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advocacy today

Historical Advocacy: The Past, Present, and Future

Bruce Craig

Back in 1994, when I was a lobbyist for National Parks and Conservation Association, I was invited to teach a session on effective lobbying to a conservation roundtable. The conference planners were particularly interested in my reflections on the lessons learned from the 1988 so-called "Third Battle of Manassas"1 and the November 1993 fight that pitted preservationists and historians against the Walt Disney Company, whose proposed "Disney's America" theme park was slated for construction near the Manassas battlefield.2 At the conference, I explained how the contest that raged over the Third Battle of Manassas represented a genuine threat to a nat ionally significant cultural landscape. I explained how the Disney's America proposal not only promised to engulf thousands of acres of land but also would have trivialized history to the point of banality. Both preservation battles resulted in victories for the cause of history. The common thread that led to the successes was that both were dependent on effective coalitions of preservationists and historians. But what was particularly exciting about the latter was the development of a coalition of academ ic historians who joined with their brother and sister public historians, weighing in on the side of history to halt what columnist James Reston characterized as a "ravage of our culture, our history and our environment.3 What I told the confereesand I still believe to this dayis that building coalitions is at the heart of effective historical advocacy.

I use the term "advocacy" because, for some, the term "lobbying" carries an ugly connotation. But regardless of which term one prefers to use, the reality of the American political system is that it operates in an environment of special-interest democracy. Our special interest is history in the broadest sense of the word. The National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History's (NCCPH or NCC) executive director is often the crucial link between legislators and the organized groups who share common interests and concerns under that umbrella that the NCC represents.

Advocacy on behalf of the historical and archival related professions has engaged the NCC almost from the beginning.4 And for the last two decades, Dr. Page Putnam Miller has worked with a consortium of over fifty historical organizations in an effort to respond to federal initiatives that affect our profession. She has provided testimony at congressional hearings, educated legislators on issues of concern, and made effective use of networks to advance the cause of history. Her work and special relationship with the National Archives (particularly the National Historical Publications and Records Commission), National Endowment for the Humanities, American Library Association, and the archival community have resulted in remarkable successes, especially with respect to maintaining and expanding federal appropriations for history-related work. Advocacy is at the heart of the NCC, and I well expect that the NCC Board desires to see this vital work continue.

I also told the conferees back in 1994 about the need for what I term the "three C's" of effective advocacy: credibility, confidentiality, and coordination. First, the goal of the lobbyist is to persuade a member of a legislative body to enact legislation favorable to one's cause (or to defeat or repeal unfavorable legislation). In accomplishing these objectives, an organization is effective only as long as its representatives maintain their credibility with members of Congress and their staffs. The NCC is frequently called upon by various congressional committees to provide expert testimony on legislative proposals that could affect the historical profession. Committee staff do not hesitate to call on the NCC for assistance because members of Congress know that although a particular Committee member may not always agree with the NCC's position, they can be assured of the NCC's nonpartisanship, and that the organization's thoughtful position represents the collective view of the profession. Secondly, Hill staffers on both sides of the aisle also know that they can call on the NCC to provide accurate background information and sound advice when crafting or modifying a specific legislative proposal, knowing that what is discussed will remain confidential. The effective lobbyist knows that political winds shift as new issues emerge: a supporter of one legislative proposal may be an opponent of the next, and consequently, it is a good practice not to burn bridges. Instead, the NCC seeks to educate staffers regardless of their political affiliation or views, and we never break a confidence to gain a short-term political advantage. Finally, although the NCC does represent the historical and archival professions, there is little that any advocacy group can accomplish alone. Legislation is passed or defeated based on the effectiveness of the coalitions pulled together to address a particular need. In the future, this aspect of the NCC's work will only increase. Undoubtedly, in the coming months there will be new opportunities for members of our profession to become active and effective advocates.

In a recent interview, American Historical Association President Eric Foner commented that the 1990s was a "decade of unprecedented public interest in history" and that "overall the study of history is in a healthy state."5 True, but this is not to say that there are still many areas that deserve our continuing attention. Issues and concerns focusing on electronic records, classification/declassification, copyright, the continual need to be vigilant in providing support for federal humanities in general, the ever-increasing emphasis on electronic publishing of scholarly works, changes in policies and practices that affect historians in the museum and cultural resource fields all deserve our thoughtful attention. I especially see a need for putting some renewed emphasis on one of the NCC's original mandates by providing greater emphasis on the "promotion" of history. For example, we should not hesitate to advocate aggressively that the study of history ought to be a key element of schooling at all levels in the United States. We also need to convey a better understanding of the craft of history to other disciplines and the general public. For example, there is a natural affiliation between the historians and journalists, yet we rarely have an opportunity to engage in extended dialogs about issues common to our respective professions. To this end, I'm pleased that the NCC will be assisting in the design of a conference that seeks to bring greater understanding and interaction between the practitioners of both professions.6

Just as the quality of historical scholarship is not dependent on the politics of the historian, so the quality of historical advocacy is not dependent on the politics of its practitioners. Within the NCC there is room for the expression of diverse ideas and viewpoints about the state of the profession today and the direction that it ought to move in the future. As long as we maintain respect for the canons of the craft, respect for our differing methodologies, and respect and toleration for differing viewpoints within the profession, we will be able to build and strengthen our various historical organizations and effectively communicate our needs and desires to Congress. Our goal in advocacy is not necessarily always to reach consensus (a near impossibility given the politics of history), but rather to strengthen the community as a whole by emphasizing what we do share in common with legislators and the public: a love of the craft of history.

1. In November 1988, in order to stop a commercial development, historic preservationists convinced the U.S. Congress of the historic significance of a tract of land adjacent to the Manassas National Battlefield. Congress seized the land th rough the mechanism known as a "legislative taking." Eventually the developer was compensated with a hefty $134 million settlement. On a positive note, the fight over the Williams Center Mall served as the catalyst for the National Park Services battlefie ld initiative. See Joan M. Zenzen, Battling for Manassas: The Fifty-Year Preservation Story at Manassas National Battlefield Park (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998) and Georgie Boge and Margie Holder Boge, Paving Over the Past: A History and Guide to Civil War Battlefield Preservation (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 1993).
Bruce Craig was recently appointed executive director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, succeeding Dr. Page Putnam Miller. He received his Ph.D. in American History from The American University (Washington, D.C.) in 1999 . Previously he held various positions with the National Park Service and served as executive director of several conservation organizations. From 1985 to 1994 he worked for the National Parks and Conservation Association, including service as director of conservation programs. He is also a past recipient of several awards including the Natural Resource Council of America's "Outstanding Achievement Award for Policy Activities."

2. In November 1993, the Disney Corporation announced plans for a $650 million theme park on 3,000 acres near Haymarket, Virginia. Disney claimed the park would attract 5 million tourists each year, bringing 19,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in much-needed tax revenue to the region. Anti-growth preservationists and historians soon formed Preserve Historic America with the objective of persuading Disney to locate the park elsewhere. Eventually a coalition of preservationists and historians did "Rout the Rodent." See ibid.; see also Otis L. Graham Jr. "Learning Together: Disney and the Historians," The Public Historian 16, no. 4 (Fall 1994): 5­8.
3. See "Go Away, Disney," Says Marchers" in The Civil War News (November 1994): 66.
4. While the NCC was created in the mid-1970s in response to the job crisis in the historical profession, by 1982 the emphasis of the organization had shifted to providing advocacy for the historical, archival, and library professions. See Page Miller's essay, "Advocacy on Behalf of History: Reflections on the Past Twenty Years" included in this issue of The Public Historian, pp. 39­49.

5. Eric Foner, "Historians Today: Pleasures, Prospects, and Predicaments," AHA Perspectives (January 2000): 1.
6.Presently in its initial planning phase, an interdisciplinary conference, "Contested Places: From the Civil War to the Cold War," is tentatively scheduled to take place in 2002. One of the principal objectives of the conference is to engage journalists in discussion about the nature of historical analysis and historical evidence, and to explore how historical scholarship can reach beyond the classroom.


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The Public Historian, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 7174
(Spring 2000). ISSN: 0272-3433
© 2000 by the Regents of the University of California and the
National Council on Public History. All rights reserved.
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