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Now Clinton's History: Building a Course Around His Presidency

A Presidential Course at a Presidential Library? It Worked for Lyndon Johnson at the LBJ Library and It Can Work for Bill Clinton at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

This past week's announcement that Professor Margaret Scranton of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock will offer a course on the presidency of Bill Clinton beginning next January has attracted a good deal of press commentary. Much of it has focused on Professor Scranton's Republican political affiliation and the novelty of a course devoted to a single presidency. Throughout the coverage there has been a tacit assumption that such a class lacks academic respectability and is something of an intellectual stepchild. That is unfair to a course that will likely prove a stimulating experience for those fortunate enough to take it.

11From the mid-1980s to 1993, I offered a course at the University of Texas at Austin that met at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library under the title"Lyndon Johnson and His Times." Limited to fifteen students, the junior seminar met twice a week in the seminar room at the LBJ Library. The main work for the students was to write an original research paper on some topic relating to Johnson's life and career. At the beginning of the course, I circulated a list of twenty-five potential paper topics and then met with each student to select their subject. While they often used one of my ideas, it happened with fair frequency that class members came up with topics of their own. As long as the paper used original sources at the LBJ Library and could be done in a semester, I let the students go to work.

The resulting topics embraced such issues as the origins of the Emergency Medical Services Program, Johnson's role in the space program, many aspects of the war in Vietnam, and controversial questions arising from civil rights and the War on Poverty. Other students worked on the weddings of Johnson's two daughters, his father's political career, and his brother's alcoholism. A favorite approach was to look at Johnson's relationship with other celebrated individuals: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Bill Moyers, Drew Pearson, Doris Kearns, Richard Goodwin, Harry S. Truman, and so on.

11 During the first third of the course, we did background reading on Johnson and the students received orientation in LBJ Library procedures from the Reading Room staff before delving into the boxes of original documents. Sometimes a scholar such as Robert Dallek would visit the class to share his research findings. Midway through the semester, we would adjourn for three weeks while the students completed their research and I met with them individually about their work. For the last three or four weeks, they would deliver oral reports to the seminar on what they had found. The students enjoyed full status as researchers at the LBJ Library, and the administration of the Library never interfered in the intellectual content of the course.

The course itself had no"party-line" or ideological orientation. The only assumption that everyone shared was that Lyndon Johnson was an important president and worthy of study. Some students who came to the course determined to rehabilitate him ended up as his harsh critics. Others who disliked Johnson at first decided to hold him in higher regard by the end of the semester. The hands-on experience of using primary sources convinced many class members that history books and biographies should often be regarded with skepticism and their footnotes subjected to scrutiny."Professor Gould," they would say,"how can X say what he does about Johnson when these documents I am reading say something so different?" Recollections that they found in oral histories varied from what students uncovered in their own research and they learned about testing evidence and the unreliability of eyewitness memories. Intense debates erupted in class over civil rights, Vietnam, the war on poverty, and the nature of Johnson himself.

11What of the papers that came out of the student research? Some went the way of all course papers and were returned to the student with a grade and my thanks. A significant number, however, proved to be real contributions to knowledge and were donated to the collection at the LBJ Library and to the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Researchers can find in the on-line catalogue at the university, for example, such topics as"We meet in grief: the relationship between Jacqueline Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson" by Angela Landon; Jennifer Anton's"Sam Houston Johnson: the alcoholic brother of Lyndon Baines Johnson"; Heather Knuppel,"LBJ and Robert Kinter"; and Randy Reyes,"A Great Society success story: the origins of modern emergency medical services." One of the papers was published: Janet Mezzack's"'Without manners you are nothing': Lady Bird Johnson, Eartha Kitt, and the Women Doers Luncheon of January 18, 1968," Presidential Studies Quarterly 20 (Fall, 1990): 745-761. The number of research topics in the course was literally endless, and the students often suggested areas for inquiry for the next class to follow. Most of the students relished the opportunity to work with primary sources, and they filled the Reading Room to capacity as the semester neared its end. They rubbed elbows with the academic researchers and sometimes became de facto research assistants for these visiting scholars. It was a delightful class to teach. All I really had to do was to throw out a subject and the students would be on their way in discussion and research.

11The Clinton class, with its access to the former president's papers and its focus on the controversy that has swirled around his life and times, is likely to produce much useful information and perceptive analysis. Professor Scranton and her students are off on a great teaching adventure, and the seminar should be applauded for what it will do to expose class members to the real problems of the presidency and its history in the 1990s. What the students make of the Bill Clinton they find there will properly go beyond the polemical debates of the past ten years and focus instead on what a new generation of college undergraduates believe was historically important about Clinton and his presidency. I envy them the experience.