Controversial Historian In McCain's Orbit

A recent New York Times article about John McCain's growing "kitchen cabinet," contained a piece of information that might have been meaningless to many American readers, but resonated strongly with most British ones.

According to a McCain aide, the article said, one of the senator's unofficial advisors as he ponders a possible run for the White House is the British-born Harvard historian Niall Ferguson.

Though relatively unknown in the United States, Ferguson is a controversial figure in the United Kingdom, where he continues to spend much of his time. Ferguson has been besieged by critics and admirers in Britain ever since the publication of his 2003 book "Empire" and its companion TV series.

For some time, much of Britain has regarded its imperial history with a mixture of shame and embarrassment. Indeed, the prominent think-tank, Demos, once suggested that Queen Elizabeth II ought to be forced on "a world tour to apologize for the past sins of Empire."

Ferguson stepped into this environment of national hand-wringing and self-hatred with a shocking proposition -- that the British Empire should be regarded, like any empire, in a broad historical context. To even greater uproar, he suggested that it might actually have been of some global merit in that it helped spread democratic values around the world.

The public was enormously divided. To fans, Ferguson seemed a brave challenger of taboos, willing to take on issues most British citizens instinctively shy away from. To critics, he came across as a vile historical revisionist, an apologist for imperial crimes, and possibly just a poseur, adopting controversial positions solely for the sake of fame.

Indeed, theatre-going New Yorkers may have already encountered this take on Ferguson: He is widely regarded as the inspiration for the central character in Alan Bennett's drama, "The History Boys." This still-running Tony Award winner revolves around the recollections of fictional character, Tom Irwin, an amoral TV historian turned amoral political aide, famed for his willingness to argue the unthinkable.

And while many in Britain would raise eyebrows at the news McCain may be consulting with Ferguson, even in only a casual way, the link has received relatively little attention in America -- although certainly, anyone who has seen the Bennett play might think that life is imitating art.

Writing on andrewsullivan.com in the eponymous blogger's absence, David Wiegel worried about what Ferguson's influence might mean for a possible McCain presidency. Wiegel called Ferguson a "foaming-at-the-mouth 'national greatness conservative.' " His piece concluded that, "a president with Niall Ferguson at his shoulder is a president who'll stretch our military even thinner across the globe."

This concern has been echoed by the London-based columnist Johann Hari, who wrote that Ferguson had been positioning himself to become "court historian to the imperial American hard right."

But are these conclusions fair? After all, as the prominent British historian Tristram Hunt observed, "You don't become a Harvard professor without being a historian of substance." Ferguson does indeed have highly regarded and nuanced works to his name, even while entering into some controversial areas of discussion and study.

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