Being called upon to do live political commentary on the day the White House was burned in 1814 — and to get to argue with my friend David Brooks over the merits of the War of 1812 – was a journalistic assignment like no other. It's obvious that it was fun (I hope it was as much fun for listeners). It was also an honor to be part of producer Art Silverman's brilliant imagining of what that extraordinary moment might have sounded like on NPR. Art's piece taught a lot of history, and it was also a commentary on contemporary journalism. (The idea of "embedding" an NPR correspondent with British troops was sheer genius).
It was also great to be pushed to re-engage the history of this formidable challenge to our young republic, and I had a head start on this courtesy of my friend and Brookings Institution colleague, Pietro Nivola. Pietro was the first person I know who saw the importance of this upcoming anniversary. A couple of years back, he undertook some scholarly work premised on the idea that we could learn a lot about the sources of our current political polarization by studying divisions in the country over President Madison's war. As the subhead to a brilliant piece Pietro published in The Atlantic put it: "There are uncanny similarities between partisan politics in the run-up to that crisis and the present strife over tax policy, budgetary priorities, and the national debt."
Pietro's piece was the perfect preparation for the segment David and I did, and I certainly could not resist drawing on it when I expressed hope during our chat that in 200 years, someone might be able to write that our country came out of the mess of that awful day in tact. The "someone" I had in mind was Pietro, who wrote: "That the United States, so early in its infancy and so vastly outgunned, ultimately emerged intact from the war of 1812 was something of a miracle." Pietro also referenced John C. Calhoun's "delusional" predictions that we would conquer Canada with ease. I could not resist taking a knock at that pro-slavery politician whom the historian Richard Hofstadter referred to as "The Marx of the Master Class."
I commend Petro's piece to listeners who were drawn into the history of that very early war. Here are his first three sentences: "With no consensus between the political parties, the government of the United States decides to go to war. The war of choice is launched on the assumption that it will be very brief and decisive. There is little advance planning for how to pay for — and prevail in — a more protracted and complicated military operation." It wasn't just the special effects that made that NPR recreation of a terrible day in our history sound so contemporary.