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Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2006 OAH/NCPH Convention (Wash. D.C. April 19-22)


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Days 1 & 2: Wednesday & Thursday, April 19-20, 2006

Basic News

Dick Cheney was leaving the Hilton where the 2006 OAH convention is being held in Washington, D.C. just as the historians were converging. I am happy to report there were no incidents.

Day 3: Friday, April 21, 2006

From 8:30 in the morning until well past 9:30 at night they talked. And talked. And talked.

The most exciting discussion of the day no doubt was one of the last. It was the Plenary Session on presidential assassinations. This was like no panel I have ever seen at an OAH meeting. The only history professor was Eric Rauchway, the moderator. Of the others only one at first seemed to have a clear-cut reason for being there. That was Michael Kauffman, the author of American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, who may be best known locally for the tours he leads through Booth's escape routes. (On one trip, he recalled, a secret service agent who happened to tag along wanted to know what was the meaning of the t-shirt, "Following in Booth's Footsteps." He was assured it was meant to be taken quite literally.)

The two others? Well, each had a purpose for being named to the panel but it wasn't immediately apparent. What after all was Sarah Vowell doing there? Most people know her as a contributor to "This American Life" on NPR. But she's also the recent author of Assassination Vacation. And what was John Weidman doing there? Wasn't he associated with Sesame Street? Yes, he was, but he also worked with Stephen Sondheim on the play, "The Assassins." (which he kindly showed clips from). The play, in case you missed the reviews,"explores the history of presidential assassination in America, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, Jr. Assassins climaxes in a surreal sequence where the assassins convince Lee Harvey Oswald that his act is the only way he will connect -- with them, with history, and with the world." I should mention it's a musical.

How had the panel come about? As the program committee was working with the local resource people someone happened to mention that this is the 25th anniversary of Reagan's attempted assassination. And hey, it was right here at the "Hinckley Hilton" where it happened. Shouldn't historians commemorate the event in some manner? Sure. Then came the brainstorming. Marty Blatt recalled seeing a performance of the Sondheim play. And John Dichtl remembered Sarah Vowel's new book. And soon it was all arranged. (Vowel agreed to waive her usual fee of $10,000 to appear. No it wasn't because she was excited to hang out with historians for a few hours. As she explained in this HNN podcast interview, she was anxious to meet John Weidman.)

Vowell stole the show.

When someone in the audience noted that Vowell and Weidman are helpful in attracting a broader audience to history, Vowell cracked, "Yeah, we're the gateway drug. We're the pot and you're the cocaine."

Asked about Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President Garfield, she opined: "If you are writing about Guiteau and you can't make it funny you're a terrible writer." She was referring to Guiteau's having been the only member of the Oneida free-love colony who couldn't even get a date. Yet he continued to think of himself as a ladies man.

Asked about the American Dream Vowell noted that it's problematic because one man's dream may be another's man nightmare. "What if your dream is to live in a giant white house with columns and slaves. The slaves are probably not too happy about that."

And so on. And so on.

We were ostensibly talking about presidential assassinations, remember. So this was all a mite strange. When someone in the audience asked why our killers didn't use knives instead of guns a panelist remarked matter of factly that it's because knives are impractical. But to this crowd on this night that sounded like a laugh line and people laughed. It was that kind of event.

CSPAN should have been there. (Unfortunately CSPAN thus far hasn't been at any of the Hilton events.) Maybe they're too busy covering the visit of China's Hu.

One of the best moments of the evening, Eric Rauchway noted in an email to HNN tonight, came"when Kauffman was talking about where on his flight Booth might have broken his leg, and said, something like, who cares, really, it's not that important to the story. And at that moment, someone somewhere to my left said, 'Historians care!' And shortly after that, someone somewhere to my right said, 'Some historians care.'" Click here to read HNN's complete coverage of the OAH 2006