Douglas Brinkley: Interviewed By Chris Rose

Historians in the News

Chris Rose, Times-Picayune (New Orleans), 02 Nov. 2004

As the former rumpled hipster protégé to heavyweight historian Stephen Ambrose, Doug Brinkley has become the go-to pundit for all matters of instant history. Elections, celebrity deaths, literary scandals -- you name it, he's got the lowdown, get him on the evening news.

The director of UNO's Eisenhower Center for American Studies, Brinkley is often in the line of fire for counter-pundits -- perhaps because he's become so ubiquitous. From topics from JFK Jr. to the current election, critics find his commentary a little too, well . . . frequent.

His output, both verbal and written, is indeed prolific -- and varied. From recent biographies of Henry Ford and Rosa Parks to the editing of the diaries of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, Brinkley keeps his keypad on the American pulse.

As the author of the recent pro-Kerry biography,"Tour of Duty," he has found himself vilified by conservatives; someone even bought a quarter-page ad in Sunday's Times-Picayune just to opine that Brinkley is full of it.

Tonight, Brinkley will be the point man in Boston for NBC News, reporting from Kerry headquarters on the making of our next president. We spoke recently at his Uptown home.

This is an Election Day interview. The reader needs to know where you're coming from in this interview. Are you a Republican, a Democrat or something else?

Independent, but someone who has been deeply invested in John Kerry for 2004.

So does that qualify you for the dreaded"L" word? And I'm not talking"lesbian" here.

No, I don't consider myself a liberal. I consider myself a centrist. On some issues -- like the need to cease border immigration -- I would find myself on the right, and on something like environmental protection, I would see myself on the left.

By what hour -- or date -- do you suppose we'll know when we have a president?

I think it will be decided by midnight on Election Night. I think there'll be a lot of court cases and a lot of rumbling about ballot boxes that didn't work properly, and chads that were dangling, but I think by and large there will be a clear victor. I don't think it will be like four years ago.

And who will that winner be?

There are three big swing states: Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Whoever gets two out of three will win. I think Kerry will win Pennsylvania, Bush will win Florida, and whoever wins Ohio gets to be president.

Let's go to the polls: In every poll, Bush wins hands down as the candidate most Americans would rather have a beer with. Which is weird, because Bush doesn't drink and Kerry does. What's up with that?

It's because he used to be a heavy drinker and he still gives the impression that he's a pickup-truck-driving Texas rancher/ZZ Top-listening kind of dude, which plays very well in the red states of the South. And it's amazing if you look at the electoral map right now, you can see that the Republicans control the entire South. Every state that had slavery is for George W. Bush.

Well, that's an interesting observation that I'll let fall to the ground between us like a lead balloon. If Ralph Nader gets elected, there'll be no first lady in the White House. What's up with that?

I suppose he'd appoint somebody first lady, someone from the Union Party or something like that.

If you listen to Bush and Cheney, they'd have you believe that if Kerry is elected, a terrorist attack is imminent. Is that the case, do you believe?

I don't think anything's going to happen in the coming days. Al Qaeda acts when we're not expecting it; not when we're expecting it.

Let's get to the important stuff: If Bush wins, what do you see as the role of the twins in the next administration?

Now that they've been exposed to the tabloids, their every move will be dissected and they will be courted by every new, up-and-coming Hollywood celebrity or pop singer that's going to want to be seen with them.

The newspaper in Bush's hometown of Crawford, Texas, endorsed John Kerry. The Chicago Tribune endorsed Bush. It sounds like a world gone mad. What's up?

The truth is, The Chicago Tribune was founded by Robert McCormick and has traditionally been a Republican-oriented Midwest isolationist paper. The Crawford paper was a small-towny progressive paper taking a punch at Bush and looking for publicity.

Of course, The Times-Picayune endorsed neither candidate. This raised some eyebrows. Would you care to weigh in on it and you can be brutally honest because if we don't like your answer we simply won't run it.

I think newspaper endorsements for president are overrated. The Washington Post endorsement of Kerry was so mealy-mouthed, after explaining why neither candidate was any good. Unless you're strongly behind someone, it's best to just stay out of it rather than just throw your weight in there because you can.

We will accept that answer. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a 21-part endorsement for John Kerry. Twenty-one parts. I think that's enough reason to vote against him.

Newspaper endorsements are valuable on a local level, but I don't think they matter nationally.

Frankly, I'm really sick of this whole topic. All of it. What's the best escape -- liquor, love or literature?


What do you recommend tonight when I go to bed and want to forget about it all?

I think you want to read biographies of people like Abraham Lincoln, to realize that our times aren't uniquely oppressive.

You chose literature over love and liquor and then told me to read a political biography to forget about politics. You know what? You ARE John Kerry. Last question: Who would Jesus vote for?

Whoever didn't raise the specter of his name in the campaign the most.

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