"Recasting Presidential History": A Trans-Disciplinary Approach to the Office and the Presidents


David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network.

Credit: Grace Elizabeth Hale presenting her paper, "Outsider in Chief: Presidents and the Politics of Authenticity and Emotion" at the "Recasting Presidential History" conference. Credit: Miller Center.

It will come as a surprise to many readers that presidential history has fallen out of fashion within academic circles. After all, the president is a figure of near-mythological proportions, which makes both the office and the men who have held it intrinsically worthy of study. The president -- and other politicians, in the executive branch and out of it -- routinely lead in the news cycle.

And, of course, the presidents -- and presidential biographies -- are a gateway for most Americans to learn more about U.S. history; it's no accident that two of the top three books on the New York Times Best Seller list for hardcover nonfiction are books about specific presidents. Granted, the two leaders are both books on presidential assassinations from Bill O'Reilly, who has been criticized in the past for gross factual errors in his works, but the point remains valid: David McCullough's biographies of Harry S. Truman and John Adams, respectively, were both adapted for TV, and Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals served as the inspiration for the major motion picture Lincoln, to be released nationwide November 16.

Yet conspicuously absent from the list of best-selling presidential books (and history books in general, with some exceptions) are the works of academic historians. Gone are the days of Arthur Schlesinger (both Sr. and Jr.), Richard Hofstadter -- even Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, winner of both the Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes, failed to crack the Times bestseller list.

The eclipse of the academic historian as public intellectual is only part of the story -- presidential and political history within the academy have been eclipsed by the “new” bottom-up approaches of social and cultural history (“new” being a relative term -- these methodologies have been in the mainstream of the historical profession since at least the 1970s). Brooklyn College professor and diplomatic and political historian K.C. Johnson bemoaned the state of traditional political history at the Society for History in the Federal Government's annual Richard G. Hewitt dinner in October: few academic history departments, he told the audience of mostly federal employees, hire new faculty specializing in legal, diplomatic history -- all areas crucial to the study of the presidency. (Johnson also added that it's neither “fair, just, nor right for federal historians” -- meaning both researchers and archivists both in and out of federal service -- “to bear the brunt of current historical trends,” as bottom-up social and cultural historians rarely use federal records.)

It was with this background in mind that Brian Balogh and Bruce Schulman organized the “Recasting Presidential History” conference at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs on October 26 and 27, a scant week before election day. (Indeed, Schulman opened the conference by declaring that “it's time to erase the top-down/bottom-up divide.”)

[Click here for full video of “Recasting Presidential History”]

Balogh, a professor of history at Virginia and founder, director, and chair of the Miller Center's National Fellowship program, declared at the beginning of the conference that its purpose was “to begin a conversation about how historians and scholars can employ the presidency to inform their understand of twentieth-century American history... to employ the presidency as part of our understanding of twentieth-century American history” by mobilizing the intellectual talents of not just strictly academic presidential/political historians, but also political scientists, social, cultural, economic, intellectual, and even media historians, as well as journalists and independent scholars.

To that end, conference participants included a long and distinguished list of presenters, commentators, and panelists from a wide spectrum of disciplines: political scientists Stephen Skowronek, Jacob Hacker, and Cathie Jo Martin; cultural historians Robert Self, Darren Dochuk, and Grace Elizabeth Hale; communication studies scholar Susan Douglas, media historian David Greenberg; intellectual historian James Kloppenberg; diplomatic historian Melyvn Leffler; urban historian Alice O'Connor; journalists John B. Judis and Allison Silver; and former presidential advisor William Galston, to name only a few.

[For @myHNN tweets from the Recasting Presidential History conference, click here and search #RecastPresHist. For official tweets from the Miller Center, click here.]

Absent from that list of participants were what conference co-organizer Bruce Schulman, who teaches at Boston University, called “so-called 'presidential historians,'” writers, he said, who have “a ready supply of anecdotes about the personal peculiarities, heroic qualities, and/or epic villainy of the [forty-four] men who have held that office.” While this approach doesn't necessarily preclude serious scholarship, Schulman said, “even broader works like Michael Beschloss's Presidential Courage and [Goodwin's] Team of Rivals focus on … distinctive individuals” as opposed to an analytical view of the office of the presidency.

The other distinguishing feature of 'presidential history,' Schulman said, is its vast readership -- indeed, presidential history is how most Americans encounter the broader discipline of history, and, as Harvard's Lizabeth Cohen pointed out during the question-and-answer session, while academics may trash presidential biographers and popularizers like Ken Burns, for many members of the public, this kind of 'presidential history' is the only encounter with history they will ever have.

“It would be nice,” said David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, “for there to be a reintegration [between 'presidential history' and academic history], where academics were really engaged with the literature about the presidency, and the public were reading more work by academic scholars.” It would also be nice, he added, if future conferences like “Recasting” included non-academic historians like Ron Chernow or Rick Perlstein, “who are both outside the academy and would get a lot from and bring a lot to” the conversation.

But, as Greenberg observed, the purpose of this particular conference was not to bridge the divide between academic historians and independent scholars/'presidential historians;” rather, it served start a dialogue between political scientists and historians on the one hand, and cross-disciplinary dialogue within the historical profession on the other.

Yale political scientist Stephen Skrownek, however, sounded a note of skepticism, even pessimism, on the efforts to reintegrate: “the [presidential] field has been in recasting mode for some years … the problem … is that we're now decades into the effort to revise conventional wisdom, yet we find ourselves farther than ever from any shared historical framework for discussion.” The Wilson-era “progressive frame” of viewing the presidency, seeing the accumulation of power in the modern presidency as “a triumph of pragmatic adaptation” was shattered by Arthur Schlesinger's post-progressive “imperial presidency,” a narrative of the “perversion of institutional operations” as a result of the steady accumulation of presidential power (which, for Schlesinger at the time of his writing, culminated in the abuses of the Nixon administration), but nevertheless the criticism of the “imperial presidency” was still fundamentally rooted in a progressive paradigm. Contemporary originalists, on the other hand, go back all the way to the powers enumerated in the Constitution as the proper framework for viewing the presidency -- and that's just one school of conservative thought.

Skrownek's comments, and the conference as a whole -- between Garth Davies's study of the role of the president in responding to natural disasters (coincidentally presented a scant three days before Hurricane Sandy struck New York City), Grace Elizabeth Hale's examination of how modern presidential candidates have channeled the role of the cultural “outsider” on the campaign trail (Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, both wealthy Harvard graduates, both took on this role in the past election), and Susan Douglas's analysis of effective presidential use -- and manipulation -- of the media -- dramatically illustrated not just the complexity of the modern presidency, but the complexity of studying the modern presidency. Each particular approach, be it constitutional, political, economic, cultural, social, or media, yields its own insights, but at the same time paints a fundamentally incomplete picture of the presidency and individual presidents. There were times during “Recasting Presidential History” where the papers and commentators -- sometimes on a single panel -- seemed to be talking past each other, but perhaps that's the point.

In our modern age of fracture, to borrow a phrase from Daniel Rodgers' book of the same name (and who himself chaired the conference's cultural panel) , perhaps it really isn't possible to build a truly comprehensive cross-disciplinary framework on how to approach the presidency. But even if that is the case -- and it's certainly the hope of most of the participants at “Recasting” that it isn't -- perhaps the multifaceted nature of the presidency -- part politician, part general, part administrator, part entrepeneur, part monarch, part tsar-confessor, and part pop star -- necessitates not one, but many analytic and narrative frameworks.

And each framework comes with its own unique insights. “I think most [participants] felt pretty good about this conference,” said David Greenberg, “because we just learned a lot from each other.”

HNN Videos from "Recasting Presidential History"

Brian Balogh: Advice for Aspiring Presidential Historians


Cathie Jo Martin: Europe Has *Less* Government Regulation than America


William Hitchcock: Was Ike Really a "Moderate Republican"?


David Greenberg: The State of Presidential History

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