The Magazine

Brian Lamb's America

How C-SPAN stepped into the breach and became our national historian.

Nov 8, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 08 • By DAVID BROOKS
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The descriptions of the presidents on the programs are haphazard, and the information conveyed is out of chronological order -- it all depends on the questions from the C-SPAN host or the callers. But in many ways the best part of the series is not the specific treatment of the presidents. It is the sight of all the historians. Some are eminent, like David McCullough, Robert Remini, or Joseph Ellis, but most are not. They are from obscure colleges, or they eke out a living by writing. What they share is a love of history. The producers have done an outstanding job of choosing historians who seem genuinely curious about the past, rather than merely activists or agitators in historian's clothing. Nobody is going to get rich or famous writing a book about, say, Grover Cleveland, or even Andrew Johnson. Nonetheless, there are still people out there who are willing to dedicate their professional lives to understanding some long ago man or period. Many of the best teachers on the series are not even academics. They are the local directors of the historic sites or the buffs who became interested in, say, Warren Harding because they happened to live near his home and adopted him out of local pride. C-SPAN has managed to find such people all over the country, and many more call in with questions.

It's hard for impatient people in an impatient age to understand the pleasures that some people feel poring studiously over old documents. The political theorist William Dunning said that one of the happiest days of his life was the day he discovered, by comparing handwriting samples, that Andrew Johnson's first message to Congress was actually written by George Bancroft. Dunning wrote to his wife, "I don't believe you can form any idea of the pleasure it gives me to have discovered this little historical fact."

One of the best efforts to put this peculiar passion into words comes from the great British historian G. M. Trevelyan (like the Dunning anecdote, it's found in a Gertrude Himmelfarb essay in a new book called Reconstructing History). Trevelyan wrote:

The appeal of history to us all is in the last analysis poetic. But the poetry of history does not consist of imagination roaming at large, but of imagination pursuing the fact and fastening upon it. That which compels the historian to 'scorn delights and live laborious days' is the ardor of his own curiosity to know what really happened long ago in that land of mystery which we call the past.

It's no accident that on a recent C-SPAN program both Jefferson biographer Joseph Ellis and Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald confessed they were frustrated novelists. Ellis went on to note that none of the reviewers of his Jefferson biography, American Sphinx, noted the literary device of which he was most proud. He wanted to convey a certain image of his subject, so in every chapter Jefferson is described entering the scene on horseback.

By contrast, turn to the Web site of the American Historical Review (indiana.edu/ahr) and look at the list of articles the prestigious academic review is publishing or about to publish: "Feminism, Social Science and the Meaning of Modernity"; "The Sensibility of Comfort"; "Culture, Power and Place: The New Landscape of East Asian Regionalism"; "Domesticity and Difference: Male Breadwinners, Working Women and Colonial Citizenship in the 1945 Nigerian General Strike." The list goes on, a stifling progression of abstruse tedium. A few of the topics might sound interesting -- "The Sensibility of Comfort" strikes my fancy -- until you remember that most academic historians face professional pressures to write as turgidly as possible, and to excise or exile to the footnotes any of the interesting anecdotes they would use as dinner table conversation. The contrast between the C-SPAN historians and the academic establishment historians is breathtaking.

And it's important to remember that the academics took this turn intentionally. The great postmodern hero Michel Foucault mocked what you might call the ethos of the C-SPAN historian: "To all those who still wish to talk about man, about his reign or his liberation, to all those who still ask themselves questions about what man is in his essence, to all those who wish to take him as their starting-point in their attempts to reach the truth . . . to all these warped and twisted forms of reflection we can only answer with a philosophical laugh -- which means, to a certain extent, a silent one."

Not silent enough.

Talking to Brian Lamb about The American Presidents, you are struck by how much he loves the callers. They make the shows spontaneous, he says. They reflect the many different currents in America. They take control of the programs in ways that no one can foresee.

For example, callers have continually forced the historians to deal with racial matters, so that race has become the major subtheme of the series. The presidents who owned slaves or who tolerated slavery are castigated, and the historians often struggle to suggest that viewers shouldn't rush to impose modern standards on earlier times -- with little success.

Lamb is that rarest of creatures, a genuine populist. Many people will think he goes a little overboard in this direction. The callers are often self-absorbed, cranky, or pedantic. They disrupt the story the historians are trying to tell, and make the programs more boring and annoying than they need to be. But you've got to cast your lot somewhere. And if the academic establishment, with all its theoretical gasbaggery, is not going to teach history, then the people who will carry on telling the stories of the past will be untrained history buffs and popular historians, detached from the academy and armed merely with the normal human curiosity to know and understand what went on before us.

The success of C-SPAN's history series reminds us that when one institution in American life stagnates and ceases to fulfill its function -- in this case academic history -- then a new institution will inevitably arise to fill the need. C-SPAN may be a harbinger of the sort of new educational structures that arise when the universities retreat into themselves and play an ever-diminishing role in national life.