BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Sean Wilentz, can you remember the first time you thought you might want to be a historian?
SEAN WILENTZ, AUTHOR, ”THE RISE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY”: It was so long ago. I’ve wanted to do this as far back as I can remember. My dad was a bit of a historian himself and he always made it a point to take us to historic sites. And like many people, I found out subsequently, I remember a trip to Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York, really was riveting and it was the palpability of the past was right in front of you. That’s what got me hooked and I never stopped. I just never stopped.
LAMB: What did your dad do?
WILENTZ: He was a bookseller in New York City, down in Greenwich Village and was very much a part of that Beat generation scene and that was interesting, too. I mean that had a whole other element about literary connections and literary involvement and musical and others. So, I was very lucky in my parents, very, very lucky.
LAMB: When you think back on the days your father was in the bookselling business, what do you remember when it comes to knowing or being in contact with literary people?
WILENTZ: Oh, well, I mean, his books – there were two bookshops. One, the City Lights Bookshop of San Francisco and his bookshop which was the Eighth Street Bookshop in Manhattan, the Village, which were the – it was a mixture really of selling books, but also a sort of literary salon for writers, generally in that period. So, I remember them all. I mean, I was a little kid. My father very much believed in child labor, so I started working there, you know, when I was 14 and just around the place was so much literary aura and it was a place to come to sit and read and to do things, in fact, many of the Barnes & Noble and stuff, where they’ve kind of adapted some of the same techniques which was to make it a place for readers as well as for writers. And, no, that was very exciting – very, very exciting. So, you know, I mean, on any given day, you never knew who was going to walk in and many of the writers actually looked for him. I mean, Andrei Codrescu, who works on NPR these days, he worked for my dad. But on any given day, Allen Ginsburg might be coming in or Norman Mailer might be stopping by or Irving Howe, the great critic, might be calling up saying, ”Where are my books?” And all of that, so I learned a lot of different sides of what writers are like and it was – it was very exciting.
LAMB: Your education started where?
WILENTZ: My education started in public schools in Brooklyn and then I went to Columbia as an undergraduate and then I was fortunate enough to go to Oxford for a couple of years and follow up in history and then I got my PhD at Yale.
LAMB: And now what, 27 years at Princeton.
WILENTZ: Since ’79, that’s right, 27 years.
LAMB: The latest thing I’ve seen from you is the cover of Rolling Stone.
WILENTZ: Yes, the cover’s a little over the top.
LAMB: ”The Worst President in History”
WILENTZ: Question mark, question mark.
LAMB: Yes. And when you open it up, inside, there’s a huge headline on the double page, ”The Worst President in History.” George Bush?
WILENTZ: We can argue about it. The piece doesn’t argue that he is. The question mark’s important. What happened was, the magazine called me up and asked if I’d write a historical assessment of the Bush Presidency. And I, you know, I thought well, it’s a little early for that. I mean we still have a ways to go, but I remember the poll that I had read on a news service called the History News Network. Which is actually a very fair minded, non-partisan group. So the poll had been conducted a couple years ago – it was in informal, but they asked historians what – where they would rate the Bush Presidency. And, you know, it’s no secret that historians are much more liberal than the general public, so I didn’t expect them to say – give Bush very high marks, but it was so lopsided, 81 percent said that the Bush Presidency was a failure, an outright failure. That was striking. And this was 2004, before Katrina, before the Plame business, before a lot has happened since. And the other thing that was striking was how far back historians, the people who were polled, went back to find a President that they would say was as bad. You would think that, you know, a bunch of liberal historians would say he was the worst since, I don’t know, his father maybe or Reagan or Nixon. Most of those who rated him a failure, went back well before Nixon. I mean, they were going back to Hoover and to Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan. So, that meant that the negative assessment wasn’t just negative on the part of these people, it was vehement, it was strong. And that impressed me at the time. So, when I thought about writing the piece a little more, I thought, what goes into making a great President? A successful Presidency? And what goes into making an unsuccessful Presidency? And that’s really what got me going on all of this and trying to assess the Bush White House, not for all time obviously, where things stand now. What the signs look like. If things were to continue along this trend and given what we know what the habits of the White House have been. Why it would look like – not the worst necessarily, but why he’d be, you know, down there as a contender for that. So, that’s what I’ve thought about and that’s what I wrote about.
LAMB: You have been very controversial from time to time. The most – probably the most visible you were during the Clinton impeachment. You were against the idea and you got 400 of your fellow professors to sign the ad in the New York Times.
WILENTZ: That’s right, that’s right.
LAMB: Did you risk people thinking there is a partisan historian?
WILENTZ: Oh, sure. Sure I did. I should add, I mean, I was aided in that effort by two senior colleagues, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and C. Vann Woodward who I respect. Woodward’s no longer with us, but I respect enormously. Sure, not because we were making a partisan statement, but you remember, I was here with you. That was a very acrimonious and acrid times. Really rough. And I think anything that anybody said on one side of the issue or the other was going to be accused of being partisan. The harder part was, you know, making a statement as a historian and I think there’s a feeling that historians should just stay on the sidelines and just judge things and let things happen, they really shouldn’t be involved in making history, they should be involved in writing about history. And I took that seriously and I thought about that a long, hard time before I got involved in that effort.
But I also thought that it was clear my own objections were not about Bill Clinton in particular or about the Republican House or about any of that. What I saw was the Constitution coming under fire. I truly believed, as I believe now, that the standards for impeachment were being lowered. That something was going on that was not what the framers had had in mind. And that was really what was – what was bothering me, not the partisan stuff. I like to think that if, you know, I mean, I am a Democrat and I was a supporter of Bill Clinton’s long before all of that, although a critical supporter, but I like to think that if the shoe were on the other foot politically, I would have said the same thing. If the House were to go after – if were a Democratic House going after George Bush, on what I thought were unconstitutional grounds, I hope I would say the same thing.
But it was the danger to the Constitution and that’s something that historians really do have authority about. There are constitutional lawyers and there are historians. And as you know, my writing is very heavily on the period of ratification of constitutional republic, so I thought, you know, from time to time, historians do have a civic role to play and that’s why I got involved, but I knew I was going to get my head handed to me and lots of people tried. But I felt – I felt OK about it. I later testified before the House and was pretty harsh. The other reason – and this had to do with the harshness of that occasion, too, or the bluntness, put it that way – was that I had the feeling that the country was kind of sleepwalking into this process. That the country had been lulled. And unless one spoke up sharply, not being mealy-mouthed about it, but be very clear, knowing that I was going to catch a lot of grief, but nevertheless, alerting people to what I thought was a very, very dangerous situation. If I failed to do that, I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t have been able to, you know, go on with any pride. I mean, it was important to me.
LAMB: Where would you put Bill Clinton in history today?
WILENTZ: I’d say so far, he’s in the middle. Somewhere in the middle. The other polls kind of show that, too. You know, he made great errors, both in his first term when he had an opportunity to bring the greatest social reforms since the Great Society, I think for the benefit of most Americans and then of course, the Lewinsky business was quite a (INAUDIBLE) in constitutionality although politically it was disastrous. He lost a whole year. The other thing about Clinton – I mean and he did many other things that were great, which I could go on about, I mean we had the largest surplus in American history, there was – minorities in particular did better without there being a gigantic social program like the Great Society, the economy was doing fine. He doesn’t get all the credit for that, but he shouldn’t not get any of the credit for that. Clinton was President during, what should we call them – unexciting times. It wasn’t the height of the Cold War, it wasn’t September 11, it wasn’t World War II. He didn’t have the opportunity, I think, to be either a terrible, terrible President or a great President and that was one of the things that I discovered in researching this article, which was the extent to which these – the Presidents that we believed to be the greatest successes and those we feel the most unsuccessful are those who are really tested. I mean tested in a way that the future of the Republic seems to be at stake. And it’s just misfortune, bad luck, the twists of history that many, many historians – many, many Presidents rather, don’t have those historic opportunities. So, in some ways, Clinton didn’t have them. He did a lot of good, he made a lot of mistakes.
LAMB: It struck me interesting a couple weeks ago when I opened up the Weekly Standard publications, which is known as a conservative publication run by Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes, owned by Rupert Murdock. And there was a review in there of this book, The Rise of American Democracy, by James Banner, Jr., who’s the co-founder of History News Service, not History News Network. My memory is there wasn’t one bad word in there about your book. First of all, who is James Banner and why would The Weekly Standard, which would not normally be on your side politically, give you such a praise about this book?
WILENTZ: I think, look, I’ve been delighted with response that people who – not just The Standard, but The Wall Street Journal, the attention they’ve given the book and the praise they’ve given the book. People are honest in their views. I mean, I’m glad they liked it, but I’m glad that politics didn’t trump it. Jim Banner is one of the most respected historians of the early nineteenth century, the Jeffersonian period and just afterward, wrote a very important book on the run up to the Hartford Convention in 1814. And he’s a very – he’s a political historian, you know, he knows the politics. Historians have been riven over the last generation or so between the political historians and the social historians supposedly. And I came up through the social history movement, but I tried to bridge the two and I write a lot about political conventions and elections and the nitty-gritty of all of those great leaders in there and they chose well by choosing Jim Banner because he knows that stuff.
If there was anybody who was going to catch me out, it was going to be he. He’s also a fair minded historian. He preceded me at Princeton, so I actually know him, but he was not the kind of guy to give me a puff because he happened to know me. He was – we disagree about a lot of issues. He doesn’t think Andrew Jackson’s so great. He actually takes me to task in that review a little bit. But I was pleased that The Standard did that, just as I was pleased that The Wall Street Journal ran a review by Harvey Mansfield up at Harvard which was similarly very gratifying. Both of them understood what I was trying to do in the book. Both of them had, you know, demurrals here and there, but both of them sympathized with what I was trying to do and that came across, so it was – it was really something, yes.
LAMB: Another book that has come out in the last couple months is this one and it’s one of a series, Andrew Jackson. One of the things that there is – by the way, what’s this series?
WILENTZ: This is the series that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. edits on the history of the American Presidency and it’s one volume on every President. He’s going to do every single one. So, there have been volumes on Washington and well, the Lincoln one isn’t out yet, but a good one by Roy Jenkins on FDR. He’s tried to find – Arthur’s tried to find both historians and men in public life. Gary Hart wrote one on James Monroe.
LAMB: We did John Dean on Warren Harding –
LAMB: - we also did John Siegenthaler on James Polk.
WILENTZ: Exactly. So, it’s a mix – it’s a mix. He’s lived a life which is very rich and he goes into – he’s been in politics as well as in the academy, so he tried to get that together. But the idea was to try and, I think, provide a fresh view of the Presidents. I mean, there has been as you know, kind of a boom over the last five, ten years of studies of especially the founding fathers. But I think what Arthur wanted to do was provide a comprehensive series covering, you know, the entire span of American history.
LAMB: How important – because I see you write about Arthur Schlesinger in all your books –
LAMB: - and that he was one of the original authors in our time ’45 of Andrew Jackson.
LAMB: And you together did the ad for the New York Times. How important is – would you like to see yourself in the White House someday as the historian for the President like he was to John Kennedy?
WILENTZ: I have no – I have no desire to be in the White House like he was, but I think that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., by any estimation is one of the giants of the historical profession of our time. I was very fortunate to get to know him. Actually, more after the impeachment business than during it, but I’d always admired the Andrew Jackson, I mean Andrew Jackson’s just one of the great reads in American history. It still read beautifully, wonderfully. It’s got such, you know, force and brio to it. But there is a generation, I mean, Arthur was one, C. Vann Woodward was another, who was also involved. He was my teacher. But Richard Hofstadter at Columbia, Daniel Boorstin, John Hope Franklin, they all came up at about the same time and made an extraordinary impact on the way that Americans understand their own history. Very different types. Richard Hofstadter wouldn’t be caught dead in the White House, I mean, he was allergic to power. He wanted to stay and write, he thought of himself that way. Arthur on the other hand is quite the opposite. He very much wanted to be on the political front lines. But both, in their writing, had a tremendous impact on the way that we understand not just the Presidents but the entirety of American history, especially American politics. And I’ve always admired those guys. In fact, I’m starting – the next thing I start, bar one, is going – I’m going to try and write something about that generation. I just found, you know, I don’t know if you want to call them the greatest generation, but they were an extraordinary generation of historians and I want to – want to kind of settle my own, you know, get them settled in my own mind and the only way to do that is write about them.
LAMB: Let me ask you about process and all this. Go back to the book, The Rise of American Democracy. It’s over a thousand pages. When did you start this and who’s idea was it and how, you know – what do you want people to get out of this?
WILENTZ: OK. First question first. When did I start it. The idea was completely mine. No one else would have done such a thing, I don’t think and I did it because no one had answered the basic question that I had which was how did this country become a democratic political nation. There was no one book that did that, so I said, alright, in a foolish active commitment I said I would. Foolish only because I didn’t know what I was getting into. I was much more complicated –
LAMB: What year?
WILENTZ: Well, I signed – I’ll tell you a – recently I had to go back over the contract and there was a legal point we had forgotten about, so we had to find the original contract. That contract was type written, that’ll tell you something about how old it was. The papers were getting a little bit yellow and the date on it was 1991. So, it’s been rattling around in my head for a long time. But I had other things that I was still doing, a lot of books that I wanted to write and the books that I finished in the interim. The impeachment year didn’t help my progress on all of this, although I must say that year in Washington taught me a lot about politics and how politics works, so I regret none of that. But fortunately, I had a very, very patient, I mean the patience of a saint editor named Jake Maphelia (ph) at Norton who stood by me, stood by the book and we got it done. But I say, five years or so of really intensive round the clock, you know, Katie bar the door writing, pulling everything together.
LAMB: And during that process your main job, day to day job, is what?
WILENTZ: Is teaching. I teach at Princeton, in both the History Department and the American Studies Program and, you know, that’s my day job. But, you know, there are historians that are academics who say, you know, that the best thing about – there are three good reasons to be a professor which are June, July and August. They want to get out of the classroom, they don’t like to teach. I found, in fact that not having been on leave, actually doing the teaching made me write better and faster. In part, because it does concentrate the mind wonderfully, you only have so much time, you’re going to use it efficiently, but also the give and take in the classroom, I mean, you can get very stale just sitting in your study all day long. And the structure of putting lectures together, talking to colleagues, talking to my students who are wonderful, really helped a lot too. So, yes, I mean, the two jobs go hand in hand, writing and teaching – for me at any rate, go hand in hand.
LAMB: The 1998, the year that you were involved in the impeachment, you were doing what then full time?
WILENTZ: Then I was on leave. I was at leave in the Woodrow Wilson, you know, International Center for Scholars, and I was doing the research for the book, and a lot of the research that’s in there came from that year. It’s a wonderful institution and I had basically the run of the Library of Congress and was in the National Archives and I was able to get a lot done.
But the year was also distracting. I mean, I didn’t get as much done as I would have liked to because I – well, I did get involved, and as you remember, I mean, I was in the Washington Journal, among other things, sat in the Library of Congress that morning. There was a lot of, you know, activity around all of that, and it cost me some time. Again, I don’t regret it, in part because I got a different kind of education.
LAMB: What did you learn?
WILENTZ: I learned to respect politics and politicians a lot more than I might have, on all sides. I really saw up close what they have to deal with, what is going on inside their minds. And historians are people who don’t want power. We’re the people on the sidelines, we’re the Monday morning quarterbacks, if you will. That’s one way to look at it. And I don’t always think that historians have a sufficient understanding of what politicians go through, what they have to do to govern, let alone get re-elected. Now, the age of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln is very different from our own. So, there’s no comparison between the two.
However, I do think, and this runs against, you know, politicians are right down there with, I guess, you know, dog catchers and college professors, who are among the least popular people in the country, but I – it’s not so much that I simply sympathized, I understood a lot more, and I understood how the process worked a lot better, and seeing it up close. After I got involved with the historians petition, I actually was inside the White House and saw how they were operating under a crisis, and I was up on the Hill and I saw how they were working under a crisis, and it was a real crisis. That was an unexpected education, really amazing.
LAMB: How did you find the money for the ad in the New York Times?
WILENTZ: The money came from the contributors themselves, I mean, the writers themselves. We had to find a fiscal agents to collect it all because I couldn’t do it. I was there in my office in Woodrow Wilson Center, and I wasn’t going to use that. So, People for the American Way, the organization that Norman Lear runs, volunteered to do that. There was some confusion at the time that somehow they had kicked in, but we wanted to keep this absolutely nonpartisan, so we had basically the people who signed the ad paid for the ad, and fortunately we got enough historians so that we could pay for it because as you know, a full-page ad in the New York Times is even, you know, now I imagine it’s exorbitant, but even then it was, I thought it was never going to be possible.
LAMB: $60,000, $70,000?
WILENTZ: Something like that. But we taxed ourselves, and you know, people were generous enough to come through.
LAMB: Who was in the – among the academy and historians, who was the maddest at you for doing it?
WILENTZ: In the academy not so much. I mean, there were people that – friends that disagreed with me, and there were some, in fact, I remember the Standard wrote a piece, I forget who they called, to be perfectly honest. But they found some historians who knew me and I know who disagreed violently with what I had done, mostly because I didn’t like Clinton very much. But, there was real comedy there, too, they all said, you know, they paid me the respect of saying that I was an historian that they respected. So I didn’t catch much grief from my fellow historians, I mean, disagreement, yes, and sometimes very sharp, but I didn’t get too much.
I suppose I got some e-mails and stuff and people said you shouldn’t step, you know, you shouldn’t be doing this, you should be staying in your study and let history follow that, but really not. You know, going back, actually, to that other generation, the older generation, they were always very involved in civic affairs. No one ever questioned their involvement at all, so I think there’s a precedent for all of that among the historians.
Outside of the historians, I mean, there was a lot. I mean, I’m – some good friends were saying terrible things about me in print, but it was a polemical time and …
LAMB: Like what?
WILENTZ: Well, I remember one friend who I won’t say because we’re still good friends, I was called the James Carville of the Academy and called a partisan of one kind or another, and in a couple of cases that really stung because these were friendships in some cases that went back, you know, decades, and people were angry, and I understood they were angry, but that doesn’t, you know, doesn’t sting. But fortunately the friendships have survived and maybe it’s true about writers, too, and as to the people I didn’t know who attacked me, so what? I mean, you know, that’s what’s going to happen. I mean, you know, Harry Truman, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. I mean, I knew that was going to happen, I didn’t pay it much mind.
Except, and this is actually one of the reasons I was so happy to come on your show that time, which was, I didn’t want to the extent that the American people were paying attention as to what I was saying at that moment, and there was a moment when they were, a lot of people were, I wanted to make sure that they understood why I was saying what I was saying, why the other historians were saying what they were saying. You know, there was a certain amount of, you know, clout of disinformation that went up, and there was, you know, a Web site, I think, devoted to tracking us all down and showing who we all were and we were all partisan this and partisan that. I found that very unfortunate and I wanted to try and make clear to the public what we were doing. So that was the only downside of the craziness, but personally, you know.
LAMB: After seeing academia critical of you, probably the single one that I could find the most was David Horowitz.
WILENTZ: Ah, yes, David Horowitz. David …
LAMB: Who, by the way, said he accused you all of being involved in the political corruption of the American Academy.
WILENTZ: Yes, I know. Well, that’s actually interesting because I replied to David’s piece, and he actually wrote a very nice – he took something back about what he had said. And I’ve actually had a funny kind of back and forth with David over the years, I’ve been on his site, front page magazine, because I think it’s important for even people who have violently different points of view to debate, to debate, and so I try to, and to keep some kind of spirit of comedy open. I mean, you don’t have to be nice, you don’t have to pull your punches, but you can at least be civil and you can at least say what’s on your mind.
LAMB: One of the things he says in the article is there’s not a single conservative among the 56 faculty in Princeton’s history department.
WILENTZ: Oh, that’s not (INAUDIBLE) I don’t think that’s true at all. I mean, I’m not going to name names because it’s not my job to do so, but he’s just misinformed.
LAMB: Either – how many concerters are there?
WILENTZ: Boy, I don’t have a count.
LAMB: Well let me just – let me come at it a different way. I mean, there’s a lot of criticism on the right …
WILENTZ: Yes, yes.
LAMB: … college professors …
WILENTZ: Oh, yes, yes. Yes.
LAMB: … being on the left …
LAMB: … and let me just reverse this. If you knew that there were as many conservatives teaching college as there are liberals, what would you think about either going or having your own kids go?
WILENTZ: It’s funny, I mean, first of all you have to be careful of who we mean by college professors. I mean, you know, I don’t know what liberal biology is, although I guess liberal biology these days, but what liberal physics are …
LAMB: The political …
WILENTZ: But it’s the people who teach the humanities and in the social sciences that are up to this. So within that world, I actually think history is probably the more con – it’s on the conservative end of that, and the reason I say that is that when I was coming up, that generation had come through a time when history was the most conservative of these liberal arts disciplines, and that generation really had to clear its way open. And there was a certain among of overhang to that.
Secondly, I think history more than others tends to be resistant to fads, the kids of theoretical fads that you see out there in other disciplines. Mainly because, I hate to say this, but you have to know something to be an historian. You can’t ignore the facts completely. Sure, there’s stuff out there I think is silly, but that’s always the case. But I think there’s actually a built-in conservatism in history, not just because we study the past, but because you happen to have a certain respect for it.
So, I think that the accusations are over and done, I really do, certainly with regard to Princeton. We have debates, we have people come in, and I was on – in a forum the other day with a colleague from the history department and two very conservative spokesmen talking about the government vs. middle government. I think the students there are going to get every point of view out there about current events, and then, you know, the biggest question of all is whether you’re liberal conservative or not, do you leave your politics at the doorstep or at the, you know, at the retrovol (ph) door.
And absolutely, I mean, I’ve never – I’ve gone to other people’s lectures. I don’t think that if you went to my college lectures you would be able to tell or even David would be able to tell whether the person was a conservative or a liberal in his politics because you are reporting, you are interpreting, you are shaping the past for others.
But we have - unlike some universities, I might - I might say, we do teach the history of the American Revolution. We do teach the history of the American Civil War. We do teach this body of material because it is essential to understanding the past. We never gave up on that.
LAMB: Going back to the Rolling Stone article, which was in the May 4th edition …
LAMB: … the worst …
WILENTZ: Still on newsstands.
LAMB: … the worst president in history. In this article, you write that nearly as many as those rated Bush a success flatly called the worst president in American History; that 12 percent called him the worst.
WILENTZ: Twelve percent.
LAMB: And what I wanted to ask you is how would you rate him at this point.
WILENTZ: I don’t think the president’s - the current White House, as things stand right now, can escape being held at the lowest tier among the historians; along with the presidents.
LAMB: Down with James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover?
WILENTZ: Yes. I think he - I think he’s - I think he’s got a shot at it. Put it that way. A lot can happen in two and a half years, so I don’t want to get into that kind of over-speculation. But on all of the areas of presidential performance that I figured out as being the crucial ones for understanding why certain presidents are deemed very successful and why others are deemed unsuccessful, this White House has stumbled and sometimes stumbled badly. They include the question of credibility, questions of uniting the country in war time as opposed to dividing the country in war time. They include domestic issues. They involve misconduct and the Constitutional questions that I raise in the article.
And then, more than that, the more I thought about it, what really united these - the people who have been unsuccessful, is a kind of dedication to a simplistic ideology; a simple ideology without the ability to change or shift. I mean, the counter example to that, the great experiment, or the great pragmatist, was Franklin Roosevelt who, as you remember, ran for president in 1932 saying he would balance the budget. Well, that went out the window pretty quickly. But he was a relentless experimenter. I mean if this didn’t work, then he tried something else. If that worked, then you move on to something else. He was always adjusting his sense of politics and human decency to the current situation.
All of the men you mentioned, Brian - James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Hoover - were examples of people who had a very set idea of the way things ought to be. And, I think, confused a certain kind of steely determination with a kind of what Emerson called a foolish consistency. You know, you have to be able to adjust. And I haven’t seen this White House be able to do that very well; whether it’s on the Katrina business or whether it’s with the downside of the war.
The president had two really great opportunities to reach for greatness. And on one of them, he started that way. On the (INAUDIBLE) in the aftermath of the election of 2000, which was so divisive, and he had run as a uniter not a divider - somebody who would change the tone in Washington - he really had an opportunity to reach out to some Democrats, anyway. And to bring the country together. Well, he didn’t do that. That was mistake number one.
Mistake number two came months after the atrocities of September 11th where, at first - I mean, he was - he was wonderful, I thought. I mean, I thought the speech that he gave to Congress was one of the most stirring I ever heard; the joint session of Congress. And at a time when the country was in deep, deep grief, the country rallied behind him. And then his actions against the Taliban government in Afghanistan - well, I think, exactly the right thing to do. I think he did it in an absolutely Constitutional way. I thought I’d underestimated the man.
But then, things began to take a different turn. And they took a different turn - and the first sign of this, looking back - now that I - this is with hindsight - was when he chose, again, not to reach out so much to the people across the aisle. He got people to support the Iraqi business but he didn’t bring them into the government as much. In the elections in the - in the mid-term elections in 2002, there’s a lot of politicizing of the war. If not by him directly, then by people around him in the White House. And you know, a great war leader, a great war president, is one who manages to hold the country together as part - leading a national struggle; which the war against Islamic terrorism - if that’s the word you want to use, struggle against Islamic terrorism - has to be a national effort. And I think that much too quickly, he chose - or the White House chose - partisanship over leadership.
LAMB: What are the chances that - you mentioned Harry Truman and - Harry Truman at one time was about 24 percent popular, went on now to be in the top 10 of most polls …
LAMB: What are the chances, if everything in Iraq eventually comes around, the whole thing turns and George Bush turns out to be one of the strongest?
WILENTZ: It could - it could absolutely happen. And I by no means, you know, rule that out. Yes. I mean Harry Truman, who was bogged down in Korea, he had had - he had ups and downs. Unlike the Bush trend, which has been pretty steadily down; few upticks here and there, but it’s been pretty steadily disillusion. Truman went up and down. But he left on a down note; he left in a - he had sub-Nixonian figures. So it’s possible. I mean looking back.
But you know, one appreciates what Harry Truman did, say, with the Marshall Plan or with containment or with any number - there are any number of things that you can point to so that he went down at his lowest but there were other high points.
The question will be whether either the situation in the Middle East changes or something else happens, which later historians can point to and say, ”That was his finest hour. That was George W. Bush’s finest hour.” So far, we have that moment in the first weeks after September 11th; but then, it was a pretty steady decline. If something were to happen, both horrifying or if he were to, I think, shift his administration, he could get somewhere.
I mean historically, again, Ronald Reagan suffered from declining polls in the second term. Bill Clinton certainly had declining polls in his first term; I mean he was really down in the - in the dumps in 1994. They both managed to shift. You know, they cleaned house, they brought new people in. Reagan brought in Howard Baker and brought in moderate Republicans; got rid of the more neo-conservative elements in his administration. And ended up on a - on a high note. Not only just with public relations and, you know, the popularity polls; he had a very successful last year as president. He and Gorbachev figured it out and the Cold War came to an end. Similarly, Clinton, after the debacle over health care, he shifted, too. And he cleaned house and he adjusted his presidency.
I think - I mean, this is speculation, but I think that if President Bush is to be able to have a shot at that - and it’s going to require more than just crossed fingers; it’s going to require some action on his part to do it. And I’ve been hearing from Republicans as well as Democrats who are - who are pressing for this, that something has gone wrong and that a real leader is someone who recognizes that and - you know, you don’t have to apologize, you don’t have to do anything like that. You just shift course. It’s like - it’s like any good sailor would do.
LAMB: Go back to the process question on Rolling Stone. Did they tell you in advance that the headline on the cover would be ”The Worst President in History?”
WILENTZ: They had no idea. I had no idea. They had no idea; I had no idea. They asked me to write a piece which would be a - an assessment of Bush in historical terms. And I wrote that piece. And then, they came up with the headlines and the drawings and so forth. And I did - I did (INAUDIBLE) there were side bars there which talked - you know, the more historical stuff.
But no, they didn’t - they didn’t know. I mean I think they probably had a good idea that I wasn’t a great fan of the current administrations. But I don’t know - they didn’t know what they were going to get.
LAMB: They (INAUDIBLE) …
WILENTZ: I didn’t know - I didn’t know what I was going to say. I wasn’t sure that I was going to couch it around that matter, until I started thinking about, you know, the question of where he would stand historically (INAUDIBLE) others. Until I went back and remembered that poll and then the whole thing developed. So it really kind of developed - they asked me to do it, I did it and the article is what I sent them and then they went to town.
LAMB: Whose idea was it to do the article?
WILENTZ: I believe my editor, Eric Bates, at Rolling Stone. (INAUDIBLE)
LAMB: Do you have a relationship with him? On a regular basis?
WILENTZ: Never. Never talked to him before. He was a great editor, though. I mean, the piece is sharper, much clearer, than it would otherwise have been.
LAMB: What kind of impact did it have?
WILENTZ: What, the editing?
LAMB: The article itself.
LAMB: What kind of reaction did you get compared to the other things you do (INAUDIBLE)?
WILENTZ: Oh, I mean it’s bigger. I mean Rolling Stone …
WILENTZ: He’s a great editor though. I mean, the piece is much sharper, much clearer than it otherwise would have been.
LAMB: What kind of impact did it have?
WILENTZ: What, the editing?
LAMB: The article itself. What kind of reaction did you get compared to the other things you do?
WILENTZ: Oh, I mean, it’s bigger. I mean, Rolling Stone is a big deal. I mean, a lot of people read it. I write for much smaller circulation magazines for the most part, you know, and a lot of younger people. I mean, my son – I have a 26-year-old son and all of his friends are reading it, some most approvingly I’m happy to say, some wrinkled brows.
But most of the reaction I’ve gotten has been positive. I gather that hasn’t been – I gather there’s going to be a letter section in Rolling Stone which is 99 percent to one percent on the other side, and that’s great. That’s great. I mean, I look forward to reading those letters and responding to them.
LAMB: One of the things in the (INAUDIBLE) notes, it says, (INAUDIBLE) historian and resident as Bob Dylan’s official Web site, (INAUDIBLE) also earned a Grammy nomination last year.
WILENTZ: Yes, I did, I did.
LAMB: For the liner notes.
WILENTZ: That’s right.
LAMB: It is a bootleg series by (INAUDIBLE). Now what do you – what are you doing, doing something like that?
WILENTZ: Oh, I don’t know. I love music. I’ve always loved American music and actually going back to my father in the book shopping, Bob Dylan was one of the people in that scene maybe. He actually met Allen Ginsberg in my uncle’s apartment above the bookshop.
So I’d always had a connection to that world and I do a lot of writing, you know, apart from my historical writing I write about, all kinds of things, music, art. I’m a contributing editor to the New Republic and a wonderful editor there named Leon Wesalteer (ph), who is a dear friend, has allowed me to just follow my curiosity wherever it goes, and so I’ve gotten to write about all kinds of things, and then in other places as well.
And somewhere around 1997 or so, Dylan had released a new album and I liked it a lot and I wrote a piece about it, and that may have been what rekindled this, you know, very one-way connection. But I was asked by his management if I would like to write – he didn’t – wasn’t going to have liner notes for this next album that came up in 2000.
Interestingly, it was released on September 11, 2001, and that day, I got the news about what had happened and got the news about a friend of mine actually who was, you know, Ken Fitzgerald (ph). I mean, I knew he was gone while I was entering this thing into the computer.
They asked me to write about this new album and I liked it and I wrote about it for his Web site. And you know, since then, we made up this kind of factitious title of his starting in residence (ph), starting residence in cyberspace and how can you be a resident, but it’s given me a chance to write about him and write about music more generally.
That might have been one of the reasons why Rolling Stone actually turned to me because they had seen that side of my – of my writing. But I’ve always felt that historians shouldn’t necessarily be confined to history if they have other interests.
LAMB: In your book, Andrew Jackson, I just wondered how often history repeats it, so your Chapter 9, you have Jackson’s valedictory like Washington’s also warranted trouble ahead.
Despite the successes of the bank war, Jackson observed ”the paper money system and its natural associations/monopoly and exclusive privileges had struck their roots too deep in the soil and the nation would have to redouble its strength to eradicate the evil.”
We’re in the middle of the same kind of a discussion today for different reasons, but it goes back to this subject of money and exclusive privileges.
WILENTZ: Yes, yes.
LAMB: And will we learn anything in history?
WILENTZ: Oh, we’ve always learned. We’ve gone back and forth, but there are ebbs and flows. Andrew Jackson, when he delivered his famous bank veto message in 1832, has a kind of ringing (INAUDIBLE) in which he says that, you know, that government should not be bent to the interests of the rich – the selfish interests of the rich empowered (ph).
That’s a time before big corporations. That was a time before, you know, you had lobbying questions and all of that. That was a time when the government in some ways was a bigger entity than business was, than any one business was. And he did not want to see business take advantage of government, which he thought it was monarchical.
I mean, it was an aristocratic system. Now, the world is very different today. Since the end of the 19th Century, we do have large corporations. We have – who have large interests out there. But we always have this debate. We always have this debate. It comes and goes. We had this debate in the 1930’s.
We kind of had this debate in the 1960’s, although it was inflected more by the Civil Rights movement. And we’re having this debate today. So I mean, that’s a sign of health in America. That’s a perennial. We’re always going to do that. It goes back to really two facts. We are a democracy.
We are a government dedicated to – in the constitution to the general welfare. And at the same time, we’re a capitalist country, we’re a thriving country, we make a lot of money, it’s great, but there are also inevitable political and differentials of power.
And the two can sometimes mesh, but they can sometimes conflict, and that’s the eternal debate, one of the eternal debates in American life.
LAMB: To go back to your early education, Columbia, Yale, Balliol College at Oxford.
WILENTZ: That’s right.
LAMB: Now at Princeton. During those years as you were growing up, who had impact on you?
WILENTZ: Oh, that’s funny. I was just up at Columbia last night giving a talk and I was remembering some of the – some of the professors. I mean, Schlesinger for one, reading him. I didn’t know him, but reading him. Richard Hofstadter, certainly.
LAMB: He was at Columbia?
WILENTZ: He was – I was about to take his seminar, hoped to take his seminar and he died in 1970, but he was a – he was a giant in the place and I had read his stuff since I was in high school. He was one of the historians, professional historians who, you know, you could find his paperbacks in drugstores.
That was something I wanted to do. You’re not going to put that thing in a drugstore, but I wanted to always write for a larger public, and he was one of the people who did so. But he also was a brilliant stylist and a controversial. I don’t always agree with him, but boy, did he shake up the way he thought about the past, especially about political culture.
Then, I mean, and others, I mean, there was a wonderful teacher named Jim Shenton at Columbia who is legendary and was a graduate teacher. Over at Oxford, for a while, I flirted with doing French history and because there was a teacher there named Richard Cobb (ph), who was a great French historian, who also wrote.
I think I was always drawn to people who wrote well. You know, that was part of it. There was always a literary side to history. And then at Yale, I was very fortunate to study with Van Woodward and then David Brian Davis (ph), the late historian of Slavery and Anti-slavery, and at Yale, I had a – there was a great group of graduate students as well. We taught each other a great deal.
LAMB: What makes a good teacher?
WILENTZ: What makes a good teacher? Never being too sure of yourself. It’s sort of like what it takes to be a successful president. I mean, once you’ve hardened your own views, you become old and ossified. A great teacher, it’s not the only that it takes, but one of the things it takes is an ability to question yourself, and never to exceed authority.
You know more than the students do, you never forget that, but don’t be sure of yourself. Keep yourself alive, keep yourself intellectually interesting to yourself and then you will be to your students. It’s a matter of time, of putting in the time.
It’s a matter of respecting students as young people who have real brains and want to become real thinkers, real intellectuals, real writers maybe. Not all of them want to, but all of them have that spark and you’ve just got to let that spark, you’ve just got to blow on that spark and let it flame.
Nothing makes me happier than to watch light bulbs go on, and that requires your thinking along with them. That’s the point, not getting set in your ways. You’re thinking along with them. It’s an enterprise in which is shared.
You’re kind of on a – it’s more like being on a ship or a boat than it is pulling people along. You are all doing it together, and if you can get that spirit, at least that’s been my experience that’s what it takes.
LAMB: Do you do something every semester with your students that’s unique to Shawn Wilentz?
WILENTZ: I can’t say that I do that. I have taught courses that are pretty idiosyncratic a lot of years. Oh, my favorite one was of course that was totally devoted to Moby Dick, the Herman Melville novel, which is my favorite American novel. Well, that and maybe Huck Finn, the two of them.
But we did nothing but read that book, study that book intensively and I taught to freshman. Freshman are wonderful because they are totally unjaded (ph). They don’t know the ropes. They are so happy to have gotten into a place like Princeton that it’s very easy for that rapport to build up.
So we spent the first five weeks reading the book very, very slowly. I mean, one of the problems I think college students face today, I think we all face today, is that we have to read so much so fast and we’re bombarded with this stuff.
And one of the premises of the course, maybe this is what makes me different is that I slow people down and say, you cannot understand a book as rich as this, you don’t really enjoy it unless you read it slowly. A certain respect for my students’ attention spans is one of the reasons I (INAUDIBLE) page book too I suppose, but I really think that that’s important.
Once they’ve done that, then we do all kinds of things. We read Hawthorne, we read early Melville, we read some of the philosophers, Thomas Carlisle and others who he (ph) was picking up, but we read a lot of Shakespeare because there is a lot of Shakespeare in that book.
We take a long, day long car ride, it’s a long ride from Princeton out to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where they can actually a whale ship, see what it’s like to live on a whale ship, see what a harpoon is, get as sense. You get some salt in their noses so they can understand that part of it. I love that course. I teach it whenever I can.
LAMB: You said that when you were young, your father took you to places historical. What’s your favorite historical spot?
WILENTZ: My favorite historical spot? Boy, that’s a hard one.
LAMB: We won’t hold it to you.
WILENTZ: No, no, I’m thinking. I think, you know, now, I would say the White House. I would say the White House. You know, there’s Lafius Grigg (ph), that’s my friend in New Jackson (ph), so maybe that’s what’s pulling me and I was there doing this half-moon salute or …
LAMB: In Lafayette Square?
WILENTZ: In Lafayette Square. But you know, I actually have, when Truman was in office, they ripped it up, they got him in the White House. He was living in their house, so all the old original nails and wood, I have as a gift, someone gave me some of the original nails from the original White House built in the 1800’s, and survived the burning in 1814.
And I find those kind of precious actually. And I have been – I have looked at the White House, I’ve sat in that square and seen the White House at the end of the day, when the sun is going down and is glinting off that, and you just think how much history was made in that place. And how it really is (INAUDIBLE) being gutted in the same place.
You know, I write about Andrew Jackson, you know, he was in that place. There’s a sense of connection there, that he throws across the entire span of American history. I guess a lot of graveyards actually. I love to go to graveyards, maybe for the same kind of connection.
I don’t mean to be ghoulish about it, but Princeton has a particularly wonderful graveyard and Jonathan Edwards, the great evangelist of the 18th Century, is buried there. And Aaron Burr, his grandson, one of the great scoundrels of the 18th and 19th Century, he’s buried there.
LAMB: And his father.
WILENTZ: And his father, who was the President of Princeton. So that’s …
LAMB: And Grover Cleveland.
WILENTZ: And Grover Cleveland and there are a couple of others actually. Well, I mean, on the literary side, Sylvia Beach (ph), who was James Joyce’s great patron in Paris, she’s buried there. John O’Hara, the writer, is buried there.
It’s a great little cemetery in terms of seeing people. America is a very young country, you know, and you can feel that kind of closeness I think to people. I can feel that closeness to people I write about that’s almost palpable.
LAMB: I won’t hold you to this. This is two and a half years out, but based on history, not on your personal feelings, based on history, which party is more likely to win the White House?
WILENTZ: Yes, I see what you’re saying. You know, ordinarily you would say the Democrats. But this is a very odd political moment we’re living through because the parties are so polarized, because the Democrats themselves, they’ve really got a (INAUDIBLE) for so long, so they’re very fractionalized.
And you have a character like John McCain on the Republican side who is, if he can get the nomination, would be a very powerful candidate with independence, because he’s not, you know, he hasn’t been in lockstep with most of even his colleagues on several issues, or at least it’s perceived that way.
And you know, his coming into the campaign, if he were to survive, could throw off all the calculations. So I really do hesitate. Most of the time, you could pretty well predict that the out party would get in, that it would be not unlike what happened in ’74 and then in ’76 after the Nixon resignation, the Democrats really enlarged their majorities in both Houses of Congress and then ’76 at the White House.
That turned out to be a false dorm (ph) for the liberals because they all thought, well, this is the way it’s going to be for the rest of our lives, and then, bang, you know, the reality of Ronald Reagan hit them and they never, in some ways, never really recovered. But you would expect something like that, but this is a weird time, Brian, so …
LAMB: If a future president invites you to be the historian and residence the White House, what would you say?
WILENTZ: Oh, I won’t take a Sherman statement. I won’t, you know, say if drafted, I will not run. But I love teaching and I love writing and these days in politics, it’s not like Arthur Schlesinger’s day, you know, when I think an historian, when the pace of events was there but where Washington was a less accurate in a less acrimonious place to be.
I’m not so sure that, you know, a mere writer like I could survive that atmosphere for too much longer.
LAMB: Shawn Wilentz, professor at Princeton, history, author of ”The Worst President in History?”, the cover story of the May 4th Rolling Stone, author of ”Andrew Jackson: The Short Volume,” a couple of hundred pages on President Andrew Jackson, and then the big one, ”The Barge,” we call it.
Yes, it’s ”The Barge: The Rise of American Democracy, Jefferson to Lincoln.” Thank you very much.
WILENTZ: Thank you, Brian.