction of statues is a traditional part of revolutions and even of the overturning of reviled regimes. French revolutionaries pulled down a prominent statue of Louis XV during the turmoil at the end of the 18th century. One of the most enduring images of the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 occurred when American soldiers tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square.

But the Confederate statues in the American South may be a different matter entirely.

"These statues are part of our history," says Martha Minow, the Harvard Law School dean who has studied the meaning of statues in our culture. "You can add statues and add context. But we shouldn't just pretend we have no history -- or pretend that we today are pure and the past is corrupted."

Elaine Jones, the civil rights attorney who headed the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, understands the sentiment motivating those who want to remove the New Orleans statues. The Civil War was fought in large measure over slavery, and African-Americans have every reason to deplore that institution and the Confederacy that sought to preserve it.

"But the Civil War did happen, and we have to make sure we do not exalt it and we have to have an honest appraisal of what went on," she says. "The fight should be over what the labels on these statues say -- and to have separate statues of civil rights heroes. We cannot erase history, but we must learn from it, and send the right message from these men etched in stone."

Though transformations in reputations usually take years -- no one alive in 1945 could imagine the respect Harry Truman gets nearly three-quarters of a century later, much of it attributed to McCullough's 1992 biography -- sometimes the transition occurs in days. Only a week ago, for example, James Comey was being demonized by Democrats. Today they are rushing to the defense of Comey, dismissed as FBI director by President Donald Trump, the beneficiary of his pronouncements about the private email server used by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Ordinarily history moves at a slower pace, of course, but the mischief it offers is always with us.

In less than a month, the distinguished historians Eric Foner of Columbia University and Lawrence Goldman of the Institute for Historical Research at the University of London will speak in the British Library about the use and abuse of American history. But it is not only American history that is vulnerable to distortion -- and misuse.

"The very lesson learned from the 1930s -- that dictators must be opposed and faced down -- led Winston Churchill's protege and successor as prime minister, Anthony Eden, into error," said Goldman. "When Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, Eden mistook a nationalist leader from a developing country for another version of Hitler and conspired with France and Israel to launch a military expedition to take back the canal. The Suez crisis was a disaster for British diplomacy, hastening the end of empire."

Churchill, perhaps the leader who learned the most from history, was also a biographer and historian. Indeed, while the Nazi menace was growing in Europe, Churchill was writing a biography of a relative, John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, who defeated the forces of Louis XIV of France in the early 18th century -- a work strongly influenced by fears that another European absolutist was trying to take over the continent. That helps explain Churchill's role as one of the lone voices of alarm against Hitler.

In his June 1940 remarks remembered principally as the "their finest hour" speech, Churchill made an aside that might help us navigate these difficult historical shoals. "If we open a quarrel between the past and the present," the prime minister said, "we shall find that we have lost the future." And some statues tell us about our past, even when we do not like what they represent.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)

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