Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman: Interviewed on C-SPAN
By Bonnie Goodman
Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an Assistant Editor at HNN.
Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman said on C-Span’s “Q&A” that they welcomed the recent press coverage concerning the liberal accusation that as Republicans they are pushing forth a conservative ideological agenda through their involvement with the New-York Historical Society, and specifically, last fall’s Alexander Hamilton exhibit. “Frankly, I didn’t mind any of the publicity, because the New-York Historical Society has been sort of a back number” was Gilder’s comment. “You know,” he continued, “it’s right next to the American Museum of Natural History, that has millions of visitors a year. I’m a trustee there too, so I know the numbers.” Later on he added: “You want to come at it and say, ‘Well, ours is a great story of communism,’ fine. As Arthur Schlesinger [a member of their advisory board] said, the only way you can overcome a bad idea is with a good idea. So, we’ll have lots more controversy, discussion. We’ll bet on the great American story.” In an interview on June 26, 2005 on the C-Span program “Q&A,” hosted by Brian Lamb, Gilder and Lehrman, the co-founders of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, discussed topics ranging from their first meeting, to the founding of the institute in New York in 1994, and its various programs that promote the study of American History. Gilder dominated the interview. Despite recent controversy the interview however, was rather tame, friendly, and nostalgic.
Highlights of the interview included their personal anecdotes about their meeting, reminisces of studying at Yale, and their family backgrounds. Gilder and Lehrman were perhaps most comfortable and relaxed discussing these issues, and enjoyed especially reminiscing about Yale. Gilder described their meeting as eventually leading to “the beginning of just a great friendship.” Lehrman emphasized his patriotic roots “And I can tell a story about my grandfather that I think is – tells the kind of background I – that I did come from – a patriotic, unselfconscious, unapologetic American commitment…. I was thinking of making a European trip to see all about European culture. My grandfather was scandalized. What would you ever want to do going to Europe? I mean, everything is here in America. This is the new Jerusalem. This is a place that has everything that you need and everything that you can see.” While Gilder spoke fondly of Yale “I was just brought up by my father to love Yale. I mean, he never said a word – that I had to apply or should apply. But, you know, in class of ’25, he was a bit of an outsider, being a Jewish guy, in those days. Although there were still good number, but nothing like as many as when I was there – maybe eight percent, nine, percent when I was there. But he loved the place.”
Gilder, who comes from a Jewish family that emigrated to the U.S. in the 1830s, bears more of the financial burden of the institute. Lehrman, whose family were East European Jewish immigrants who arrived in the 1880s, apparently takes a more active role in designing the institute’s strategy. In a friendly way they poked fun at their ancestral differences. Lehrman chided Gilder that ” unlike Dick’s well-heeled Bohemian immigrants, mine were penniless.” Gilder retorted that ” I was a legacy [at Yale] …. Lew had to work to get in.”
When Lamb asked about the controversial Alexander Hamilton exhibit, he was direct without being aggressive: “The criticism that I read, that you two wanted to engineer a – the Hamilton exhibit for purposes to further your own political beliefs because Hamilton represents you more, say, than some of the other people in history. Start with that. What’s your reaction when you read that criticism?” Responding, Gilder and Lehrman, apparently a little uncomfortable, frequently began using hand motions while speaking. Lehrman avoided Lamb’s initial question by just discussing Hamilton’s important place in history and Gilder justified their decision: “we believe that, first, the New-York Historical Society, being established in 1804, Alexander Hamilton having been killed in a duel in 1804, and the New -York Historical Society inaugurating its 200th anniversary, it was perfect.”
Lamb then questioned, “Why is it that college professors are allowed to say and write anything they want to about history, but when somebody like you gets into it, there’s automatic criticism for your particular views?” Gilder said, “I can’t answer the question, because it’s a tough – I hate any tough questions, you know that.” In response to a question about the institute’s alleged rightward bias, Gilder pointed out that the advisory board included “lots of folks on all sides of the political spectrum, probably more left than right.” And Lehrman clarified that if scholars funded by the institute have “a point of view which is different from mine or different from Dick’s, as David Brion Davis, the historian and professor of history said, ‘Not a single person in the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History programs has ever received either a direct or an indirect influence from either of us.’ “
The remaining portion of the C-Span interview discussed the various programs at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, basic information about the institute, the collection, endowments, especially educational initiatives such as their history high school and American History Teaching programs. The interview focused on the institute’s budget, and the awards and prizes, including the history of the Lincoln Prize based at Gettysburg College, the Douglass prize and the newly inaugurated Washington Prize.
Lamb, wanting to liven up the interview, asked about the possibility of dissidents in the institute’s programs, specifically the history high school initiative: “But do you run into the possibility that a teacher says, out in a high school, ‘I don’t need Gilder Lehrman to tell me how to teach history?’ ” Lehrman responded, “I think I have received two or three letters in the entire history of our programs where there have been objections to the way that we’ve gone about it.”
Lamb returned several times to the Hamilton controversy, hoping to coax more opinions from his interviewees. Both Gilder and Lehrman, however, remained cool and focused on what they viewed as the important issues: the institute and its accomplishments in promoting American history. Lamb at ont point asked if there was some connection between the fact that Ron Chernow, the admiring biographer of Hamilton, won “your new Washington Prize from Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, $50,000.” “What would you both say to the cynics watching saying, “Well of course these two guys would like Alexander Hamilton or Henry Clay or Abraham Lincoln because they both have really done very well in this system and they’re able, now, just to push through history their basic thoughts of it.” Lehrman coolly responded, that “they set the example for us. I mean, Lincoln, in – he sets the example for us.”
In the concluding remarks of a rather uncontroversial interview Lamb wanted Gilder and Lehrman to point out the favorite aspects of their work. For Lehrman it was purely academic; “whenever I teach the subject, for example, the Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian conflicts of the 1790s, General Washington’s – President Washington’s first presidency – whenever I’m teaching the subject, I find it inspiring.” While for Gilder it was the business aspect; “Well, right now, I’m wildly excited about the combination of the Gilder and Lehrman Institute and the New-York Historical Society. We have two different missions, but both focused on history. And Lew and I are working now, very hard, on the Historical Society, because Jim and Lesley and our team at GLI have done such a dandy job. There our job is to get out of the way, whereas here, our job is to get in the way. I like to get in the way.”