Noted historian and CNN commentator Douglas Brinkley spoke to an enthusiastic group of Lesley students and faculty on Monday, Jan. 24, in the Washburn Lounge on Lesley’s Brattle Campus. Brinkley was on campus as part of Lesley’s Boston Speaker Series.
Brinkley’s lecture was filled with stories about past impeachment trials, as they related to the current impeachment of President Trump. He began his speech by stating that “…the impeachment of an American president… is an exceedingly rare event in American history; and suddenly, in the last few months, I’ve been going on TV doing something I’d never thought I’d do– and that’s belaboring Andrew Johnson’s [impeachment] from 1868.” He also made reference to Richard Nixon, who nearly got impeached, but resigned instead, after members of his own party came to him and accused him of lying to the American people. Brinkley was very knowledgeable about Nixon’s tape recordings, since he co-edited and annotated several volumes about them. He explained the reasons how and why certain presidents began recording in the first place. It was fascinating to find out that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower did small amounts of taping, while Kennedy did a much larger amount. Brinkley stated, “Jack Kennedy… had his white house oval office phone where any of his phone conversations, they would be taped, if he pushed the button to tape them.” Brinkley went into why key events like the Excomm meetings (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) and meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis were recorded.
Because Kennedy taped his calls, Lyndon B. Johnson began taping more extensively, and not just big events, but everyday happenings in his life. “Lyndon went and taped a lot more personal calls, so you have ridiculous presidential calls like Lyndon Johnson calling the tailor in Dallas saying ‘I want my new kind of pants, I need an extra-large…’ and all these kinds of strange phone calls we go through,” Brinkley said. When Brinkley came to topic of Nixon’s audio footage, he mentioned the tapes were extensive, and how Nixon didn’t only tape in the oval office, but the entire White House. Brinkley said there are thousands of hours of dishes clanking, people cleaning, muttering, etc., and it’s left the historians purview and gone into the hands of IT specialists.
Brinkley briefly spoke of Clinton’s impeachment, but said it was mostly because of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. “We live in a sound-bite culture,” Brinkley said. He went over famous soundbites of presidents. John F. Kennedy’s being, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” Ronald Regan’s being, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall,” and Bill Clinton’s, “I did not have sex with that woman,” which Brinkley said will unfortunately hurt his standing, but Clinton survived the scandal and made for a good two-term president. He also made an interesting statement about presidents of the past when he was visiting Bill Clinton. “We usually look at presidents differently when they turn around eighty years old. We beat up on them in the White House like nobody’s business, but when they get late in life there tends to be reflection, because we tend to think of our lives in the Clinton years, the Obama years, the Trump years, a kind of nostalgia kicks in,” Brinkley said.
The rest of the seminar was filled with questions from the audience. The first question was why the voting participation in America is so low. Brinkley discussed a variety of issues surrounding threats to democracy. “There’s a feeling of voter suppression, a lot depends on voting days, where you open voting stations, how easy is it to vote, how many you have in a bigger urban area, and then gerrymandering that goes on to create these districts so it’s kind of an all hands on deck approach to save our democracy now because we have the new layer of cyber-attack looming also,” Brinkley said.
One interesting question asked to Brinkley was, “why do you believe President Trump has such power over his party? You mentioned that the most conservative [Republican] Senators went to Nixon and said, ‘not only did you lie to [us], you lied to the American people.’ Given all the evidence that’s out there, how does this president have so much power?”
Brinkley answered, “power is what [President Trump] loves. He loves it as much as money. Those are his two big things. I’ve had to interview him with CNN, he won’t talk to our network anymore. We’re the enemy of the people, but when I did [interview him], as a historian, I found out he knew nothing of American history. The little he’d say is, ‘I’m like Patton. Well, Presidents aren’t my thing, I’m like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur.’ He’s kind of a scorched earth guy. You know, his idea of toughness is, ‘blow them up,’ that heavy kind-of rhetoric that comes out of the Military, missing that those are odd characters that are complicated at a time of a war, you know Eisenhower, a Marshall, are who you model yourself after if you have a Military [background]; but not Patton, so he doesn’t have a good framework of history or role models in anyway. But he said to me ‘I like power and I don’t need to worry about all these reporters because I’m friends with the Press–Lord…he’s a ‘Rupert Murdoch…’ This is someone who isn’t interested in grass-roots democracy or civic-square, or public give-and-take, or listening sessions. This is somebody who is trying to be a Napoléon Bonaparte, in his own mind,” Brinkley said.
The final major topic Brinkley discussed was when he was asked how his experience went writing Rosa Park’s biography. Brinkley spoke of taking students on a “Majic Bus” (he wrote about one year of his nine-year experience in his 1993 book, “Majic Bus”); he took them all over the country and visited presidential libraries, homes of writers etc. He then switched to giving students Civil Rights tours of the South. “When I’d go to Montgomery, there was nothing to honor Rosa Parks,” Brinkley said. He later found there was no serious adult biography on Rosa Parks. In order to get to Rosa Parks, he had to meet with a woman named Elaine Steele, student activist in the 60’s, and friend of Rosa Parks, who Brinkley stated was “kind of running her life.” Once they agreed to help him Brinkley said he was opened to the entire world of Park’s life and met with Park’s personally on many occasions.
“They let me go to her African Methodist Episcopalian Church, The Freedom Church of Fredrick Douglas and Harriot Tubman in Detroit, so I’d she’s a Deaconess at the church I would go, I would take her out to dinner in Detroit, she’d show me underground railroad sites. When she got her Congressional Gold medal in a wheelchair, I went with her. She went out to California, and I got to spend a week with her and then I would bring old newspapers from Montgomery and show her and might be like ‘oh my God Nehi soda pop, I haven’t thought of that in thirty years,’ but something in the paper would jar her memory, because she had kind of gotten a set speech about her rest, you know, a set piece, a lecture almost, I was trying to get her on more detail of other things so it was lovely encounter, she has a beautiful soul, deeply spiritual,” Brinkley said.
Among the many in the audience who enjoyed the talk, and who wished the speaker could have stayed longer, was Michael Giannetti, a History major and senior. He said, “I really enjoyed the lecture because it kind of gave me a different way to view the current news of the day, especially regarding Trump’s impeachment. [Brinkley’s] perspective had more weight to it for me because of how much research and time he’s spent studying past presidents, So, I found that really interesting. His remarks about how little Trump understands history overall were also great.”
Steven Shapiro, the Dean of Lesley’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, also commented, “As a historian, Douglas Brinkley put our current political situation into a greater historical context as well as explaining and analyzing yesterday’s breaking news. I was especially taken by his love and passion for his work and enjoyed his stories about Rosa Park and the history of US presidents taping conversations. I encourage all students, staff, and faculty to come to these Boston Speaker Series campus events – these unusual and special opportunities allow us all to have direct conversations with world experts about important topics.”