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Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2008 OAH Convention: Day 3

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Day 3: Sunday March 30, 2008

First, as promised, we have Nell Irvin Painter's stunning OAH Presidential Address from last night. Watch it and you'll wish you had been there.

Professor Painter is an intriguing individual. In retirement she decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in art. An African-American, she has spent a good deal of her time studying whiteness. A rigorous scholar, she had the look last night of an actress at the Academy Awards. She even wore a glittering silver tiara friends gave her on a whim. (She wore another tiara last year when she became president.) One wants to get to know a woman like this.

A pioneer in whiteness studies, she has taught a course on it at Princeton. She is finishing a long awaited book on the subject. And last night she gave her peers reason to be jealous that they hadn't thought to work on the topic themselves.

The materials were familiar. What Americanist hasn't come across Emerson's book on English traits, if only in a used book store? What historian hasn't heard America described as an Anglo-Saxon culture? Who hasn't been told over and over again that Magna Carta was a kind of American freedom charter? But it is Professor Painter who has had the wit to think hard enough about these subjects to construe their role in the making of what she calls the Anglo-Saxon myth.

I am afraid I have bad news for Emersonians. They will never feel the same about Emerson after watching Professor Painter's talk. Brilliant as he was, he came to believe in a kind of ethnic determinism every bit as looney as the daft doctrines of white supremacists or anti-Semites.

Without further ado, I give you: outgoing OAH President Nell Irvin Painter.

(Click here to watch parts II and III.)

Ahead of Ms. Painter's speech awards were handed out. David Thelan, the erstwhile editor of the JAH, who himself has an award named after him, received one. It was the first Roy Rosenzweig Distinguished Service Award. Ruth Simmons, the president of Brown University, was given this year's Friend of History Award in connection with her decision to convene an investigation of the school's slavery roots. In all nearly twenty awards were distributed. For those who are counting: about half went to women.

And now on to today's activities.

Sunday began (early: at 8am!) with one of the most boring Business Meetings ever held. That's the good news. After two years of horrendous deficits the OAH is apparently on a path to fiscal solvency, according to outgoing treasurer Robert Cherny.

Lee Formwalt, the OAH executive director, noted in his remarks that this year's convention attracted 2,700 people--more than expected. (The staff budgeted for 2,400.) He said membership of the OAH is up about 1,000 over the level reached in the year 2000. But he also took note of gloomy signs on the horizon. The OAH is actually down 300 members from a year ago. Like other scholarly organizations, the OAH is discovering that it's difficult to attract the young. Adjuncts can't afford the membership and others have found they don't need it: they can get what they want from the OAH online for free.

The meeting ended with the announcement that two vice presidents have been appointed: Berkeley's David Hollinger and Columbia's Alice Kessler-Harris. Hollinger is now in line to become president of the OAH in 2010, with Kessler-Harris to follow in 2011. Hollinger told HNN the honor came to him out of the blue on Friday under the oddest of circumstances. He was waiting for his plane to take off from San Francisco when an engine caught fire, forcing the plane to return to the terminal. As it did he turned on his cell phone, which suddenly began ringing. At the other end was Yale's Jon Butler. As a somewhat startled Hollinger listened, Butler asked if Hollinger would like to serve as vice president of the OAH. He said he would--and that was that.

For OAH geeks only: OAH presidents are selected by the nominating board. They do not stand for election. Recent revisions made to the OAH constitution provide for the selection of two vice presidents. The intention of the revisions is to give officials a few years to learn about the organization before they finally have to lead it.(For the record: while the posts of president and vice president are uncontested, the seats on both the nominating and executive boards are filled by the vote of the membership.)

It was by no means a typical Sunday at an OAH meeting. This year the OAH ran three days instead of four. To make up for the lost day planners packed Sunday with 47 sessions! The big question was whether the members would stick around to attend or make for the airport. From what we could see, most stayed. Small but impressive crowds turned up for panels on Iraq, terrorism, the new African-American Museum, and other subjects. There were so many choices we found it hard to decide which panels to cover. Do we go see Lani Guinier? Annette Gordon-Reid? Bill Chafe? Like we said, it wasn't easy.

Some thirty people showed up at the Hilton's West Ballroom to attend the panel on Vietnam led by Marilyn Young. There they heard Northwestern University's Michael J. Kramer talk about the ways music transformed the experience of the grunts in Vietnam. We've all heard that the war changed the home front. What Kramer showed--literally, through the use of fascinating pictures--was how the home front changed the war through Rock 'n Roll.

Over in the Trianon Ballroom--which was aptly named after one of the two small palaces at Versailles (you should see this place! Bring your tiara)--five historians tackled questions arising from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The University of Texas's Mark Lawrence observed that the Vietnam analogy has come and gone and come again paralleling the change in fortunes in the war. At the outset anti-war activists claimed that Iraq was another mistaken war like Vietnam. Th Bush administration insisted the Vietnam analogies were misguided. Later, as the war dragged on the discussion naturally more and more began to dwell on the timetable for leaving. At this point it was the Bush administration which embraced the Vietnam analogy. The president began to warn that Iraq could be lost like Vietnam if Americans back home lost their will to continue the fight. Lawrence said that this turn in the debate posed a danger to the anti-war movement. Polls consistently showed a majority of Americans for decades have believed the Vietnam War could have been won if the military had been allowed to fight the war it wanted. By now adopting the rhetoric of Vietnam the Bush administration set up the anti-war movement for taking the blame for Iraq should the war be lost.

Washington University's Elizabeth Borgwardt took a sharper tone, harshly criticizing the Bush administration's purportedly cavalier approach to the Geneva Accords. She directed her biggest broadside at the administration's John Yoo, the once obscure law professor who offered the rationale: If the president needs to do something to protect national security--he can no matter what Congress says).

Borgwardt related a bit of news from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). It seems that Yoo was invited to headline an upcoming conference when liberals found out about it and raised a ruckus. The upshot is that Yoo will now be paired with an opponent to the administration, turning his appearance into a debate, which the liberals apparently found more palatable. Borgwardt said the decision to invite Yoo in the first place seems to have been on a par with the decision other groups made in past years to invite the skeptics of global warming.

At what undoubtedly was the most elaborately planned panel of the OAH the Smithsonian's Lonnie G. Bunch celebrated the launch of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Large color posters in the hallways advertised the session. Two cameras were deployed to record it--not counting HNN's little Canon PowerShot (ok we promise next year to get a bigger and better camera; stop with the complaints already!). Attendees were even supplied with free DVD's and pamphlets. And milling about everywhere were a legion of museum staffers. When we asked to film Mr. Bunch they asked for our release form. Release form? What release form? We just show up and shoot and ask people orally if it's ok. Once they figured out that this wasn't a congressional hearing, they relaxed and gave us the ok, no forms required.

Bunch couldn't have been less bureaucratic. He laughed and joked and sermonized. His pitch was that African American history is too important to wait for the building to open in 2015, so the staff have already moved ahead and launched a website, a traveling show, and an oral history archive.

To close out the conference we attended a panel run by Jim Green: Thinking Historically About Terrorism. Just what is terrorism? As we all know it's hard to define. Just ask the University of North Carolina's Crystal Feimster.

Yale's Beverly Gage teaches a course on the history of terrorism. In this clip she explains how she approached the challenge of designing the course.

And so ends another OAH! See you next year.