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What Will History Books Have to Say About 2012?

December 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Judy Woodruff talks to presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith about the events from 2012 that will live on in the history, including Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 elections, a mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., China's new leadership, and North Korea's missile launch.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now, to close out the year that was, 50 years from now, how will 2012 be remembered? What would merit mention in the history books?

I recently asked two presidential historians, “NewsHour” regulars, to look back and look ahead.  

Richard Norton Smith and Michael Beschloss, thank you both for being here.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You both spend all your time thinking about history. So, as we say goodbye to 2012 and think about what this year is going to be remembered for, you both mention, among other things, climate change.

Richard, expand on that.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, scholar in residence, George Mason University: Well, it seems to me typical of this year, which is unusual, that the specific story of Hurricane Sandy, which obviously affected millions of people and really caught the public’s imagination, but it didn’t end.

Coverage of other hurricanes, there is a beginning, a middle and an end. The fact is what Sandy did or seems to have done is to take the idea of climate change from an abstraction, something that scientists and experts debated, to something that millions of people along the East Coast and in Manhattan and in Staten Island and the other boroughs of New York City experienced for themselves.

And it started a debate. So, we don’t know obviously what the long-term consequences are, but it does suggest there is something different about this story and its long-term implications.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s interesting, Michael, because we have had big storms in this country before.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But there was something different about this one?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think people are getting a little more alert to it politically.

And one thing that historians of the future do is, if something terrible happens, if climate change over the next 50 years or so achieve great injury to this Earth, historians will look back and say, when were the moments, what were the junction points at which we might have done something to change it?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also — the two of you also brought up politics, but in different ways.

Richard, I mean, is it mainly the fact that this country reelected an African-American president for the first time?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, that’s certainly significant.

But it feels like, to me, that 2012 turned out to be not only a referendum on the incumbent president, but arguably a referendum on the modern Republican Party, and in many ways a referendum on the popular culture.

For a long time, it seems as if we have been frozen in what we could talk about. You couldn’t talk about, for example, increasing taxes. There was profound distrust of government generally and a host of other issues. Roe v. Wade was thought to be in imminent peril.

And I think what 2012 did was to reconfigure all of that. And it feels as if the ice is breaking, as if — you had three states for the first time through popular vote, for example, endorse same-sex marriage. You had the people of California in a popular referendum vote to tax themselves to address their state’s chronic deficit.

These are things that may in the long run be as important as the reelection of Barack Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see this year…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, in the ’80s and the ’90s, there was a tendency to think that the presidential — voters who vote for president are center-right, and the Republicans had an advantage, ’80s and ’90s.

In the wake of this election, you have to go back to 1988 to find a Republican president who was elected by anything other than a squeaker. That probably tells something. And I think the electorate, exactly as you are saying, may be beginning to shift.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you — but, again, we have had — we have had moments in history when one party or another seemed to hit a bend in the road, when popular opinion changed.

Michael, as you look at this year, I mean, how much of it was the president, do you think? And how much maybe — and, again, I’m asking you to look way into the future.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But how much could it be the kinds of things that Richard was just describing?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it is — that’s what a leader does. I mean, he recognized the fact that the Latino vote in this country is getting much, much bigger in a very important way. He brought out a lot of voters who oftentimes do not vote.

And that, you can expect to happen, presumably, in 2016. So the result is that the chances for a Democrat vs. a Republican for all sorts of reasons in 2016 could be very different from what they were four years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, the thing that, of course, all of us are thinking about and talking about as the year ends are these mass shootings, the terrible shooting in an elementary school in Connecticut just this month, Aurora, Colorado, earlier this year.

How do you know whether that is something that is going to mark this year one way or another in history?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, one way to look at it is, does it really lead to political change? Other horrible catastrophes and school shootings really didn’t particularly.

This one seems to have really struck people, from the president on down, in a way that we may during the next number of months see action on things like mental health, public safety, TV violence maybe, and certainly gun control that might not have happened before. So, presumably, that was a turning point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard, to have mass shootings, mass killings be a mark, a turning point in American history?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, we have become almost inured to it, which is a horrible thing to even contemplate.

And then what happened in Newtown, well, it just took it to another whole level.

You have seen it reflected already in some early polling data. And this is something that really where the ice seems to be breaking, that there is a much more open, a much — a greater willingness on the part of folks, including some conservatives in the media and on Capitol Hill, to entertain what has come to be called commonsense gun restrictions.

And it’s the pictures. We have all attended, vicariously, funeral after funeral after funeral. That has to have an impact.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And imagining what those parents and family members are going through.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, what about internationally? Certainly, we have spent a lot of time this year talking about Syria, the Middle East, some about China. What do you see on the global landscape, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, China, I think, is a very important thing to mention, because in the last two years, China has become the second largest economy in the world, not the third.

And one thing interesting, this spring, they sent three astronauts up into outer space, docked with another module. That is what a country does when it really wants to be a big superpower for the future. So, 50 years from now, it’s not impossible that China could be at least an equal or the dominant superpower in the world.

If it is either of those things, Americans will wonder what happened, because the idea of our being number one is so woven into our conception of ourselves.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And let’s not forget this is only the second time in their long island history that the people of Great Britain celebrated the diamond jubilee of a monarch. This was the year the pope tweeted for the first time.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Surely something that will go down in history.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: In some way, what didn’t happen was important.

At the end of the year, Standard & Poor’s upgraded Greece’s bond rating. Europe found a way somehow to muddle through. And the most important history of all that didn’t happen, the world didn’t end on Dec. 21.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Exactly, which was — a lot of people were taking very seriously here at the end of the year.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Love the Mayans, but maybe not terrific forecasters.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Looking back at 2012, Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, thank you both.