Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Night with a Presidential Historian

Last night, we had a chance to hear Michael Beschloss as part of the Broward College Speakers' Series.  I would have hesitated to have afforded a ticket at the regular price, so when we had the opportunity to get free tickets, I jumped at it.

It was a lovely night.  We met our friend who got us the tickets, and we ate at a restaurant near the Broward Center, a restaurant which had an outdoor patio.  It was one of those nights where I said to myself, "This, this, is what I thought being a grown-up would be like!"

And then it was on to the main event, Michael Beschloss, who is not only a historian and PBS commentator, but a wonderful public speaker.  He gave us a wonderful window into what it's like to be a historian, and insight into various historical periods and politics in general.

Beschloss has spent his career exploring the history of presidents. He talked about the amount of time he spends immersed in the world of his subject.  He talked about going to LBJ's house and listening to the tapes. 

In fact, his talk kept coming back to tapes.  He recently edited Jackie Kennedy's interviews that she created after her husband's death.  She was worried about Kennedy's reputation; after all, he hadn't been in office very long when he was killed.  So she created these amazing interviews and stipulated that they be sealed for 100 years. 

But Caroline Kennedy felt that they didn't need to be kept from the public that long, and she approached Beschloss as the best person to edit them.  It was his dream assignment, something he never thought he'd see in his lifetime. 

His talk made me want to be a historian, although that's not a practical career change for me.  But I love the fact that he spent the day at Broward College talking to young people.  I love that he's giving back in that way.

He talked about the luxury that historians have, the luxury of being able to consider events in hindsight.  He talked about items that seemed so important once that seem trivial now and vice versa.  Journalists don't have the luxury of hindsight as they cover events in real time.

He talked about the resources that are important to him--letters, tapes, journals--and speculated about future historians.  Will we find the same sort of honesty in e-mails?  He's worried we won't. 

Maybe I approach e-mail differently, but I've certainly been as emotionally vulnerable in e-mails as in letters.  I've been honest when writing friends.

I think that future historians will have to think about the public self and the private self, perhaps more than past historians, but perhaps not.  In some ways, presidents have had the kind of self-awareness that we all have now, this feeling that there is no private life, but we try to carve some out anyway.

On a down note, he talked about the toxic culture of DC.  He's lived in the town for 30 years, and he says it's never been as bad as it is now.

He talked to us as voters when he told us what we should look for in a president.  It will not surprise you to find out that he thinks it's important to have a president who knows history.  He talked about Kennedy's knowledge of history, especially WWI, and how that knowledge shaped him as he moved through the Cuban missile crisis.  He didn't want to telegraph the wrong messages.  I'm so grateful that he was successful.  That crisis could have so easily ended in a nuclear exchange.

He also said that we should look for a president who can work with people of differing beliefs.  That, too, is not a surprise.  He got applause at that idea, which heartened me.  I'm surrounded by people who are so sure that what they believe is the only way to believe, and that anyone who believes otherwise is beyond redemption. Who'd have thought that academia would hold so many of these people?

It's interesting that Beschloss has been a historian without being attached to an academic institution, although he's certainly moved through and around them as he's done his work.  It's good to remember that academia is not the only way to get this work done.

I do wish I had more time to read those big books, like those written by Barbara Tuchman and Michael Beschloss.  But in these times when I don't, it's wonderful to have a night like last night, a night when I feel my brain being nourished.

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