An Interview with David Greenberg
For 10 years, David Greenberg has been writing Slate’s “History Lesson,” which follows the Web site’s conventional-wisdom debunking formula. His column focuses on tropes of history present in our punditocracy, which he then methodically deconstructs. His first column, which appeared on Oct. 23, 1998, at the height of Bill Clinton’s impeachment woes, defended America’s proud history of partisanship. In a column entitled “Blundering Into Afghanistan,” posted less than 10 days after Sept. 11, 2001, Greenberg noted the history of empires’ foibles in Afghanistan. In April 2007, he compared Barack Obama’s subtle suggestions that a vote for him was a vote for tolerance to John F. Kennedy’s use of his Catholic faith. Though creative, sharp and politically liberal, he maintains the good historian’s temperamentally conservative ethos to carefully analyze and correct received wisdoms.
Greenberg has also written a short study of our 30th president, Calvin Coolidge (2006), and a longer study of various groups’ perceptions of our 37th, Nixon’s Shadow: the History of an Image (2003). At the moment he is working on a book that he calls a history of spin.
Greenberg is 40. He grew up in Newton, Massachusetts. His father is a philosophy professor at Brandeis and his mother is a psychologist. His wife Suzanne Nossel, who works at Human Rights Watch, was featured recently in a piece Hendrik Hertzberg wrote for the New Yorker. (She coined “Smart Power,” a term now employed by Hillary Clinton). He has two small children and lives in an apartment on Central Park North, a few long blocks away from Columbia where he received his Ph.D. in 2001. At the moment he teaches at Rutgers. We met at his place on Feb. 11 to discuss how history informs our current moment when America faces a new Great Depression and an African-American now serves as its president.
I remember a long piece you wrote for Slate some time ago in which you compared popular history to academic history. And you made a point that popular history tends to follow the “great man” view of history. So Joseph Ellis writes a book about George Washington and we all have to read it. Why should we discount the “great man” view of history? Almost everyone agrees that the history of the world in the last eight years would have been very different had the 2000 election turned out differently. And almost everyone agrees the situation we’ve had these last few weeks are very different because Barack Obama, not John McCain, is president. And you yourself have written two books that center on “great men.”
Right. And I don’t discount it. That piece was trying to lay out the landscape and identify the different camps and arguments that go on implicitly or explicitly between popular and academic history. But let me give you the case against “great man” [history] which I subscribe to [to] a limited extent. I guess Tolstoy makes it most famously in War and Peace [when he writes of] the idea [that] whoever is at the top of the pyramid is ultimately having to respond to these greater forces: rivalries between nations, changes in demographics, famines, changes in the nature of our social life. And so in the academy, social history and other kinds of longer-term history was seen as a way of getting at deeper forces shaping history [where] the person at the top is kind of the froth on the wave.
A couple of years ago, I remember Bill Bradley of all people -- who normally hasn’t impressed me terribly as an intellect -- wrote this very good op-ed that a number of people were talking about, about the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. And he says the Republican Party is based on this conservative movement that has clear ideologies, certain things they want in a president. It almost doesn’t matter who they put in the top because they get the same outcome. The Democrats are constantly searching around for the right leader who might somehow give them that vision. They were at sea during these years, Bradley argued, because they didn’t have the understructure. They kept hoping for individual people to deliver them.
They were looking for a John F. Kennedy or a Franklin Roosevelt.
Or maybe an Obama [who is] something, you could argue, of a refutation of Bradley’s claim (although I think Obama’s election had as much to do with longer-term forces as with his own qualities). But Bradley was arguing against “great man” history and for the importance of larger social forces. And I think that’s true up to a point. On the one hand, the country was ready for something different in 1960 after Eisenhower and after the complacency of the 1950s. There was a hunger for change. On the other hand, Kennedy won by only a handful of votes. So let’s say Nixon had won. Would Nixon have been forced to govern in a more liberal fashion? Would he have been forced to respond to the civil rights movement the way he was forced in 1970 to respond to the environmental movement? Some historians give him credit -- I don’t particularly -- for his environmental policies. I think he was responding to pressures from the public, from Congress, a greater environmental awareness that had arisen over the last six or eight years.
So I think there are arguments on both sides. And in some ways what I’m interested in my own work is the intersection of individuals and larger forces. I do think leaders matter. I do think leaders can direct history. I do think the conversations and thoughts and actions of individuals are important and can alter the course of things. But there is also the danger of removing them from their social and historical context so that they are seen as more uniquely movers of history than they are. So often the way the public thinks about Lincoln or Washington -- or the founders as a group -- lacks that contextualization that really helps us understand why they were able to do what they did or why someone like Lincoln changed so much. Even as president, his views on race and slavery evolved. He’s in dialogue with his times. And those things, I think, are important to understand. At the same time, I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of people in the academy seem to be so down on “great man” or “great woman” history, if you will. It’s become politically incorrect to make the case for it. I don’t think it should be.
How unprecedented is Obama in American history? Obviously, he’s unprecedented in that he is the first president we’ve had whom we know is black.
(laughs) Yeah, there were rumors about Warren Harding.
But Obama is the first president we have had who we see as black.
And who identifies as black.
And who identifies as black. Every pundit says this is a great moment in American history. The naysayers’ claim, and I don’t think it’s unfair, is that when Jesse Jackson calls his campaign the final lap in the civil rights movement, it connects his campaign to that movement unfairly. Mostly unfair to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King’s movement wasn’t about seizing power. It was about enfranchising the most disenfranchised, in every sense of the word, group in America. There is a sentimentality in looking at Obama as a history-making figure. At the same time, it’s hard to expect people to escape this sentimentality. So is it fair to see him as this great historical marker, as part of the March on Washington or Frederick Douglass writing his Narrative? Do we look at him in that tradition or do we simply look at it as one of the most successful presidential campaigns in history, which is a feat in itself?
I don’t see it as either/or. I realize I’m something of a naysayer here. I don’t think his campaign was one of the great campaigns of all time. He clearly, in some sense, was an underdog in the Democratic primary starting out. But a lot of Hillary Clinton’s lead was like Joe Lieberman’s lead in 2004 or George W. Bush’s lead in 1999, 2000 for the Republicans -- based on name recognition and familiarity. And there was always a sizable proportion of the Democratic electorate that didn’t want Hillary and was looking to coalesce around someone else, partly because of the war, partly because of disenchantment with the perceived centrism of the Clinton administration, partly because of sexism, partly for other reasons. So for a host of reasons, Hillary was a problematic frontrunner. And then she starts debating Obama and in the summer of 2007 seems to earn her frontrunner status in her own right. But once they start going negative on her in October or November of ’07 her lead really starts to crumble and Obama has many skills as a candidate that brings to bear. But his defeat of her was portrayed as this David vs. Goliath story and that she had this “machine.” It was always called the Clinton machine. But he had this really well-oiled machine and he had a lot of long-time operatives in his camp. He had a lot of support from superdelegates, from Democratic Party power brokers too. So although it was an upset, I don’t think it was an upset like Wendell Willkie coming out of nowhere to get the Republican nomination in 1940 or a number of other true dark horses coming out of nowhere to win. Then against McCain… I thought McCain was always doing better in the polls than he had any right to do. The fact that it was so close between McCain and Obama was actually testament to McCain’s strength and Obama’s relative weakness as a candidate. And then when the economy collapsed and McCain had no coherent response… basically, it was game over.
So, although I credit Obama with running a good campaign, I don’t think it was a great historic upset in the way the media has portrayed it. I do think we’re at a watershed moment. Bush’s foreign policy and so much in the conservative agenda is not just being rejected by the public but is just manifestly a spent force, a failed philosophy, as Obama said. So in that sense it’s a watershed. But again this is “great forces” more than “great man.” If Hillary had won it would feel like a watershed. If Joe Biden had won it would feel like a watershed.
Now, on the racial question… I think it’s really tricky. Clearly we all felt, I certainly felt, this sense of elation over America’s election of a black man on election night that I think was undeniable and real. At the same time, it is different. [As somebody argued to me,] this is a man whose father was an African, whose mother was white, who had a whole set of family resources that many African-American families don’t have to draw on if it’s a single mother raising a black child. I also think that although Obama has identified himself with the civil rights movement, he’s not connected up to the history of the black experience in America in quite the same way as those leaders who emerged from it, or even the generation that followed them. And how exactly that figures into how Obama is perceived by voters, by white voters as well as black voters, is an incredibly complicated question that I can’t answer and certainly can’t answer here. But I do think it made him more viable in a way that a lot of very powerful and impressive African-American politicians would not be viable for president. I do think that there’s also something bothersome to me, and also historically inaccurate, about the suggestion that it was Martin Luther King’s wish, that the civil rights movement was about electing a black man president. Obviously it was about toppling many barriers in American society that included those that stood in the way of holding political office, including the presidency. But King wasn’t all about “We’ve got to get a black guy elected president.” It was about much more.
It was about a substantive change in society.
Right. Right. Society. Law. Politics. Economics. In a piece I wrote in the Washington Post I expressed some of my worries that the Obama-mania was concealing a certain persistence of inequality among black and white America. It’s certainly to the good if racism has subsided to the point where most white Americans feel comfortable voting for Obama. (Although I don’t know what percentage of the white vote he got. It probably was around 50 percent.) [It’s still not] the same as addressing differences in black and white life expectancy, black and white educational attainment, black and white incarceration levels. There’s all these ways that racism persists in society that the election of a black president may have no bearing on whatsoever. There’s a risk that the white liberal voters who constituted Obama’s base will feel let off the hook. “We’ve now elected a black president. It’s the final lap of the civil rights movement and these other questions like schooling and housing and health care for blacks getting equal treatments as whites will now take care of themselves.”
Every president since Watergate has tried very hard to affect an aura of modesty. Ford called himself a “Ford, not a Lincoln.” Carter walked during his Inauguration. He did not want to be in a car.
And wore the sweaters. Right.
Obama is the first president we’ve had since Watergate who seems to be actively posing for his profile on the coin. I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong. The invocations of Lincoln. The comparisons to FDR or Reagan. He’s always mentioned in context with our great pantheon of presidents without having done anything except win an election. Are we creating a narrative around him before the narrative has actually occurred?
I think Obama during the campaign actually struggled to find ways to make himself seem more “just folks.” Again, here’s structural forces. For complicated reasons, television being one of them, but also social changes coming out of the ’60s, every president had to affect this modesty, this populist style. And Obama had to struggle with this thing of being an elitist. On one level it was absurd. Here’s a black guy raised by a single mother -- not exactly George W. Bush with Yale and Harvard and prep schools -- and yet he finds it hard to shake. In some ways the right has been very successful in defining elitism as associated with liberalism and with liberal social and cultural values. But Obama, recognizing his relative inexperience and lack of achievement compared to most of his predecessors, has had to talk the talk and make himself seem presidential by sheer force of will. In doing this he hasn’t had just the cooperation of the media, but also the public. There’s a wish for him to succeed. There’s a wish for him to be a Lincoln or a Roosevelt. So he has a receptive audience here in playing this game.
There are times where I think he is able to show his more personal side, his more relaxed side, that is appealing. To me he is most appealing when he slips into a more African-American vernacular. I remember I was at the convention. After Biden’s talk, Obama comes out, makes a surprise appearance, and he says something like, “How about it for Hillary Clinton who really rocked the house last night!” And it was a great line. But he was careful not to do that too much during the campaign. Partly perhaps -- I don’t know -- he didn’t want to seem too black. And yet when he does that it takes some of the edge off the sober, serious, posturing-for-history stuff. Somebody just sent me on the Internet -- I don’t know if you’ve seen this -- the audio book for Dreams of My Father. And somebody culled some of the snippets where [Obama’s] reading some really obscene and profane remarks. And you listen to them and there’s one that’s something like, “You ain’t my bitch nigger. Get your own damn fries!” And to hear the president of the United States saying this in this kind of slightly affected but also real black idiom is just hilarious. And it shows you what he’s up against. And it shows you that all presidents and all people have different selves and different faces that they show to the public or to friends in different contexts. We all operate that way. And so he’s trying to find what’s the right mode of presentation for him as president. I think all new presidents struggle with it to some degree. And I think he’s still finding his way. Maybe this didn’t answer your question. I sort of wondered off on some tangents.
I don’t know if he’s intending to posture for history. But we certainly want to put him in that pantheon before he’s done anything to earn his place there. For all we know he’ll be Herbert Hoover in four years. I hope not.
Or Eliot Spitzer. This was a guy we had the highest hopes for. Here was a great man. He was going to be a great governor. And he was gone in a year.
Even before the scandal he had problems.
Well, right. He was brought down to size. But then with the scandal it was over. So, it’s true. It’s too early to make any judgments of history or the historic nature of his presidency. We can make comments about the historic nature of his election. But that’s very different.
You wrote a column recently about Hoover which asked why the technocrat failed. Hoover was probably one of the most brilliant men to be in the White House. There was a whole cult of the organizer in the 1920s of people like him and Henry Ford. The crash of 1929 came after his election, but even if it had happened beforehand he almost certainly would have been elected. There would have been this sense that this was exactly the kind of figure we needed right then. But his failures were stunning. Franklin Roosevelt was not an intellectual giant, which comes across every time we read his writings. But he did have an amazing charisma. But you made the point that that charisma was exactly what we needed in the 1930s. And I guess what we need from Obama is this superhuman calm he seems to have, this unbelievable coolness. Are we just assuming that this is what we need now based on what we had with FDR in the 1930s? Or should we consider giving another Hoover a go?
It’s hard to know exactly which qualities we need in a president at any given moment. With FDR I think there were two things that were most important. One, as you say, was his charisma and included in that, I would say, his confidence and his ability to inspire calm and confidence. In a way, that is somewhat analogous to Obama, although you often hear people use the word “ebullient” with FDR. There was a kind of personal warmth and joie de vivre about him that you don’t get with Obama. And that I think was a real answer to Hoover who was dour and uptight. FDR also had a great flexibility and a willingness to try different things as president, which is not necessarily the antithesis of intelligence but is often constrained by a kind of dogmatism that sometimes, I wouldn’t say necessarily, but sometimes goes hand in hand with believing you have all the answers. And FDR, I don’t believe, was ever under any illusions that he had all the answers. So he was willing to try different things. And that spirit of experimentation was important for who he was and I think Obama is prepared to go that same route.
I want to step back from Obama and the economy into the Bush administration. It’s a little odd to me how the pundits willingly ignored their history over the last eight years. There was a sense that nothing quite like September 11 had occurred and maybe that’s true. Still there were just too many parallels between what happened in the last eight years to what happened in our past. Our debate about waterboarding -- there was a New Yorker piece about this -- wasn’t that different from the debate over the water torture used during the Spanish-American War. Our way of picking up terrorist suspects, especially right after September 11, when people were being picked up and arrested on very vague problems with their visas, wasn’t quite on the level of FDR sending Japanese-Americans to internment camps, but the comparison deserved to be discussed. And even getting outside of American history, every major empire which decides to invade Afghanistan ends up falling. So why should we believe we were going to be any different? Do you believe there was a particular desire not to read history in the last eight years that was somewhat bizarre?
Well, I think it’s pretty normal. (laughs) Most Americans know nothing about the Spanish-American War. A lot of people, if they know history, it goes back to the ’60s or their own lifetimes. So I do see an ignorance of history, but I see it as common and normal. And it is partly the job of historians to contribute to public debates, to remind, at least, a certain reading segment of the population of historical analogies, pitfalls, problems that arise from our course of action. The problem, though, is people read history so differently. And history doesn’t necessarily provide good blueprints for what to do. It’s better at providing warnings. So a lot of people reading history looked at the fall of the Soviet Union and the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and thought there is great belief in American democracy and goodwill toward America bottled up in oppressed peoples around the world. And that if we get rid of these tyrannical regimes, that will flower. And that reading of history was -- I don’t mean just cynically -- a reason people concluded the invasion of Iraq would go well. Then there were other people who could point to previous invasions of Afghanistan or previous interventions, like Vietnam, obviously, which became quagmires and did not go as planned. So depending on which historical moment you invoke and how you interpret its lessons you can get to different points politically.
I’ve always been dubious about the kind of “uses-of-history” school of thought, the Kennedy School types who think that if you really analyze how decisions were made in World War II or Vietnam or whenever we can discern lessons for how to prosecute our wars or what policies we need. Yes, I think there are generally some lessons we can learn from the past or I wouldn’t be writing this column. The whole title “History Lesson” is meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I feel like in half my columns I’m saying that history doesn’t really teach lessons in the sense that people use the term “the lessons of the past.” I don’t think it does. I think it’s suggestive. It expands our horizons and our imagination and allows us to think of problems in new ways, but very rarely can you find, “Aha! Lincoln did this and therefore Obama should do that.” Or “FDR did this and Obama should do that.” It’s just not that neat. Because too much changes. One professor of mine in graduate school -- I think I’m attributing it properly to him -- Eric Foner, once said, “Political scientists tend to see or like to find patterns in history. And historians tend to find differences.” Historians tend to find how each era is different from what came before and how so much changes. So that makes these kind of cross-period comparisons quite difficult. The political scientists like to strip away the variables that are different. And say, “Aha! Here’s a comparable situation.” And obviously there’s some value in that. But I think it has to be done very humbly and with trepidation.
In Nixon’s Shadow, what you write about the way the press behaved during Watergate seems to hold up today. I think you were writing it before Abu Ghraib broke.
Yeah, in fact it came out in 2003. And I finished it in 2002, so I finished it even before the Iraq war.
So you weren’t thinking of the press’s handling of the Bush administration’s scandals?
No, it wasn’t a way of thinking about Bush and his scandals. Although it was somewhat conditioned by the Clinton impeachment and what I consider to be the press’s very irresponsible behavior in getting caught up in the lynch-mob mentality of 1998. And it made me think, “Okay, the press clearly loves a scandal.” I don’t think the press was right-wing for going after Clinton. But I did think there was some aspect of the hunt and the chase they seemed to relish.
[I found there was more of this in the Watergate-era press corps than I had known.] Of course, there was also a lot in the press coverage of Watergate -- especially by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, but by a lot of reporters too -- that was important and helped shake the public consciousness but also helped influence the Democrats in the Senate. [Partly because of what appeared in the Washington Post,] Sam Ervin and others realized they had to convene hearings in 1973. So there was a lot in the press that I think was important in bringing to light Nixon’s wrongdoing. But there was a lot more that was getting on the bandwagon. And bad reporting, sloppy reporting, cheap shots, invective, “wallowing in the Watergate,” as Nixon said. It wasn’t just a case of the press wearing the white hats, Nixon in the black hat. There were aspects of the coverage that I could look back on and say this was not good journalism.
The way I try to explain it that I think does apply a lot to press coverage today is that the press fully believes in its adversarial role. Most journalists are committed to the proposition that it’s part of their job to be a watchdog on government, to interrogate, to be skeptical of those in power. But the best way to do that is to do real investigative reporting of the sort that Woodward and Bernstein did. And that’s really hard to do. And it’s much easier to set up a blog or write a column and attack the president or attack other politicians. Or it’s much easier to do a Tim Russert-style, tough-guy, gotcha question interviews. This kind of pseudo-adversarial journalism substitutes for real adversarial journalism, which has to consist of investigation. And partly because of television and what television rewards and now what the Internet rewards, this kind of cheap invective, snide attitude, gotcha questioning is seen as “tough reporters doing their job.” And someone who is very neutral in tone but doing devastating reporting, doesn’t get the same kind of cred. But that’s what we should be honoring. And if you look at Abu Ghraib or Jane Mayer’s reporting in the New Yorker on Dick Cheney and David Addington, the suspension of various Constitutional protections on the detainee question… her tone is not strident. She’s not out there beating a drum. She just did a lot of really good reporting.
This goes back to your article comparing academic to popular history. You noted a difference between those who seek out heritage and those who seek out history. I’m looking at your shelf and I see 1776 by David McCullough. That’s a heritage book. In your essay you didn’t put down the search for heritage. But you do acknowledge that the search for heritage often involves looking for something that isn’t there. There was a lie that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery but was really a regional struggle and that was the narrative of the war that had been told for decades after it ended. That’s heritage. And it has very significant and disturbing racial overtones. So isn’t the search for heritage dangerous, because it obscures some very problematic aspects to our history and our culture?
Yes. I would put it this way. There is a danger in thinking of heritage as lacking in political or other interpretive content. And when we go to a Fourth of July parade, obviously, on a certain level it’s innocent enough. But we should be aware of the deeper content of the heritage or the myth, in a certain sense of that term. So I do think heritage without history in the debate is very problematic. I guess what I was trying to suggest in that piece is that we shouldn’t expect heritage to be as searching and as committed to accuracy as history is. It serves a different function from what history does, history as an inquiry into the truth of the past as best as we can ascertain it. Heritage is after something different. It’s up to something different. We obviously need history too. We wouldn’t want a society where there were not historians who tried to understand the past in ways that shattered national myths or rejected national myths or other kinds of myth. But there is some value for national unity for building bonds among citizens, of heritage that that has some value. And we should see it for what it is. I think historians sometimes work themselves into a frenzy and expend too much energy at pointing out everything a movie got wrong that doesn’t matter historically. Or everything that a museum exhibition or some public statement about history got wrong. I think it is important that we have those kind of reality checks or accuracy checks on the heritage industry. But we should realize that they’re not interested in what we’re interested in in the same way. So their goals are different. They’re not being bad historians because they’re not really trying to be historians. Now maybe it’s a little unfair to put McCullough straight in that camp. I think McCullough on some level is a serious historian and does aspire to a certain kind of depth but in the end his work does fall into a celebration of the past that has a lot in common with heritage as well.
I suppose most columnists probably disagree with you. George Will is always celebrating heritage.
Right. David Brooks is another.
Some of the more liberal ones as well. If you’re supposed to read something about the civil rights movement, they don’t suggest you read Taylor Branch’s nuanced study of Martin Luther King, but Juan Williams’s Eyes on the Prize.
There’s an enormous amount of myth-making on the left surrounding the civil rights movement. And a lot of what historians today writing about the civil rights movement are struggling against, as you probably know, is the mythology that has now evolved around it. Tom Sugrue has just written this book about the civil rights movement in the North [Sweet Land of Liberty: the Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North] that tries to fit that into the narrative. The Black Power, the Black Panthers are not simply just the last gasps or the repudiation but representing in their own ways continued struggles for racial equality and represent the legitimate response to the failures of the earlier movements. So it gets very complex. So I think a lot of histories, a lot of schools or fields of history begin with a kind of boosterish phase. And then mature into one where a certain kind of self-criticism is permissible. I think you see this with gay and lesbian history. A lot of early histories were just celebrating Stonewall and built up mythologies and then as the field develops and deepens and time passes, you can self-criticize and see nuance and complexity. You saw it many years ago with the new Israeli history that was critical of Israel’s founding myths. You see it in all kinds of history.