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Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (Wash. DC)

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FYI: For an official account of what transpired at the AHA this year check out the AHA Blog: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Day 1: Thursday January 3, 2008

This will be remembered as the heavy-winter-coat convention. Tonight the temperature dipped to 15 degrees. With the convention divided among three hotels--the Marriott Wardman Park, Omni Shoreham and Hilton--the historians have had to bundle up as they scurried from venue to venue. The Hilton's in Siberia ... on the other side of the Rock Creek Park ravine. HNN ran into one young historian who's got 10 interviews running him from hotel to hotel. (Note to interviewers: if your applicants turn up red-cheeked do not assume they have been drinking. They are simply historians coming in from the cold.)

Some 5,000 historians are expected at the convention, the kind of large turn-out usual for conventions that take place in large cities on the coasts. Thus far no historians have been arrested for jaywalking (unlike last year) but the convention has taken its toll on the people putting it on. AHA Executive Director Arnita Jones sprained her ankle coming out of the Omni the other day and is now hobbling around on a cane.


Sharon Tune, editor of the program guide, is in the hospital.

As befits a convention held in DC, there are a lot of government officials running around. Today was the day for the Democrats. In the afternoon Nancy Pelosi's chief of staff, John Lawrence, a Berkeley Ph.D. who wandered into government service 30 years ago, sat on a panel devoted to "Historians, Advocacy, and Public Policy." In the evening Richard Moe, the chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale, received the AHA's Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Public Service Award in connection with his work as president of the Congressionally-sanctioned National Trust for Historic Preservation (he's the one who helped lead the fight against the Disney theme park next to Gettysburg). Friday it's the Republican's turn, with Newt Gingrich (remember: he's a historian, too) appearing on a panel celebrating the publication of Robert Remini's history of the House of Representatives. (Remini, the celebrated Jackson scholar, is the official historian of the House.)

One of the big questions of the convention has been whether C-SPAN was going to be able to spare enough cameras from the Iowa caucus to cover select AHA sessions. Somehow today C-SPAN did it, providing coverage of John Lawrence's speech. (Click here.) C-SPAN is also scheduled to cover the panel with Newt Gingrich.

Several sessions at the AHA are devoted to Islam. The very first session of the convention concerned the publication three decades ago of Marshall Hodgson's seminal work, The Venture of Islam, which shook up the profession with its startlingly fresh approach. Edward Said to his dying day disparaged the work (which he claimed never to have read) as Orientalist and lumped Hodgson in with Bernard Lewis. But many of the members of the panel said Said's characterization was unfair. As Bruce Lawrence explained, Hodgson, a Quaker who opposed the Vietnam War, actually helped undermine the Orientalist consensus, and coined a phrase to suggest the complicated and diverse roots of civilization: "Afro-Eurasian Ecumene":

In the early evening, as more historians turned up in the hotel lobby, other panels assembled. In Maryland Suite A at the Marriott an experiment of sorts got under way. The experiment was to throw historians and journalists who write about China together and see what happens. Could the historians help the journalists make better sense of China? Could the journalists explain why they don't make better use of historians? The chair, UC Irvine's Jeffrey Wasserstrom, wondered why journalists haven't drawn on the expertise of Susan Brownell, author of Training the Body for China, the single best work by a scholar on Chinese sports. But was the problem just with the journalists? Kellee Tsai of Johns Hopkins said untenured professors are wary of talking to journalists for fear that the guild will look down on them if they do. Complicating matters, researchers have to fear that the Chinese government may punish them if they confide their results to journalists, a concern that emerged in an exchange between the Washington Post's John Pomfret and Susan Lawrence, the former Beijing Bureau Chief of Far Eastern Economic Review:

As the evening rolled on many historians fled to their rooms to watch the Iowa caucus results roll in. President Huckabee? President Obama? History was happening again. There would be plenty to talk about Friday.

Day 2: Friday January 5, 2008

Newt was a no-show. But who really thought he'd appear? As a Hill staffer confided, "You can never trust a working politician to show up for an event like this." And certainly not the day after Iowa. There were interviews to be done! C-SPAN must have been tipped off. The cable company didn't show up either.

Even without Newt it was a day of strong personalities: Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, pundit Norman J. Ornstein, historian Bob Remini, and Newsweek's Evan Thomas.

Schroeder and Ornstein appeared on the panel Newt missed, which was held in honor of Remini's history of the US House of Representatives. Schroeder recounted the sorry history she experienced in the House as one of a handful of congresswomen:

Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, decried the state of the House of Representatives, saying the institution is in collapse. He said the people elected in the Republican Revolution of 1994 despised the House and trashed its traditions. Oh if only Newt had showed up! But Ornstein actually had nice things to say about Gingrich. Unlike his peers, Ornstein said, Gingrich, a historian, loved the House and wanted to preserve it. But those others .... Well, here's how he put it:

Remini, the celebrated Jackson biographer who was selected by the Library of Congress to write a history of the House and subsequently was appointed the official historian of the body, lamented the indifference of the both the public and historians to the House of Representatives. In a talk mixing his characteristic passion with humorous touches he dazzled the crowd as he spoke about his book about the House and its impact on his life, especially the chance to interview figures like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (both past House members):

Whatever Gingrich's commitment to the House of Representatives, he was remembered today as the man who fired two historians of the House in succession, the second one five days after being selected. It was Dennis Hastert, a former coach who also taught American history, who re-established the office of the Historian of the House, as both Remini and Ornstein pointedly noted.

At lunch time a small group of high school teachers were treated to a fiery speech by Evan Thomas, editor-at-large at Newsweek and the author of several works of history in addition to a well-received biography of Robert F. Kennedy. As his grandfather Norman Thomas had once railed against corporations, today Evan let loose with a thunderous barrage of invective at the gross historical ignorance of young Americans. Watch.

In the afternoon there were panels on dozens of subjects: presidential greatness, the denial of visas to scholars, the 1980s, slavery, Mexican politics. You name it, the AHA has a panel on it.

At the panel on the 1980s (Gil Troy, David Greenberg, Vincent Cannato and Meg Jacobs) the historians staged a mini-revolt against 122 years of AHA custom and tradition. Instead of reading their papers they provided 10 minute summaries and then opened the floor to questions. The atmosphere was said to be exhilarating. As one person noted, "The success of the format came from tapping into what should be viewed as the major asset -- all the smart, informed, passionate people listening to the papers, rather than the three or four 'experts' at the top."

Eric Foner got a roaring response from a large crowd gathered to hear about the ratings of presidents--and why they're a parlor game and nothing more. He recalled that the libertarians came up with a rating system a few years ago that ranked presidents on the basis of their budget expenditures. Those who increased the budget the least came out on top. In their poll Harding was first, Andrew Johnson was second, and Lincoln came in dead last. Foner noted that the famous Schlesinger polls (by both Sr. and Jr.) were also flawed. Both Schlesingers consulted mainly white men. The 1992 poll conducted by Schlesinger Jr. included a single African American and a single woman. Foner speculated that if more black scholars were included the ranking of Woodrow Wilson would not have been nearly as high on account of the Virginia's notorious racism. One historian enjoyed Foner's presentation so much he said he would have paid admission to get in. It was, he told HNN later, like watching Jon Stewart in action.

A more somber crowd assembled to hear the horror stories told about scholars who have been denied visas into the United States. Often the scholars haven't been told why they were denied entry until the media was alerted to the situation. Seated on the panel was the Bolivian scholar Waskar Ari. It seemed strange to see him there. For years he was a headline in news stories posted on HNN: the scholar who couldn't get into the United States to assume his post as a teacher at the University of Nebraska. Why wasn't he allowed in? Officials never said. Finally in 2007, almost 2 years after his ordeal began, he finally won his visa after the University of Nebraska filed a lawsuit on his behalf.

Panel #78: "The United States in Asia, the United States in Iraq: Historical Lessons Not Learned" convened to a packed house of over a hundred just after 2:30pm. Three critics of the Iraq War held forth for the next hour and a half: Juan Cole, the former president of the Middle East Studies Association who has become a prominent blogger; the University of Chicago's Bruce Cumings; and New York University's Marilyn Young.

Juan Cole led off with an indictment of the Bush war planners for ignoring forty years of development studies.

As he delved further in the subject Cole focused on the contradictions in Bush's rhetoric and policies.

Next up was Bruce Cumings, who charged Bush and Cheney with pursuing a radical policy out of the mainstream of the American experience. Unlike many Bush critics, Cumings argued that Korea demonstrated that we can maintain a large presence in Iraq for decades without Americans even noticing. He noted that Donald Rumsfeld was said to have been shocked to learn when he became secretary of defense that we still had 30,000 troops on the Korean peninsula. Cumings, an expert in Korean history, told the audience but for Iraq the Bush administration likely would have gone to war against North Korea and was preparing to do so on the eve of the Iraq War.

Finally, there was Marilyn Young, who presented a list of 10 things the Pentagon and war-makers learned from Vietnam.

In an unusual reference for an AHA meeting Professor Young cited a comedian on the Jon Stewart show to make a point about the twisted logic President Bush allegedly used in defense of the Iraq War.

At 8:30 in the evening a couple of hundred convention-goers (conventioneers?) attended the general meeting at which prizes were given out. Three went to lions of the profession in honor of their lifetime achievements in scholarly distinction: Martin Duberman, Jack P. Greene, and Anne Firor Scott.

The Troyer Steele Anderson Prize was awarded posthumously to Roy Rosenzweig, the late director of George Mason University's Center for History and New Media (of which HNN is a part). Shortly before he passed away Roy was informed that he had won the prize. On Saturday evening the members of the AHA will meet to remember Roy at a special event to be held in his honor. Roy ... we miss you.

The day ended with the presidential address of Barbara Weinstein. An expert in the history of Brazil, she spoke about the assumptions underlying modernization theories and traced their development over time. She said she had long ago given up the Marxist assumptions that had carried her into the profession. But she found fault with the "culture is everything" critiques that remain popular with many.

Day 3: Saturday January 6, 2008

It finally warmed up. Today it was in the forties. Tomorrow, we're told, the temperature will reach into the fifties ... just in time for us to take our departure.

Historians staying at the Marriott got a rude awakening around 1 am when a fire alarm went off in every room. Should we leave? Should we stay? A few moments later a somewhat nervous hotel employee announced cryptically over the PA system (yes, just like in elementary school) that we could indeed remain where we were because "the culprit has been caught." I went downstairs to find out what had happened. Apparently somebody had triggered a false alarm.


Yesterday there was the panel on the invasion of Iraq. Today, for those with strong stomachs, there were panels on the nightmarish monster catastrophes that came after: the botched occupation of Iraq and Katrina.

The order of the morning: Drink your coffee, grab a bagel, and contemplate two of the most tragic events in our history. It's just turned 9 am.

The Iraq panel, sponsored by the US Commission on Military History--an organization that "provides a link between the U.S. historical community and historians from other nations around the world"--featured presentations by an academic historian (Ronald Spector); a civilian employee of the Department of Defense; an Austrian scholar (who spoke about the post-war occupation of Austria); and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post reporter who wrote a book about the Iraq occupation under Paul Bremer (Imperial Life in the Emerald City). I've seen Chandrasekaran on the Jon Stewart show. He was funnier there than at the AHA. But his story of the follies of the occupation is so rich in irony the audience of historians couldn't help finding macabre humor in today's sober presentation.

Item: While occupation officials were busy rewriting Iraq's intellectual property laws so American corporations would feel confident about doing business there the employees of the Coalition Provisional Authority were buying up Hollywood movie DVD's sold on the black market by kids on the street at fifty cents a pop. The official DVD's, selling for $20 a piece at the local PX, it turned out, wouldn't play on the machines supplied to American forces. (European and American machines take different style DVD's.) Item: A 24 year old was put in charge of redesigning Iraq's stock market. Item: A 21 year old was given the responsibility of debaathification.

Chandrasekaran wouldn't say if he supported or opposed the Iraq War, but insisted he felt, naively perhaps, that it could have turned out well (meaning the country could be turned into a functioning democracy with a stable government) had officials with more foresight and experience been in charge. But time and again America didn't send the best and the brightest, it sent the loyal and the foolish. (You had to be a loyal Bushie to get a job with the CPA; applicants were asked if they had voted for Bush, believed in God, and opposed abortion.) But after hearing Juan Cole's presentation the day before it was a little strange to hear someone still insisting that the enterprise had had a chance of success. See above.

Meanwhile, the Katrina panel tried to put the New Orleans disaster into perspective. Some compared it with other American disasters, both real and imagined, while others considered how historians fifty years from now will explain what happened. Getting things started was Duke University's Jacob Remes, who noted that the narrative of the disaster shifted quickly. First came the stories of chaos, with people killing each other in a massive breakdown of social order. Then, within a week, came the stories of people helping each other at the grass roots level while the authorities behaved badly (most notably when police blocked blacks from a bridge leading out of the city). Deciding how to weigh these competing narratives will be one of the chief challenges facing historians of the future, he said.

Next up was Elizabeth Turner (University of North Texas), who told the ghastly story of the Galveston Flood, which has the tragic distinction of having cost more lives than any other disaster in American history, probably at least 6,000. There were so many bodies they didn't know what to do with them. First they tried burying them at sea, but the bodies washed back to shore. Finally, they dug mass graves and burned them. Within a decade Galveston was back -- and better than ever. The utilities were modernized. Roads rebuilt and improved. And a giant sea wall was built. When the next Category 4 storm hit a short time later only a handful of people died. But Galveston never became a great city. Houston eclipsed it. Why? It wasn't, Turner insisted, because of the disaster. It was because Houston dug a deeper port and exploited the new oil industry better.

Max Page (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) imaginatively compared the different responses Americans have had to the tragedy that struck New York in 2001 and the disaster that buried New Orleans under water. Why, he wondered, was it ok just a few years after 9-11 for Hollywood to show us movies again in which New York City is destroyed (NYT headline 12/26/07: "The Irresistible Urge to Destroy New York on Screen") while it wouldn't be ok to contemplate New Orleans' imaginary destruction.

The last panelist to speak was Smith College's British accented Kevin Rozario, who began by noting that the story of Katrina fifty years from now will be written with the concerns people have fifty years from now.

The bulk of his talk was taken up with the question of the idea of American Progress. What struck him, he said, was that in the past "disasters have been imagined as agents of progress"--but not after Katrina.

The Iraq panel met in the Marriott's Coolidge Room, the Katrina panel in the Wilson Room. Which got us thinking: Do you think the AHA will someday be holding panels on Iraq and Katrina in the George W. Bush Room? Oh, the ironic games some future program organizers will be able to play!

Later in the morning Bernard Weisberger moderated a panel featuring people who have succeeded in writing pop history. The first to speak was an academic, Cornell University's Joan Jacobs Brumberg, who first won popular acclaim with her book: Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa. She explained why the book succeeded in reaching a large market.

Brumberg was followed by a journalist: Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the school of journalism at Columbia, who has written several acclaimed history books, most recently, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War. Lemann explained a key difference between historians and journalists. Historians, he said, fondly remembering something he had been taught as an undergraduate at Harvard by David Herbert Donald, are preoccupied with making arguments about important historical matters. Journalists, in contrast, tell stories. Who's approach is right? Lemann says he enjoys telling stories but thinks journalists have more to learn from historians than historians do from journalists.

Late in the afternoon the annual Business Meeting was held. Since no controversial resolutions were introduced only a couple of dozen people showed up. Arnita Jones, the organization's executive director, announced that a small surplus had been accumulated (a little more than a hundred thousand dollars out of a budget of three and a half million). Her big news was that the membership of the AHA is now nearly 15,000; in some years in the past it hovered near 14,000. A sign of the success of the AHA in attracting new members is the high number of people attending this year's convention. It was well over 5,000, the highest it's been that she could remember, she said.

HNN asked the Council to reconsider two recent rules restricting the use of video cameras at AHA conventions by journalists. Officials promised to take up the matter.

In the evening more than fifty people turned out for an extraordinary hour and a half service in honor of the late Roy Rosenzweig. Many of the historians who talked about him recalled the twinkle in his eye and his humor. "Only my mother has sent me more birthday cards than he did--and his were funnier," Gary Gerstle, an old friend who co-authored a book with Roy, remembered. Referring to the Center for History and New Media, which Roy founded, Gerstle said it was "Roy's Empire." He added: "It was the only Empire of Liberty in the whole world."

Monday: We'll have a final wrap-up of the convention and post exclusive footage of Philip Zelikow's extraordinary talk at the luncheon held by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

Day 4: Sunday January 6, 2008

As predicted, the weather turned beautiful. You didn't even need a coat by the last day of the convention.

I awoke today still thinking about Philip Zelikow's stunningly sophisticated luncheon-hour talk on Saturday before the Society for Historians of Foreign Relations (SHAFR). While the members of SHAFR ate tasty Lebanese dishes at Taverna's across the street from the Marriott, Zelikow reflected on how his experiences in government and his research into the Cuban Missile tapes have reshaped his understanding of history.

He did not come prepared to rehash 9-11 or the Iraq War and he barely touched on the subjects. Though he still dressed the part of a high government official, and he speaks with the command of someone who has wielded immense power, he concerned himself with the kinds of questions ordinary historians face all the time: How do we know what happened? What kind of evidence should we use? Have we overlooked something important?

His considered judgment, based especially on his experience as the executive director of the 9-11 Commission and as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's counselor, is that contingency plays a critical role in history and that historians can only understand how big a role that is if they undertake a robust investigation of what he repeatedly called microhistory. For it's by digging in the details that you find out how people thought, who they got along with, how decisions were made, and when they were made.

Do historians usually get things right? Zelikow's judgment is that historians work in most cases at so great a distance from the events they describe that they generally have gotten no better a view than can be had from 10,000 feet up. What's needed, he said, is the view from a helicopter ... 100 feet up--as historians of the Cuban Missile Crisis were lucky to obtain when the Kennedy tapes became available. What those tapes demonstrated beyond question, he argued, was that decades of research hadn't been able to uncover some of the critical forces shaping the outcome. As an example, he noted that until the tapes appeared no historian had understood that the Berlin crisis had fundamentally shaped Kennedy's decision to confront the USSR in Cuba. If it wasn't Cuba in October '62, it would be somewhere else later: that was the lesson of Berlin.

Here are extended excerpts from Zelikow's speech, which was entitled, "For Want of Knowledge": Microhistory and Pivotal Public Choices.

Part 1:

Part 2:

(Why do we break up long speeches into two or more videos, as in this case? YouTube, the service we use to post videos, limits them to 10 minutes in length.)


The last session of the convention I attended began at 11am and ran long past the 1pm deadline, finally ending around 1:30. What held the attention of the crowd of some forty historians on a fine Sunday morning? It was one of the practical sessions at the AHA: How to write an op ed, get it published, and convince your colleagues you're doing something worthwhile.

Leading off the panel was Warren J. Goldstein (University of Hartford), who explained the process, including how much an op ed writer gets paid:

Goldstein was followed by another Hartford historian, Leslie J. Lindenauer, who talked about the challenges facing public historians:

Finally, David Greenberg took the floor. Greenberg, the author of Slate's History Lessons column, took on some of the myths of op ed writing in a presentation titled: History in 1200 words: Dumbing Down vs. Smarting Up.:

Alida Black, who runs the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers project, was supposed to join the panel but had to absent herself. She's been in Iowa helping Hillary Clinton, who sits on her board. After the results in Iowa Black had to rush to New Hampshire to give the campaign a hand; a chance to make history trumped her role as a writer of history.

True Story

A historian writes (in an email to HNN):

I'm in the book exhibit hall during the book buying frenzy on Sunday AM -- and I'm in front of a book called"what to do with your history and political science degree" (or something like that) ... Some guy walks up -- points to the title -- and snorts:"What to do with your history degree? Practice saying, 'and would you like some fries with your order?'"

I reply:"Thanks for ending this conference on such a depressing note. I'm going to go home now, and shoot myself."

The guy replies, without missing a beat:"Great, that will be one less person on the job market!"

And that ends it. Another AHA behind us. Next it's on to the OAH in New York at the end of March.