We are all witnesses to history. After all, what is history but a record of events during the passing of time, of things that are happening now but that become the past as soon as it isn’t now. Just because things happened in the past doesn’t mean they ever really go away, never entirely away. As William Faulkner famously put it in “Requiem for a Nun,” “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Just to take a not quite so random example, consider the current mess that is the Middle East, a mess that we’ve been witnessing daily, most of us from the sidelines, for most of our lives. One could understandingly say that it most directly is a byproduct of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, but that’s not really the beginning. Certainly, one could say it started with the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11. Go back further. Go to the Iranian Revolution or, earlier, to the installation of the Shah; go to the creation of the state of Israel and the wars that followed; go back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the dividing up of the Middle East by the Allied victors in WWI; go back to the 1853 Crimean War; go back to the Crusades. You could go back to ancient Rome, ancient Greece, ancient Egypt. How far back do you want to go? All these events, all the events in between, have echoes in the present moment, all contribute to the present moment. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
High school was where I first became interested in history and politics, precursors to my career. I witnessed my first political campaign (an off-year mayoral election in New York City) as a 9th grader, a class that required me to go to campaign rallies, read campaign platforms, try to interview candidates and voters.
Even now, I think back to the events I have witnessed that still reverberate through time. In 1944, I helped my grandfather put pins into a map of Europe marking the advance of the Allies after the invasion of Normandy. I remember afternoons after school sitting at our dining room table watching the Army-McCarthy hearings; sitting in a video editing room and taking time out to watch the Watergate hearings and later the Iran-Contra Hearings all before and during my long career in TV journalism. In my job, I was privileged to be a professional witness at other events, meaning that I was doing my job. I traveled to hot spots around the world: Nicaragua, Panama, Iran, Libya, South Africa, Rhodesia, along with Russia, England and France. I’ve heard the crackle of gunfire, been confronted at gunpoint, taken some foolhardy risks. And I traveled to almost every state in the U.S., doing my job.
What I saw, what I and my colleagues witnessed in our travels, be it the thousands of people living in cardboard boxes along a highway during the revolution in Nicaragua or the top Little League pitcher in Phoenix, Arizona, whose parents insisted she give up her baseball dreams because they weren’t appropriate for a girl, became things that you, too, witnessed.
What I did professionally, we all do on a daily basis in our lives. We, too, see and/or read news of the wider world but we also see what happens around us, what happens to family, friends and neighbors, what happens in our jobs and in our towns. We are witnesses to it all and it all is history as soon as it happens. Even more, in our own lives we are acutely aware that “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
What has brought this to mind, at least at this moment, is Samantha Power’s autobiography, “The Education of an Idealist.” If you don’t remember who she is, most famously she was Obama’s last UN ambassador. An Irish immigrant to the U.S.A. as a child, she became a classic overachiever, whether it be as a student or basketball player, someone who had a hard time knowing when to stop. Becoming passionately involved in the Bosnian civil war, she traveled there as a stringer, a freelance journalist, selling stories about what she witnessed to whoever would buy them. She wrote a book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” a study of America’s response (or lack of one) to genocides around the world in the previous 100 or so years. Aside from it winning a Pulitzer Prize, no one inside the government or outside, civilian or military, Republican or Democrat, had ever undertaken such a study. Her work led to her becoming a foreign policy adviser to Obama, then a member of the NSC, and, finally, the UN ambassador.
The real subject of the book is about the transition from witness and activist to policy maker and policy implementer. Or as she might put it, between advocating and getting stuff done. Or, to give it a specific example in which she was involved, between telling the world about the Ebola epidemic and playing a vital role in getting the nations of the world to join together to intervene—to help control the epidemic as it was beginning to spread. If you cannot save everyone, save who you can even if it’s just one person. If you can’t solve the big problem, solve a small one. As a government official, her motto always was, “Get S**t Done.”
As I’m sure you can tell, I’m an unabashed admirer of her and of this book. It is intensely personal and sometimes quite moving. It also is filled with interesting discussions of policies, both successful and unsuccessful, including the aforementioned Ebola crisis, the response to the use of Sarin in Syria’s civil war, the Darfour genocide, the Libyan civil war, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Above all, now that I’m retired and no longer a professional witness to our world, the book made me think about this business of being, in my daily life, a witness to the world around me. What I do, of course, is write these columns and readers take from them what they will. Then again, even if retired, I’m just doing what I’ve done my entire life, just on a smaller scale. If at one time I could count my audience in the millions, it is now much smaller. But we, all of us, do what we do. I write columns. Perhaps you’re a volunteer fireman or a volunteer in a hospital, help in a homeless shelter on Thanksgiving—any of a thousand things — or, even, simply do your job, whatever it may be. We do what we can, what we feel able to do once we’ve taken care of the most immediate responsibilities of our lives, the care and feeding of ourselves and our families. Samantha Power had a coffee mug as did everyone on her staff. On it were stamped the letters “GSD.” Get S**t Done. A pretty good motto for all of us.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.