My Turn: History is watching all of us

  • Republican Sens. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin (left) and Styles Bridges of New Hampshire talk in a Senate anteroom on March 25, 1953. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 2/20/2020 6:30:43 AM

One of the first documentaries I produced was a biography of Styles Bridges, a U.S. senator from New Hampshire. Few people in 2020 know much about him, but he represented New Hampshire in the Senate for 24 years.

Today, he is remembered for the Bridges House in East Concord, official residence of New Hampshire’s governor. And if you are really astute you may know that the stretch of Interstate 93 between Exit 15 and the Vermont border is named the Styles Bridges Highway. There is much that could be said, both good and bad, about Bridges, but that is not my mission here.

One of the people interviewed for the documentary was Jim Kiepper, who grew up in Hopkinton and was a professor at SUNY Albany. He also became Bridges’s primary historian and eventually (or you could say, “finally”) published a biography of the senator.

Jim’s passion started when he was asked by Bridges’s widow, Deloris, to catalog the boxes and boxes of papers, scrapbooks and photos Bridges left when he died in 1961. This made Jim the Styles Bridges expert and central go-to, so a most important person to include in any documentary about the senator.

But Jim Kiepper had also become what might be termed a member of the Styles Bridges Fan Club. This was a coterie of people who had worked with Bridges over the years and saw him, or had come to remember him, as something more than perhaps he was.

This is not to diminish Bridges or his accomplishments, which are many. But the fan club, as with any fan club, tended to dismiss the less noble aspects of Bridges’s persona. For instance, the boxes of cash that were said to be found at Bridges’s house when he died, his support for Sen. Joseph McCarthy, things like that. The term “rose-colored glasses” comes to mind here.

For example, reflecting on Bridges’s early years in the Senate, Jim made it clear that Styles was a man of the time and always on the right side of history. To make the point, he said Bridges was an early supporter of American intervention in World War II. I even used that sound bite in the documentary as an example of Styles Bridges, the visionary.

A few years later, while researching another documentary project at the National Archives in Washington, I came across a film clip of Bridges from 1939, commenting on President Roosevelt’s actions to support Great Britain after Germany invaded Poland. His words ran counter to the rose-colored glasses perspective.

Shaking his finger at the camera, a young Styles Bridges said: “The question before the American people today is do they want peace or war. I believe they want peace, and the surest way to get peace is to mind our own business.”

Clearly, Sen. Styles Bridges was not an early supporter of United States involvement in what at that moment was a European conflict. Apparently to him, a Republican, it was more important to attack the Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, and line up with isolationists like Charles Lindberg and Henry Ford.

Time and history have shown the error in that thinking. Looking back, the heroes of that moment were those who supported America getting in the fight against fascism and the horrors of Nazi Germany.

Who can blame Jim Kiepper for wanting his man on the right side of history? We all want to be on that side. We all want to look back with pride at what we believed in and how we acted, the causes we fought for.

Who wants to be remembered for supporting Hitler, or slavery, opposing the idea of Social Security, questioning the Civil Rights Movement, or any number of issues that in their time were controversial and divisive? When the controversy has long since faded and what remains is the rightness of the cause, everyone wants to be on the side of that rightness. Or they want to believe that they would have been, had they had the chance.

We all want to be on the right side of history, nothing new about that. In December 1862, President Abraham Lincoln invoked that sentiment in his message to the Congress: “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”

How appropriate those words seem for this moment in history, this moment that we are all a part of.

How will we be judged when the history of this year – these four years, this disaster of a president – is accurately and clearly recorded and set down? Will you need to put on the rose-colored glasses?

Hopefully you will point proudly to the rightness of your actions, the rightness of what you believed and how you responded. Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.

(John Gfroerer of Concord owns a video production company based at the Capitol Center for the Arts.)

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