History Buzz May 15, 2013: Historian Robert Dallek on President Barack Obama & the 2nd Presidential Term Curse


History Buzz


Historian Robert Dallek on Obama and the 2nd-term curse

Source: USA Today, 5-15-13

In this episode of Capital Download, This Week with Susan Page, award-winning presidential historian Robert Dallek talks about the difficult week President Obama has faced and how this could be an example of the second-term “curse.


Historian Robert Dallek discussed the second-term curse with USA TODAY.(Photo: Garrett Hubbard for USA TODAY)

Is there a second-term curse? Historian Robert Dallek thinks there just might be — and President Obama’s current travails could be the latest example.

“After one party loses two elections in a row, there’s sort of blood in the water,” Dallek said in an interview Wednesday on USA TODAY’s weekly newsmaker video series, Capital Download. “They’re really eager to strike back and reduce the influence, the control of second-term presidents.” What’s more, a president’s shortcomings have had time to surface after four years in office….READ MORE

History Buzz August 15, 2012: David Greenberg: NJ Gov. Chris Christie Cannot be a Bully in Republican Convention Keynote Speech


History Buzz


Gov. Christie cannot be a bully in keynote speech

Source: Rutgers Today, 8-15-12

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been tapped as the keynote speaker for the Republican convention later this month. It’s a high profile slot that can sometimes make or break a political career. David Greenberg, associate professor of history and journalism and media studies in the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, said Christie will have to adapt his rhetoric to fill the role of statesman at the convention. Greenberg studies the American presidency and its reflection in the media and popular culture. He is author of Nixon’s Shadow: the History of an Image, Presidential Doodles and Calvin Coolidge. He is presently working on a book about the history of political spin….READ MORE

History Buzz May 10, 2012: Robert Caro: LBJ’s ‘Passage of Power’: The Transformation of a ‘Legislative Genius’


History Buzz


Robert Caro: The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4

LBJ’s ‘Passage of Power’: The Transformation of a ‘Legislative Genius’

Source: PBS Newshour, 5-10-12


Historian Robert Caro has spent nearly four decades telling the story of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Gwen Ifill and Caro discuss the pivotal four years between 1960 and 1964 when Johnson rose from senator to an overshadowed vice president, and then to president — the premise of his latest biography, “The Passage of Power.”


JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally tonight, the unfolding drama of a political figure at a key turning point in American history.

Gwen Ifill has our conversation.

GWEN IFILL: Historian Robert Caro has spent nearly four decades telling the story of a single man, former President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The fourth hefty volume in his series of biographies is “The Passage of Power.” It covers the pivotal four years between 1960 and 1964, as Johnson rose from senator to vice president then, through the stunning tragedy of the Kennedy assassination, to president.

And there is yet a fifth volume to come.

Robert Caro joins me now.

Thank you.

ROBERT CARO, author: Nice to be here.

GWEN IFILL: It seems like this is a book about transformation.

ROBERT CARO: Yes, the transformation of Lyndon Johnson at the beginning of it is the mighty Senate majority leader, the most powerful majority leader in history.

He descends to the pit of the vice presidency and three years of humiliation. And then, in a single crack of a gunshot, it’s all reversed, and he’s president of the United States.

GWEN IFILL: You use that term crack of a gunshot throughout the book. It seems like that that is the running theme.

ROBERT CARO: Well, you know, and the people who are in — when you ask John Connally, for example, he says: Everyone else thought it was a motorcycle backfire or a firecracker. But I was a hunter all my life. I knew it was the crack of a hunting rifle.

So does the Secret Service agent in Johnson’s car. At the moment the gunshot fire — sounds, he sees President Kennedy two cars above start to fall to the left. He whirls around, he grabs Lyndon Johnson’s shoulder, throws him down to the floor of the car, leaps over the backseat, and lays on top of him — Johnson was later to say, “I will never forget his knees in my back and his elbows in my back” — and shields Johnson’s body with his own as they’re racing to Parkland Hospital.

GWEN IFILL: This moment, this transformative moment in our history, happened just at a time when Lyndon Johnson was his most miserable in his entire public career as vice president.

ROBERT CARO: He was telling his aides to find other jobs. He said, I’m finished. Go with somebody else.

GWEN IFILL: And it’s possible that Kennedy thought he was finished, too.

ROBERT CARO: Well, it certainly was starting to look like that might be more of a possibility.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk a little bit about his relationship with the Kennedys.

Garry Wills wrote one of the reviews of this book. And he described the book as a moral disquisition on the nature of hatred.

ROBERT CARO: Well, you know, there are three strong personalities, Lyndon Johnson, Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy.

Lyndon Johnson despises Jack Kennedy. When he’s the Senate majority leader, Kennedy is a young senator. Johnson said of him, he’s pathetic. He was pathetic as a senator. He didn’t even know how to address the chair. He used to mock him. He used to literally call him not a man’s man. He said — he used to say to people, you know how skinny his ankles are? And he’d hold up his fingers like this.

He doesn’t realize. He thinks he’s going to have the Democratic nomination in 1960. He doesn’t realize that this young senator for whom he has no respect really is a great politician and is racing around the country corralling delegates, impressing people, and taking the nomination away from him. By the time Johnson wakes up, it’s really too late.

GWEN IFILL: And that his little brother, who eventually was considered really — the real number two when President Kennedy was president, even though he was attorney general, that he would be undercutting him at every turn. At least, that’s the way Johnson saw it.

ROBERT CARO: Bobby Kennedy, you know, you hate to use words as a historian like hatred, but hatred isn’t too strong a word to describe the relationship between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. They hated each other.

Robert Kennedy said of Lyndon Johnson after his brother was killed, he said — he never would call Johnson president. So when he uses the word president, it’s his brother. He said, my president was a gentleman and a human being. This man is not. He’s mean, bitter, vicious, an animal in many ways.

GWEN IFILL: An animal.

There were two episodes right around the assassination between them, one in — when — actually when Lyndon Johnson call Robert Kennedy to ask if it was okay to get sworn in, in Dallas, and the other when Bobby Kennedy arrived at Air Force One when the plane landed in Washington.

ROBERT CARO: That telephone call, you know, is one of the things that when you learn about it, you’re really sad. I mean it’s a moment you can hardly understand.

Robert Kennedy is sitting by the swimming pool at Hickory Hill, his place in Virginia. Suddenly, he sees a workman painting the house clap a transistor radio to his ear and come running down toward the pool. At the same moment, the telephone rings on the table by him. And Ethel, his wife, picks it up. And it’s J. Edgar Hoover to tell Robert Kennedy that his brother has been shot.

Less than an hour later, the man that Robert Kennedy hated is on the phone to him asking the formalities of how he assumes his brother’s power. The secretary who took down the oath, Johnson asked Robert Kennedy for the wording of the oath.

You know Kennedy — he could have asked any one of a hundred people for that. And the secretary — Kennedy has Nicholas Katzenbach, his deputy, give him the oath. I asked the secretary, a woman name Marie Fehmer, who still lives in Washington, you know what it was like. And she says, Katzenbach’s voice was like steel. Bobby wasn’t. He had started. I thought, you shouldn’t be doing this.

GWEN IFILL: Jackie Kennedy was also — we see her in that photograph. And she gave great legitimacy to the passing of power by standing next to Lyndon Johnson when he took that oath. But she had mixed feelings as well about Johnson.

ROBERT CARO: Well, you know, she once wrote to Ted Sorensen after — you must know how frightened my husband was that Lyndon Johnson might become president.

This is really after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the — Johnson was so hawkish in the meetings of the ExComm.

GWEN IFILL: He was hawkish and he was pretty much pushed to the side as well. . .


GWEN IFILL: . . . during that period.


GWEN IFILL: So, let’s keep back on this transformation theme.

So he becomes president through no actions of their own. There’s this boiling resentment. This is this grief which overcomes all of the members of the Kennedy inner circle.


GWEN IFILL: And yet here comes the Texan to take over. And in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, what does he do? He decides to take on civil rights.

ROBERT CARO: Yes. And he says the most important thing we can do is pass the civil rights bill that Jack Kennedy introduced and fought for, for so long.

And he picks up this bill. You know, at the time that Kennedy was assassinated, at the moment he was assassinated, his two top-priority bill, civil rights and tax cuts, are really dead in the water. And Congress — Congress has stopped them. The Southerners control I think it’s nine of the 16 great standing committees of the Senate. They control the Senate absolutely.

The civil rights bill hasn’t even gotten over to the Senate. It’s in the House Rules Committee, which is ruled over by Judge Howard W. Smith of Virginia. And he is refusing even to tell anybody when he will get to have hearings on the civil rights bill.

Johnson — you know, Johnson was a genius. He was a legislative genius. He remembers that a representative, Richard Bolling of Missouri, has introduced the discharge position to take the bill away from Smith’s committee. Now, these petitions seldom go anywhere. And a president is never behind them because it’s challenging all the House prerogative.

Johnson makes a call to Bolling. And you have to say the first half of the call is Johnson saying, I will never interfere with the House prerogatives. Then, he says to Bolling, do you see any way to get this out of committee? Bolling says no. And I wrote in the book, if there was only one lever, Lyndon Johnson was going to push it. And to watch him push that discharge petition through and get the civil rights bill is legislative genius.

GWEN IFILL: It’s the old Lyndon Johnson that we know from “Master of the Senate,” your last book.


GWEN IFILL: And it’s him come back. But — and in it, he also says — you quote him as saying to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian, “I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into the martyr’s cause.”


And he uses the sympathy that people had for Kennedy. That helped him get the bills moving, but none — he also uses his great knowledge of legislative techniques and the secrets of the Senate to get these bills moving.

GWEN IFILL: And in the next book, we will hear about what brought him down. And that’s the war in Vietnam.

ROBERT CARO: Very dark story.

GWEN IFILL: Very dark story.

ROBERT CARO: Sad story.

GWEN IFILL: But we look forward to reading it.

Robert Caro, thank you so much.

ROBERT CARO: Thank you, Gwen.

JEFFREY BROWN: You can find more of Gwen’s interview with Robert Caro, plus photos from his book on our website.

History Buzz February 28, 2012: Christopher Kennedy: Francis Marion University professor shares his love of Irish history with students


History Buzz


Dr. Kennedy shares his love of Irish history with students

Source: Patriot NewsOnline, 2-28-12

C. Kennedy Author Photo

Photo Credit: Photo Contributed

Associate Professor of History Dr. Christopher Kennedy came to FMU in 2006. He has a passion for Irish history in particular.

Dr. Christopher Kennedy, an associate professor of hist-ory, has recently published a book and is currently under contract. He shows his passion for history every day at Francis Marion University.

Kennedy has worked at FMU for six years and moved to South Carolina because he liked the warm weather and the hospitality of the people.

Kennedy is also the faculty adviser of the Phi Alpha Theta, the history honors society on campus, which participates in food sales and lecture series. Phi Alpha Theta has won Best Chapter award from their district for the past two years. Kennedy said that they’re hoping to win again “as a threepeat.”

Kennedy received his degree from the Providence College in Rhode Island and spent four years at the University College Cork in Ireland for his Ph.D.

Kennedy’s greatest accomplishment is his book, “Genesis of the Rising 1912-1916,” on the Easter Rising. This book is sold at Barnes and Nobles and The Patriot Bookstore.

“I’ve stirred up some controversy with my views on the Easter Rising, because I revised the accepted history of it,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy’s second book is also about the Easter Rising but takes a different approach. The book is going through a diary and explaining the history at a more personal level.

2016 is the centennial anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916, and Kennedy hopes to have his second book out by then. It is a continuation of his first book that covers nationalist opinion and the Rising.

“I have been told that there will be major celebrations and academic conferences in Ireland and Dublin to commemorate the Rising,”he said. “I hope to be a part of those events.”…READ MORE

History Buzz February 21, 2012: James Johnson: Unmasking the Past Boston University history professor examines mask-wearing in 18th-century Venice


History Buzz


Unmasking the Past

CAS prof examines mask-wearing in 18th-century Venice

Source: BU Today, 2-21-12
Woman Holding a Mask and a Pomegranate, James Johnson author of book Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic For his new book, James Johnson, a CAS associate professor of history, researched how masks were used by 18th-century Venetians. Woman Holding a Mask and a Pomegranate, Lorenzi Lippi, Musée d’Angers. Courtesy of Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resources, NY

James Johnson is the kind of historian who wants to get inside people’s heads.

In his 1996 book Listening in Paris: A Cultural History, the College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of history, explored what it was like for people 200 years ago to attend concerts and how they experienced music differently from modern audiences. His newest book, Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic (University of California Press, 2011), investigates the subject of identity by focusing on the role that masks played in 18th-century Venice.

“As a historian I’m drawn to the inner experience of people who lived centuries ago,” he says. “That’s very elusive to research. You have to generalize from other clues, such as behavior.”

Why focus on mask-wearing as a way to research people’s ideas of self? Johnson, winner of a 1996 Metcalf Award, one of the University’s highest teaching honors, reasoned that uncovering why people disguised themselves in the past might reveal how they thought about identity. As he writes in the preface to Venice Incognito, he was drawn naturally to Venice, where the tradition of masking dates back to the 13th-century. The city’s history of mask-wearing continues today with Carnevale, the annual festival that begins 58 days before Easter and concludes today, Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday, the last day before Lent.

Modern Carnevale revelers don masks largely for celebratory reasons. But as Johnson found through his research, the 18th-century masks themselves, and the reasons people wore them then, bear little resemblance to the feathered, sequined versions you see on partiers parading through the streets of Venice today.

BU Today spoke to Johnson about his research and his book, which recently won the 2011 George Mosse Prize from the American Historical Association.
Spectators buying tickets outside the theater, James Johnson author of book Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene RepublicVenetians, Johnson found, wore masks six months of the year. Spectators buying tickets outside the theater, Carlo Goldoni, Commedie (1788-95), vol. 21. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University

BU Today: What surprised you most in your research?

Johnson: To learn that Venetians wore masks six months out of the year, from when the theater season started in the fall through Carnevale. Also, they were not wearing masks to disguise themselves or for intrigue or corruption, as people visiting Venice at the time thought. It was a custom, a fashion….READ MORE

History Buzz February 15, 2012: Carla L. Peterson: Answers About Black History in 19th-Century New York, Part 1


History Buzz


Answers About Black History in 19th-Century New York, Part 1

Taking Questions

Source: NYT, 2-15-12
Carla L. Peterson, the author of "Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City."

The author of “Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City,” answers readers’ questions.

Here are the first set of answers to readers’ questions about black life in 19th-century New York City from Carla L. Peterson. Dr. Peterson is an English professor at the University of Maryland and the author of “Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City.” a book now out in paperback from Yale University Press.

Ask a Question »


What educational opportunities were available to children of the black members of the 19th-century middle class? Did members of this group work to secure education opportunities for blacks who were not of the same socioeconomic standing?—Sketco, Cleveland, OH


The article mentions black doctors and pharmacists in New York in the 1800s. Where did they receive their educations? Were there any schools open to them or did they simply work in hospitals and watch what others were doing?—Ed Schwab, Alexandria, VA


In the 1790s the New York Manumission Society established several schools for black children. Its members maintained that education was a necessary component of freedom (despite the fact that several of them were themselves slave owners). These schools were known as African Free Schools, the most famous of which was African Free School No. 2 located on Mulberry Street. This was the school that my great-great-grandfather attended along with several boys who later became prominent leaders of the city’s black community and also worked nationally with men like Frederick Douglass. Until the 1830s, when the city took over their management, these schools offered as good an education as that of other charity schools of the time, probably even better.

Throughout this period, however, New York’s black leaders refused to stay on the sidelines when it came to educating their young. Since poor school attendance was a real problem (how can you send your kids to school in the winter when they have no shoes or overcoats?), black leaders visited homes to see how they could help out. They also established an educational society that set up its own schools, but few of them lasted due to lack of funds.

Getting a higher education was equally difficult. James McCune Smith was denied entrance to U.S. medical schools, so he went to the University of Glasgow medical school (graduating first in his class!). My great-grandfather Philip Augustus White attended the College of Pharmacy of the City of New York, graduating in 1844, even though professional certification in pharmacy was not required at the time. In the 1850s, Peter Williams Ray gained admission to an American medical school, Castleton medical college in Vermont. But when he tried to become a member of the Kings County Medical Society, he was rejected, the argument being that “by science that this was a white man’s Society. … Therefore a colored man could not be admitted.” Yet these black men surmounted the odds and went on to establish successful pharmacy and medical practices….READ MORE

History Buzz February 2, 2012: Tony Judt & Timothy Snyder: How Historians Can Rewrite the Future — Interview with Timothy Snyder on his new book “Thinking the Twentieth Century”


History Buzz


How Historians Can Rewrite the Future

When the noted and controversial scholar Tony Judt fell fatally ill,Yale professor Timothy Snyder stepped forward to write one last book with him. Here, Snyder recalls the collaboration and the legacy Judt left behind.

Source: The Atlantic, 2-2-12


Left, Tony Judt (John R. Rifkin); right, Timothy Snyder (Ine Gundersveen)

“An intellectual by definition is someone temperamentally inclined to rise periodically to the level of general propositions.” Thus spake the great historian and public intellectual Tony Judt, and this is just one of the memorable lines we are lucky enough to have on record in his last, posthumously published work.

For the last few years of his life, Judt suffered from a disease that left him trapped in his own body, eventually unable to write or walk. Famous among non-academics for his erudite and occasionally controversial essays on current affairs in The New York Review of Books and The New Republic, Judt remains a giant in the field of 20th-century history–the author of the definitive Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945–and it was one of his colleagues who had the idea to enable one last literary offering to the world.

From January to July of 2009, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder met with Judt for a series of recorded conversations that would let Judt’s voice communicate to the world what his arms and fingers no longer could. Thinking the Twentieth Century, released February 2 from Penguin, is the product of those discussions. The tome covers far more than, as was originally intended, the British-born, Jewish-raised, and Cambridge-educated Judt’s life and work. It is a breathtakingly pithy exploration of some of the great questions of our time, and what it means to be a historian. The alternately joyous and somber ramble touches on the sex lives of French intellectuals, the dangers of the Holocaust museums, and how high schools should teach the history of the Civil War. Observations about the modern media and the English language emerge amidst a provocative reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as we know it today.

Ultimately, the immensely quotable dialogue, whether you agree with the positions or not, is an argument in hard copy that words matter–that, to quote the equally quotable playwright Tom Stoppard, with words “you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos,” and “if you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.”

To get a better sense of how this book came into being, and the concerns motivating its authors, we spoke by phone with Timothy Snyder….READ MORE

History Buzz November 9, 2011: Q&A Historian Jay Rubenstein


History Buzz



Source: Knoxville Metro Pulse, 11-9-11

Q&A: Historian Jay Rubenstein

photo by John Black

University of Tennessee history professor and MacArthur Fellow Jay Rubenstein’s new book, Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse, is a detailed account of the First Crusade and an analysis of the religious and political conditions in Europe that led to the great 1095 pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a cataclysmic event in world history. It’s also a bloody, violent tale of adventure and intrigue. And it’s got a jacket blurb by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, the director of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and a series of BBC documentaries on medieval life.

What’s the intended audience for this book? It’s obviously scholarly, but kind of popular, too.

I tried to write it with as wide an appeal as possible. Because of the MacArthur Fellowship, I had a chance to tell a story that would appeal to a scholarly audience but also be able to reach a general audience as well. That’s one of the luxuries of writing about a topic like the Crusades.

What made you want to write this particular book, tell this particular story?

I didn’t expect to really write a book about this story when I started. I was going to do two or three scholarly papers on the Crusades, and perhaps an article. I wanted to do it to fill out a lacuna in my earlier research. I’d done a biography of a monk named Guibert, who had written a Crusade chronicle, but I didn’t have time to deal with it as fully as I wanted to. The more research I did, the more I realized that there was still a lot of potential for new angles on the Crusades story, in particular the apocalyptic angle, which I didn’t expect to do at all when I started….READ MORE

History Interviews October 10, 2011: David McCullough 4 lessons “We are what we read”


History Buzz



“We are what we read”: 4 lessons from David McCullough

Source: CS Monitor, 10-10-11


Temp Headline Image

David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author – most recently – of “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” imparted words of wisdom to a sold-out crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall last week. Here are four pieces of advice from McCullough.

1.”Understand the past.”

List Item Image
The language of Shakespeare and Cervantes helped to shape the way that we speak today, 400 years later.

“Nothing of consequence is ever accomplished alone. America is a joint effort,” insisted the author of “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” “1776,”John Adams,” and seven other books. “There’s no such thing as a self-made man or self-made woman.”

Parents, teachers, friends, enemies, and even people we never knew affect our everyday lives, successes, and failures. The writers of the books we read particularly influence us. McCullough pointed out how truisms promulgated by Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes some 400 years ago inhabit our everyday language today.

“We are what we read,” McCullough said. “We get our ideas from what we read. So it’s extremely important when we try to understand the past, and the characters of the past, to not only read what they wrote, but to read what they read.”

2.“Keep a diary.”

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McCullough has used the personal hand-written artifacts of abolitionist and former US Senator Charles Sumner, among many others, as part of his research.

“Nobody writes letters anymore, and very few people keep diaries,” lamented McCullough, though then he joked, “And people in the public life wouldn’t dare keep dairies. They’d be subpoenaed.”

The historian used the personal hand-written artifacts of Charles Sumner, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Roosevelt, and countless others to research his books. Perhaps he’s just old-fashioned – McCullough still uses a manual typewriter to pen his books – but a lot of his work really doesn’t involve technology such as the Internet, he said. Many of the original letters and journals by our nation’s early founders and thinkers aren’t available from a home computer, rather, they’ve been scanned on microfilm and housed in libraries.

“If any of you are interested in immortality, start keeping a diary,” McCullough quipped. Then, when you feel your days are numbered, donate it to your favorite library. “It will be quoted for hundreds of years by future historians, because it will be the only diary [of our era].”

3.Remember: “Nothing ever happened in the past. It happened in the present.”

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McCullough says that Abigail Adams’ letters help to remind us that “there were no simpler times.”

The master historian reminds us that there is no limit to what we can learn from studying our past, but, he said, it’s important to remember a few principles when studying the subject:

“Nothing ever happened in the past. It happened in the present. Somebody else’s present.” McCullough used an example to illustrate his point: “I’m always annoyed when I hear people talking about the past and they say, ‘Well, that was a simpler time.’ Nonsense, there were no simpler times.”

In fact, our ancestors most likely had is much worse than us. “Abigail Adams wrote that future generations will scarcely be able to imagine the suffering and hardships of their forbearers,” quoted McCullough.

4.Read these books.

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McCullough mentioned Michael Shaara’s outstanding Civil War novel “The Killer Angels” as a book everyone should read.

When an audience member asked McCullough to list “three books everyone should read,” the author hesitated. “It’s an impossible question.”

After a moment of deliberation, he declared Michael Shaara’s Gettysburg story “The Killer Angels,” “a good biography of George Washington” (perhaps Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life” or “His Excellency: George Washington” by Joseph Ellis would fit the bill), and “Tender Is The Night” by F. Scott Fitzgerald as his impromptu top three.

The books reflect “important people and times to know about,” said the author. Of course, he added, everyone should read his books too.

History Interviews David McCullough: Author & historian has Americans reading U.S. history


History Buzz


JACQUELYN MARTIN / Associated Press

Author David McCullough, in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., said one finds the purest forms of history in art.

Source: Sacremento Bee, 10-10-11

Few authors have done more to popularize American history than David McCullough. Not only has the historian-lecturer made it more accessible than ever, he has made it sing.

Take his bestselling 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning “John Adams,” for instance. The biography of the prickly founding father had a first printing of 350,000, a staggering number for a history book and a tribute to McCullough’s stature. In 2008, the HBO miniseries “John Adams” took home a load of awards, including three Golden Globes.

“The pre-eminent master of narrative history,” as he is known, has cast an unusual eye on the American landscape for his subjects: the youth of Theodore Roosevelt (“Mornings on Horseback”), the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge (“The Great Bridge”), the marvel of the Panama Canal (“The Path Between the Seas”), the dam failure that destroyed a town (“The Johnstown Flood”). More mainstream were “Truman,” “1776″ and “John Adams.”

Along the way, McCullough has collected two National Book Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and two Francis Parkman Prizes from the American Society of Historians.

Now comes “The Greater Journey” (Simon & Schuster, $37.50, 576 pages), chronicling how life in Paris helped shape the achievements of hundreds of Americans who lived there between 1830 and 1900.

“His books are wonderful contributions to the public discourse, and they bring a lot of people into thinking about areas of history they might not otherwise have,” said Eric Rauchway. He is both a history professor at the University of California, Davis, and the author of five books, including “The Great Depression and the New Deal” (Oxford University Press, $11.95, 160 pages).

“McCullough benefits tremendously from academic history, and in turn he gives a lot back by putting forth bold theses that academics sometimes must reckon with. Such as whether building the Panama Canal was a good idea,” Rauchway said. “Beyond that, he serves a valuable role in terms of talking to the public sphere about the uses of history.”

I caught up with McCullough, 78, by phone at his Boston home. He and his wife, Rosalee, have five children and 18 grandchildren.

Where did the idea for “The Greater Journey” originate?

When Gene Kelly starred in “An American in Paris,” that really got to me. I imagined myself as a painter in Paris (McCullough is a part-time artist.), with all the beautiful girls interested in me.

Many years later in Paris, I wanted to show that history is much more than just politics and the military. The idea that I could concentrate on painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, medicine and the world of ideas was more of a draw than just the setting.

Why was Paris a magnet to Americans of that era?

It was the cultural capital of the world, with a high standard of education you could not get here. If you wanted to be better than you were, Paris was the place to go.

Who are two of the Americans you write about?

Samuel F.B. Morse went to Paris to perfect himself as a painter but got the idea for the telegraph. Another was Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., a poet and essayist. He decided to become a physician and was so affected by (his teachers in Paris) that he came back and taught at the Harvard Medical School.

Are we Americans losing touch with our own history?

Yes, we are, because we’re doing a grossly inadequate job of teaching history to our children and grandchildren. I’ve lectured at more than 100 universities and have seen (an ignorance of history) everywhere. What (students) don’t know is sometimes almost humorous. It’s not their fault, it’s ours. We need to do a better job of teaching the teachers.

Your best advice to students?

Read everything, and try to read a little above what you think is your level. Read the classics, they’re damn good.

Do you watch the History Channel?

I don’t have time for TV, though once in awhile I’ll watch “The American Experience” on PBS (which he hosted for 12 years). My spirit plummets when I read that the average daily time spent watching TV in American households is seven hours.

Don’t history-related TV shows give the subject some exposure?

Sure, they’re better than the drivel that’s on. But the way to get people involved in history is to get them reading original letters, diaries and autobiographies. There’s a wonderful literature of history, too, (including) “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara, about the Battle of Gettysburg. And the World War II novels by Herman Wouk are superb (“The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance”).

It’s said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

I’m not sure that’s true. Harry Truman said the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know. I think that’s a better quote.

It’s also said that history is written by the victors.

That’s a vast oversimplification, but, yes, history does change in perspective as time goes on. All history is revisionist history because we know what followed. Otherwise, why write it?

Where do we find the purest forms of history?

Architecture is a very pure one, and so are painting and music. For some civilizations, all we have of their histories is their art.

History is the human experience. It’s about people, not just facts and figures. One of the most effective history teachers I had in college would not hold us (students) accountable for any (historic) dates. He said, “That’s what books are for, you can look them up.” It was as if he had told me I could put on a pair of wings and fly. It released me to really start to enjoy history.

As a writer, which is more satisfying – the research or the writing?

The writing is what I take more to heart because it’s the part that’s all up to me. The research is like being on a detective case.

When I write, it’s as if I go into this other time and place, as if I’m under a spell. In many ways, the (research subjects) become more real to me than the people I know in life, because I know so much more about them. In real life, you don’t get to read other people’s mail.

If you could time-travel back to historical era?

I would love to come back here to Boston in the years just before the Civil War, the late 1850s. I would like to see the abolitionist movement in full gear, and some of the intellectual life that was going on. I would love to meet people like (poet Henry Wadsworth) Longfellow and (poet-essayist Ralph Waldo) Emerson. And hang out in a good bar and soak up some of the stories the Irish were bringing in.

What will history have to say about you?

I hope it will say, “He tried his hardest.”

History Buzz September 15, 2011: Michael Beschloss: Jacqueline Kennedy Recordings Offer Rare Glimpse of Life With President John F. Kennedy Transcript Excerpts


History Buzz



Jacqueline Kennedy

HISTORY INTERVIEWS: Recordings of Jacqueline Kennedy Offer Rare Glimpse of Life With JFK — Transcript & Excerpts

Source: PBS Newshour, 9-15-11


The new book, “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy,” includes never before heard audio recordings of interviews conducted with the former first lady in 1964. Ray Suarez discusses the rare and intimate glimpse with presidential historian Michael Beschloss, who edited and annotated the book.

RAY SUAREZ: And to a rare and intimate glimpse into history.

The new book “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy,” includes never-before-heard audio recordings of interviews conducted with the former first lady in 1964, shortly after her husband’s assassination.

The tapes were released by daughter Caroline Kennedy in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy administration.

Presidential historian and regular NewsHour guest Michael Beschloss edited and annotated the book, and he joins us now.

And, Michael, it was a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at life with JFK, life in the White House, and the life and times of the Kennedy administration.

What do you know now? What’s the most important thing you know now that you didn’t know before?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Well, the biggest thing, if we had talked a year ago, before I read this thing, I would have said Jacqueline Kennedy was a major figure obviously in JFK’s life and Kennedy’s Washington, did a lot for historic preservation, restored the White House, substituted the taste, perhaps, of Dwight Eisenhower, who had people like Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians play in the White House, for people like Pablo Casals.

But I wouldn’t have said that she was a major political figure in Kennedy administration. Now I would. One example of this is the number of times in this book where she runs down, say, someone like Dean Rusk, the secretary of state, says, “Jack, you should fire him.” And he says, “Well, maybe you’re right, but I can’t do it until 1964.”

She goes to Pakistan and there’s an ambassador of the United States she meets there, comes back, writes a letter at her husband’s behest that he sends on to the secretary of state. She had a lot more to do particularly with the personnel of this administration than think I would have thought.

RAY SUAREZ: We are taken into the back, private areas of the White House during some of the most tense times in the 1960s, for instance, the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Jacqueline Kennedy tells historian and Kennedy insider Arthur Schlesinger about what those tense days were like for her and the family.

Let’s listen.


JACQUELINE KENNEDY, former first lady: But I said: “Please, don’t send me away to Camp David, you know, me and the children. Please don’t send me anywhere. If anything happens, we’re all going to say right here with you.”

And, you know — and I said, “Even if there’s not room in the bomb shelter in the White House,” which I had seen, I said, “Please, then I just want to be on the lawn when it happens, you know, but I just want to be with you and I want to die with you. And the children do, too, than live without you.”

RAY SUAREZ: It’s a reminder that this wasn’t kidding around. The world felt like it was right on the precipice. When the first lady says to the president, “I and the children want to die with you,” it was striking.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And be out on the lawn, not in a bomb shelter.

And the other thing is, it tells something about their marriage. In my experience studying presidents, the president doesn’t have a great marriage with the first lady and there’s a big political crisis, the president usually doesn’t want to spend very much time with his wife, would rather be around cronies or something.

John Kennedy’s first instinct when he knows about the Cuban Missile Crisis — it is in the book — he calls up Jackie, who is in Virginia. There’s something funny in his voice, she says. He says, “Please bring the children right now back to the White House,” even though they were taking naps.

And the next 13 days, they spent very much together, went strolling out on the lawn together. He had a very — she had a very large part in his life, obviously, but particularly at this moment he looked to her for security.

RAY SUAREZ: Two things shone out again and again, how much she admired Kennedy’s personality, his intellect, the way he related to people on the campaign trail and at times how unsure of her own value to him she really was. Take a listen to this.

JACQUELINE KENNEDY: I was always a liability to him until we got to the White House. And he never asked me to change or said anything about it. Everyone thought I was a snob from Newport who had bouffant hair and had French clothes and hated politics.

And then because I was off and having these babies, I wasn’t able to campaign, be around him as much as I could have. And he’d get so upset for me when something like that came out. And, sometimes, I would say, “Oh, Jack, I wish — I’m so sorry for you that I’m just such a dud.”

RAY SUAREZ: Sure, she was a little unsure campaigning at the beginning, but she was anything but a liability, right?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: As it turned out.

But the Kennedy operatives in 1960 thought that she would be, that people would be put off, that she would seem too effete. Some of them wished that she would be more like Pat Nixon. One once said, we will run Mrs. Kennedy through subliminally, worried about her politically.

The biggest surprise to both of them is, she becomes first lady and she’s the most enormous celebrity in the country. Everyone wants to wear their hair like Jackie, the women do, and do their houses and imitate her in other ways. And the poignant thing is that, when they went to Texas at the end of the Kennedy presidency, he had pleaded with her to go with him because she was such a political asset.

RAY SUAREZ: The interesting thing about the times is that right behind her is Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The model political wife of the time.

RAY SUAREZ: Waiting out just a little ways down the road are Lady Bird Johnson in her way, but also Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter. She seems on the edge of those two worlds, a helpmeet, a supporter, but also someone who is educated, quite sophisticated in her own right, and worried very much about how the burdens of the presidency were affecting her husband when she couldn’t help him.

Listen to this.

JACQUELINE KENNEDY: And he cared so much. He didn’t care about his 100 days, but all those poor men who you would send off with all their hopes high and promises that we would back them. And there they were, shot down like dogs or going to die in jail.

And Bobby came over to see me and said, “Please stay very close to Jack. I mean, just be around all afternoon.” If I was going to take children out — in other words, don’t leave anywhere, just to sort of comfort him.

RAY SUAREZ: The Bay of Pigs had been a disaster for the very young Kennedy administration, and she was watching it weigh on her husband.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes, just three months in.

And he came in with very grandiose expectations, and, suddenly, three months later, he’s accused of being an incompetent, can’t get this done, the invasion of Cuba. He weeps with her in a bedroom in the weekend house they had in Virginia.

And, also, you look at Kennedy’s medical records. His doctors felt that he had gone into a depression. So she felt very much part of her job throughout this presidency was buoying him up when he needed it, and he often did.

RAY SUAREZ: Also, she was incredibly young, raising young children, and pregnant several times during that both campaign and early White House phase, but, at the same time, a woman energized by the life that she was living emerges from the texts of the Schlesinger interviews.

By 1964, when this interview was done, she seems to be pretty much at peace with her role in White House. Take a listen:

JACQUELINE KENNEDY: I always thought there was one thing merciful about the White House, which made up for the goldfish bowl and the Secret Service and all that, was that it was kind of — you were hermetically sealed or there was something protective against the outside world, I mean, as far as your private life went.

And I decided that was the best thing to do. Everyone should be trying to help Jack in whatever way they could. And that was the way I could do it the best, by making it always a climate of affection and comfort and detente when he came home.

RAY SUAREZ: Interesting that she was able to create privacy, when so many other first ladies more keenly feel that intrusion.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes, that’s right.

And she didn’t want to go to the White House. She got very morose when he won, oddly enough, because she thought that life would wreck her family. And she was a woman of hugely strong will. And she basically said: I’m not going to be Mamie Eisenhower, campaigning and going to all these political and other kinds of banquets. My job is to support my husband, to raise my children well.

And she also took on for herself this huge project of restoring the White House, which she rightly felt when she encountered it looked like sort of a bad convention hotel which was full of B. Altman reproductions. She had to raise the money for it, huge project, so, all of that done at the same time. This was a woman who was very young, 31 when she became first lady, but of enormous accomplishment and talent.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the coverage over the last week has gone to her sharp and sometimes even a little snarky observations on the…


RAY SUAREZ: Yes, the great and the good of her age. But that just shows that she was paying attention, doesn’t it?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: She was paying very close attention.

And if you looked at the oral history, if there was one, of a first lady that was more traditional, perhaps a Mamie Eisenhower, I doubt if she would have had independent opinions about a secretary of state or an ambassador, and fulfilled that role for her husband.

RAY SUAREZ: So what do we see in Jackie, a sort of hybrid?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think a hybrid, and I think you’re right in saying that she was a transitional figure.

She knew that she had to function in a period where people didn’t want to see her attending Cabinet meetings, which she had no interest in doing and didn’t. But, at the same time, she knew that that generation of woman could not any longer be content to be a Mamie Eisenhower or one of the earlier first ladies, who basically poured tea.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Beschloss, thanks for joining us.


Julia Lovell: Historian Finds New Relevance in Chinese Conflict


History Buzz

The Opium War is a touchy subject, admits Julia Lovell.

The Chinese often refer to the conflict that began in 1839 as the beginning of colonial submission, while for many British it has faded to the footnotes of history.

But the myths of the war are still relevant, as they explain China’s complicated relationship with the West, Ms. Lovell argues in her new book, “The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China.”

The 36-year-old, who teaches history at the University of London, spoke with The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Chow about the book’s inspiration, why writing it put her in a bad mood, and how James Bond inspired her to study Chinese. The following interview has been edited.

I started off as a history major in university. In my Christmas holiday of my first term, being an undergraduate, I was watching a James Bond movie on TV. It was “You Only Live Twice,” the one where he goes to Japan.

There’s a scene where Miss Moneypenny asks him, “How are you going to manage with the language?” He says, “Don’t worry, Moneypenny, I studied Oriental languages in Cambridge.” I thought this was my only chance to have something in common with James Bond…. READ MORE

David Detzer: The Battle of Bull Run, the Civil War’s first taste of horror


History Buzz

Source: CS Monitor, 7-21-11

An interview with historian David Detzer sheds light on the Battle of Bull Run, the first battle of the US Civil War, fought on July 21, 1861.


The Battle of Bull Run would be the first battle of an incredibly bloody war, a conflict that hardly anyone imagined would last very long or leave so many bereaved.

Visitors will flock to Manassas Battlefield National Park near Washington D.C. this month and contemplate the 150th anniversary of the first battle of the Civil War. Amid grassy fields and old houses, they’ll stare up at memorial statues, peer at cannons, and hear from guides about military strategy.

I made my own visit to the battlefield last month with a friend whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy and who remembered her Southern grandmother insisting on referring to the war as “The Recent Unpleasantness.” We stood and tried to imagine the First Battle of Bull Run, also known as the First Battle of Manassas.

But we couldn’t smell or see or hear the chaos: The smoke, the screams of horses and men, the booms of cannons, the crackle of trees on fire. Our imaginations only went so far.

But now I’ve gained a more detailed portrait thanks to a fine 2004 book about the first major skirmish of a war that would turn so many places – Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg – into emblems of death.

“Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861″ by David Detzer, translates the bewildering intricacies of warfare while exploring the lives of those who fought, those who sent them there and those left back at home. (The book is part of Detzer’s trilogy about the early days of the war.)

In an interview, I asked the Connecticut-based historian to talk about the nation’s lessons from the first battle of an incredibly bloody war, a conflict that hardly anyone thought would last very long or leave so many bereaved….READ MORE

Eric Foner: The Evolution of Liberalism


History Buzz

Source: The Browser, 7-18-11

The historian chooses five books illustrating how concepts of American liberalism have changed over the past 50 years, and tells us about the tension that lies at the heart of liberalism today

Eric Foner’s FiveBooks

As a historian, what do you make of the American left’s turn back to the term progressivism?

Ever since Reagan and the first Bush turned liberal into a term of abuse, it’s very hard to find politicians who will forthrightly proclaim themselves liberals. The term progressive is a substitute. It sounds good. How can anyone be against things that are progressive as opposed to retrograde? Of course, the term progressive relates to the Progressive Era of a century ago, when certain views that we associate with liberalism entered the political spectrum. Things like governmental regulation of corporations and provision of basic social security for people. If you read the platform of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 Progressive Party, it laid out much of the agenda for 20th century liberalism through the New Deal.


Modern liberals and turn-of-the-century progressives share a similar view of the role of government in society. But going back to the term progressive is a little misleading. Earlier progressives had no interest, by and large, in race issues. They accepted segregation. And they were uninterested in civil liberties, which has become a basic element of modern liberalism. They were statists – they weren’t interested in standing up against the state. So today’s progressivism is different from what progressivism meant a century ago.


What would you define as the core tenets of today’s progressivism?


As I see it, the core tenets are somewhat at odds with each other. On the one hand you have the belief in governmental assistance to the less fortunate, governmental regulation of economic activity and very modest governmental efforts to redistribute wealth to assist those further down the social scale. So it’s active government, in the pursuit of social goals, when it comes to the economy. On the other hand, modern liberalism emphasises privacy, individual rights and civil liberties – keeping government out of your life when it comes to things like abortion rights. In other words, in the private realm liberalism is for autonomy and lack of government intervention. And also I think today’s liberalism is strongly identified with the rights of various minority groups within American society. This multicultural element was not really part of liberalism until the radical movements of the 1960s. One of the reasons I chose these books is that I think liberalism has changed significantly since the 1960s. It is no longer the same thing it was in the era of Theodore Roosevelt or even Franklin Roosevelt….READ MORE

Nancy Caciola: She’s Got the Devil by the Archives


History Buzz

Source: San Diego News, 5-20-11

Nancy Caciola

Photo by Sam Hodgson

University of California, San Diego history professor Nancy Caciola is a leading specialist in the study of spiritual possession.

University of California, San Diego history professor Nancy Caciola spends her days studying the fine line between godly saints and demonic sinners. She’s interested in how the people of the Middle Ages figured out which was which — or witch.

Caciola, a leading specialist in the study of possession, is intrigued by those who obsessed over their strange-acting neighbors. Were they in the throes of religious ecstasy? Willing followers of Satan? Or maybe the devil had taken their innocent souls hostage. If that was the case — oh dear — then what?

In an interview this week, Caciola talked about witchcraft, women and one heck of a suffering saint.

You teach a class about witchcraft and the church’s battle to kill off witches. What do you talk about?

There’s a huge amount of disagreement. There are those who say there was a frame-up, a fantasy that scapegoated women and has no relation to what women might have been doing. Others say a pagan cult survived underground and was demonized by the Catholic church. And then there are those who say there really were demon-worshipping women who literally went to the crossroads and tried to call up the devil….READ MORE

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