This page includes, in addition to news about historians, news about political scientists, economists, law professors, and others who write about history. For a comprehensive list of historians' obituaries, go here.
SOURCE: Queens Chronicle (10-1-09)
This isn’t the first time Ballenas, who has taught both history and science at the Immaculate Conception School in Jamaica Estates, has won a prestigious award. In addition to receiving numerous grants for projects, his academic awards record includes Who’s Who of American Teachers, White House Artisan, the NECA Distinguished Teacher Award and Siemen’s Science Teacher Initiative Award in partnership with the New York Hall of Science. He was also recognized by the History Channel with the 2007 Save Our History Teacher award.
But around town, Ballenas is best known for his dedication to preserving Richmond Hill’s rich history. He is the author of “Richmond Hill: A Children’s Tale and Coloring Book,” and has co-authored two works: “America: Richmond Hill” and “America: Maple Grove Cemetery.”
He is listed with the Queens Borough President’s Office as an official lecturer for Queens County and has served on the board of directors for the Richmond Hill Historical Society, the Central Queens Historical Society and Community Board 9.
SOURCE: ABC News (10-3-09)
Ancestry.com had established that Obama was part Irish, and that his third great-grandfather on his mother's side, Fulmoth Kearney, is his most recent connection to the Emerald Isle.
Naturally, the Irish wanted to know more. Not since John F. Kennedy had the Irish been so excited to learn about a U.S. president's Irish heritage.
Smolenyak's first task in tracing Obama's precise link to Ireland was finding Fulmoth Kearney on the U.S. census and back-tracking his journey to the States. Luckily for the historian, Obama's relative's name was fairly unique, compared to say, a "Patrick Kelly." ...
SOURCE: Kashmir Media Service (10-3-09)
The award-giving ceremony was organised by Gulshan Books and the awards were given among others by puppet Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah.
Dr Ahad, who was sitting in the front row, didn’t get up when his name was announced for the award. Instead he declined to come to dais in protest against several puppet administrations that had failed to do any good to Kashmiris.
SOURCE: HJNews.com (The Herald Journal) (10-2-09)
During a lecture Thursday before a packed house at the LDS Tabernacle, Kathleen Flake said that often only the negative side of polygamy is emphasized.
“I am always suspicious when I only hear one side of an argument,” added Flake, who teaches religious history at Vanderbilt University.
This suspicion lead her to research polygamy in Utah during the pioneer era, a time when about 25 percent of Latter-day Saints were living “the principle.”
What Flake found would probably surprise many.
Focusing on the writings of Elizabeth Kane, a Protestant who spent time in St. George during the 19th century, Flake revealed that husbands often treated their polygamous wives as individuals, not as “a collective.” Wives who died were deeply mourned, not viewed as simply replaceable. Deep love was not uncommon, but husbands were told to attend to all of their wives without becoming infatuated with one at the expense of the others.
The wives also could form strong bonds. Flake described an account of a polygamous wife crying when recalling the death of another...
SOURCE: guardian.co.uk (10-2-09)
The book, The Defence of the Realm (from regnum defende, the Security Service's motto) marks the centenary of the founding of the agency. It has been written by Christopher Andrew, a Cambridge professor and leading historian of Britain's intelligence agencies.
Andrew was seconded to MI5 while writing the authorised history and the book has been vetted. MI5 says it edited material for "reasons of national security" but did not attempt to influence the author's judgment. Andrew has indicated it was not in his interest to produce a whitewash.
The author is, though, expected to dismiss claims made by Peter Wright, the former MI5 officer, in his memoirs, Spycatcher, that Sir Roger Hollis, a former head of the agency, was a Soviet agent. Spycatcher presents claims about attempts to destabilise Wilson and his Labour government in the 1970s. Lord Hunt, a former cabinet secretary, who investigated this in 1977, confirmed the existence of rightwing plotters in MI5, though they were mavericks unsupported by senior officials.
SOURCE: Miami Herald (10-2-09)
Bearss, who served as chief historian of the National Park Service, is in Vicksburg leading a weeklong History America Tour to sites important in the Vicksburg Campaign.
The tour started in Memphis, Tenn., and follows the route taken by Union forces in capturing the Vicksburg in 1862 and 1863.
Saturday's ceremony will be held in front of the Cairo.
SOURCE: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (10-3-09)
RFE/RL: Professor Judt, a little over a decade ago, you wrote about the European community and asked whether the idea was a"grand illusion." Since then, you have also said that the European Union faces a dismal future because it sprang from overlapping national interests rather than a collective desire for unity. Is Europe still more focused on what divides it rather than what unites it? Is the"European project" a myth?
Tony Judt: It's easiest if one begins by remembering that it ought to be a huge paradox that the European Union -- the world's most successful transnational institutional arrangement -- grew out of the circumstances of the worst-ever European war, the Second World War.
It's not a paradox when you remember that the members of what became the EU -- before that, the European Community, before that, the European Economic Community -- were precisely those European states which, among those which had suffered worse, were still free. Obviously, those [states] which suffered the worst in the Second World War in Europe were the states that ended up under the Soviet Union; East Central Europe had a much worse war than West Europe -- more people killed, more damage, more destruction, more collapse of structures, etcetera.
But the countries that joined the European coal and steel community in '51 -- which became the Economic Community in '57-58 -- were also all countries which had either been defeated -- Germany and Italy -- or occupied -- France, Luxembourg, Belgium, [and] Holland. It did not include countries which had not been occupied -- like Britain -- or which had remained independent or neutral -- Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Scandinavia, or Sweden at any rate. And it's relevant, I think, to know this.
These were countries which, in different ways, could only recover by collaborating with each other. They were no longer either politically strong enough -- like West Germany -- or economically viable enough -- [like] Italy [and] the Netherlands at the time -- to recover alone. Or, like France, they had experienced humiliating defeat, occupation, and were beginning to experience a loss of empire -- a violent loss of empire.
And so what happened was that this sort of slow realization that took, in the French case, six years -- from the end of the Second World War to the beginning of the '50s -- the slow realization that the only path out of defeat, poverty, a return to the interwar circumstances of depression and political extremism was by one form or another of international cooperation. So it was not driven by a European ideal of"never again, war," or French and German reconciliation, and so on -- though there were of course people who talked about that. It was driven by, if you like, the logic of self interest.
RFE/RL: When the Czech Republic held the rotating EU Presidency earlier this year, it thumbed its nose quite strongly at the idea of a unified Europe, and it's not alone in its disdain.
Judt: Right, and indeed: the Czechs and the Poles today -- both presidents -- are waiting and hoping for the Irish to defeat the Lisbon Treaty [in the October 2 referendum] because [then] they'll have that as an excuse to say,"Right, we won't ratify, we won't even bring it to our parliaments -- it's defeated, it's dead, it's finished."
The background to this, of course -- and it's important -- is that all of the great successes of the European Union and its predecessors were institutional, not political. Europe was constructed institutionally; there were no votes, there were no plebiscites, no referendums. The first European Parliament election was in 1979, over 20 years after the coming of the European Economic Community. This was inevitable, and it was probably a good thing.
If you had asked the European peoples in the early 1950s, or even as late as the '60s -- and I could certainly confirm this firsthand, from personally memory -- if you had asked the French or the Germans or the Brits or the Italians, not to mention, say, the Danes or the Austrians,"Would you like to have a European Union in which you reduce your local powers, give all the power to Brussels, in return for centralized administrative and institutional structures?" You would have had a resounding negative vote. In almost every country. Maybe Luxembourg would have voted yes.
It had to be built institutionally. And it was very successfully built. Legal structures, trading structures, financial structures, for tariffs and so on. You couldn't put this to a vote in countries which had just experienced two vicious wars -- two destructive wars -- in one generation. It would have been politically impossible. The extreme left and extreme right would have opposed it, [and] the center never would have been able to support it alone.
But therefore we face a paradox today: that this magnificent structure of transnational legal institutions, transnational economic institutions, rules of law, regulations, which bind at least the European elite, if not European peoples -- which by the way is the envy of regional organizations and aspirants, I know from traveling there, in Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia -- this European achievement because it's uniquely institutional, lacks political legitimacy, it lacks deep roots in almost any of the member countries. Once you get past the sort of medieval-style traveling clerisy, people like us who think of themselves as Europeans, speak the common European language, English, and are just as at home in Brussels or Prague or Paris or London, as we might be in Berlin or Vienna or whatever -- the question is now and for 20 years has been,"How do you turn this into a political union that people identify with?"
The problem, by the way, is not the people, it's the politicians. The problem is politicians because for any given politician in Europe -- whether it's [Vaclav] Klaus in Prague, [Nicholas] Sarkozy in Paris, [Gordon] Brown in England, anyone anywhere -- the easiest way to respond to an economic problem or an international difficulty when your country is at odds with other European countries on policy is to blame Brussels, because it's a cost-free exercise. That's why treaties are being rejected, or come close to rejection [in places like] France, Ireland, the Netherlands, and other European countries. Because local politicians, essentially fighting on local issues, have used the European fall guy, so to speak, as the target for their attacks, so as to gain local popularity, on issues that have local resonance: immigration laws, the presence of foreigners, taxation rules, Brussels forcing us to do this, Brussels forcing us to do that, and no mainstream politicians -- other than in the '70s and '80s: [France's Valery Giscard d'Estaing], [Germany's Helmut] Schmidt, [France's Francois] Mitterrand, [Germany's Helmut] Kohl to some extent -- has devoted political capital to defending Europe against national criticisms. Without that, it has no chance.
RFE/RL: The last few winters in Europe have seen the same movie playing out: Russia holds one or more countries hostage over gas and or oil supplies. These countries aren't operating from a position of strength, let alone unity, and they're vulnerable to Russia picking them off. On issues as critical as energy security, can Europe unify and consolidate its political power?
Judt: Well, there are three different issues involved here. The first is, if you like, the old East-West issue. The shadow of the first 50 years after World War II still hangs over the last 20 years. That is, the sensibilities of Europe's eastern states -- Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and so on, not to speak of the neighbors further east , like Ukraine or Belarus, and so on, Georgia -- are very different toward Russia from those of Western Europe.
Western Europeans, despite the Cold War -- to some extent because of it -- are much less worried about Russia, think much less of Russia as a threat, see it as much less of a problem, than Russia's former colonies or neighbors, and that's crucial. It's very hard for your Polish or Ukrainian listeners to understand because it seems bizarre and absurd. But it's true.
And it's above all true for Germany. Most Germans, particular West Germans, look upon Russia as a natural, implicit colleague in any collaboration for European stability. This is an old story; it goes back to the 1880s and 1890s. You have two large, well-established historic powers -- economic powers, strategic powers, German-speaking Central Europe and Russia, on Europe's eastern fringes, and in between that you have lots and lots of territories and lands and peoples, and languages and religions and ethnic groups, which both [Russia and Germany] have historically regarded as colonial territory. And that colonial territory is no longer thought of that way. But some of the attitudes -- historical attitudes -- remain. So the first thing to recall is that when the English or the Germans, or as it might be, the Spanish, and certainly the French, think about Russia, they think of it as a country ‘to deal with' on more or less equal terms. But not as a threat....
The second observation -- there is a paradox here -- is that it's going to get worse, not better. The European Union's refusal to work with Turkey on a serious strategy and timetable for admission is catastrophic for Europe's attitude towards Russia, because the growing alienation of Turkey serves Russian interests.
Obviously, one only has to look at a map, not to mention a map of oil resources. By refusing to imagine Turkey as a strategic partner, the French and the Germans especially, are pushing Turkey toward Russia. I remember being struck by this at meeting in Istanbul that I went to some years ago, the instinctive response of Turks rebuffed by Europe is to say,"Very well. Our strategic alternative is, so to speak, a Central Asian power alliance with Russia, because to whom else should we look? We Turks are linguistically, historically, ethnically and economically the potential power in Central Asia. If we're not wanted in Europe, we have to look to Central Asia. And in Central Asia, our strategic partner is Russia."
So what we have done, we West Europeans, is to simultaneously say:"We want Turkey to provide us with pipelines and oil supplies coming out of the Crimea or whatever it might be. But at the same time we don't want Turks in Europe because they're not really Europeans, there are too many of them, they're too poor, they're too Muslim, etc." This plays very badly in Turkey.
And the Russians know it perfectly well. So the Russians are in a position to exercise what you might call"gas blackmail" -- and to a lesser extent oil blackmail -- because they know that in the long run they may well have Turks on their side rather against them. If they knew that Turkey was absolutely solidly integrated into Europe, as a strategic partner, then they would have to be much more open to European negotiations, because Russia needs Turkey as its route for the gas pipelines. But if Turkey is an uncertain territory, Russia has more cards in its hands....
The other thing, I suppose that has to be borne in mind - this is my third point -- is that the utter inability of the European Union to forge a foreign policy of its own - whether toward the Middle East or its attitude toward Afghanistan, toward, before Obama was elected, George Bush's policies, its attitude on Africa, its attitude on immigration, all of these things mean that -- certainly if I were running, God help me, Russian foreign policy, I would look at Europe and see countries waiting to be picked off, one by one.
There is no European foreign policy and therefore there is no united European position. That is why [Czech President] Vaclav Klaus is not only remarkably absurd in many of his stances, but utterly self-defeating because his desire -- together with [Polish President Lech] Kaczynski's desire -- to destroy the Lisbon Treaty [and] to destroy the possibility of some sort of united European political structure that could provide a foreign policy executive will in the end only benefit Russia. To some extent locally, it benefits [countries] like Israel, because there is a division on attitudes towards the Middle East; but the real beneficiary is Russia.
SOURCE: ASU News (9-30-09)
Julia Sarreal and Stefan Stantchev are newly minted Ph.D. recipients from Harvard University and the University of Michigan, respectively. Both are now assistant professors of history in New College’s Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies (HArCS).
Sarreal’s academic interests focus on Latin America’s social and economic history. Her doctoral dissertation challenged traditional theories about causes of the 18th-century collapse of Spanish Jesuit missions in the heart of South America. Stantchev, meanwhile, focuses on the religious and economic factors that shaped power relations within Europe and throughout the Mediterranean in medieval times. He used his dissertation to advance his assertion that papal embargoes were less about foreign policy objectives than they were a tool of the papacy to maximize its control over Christians.
“We are fortunate to have attracted these two outstanding scholars to the HArCS division,” says Monica Casper, HArCS director. “Julia adds important regional and temporal expertise, and she will expand our teaching resources with courses focusing on Mexico, colonial Latin America, conquests and encounters, and world history since 1500. Stefan’s appointment will help us to staff our popular Western Civilization courses, as well as bring new offerings such as a course about the Crusades.”
Both Sarreal and Stantchev speak multiple languages. Sarreal took a year off during her undergraduate studies at Swarthmore College to volunteer at a homeless shelter in Mexico City, which helped spark her interest in Latin America. “I was impressed by the warmth and generosity of the people, and fascinated by the history,” Sarreal says.
SOURCE: Wired (9-30-09)
President Obama is about to convene his war cabinet, to discuss the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. It’ll be only the second time Obama has spoken directly with Gen. Stanley McChrystal since he became the top commander for coalition forces there - a fact that’s earning Obama a lot of grief in national security circles. But a leading Army War College historian says the critics are off-base.
“On the whole, presidents utilize their Secretaries of Defense — they exist for a reason — and for the most part confine their direct consultations to their regional combatant commanders,” notes Professor Mark Grimsley, who currently holds the Harold Keith Johnson Chair of Military History at the Army War College. Obama can and does confer regularly with McChrystal’s boss, [U.S. Central Command chief] General David Petraeus, and that’s as it should be… Obama’s practice is thus the rule, not the exception.”...
... I was shocked and outraged, too, when I finally saw the 60 Minutes piece last night. So I asked Grimsley, who’s also an Ohio State University professor, if this was really such a big deal. His response: Nope.
Bill Clinton consulted with Gen. Wesley Clark, commander of EUCOM (European Command), about once a week, but beyond that left matters up to his Secretary of Defense and senior national security aides. During Desert Shield/Desert Storm George H. W. Bush dealt exclusively with Gen. Colin S. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was his conduit to CENTCOM commander Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf.
A decided departure from the norm was George W. Bush. who dealt regularly with McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, as well as Gen. Petraeus during Petraeus’s tenure as top commander in Iraq. (He also conferred with Petraeus’ superior, CENTCOM commander Adm. William J. Fallon.)...
SOURCE: Ralph Luker at HNN blog, Cliopatria (9-30-09)
The criticism seems strange to me because, in"Murder and Biblical Memory: The Legend of Vernon Johns,"* I published a fuller critique of Branch's work as a historian than any other historian.** One of its major points focused on his uncritical use of oral history. The scandal of Branch's new book on Clinton isn't that Branch accepted a National Humanities Medal from Clinton even as the interviews were being conducted. The scandal isn't even, as Tinkler seems to think, that the interviews were conducted privately or that other historians are denied access to them. Frustrating as it may be, that is very commonly the case in contemporary history. The scandal of Branch's new book is that even he had no access to the tapes that he and Bill Clinton had created. All Branch had were his notes and recorded memories of the interviews that he created after leaving the interviews with Clinton.
*Joyce Appleby, ed., The Best American History Essays, 2006 (NY: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2006): 201-229.
**My colleague on the Martin Luther King Papers Project, Clayborne Carson, will publish a tepid critique of Branch's civil rights trilogy in the coming issue of the American Historical Review.
SOURCE: Newsletter of the New York American Revolution Roundtable (9-27-09)
When James Wilson suggested a single person executive at the Constitutional Convention, there was a long uneasy silence. Only the availability of George Washington made the idea palatable. But even Washington came under fire if he showed the least hint of what small "d" democrats (aka anti-federalists) deemed monarchical style. They condemned the president-elect’s journey to New York to take the oath of office as a "royal procession" because so many towns rushed to hail him along his route with flags and cheers. Washington, for his part, remembered all too well eight Revolutionary years of dealing with a dithering Congress who had among other things broken their word to pay pensions to his officers. He was a wholehearted believer in the importance of the presidency, with as much power as possible. At first he unabashedly favored a royal style. In early discussions of what the president should be called, he favored "His High Mightiness." John Adams went even further with elaborate titles for the vice president and senate. But Washington had the flexibility to accept without demur the House of Representatives decision, engineered by James Madison, to favor "Mr. President." In this light, Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800 was in fact the revolution he claimed it was. He did his utmost to democratize presidential style, as did his Virginia successors, Madison and Monroe. All in all, Mr. Wood gave us a fascinating perspective on the Revolution we’ve been discussing for the past 50 years. The applause was long and resounding as Chairman Jacobs presented the speaker with a certificate for his lifetime contribution to our knowledge of the Revolutionary era.
I knew every stop. Every light. All the rhythms of the traffic and the passengers, which seemed to bog us in delays at the same junctions every day.
I would wonder: How does the driver stand it?
I never asked. I should have, because now I know the driver might have said something like: "You think about something else. Like Kurdistan."
Gordon Taylor, 66, has been driving a Metro bus for 29 years.
On weekdays he pilots the agency's longest route, the 952 from Boeing's Everett plant down to Auburn. He also drives the 190, from downtown Seattle to the Redondo park-and-ride in Federal Way.
Not many of his riders know it, but Taylor often wanders off to Kurdistan, a remote region in northern Iraq and southern Turkey, even as he is merging his 60-footer articulated bus onto the freeway.
He's not a professional historian. But from the seat of that bus he just published an article about mid-1800s missionaries in the twice-yearly Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies.
"I'm the only one in there who isn't a Ph.D.," he laughs.
He also wrote a 354-page historical biography, called "Fever & Thirst: An American Doctor Among the Tribes of Kurdistan, 1835-1844."
Now out in paperback, it turns out the book — which "nobody bought," Taylor sighs — attracted the attention of one of the senior advisers to the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. transitional government after the invasion of Iraq.
The adviser, a self-described neoconservative named John Agresto, saw Taylor's recounting of the failure and eventual death of an obscure American do-gooder among Middle Eastern tribes as a metaphor for today. It was all we should have known, but didn't, before invading Iraq in 2003.
Namely, that you misunderstand the culture, you come ostensibly to help but no matter how pure your intentions, you get seen as imperialist meddlers.
" 'Fever & Thirst,' like any great book of biography and history, is hardly a book just about the past," Agresto writes in the book's introduction....
SOURCE: The Chronicle of Higher Education (9-29-09)
"Muslim scholars, friends, and political activists and leaders urged me to include the cartoons in the book with the purpose of encouraging reasoned analysis and debate on the cartoon episode," the author told her audience. "I agreed with sadness to the press's decision not to print the cartoons and other hitherto uncontroversial illustrations featuring images of the Muslim prophet." Klausen, who has short blond hair and a tight, expressionless face, stopped reading and looked up at the audience. "It is obviously a strange situation for an author to end up becoming another chapter in her own book," she said. "Maybe this happens to novelists, but it usually doesn't happen to social scientists."
Klausen's journey from author to subject began in July, when she was informed by John E. Donatich, director of the Yale press, that all illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad would be removed from her forthcoming book out of concern that they might provoke violence. "I threw up my hands," an obviously incredulous Klausen recalled during a recent interview. Yale's decision, made public in The New York Times in August, has been heatedly debated. "This misguided action established a dangerous precedent that threatens academic and intellectual freedom around the world," warned the National Coalition Against Censorship. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, called the press's action "fundamentally cowardly." Reza Aslan, a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, withdrew his blurb from the book.
Klausen is plainly exhausted by the controversy. "It has been hard to see the book being sucked into the same polarization that took place around the cartoons." She does not support Sarah Ruden, a poet and classicist who has previously published with Yale, who has called for academics to boycott the press. The press has already suffered, Klausen says. "Why pile it on?"...
SOURCE: GQ (9-16-09)
Is Clinton Having Second Thoughts on Secret Interviews?
It has been nearly forty years since three young Democratic activists named Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham, and Taylor Branch moved into a small apartment together in Austin, Texas, to wage a presidential campaign for George McGovern. In the decades since, the Clintons have taken that political fire to the center of American political life, while Branch has chosen a quieter course, writing three definitive volumes on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and winning both the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” grant. Yet at the height of Bill Clinton’s ascent—for the full eight years of the presidency—the historian and the politician reunited for a secret project, hidden from even Clinton’s closest aides. Meeting late at night and sometimes through the night, Clinton and Branch embarked on a series of seventy-nine conversations about politics, the presidents, the Whitewater investigation, and yes, even Monica—recording every word for posterity. Acutely aware that their tapes could be subpoenaed at any moment and desperate to avoid making them public, Clinton squirreled away the cassettes in his sock drawer and has never spoken of them nor made them public. But this month, Branch releases a 670-page mammoth tome, The Clinton Tapes, that mines those conversations and delves into Clinton’s presidency and state of mind through a tumultuous and historic eight years. Branch sat down on the sprawling porch of his Victorian home in Baltimore to discuss the project, the experience, and the book.—WIL S. HYLTON
Let’s start in the fall of 1992. Out of nowhere, the president-elect calls you up and invites you to a dinner party at Katherine Graham’s house. What happened?
It was bizarre. When we were kids, we were buddies down in Texas, trying to get McGovern elected. We lived together, but I hadn’t seen him in twenty years, and I had no idea why he asked me to dinner. I had kind of reprocessed him out of my friendship, into being a politician. This is a guy who’s run off to run for Congress in Arkansas, when all the rest of us were very alienated, and had this pile-driver political career, and so I had reprogrammed him away from somebody that you could know as a regular person. This is a president of the United States! He may just be all greed and selfishness. I was definitely tamping down my expectations.
Had you been a supporter in the campaign?
No! I thought his “forgotten middle class” sounded like Nixon’s “silent majority.” It was a formula—part of being a member of this species called “politician.” But within twenty seconds, I completely reconnected with him. He just knocked me over intellectually. He comes up and out of the blue asks me all these questions about historic preservation, saying, “I read your footnotes, and I want to make sure there are things like that for historians in fifty years.” Even if I hadn’t known him, even if it had been Richard Nixon or George W. Bush, I would have been floored that he was thinking about that already. This guy who hadn’t even taken office yet is thinking about raw material for historians fifty years later.
Within weeks, you were swept up in a whirlwind with him—staying up all night to write the inaugural address, being onstage during the ceremony, and then actually entering the White House for the first time with Bill and Hillary.
The day before, I thought I was going down to hear a final reading of the inaugural and wound up working all night, then being onstage with no seat or anything, just crouched down. And after the parade, he said, “Come on, let’s go to the White House!” So it was just the three of us walking in, he and Hillary and me! I mean, he literally didn’t know where the Lincoln Bedroom was. We were wandering around, poking in closets.
How did you decide to begin recording interviews for history?
He was angling to get me to move into the White House as house historian. But I responded more to the notion of preserving his thoughts. I only realized later on what a tremendous commitment that meant for him. Because the only time he could fit me in was when he was tired. There were stunning moments; I would be talking to him late at night and his eyes would go up, just roll back in his head. He would fall asleep in the middle of a sentence.
At the end of each session, sometimes late at night or even early the next morning, you would drive home to Baltimore and talk into a tape recorder the whole time. It must have been exhausting for you as well.
I would do those dictations until I dropped. I would sit here outside the house and dictate notes until I fell asleep in the truck. Because I felt that it was a significant experience that I should preserve. But on the tapes, there are a few times where it’s amazing: I would yawn involuntarily four times a minute! Because my workday on the King books always started at five in the morning, and sometimes I wouldn’t know I was going to go down to the White House until six at night. They would call up and say, “Can you come down at eight?” And I’d scramble and go down there, have this session with him, and it’d be two o’clock in the morning, and I’d be driving and dictating, then wake up the next morning again. But having that drive home to Baltimore for dictation was a forced habit that turned out to be very good.
The level of detail in your conversations is overwhelming. You discuss the most minute foreign-policy details, political calculations. Did you need to expand your reading habits to keep up with him?
Not really, because I actually didn’t know a lot of that stuff! I would just set a subject out there and say, “This seems to be a significant topic.” I didn’t know the background and the parameters; he would explain those. And sometimes I would set a subject out there and he would give me what was already in The New York Times. Sometimes he would say, “We’re going to appeal. End of story.” And we’d move on.
The Bill Clinton in this book is very different than the version we came to know in the press. You describe a guy who was steadfast and idealistic, very different from the wishy-washy, flip-flopping caricature who let Dick Morris tell him what to do.
It was almost like a credential for old liberals to look down on Clinton, because if you looked down on Clinton, you could say, “He’s betrayed liberalism,” but you didn’t have to uphold anything yourself. All you had to do was talk about what a shit he was or what a sellout he was and you could get this cheap credential...
... In all the Kennedy and Johnson tapes you’ve listened to, do you hear the same resolve?
In some ways, Kennedy was just the opposite. People would idealize him, but then on the tapes, you hear him trying to kill Castro and all this other stuff. It’s disillusioning. And Johnson does the Civil Rights bill, but then he does the Vietnam War—and you hear them saying essentially, “We know this is not going to work, but we’re going to do it anyway.” Then Nixon promises to end the war, and four years later the war is still going. Then you have Watergate. So it was kind of like we had this post–World War II optimism about politics that was yanked out of our generation by hard experience. In some ways, Hillary and I were more typical of our generation than Bill. We were bruised and disillusioned with politics. We had more in common with each other politically than either of us had with Bill. He seemed to be on automatic pilot: “I’m going to run for office!” At the time, I didn’t connect that to idealism. I connected it to ambition. The notion that it came from a sense of idealism didn’t rear up for me until I was able to watch him in the White House, seeing why he would do things...