tv Worst Presidents in American History CSPAN May 3, 2016 5:04am-6:37am EDT
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next, a discussion about the worst president in u.s. history. three historians first looked at what makes a president the worst, followed by their nominees. the panel was port of the organization of american historians annual meeting held this year in providence, rhode island. it is an hour and a half. welcome to the oah 2016 and welcome to the planary panel, worst president ever. i'm claire potter, professor of history and director of the digital humanities initiative at the new school. and i want to let those in the audience who are tweeting know that the tag for this session is #oah underscore bad president and add the tag oah 2016.
so the theme of the conference, as chosen by oah president john butler is on leadership. and as 2016 is a presidential election year, and boy, is it a presidential election year, the program committee assembled a round table of scholars willing to talk about presidential leadership. but about its failures rather than about its successes. this seems particularly timely as the trump juggernaut rolls forward. and just yesterday the clinton and sanders' campaigns engaged in a verbal sparring match about who is the most unqualified candidate to be president. so things are just really getting interesting. the panel we have here today, all of these scholars have written about presidents who
were bad in their own special way. although, it did occur to me on the train coming up, that bad to whom might be an important qualifier for this panel. what did it mean to be a bad president? what counts as bad and how do we define a bad president? and specifically, who might have been the worst president ever? our panelists are david green rg, associate professor -- or actually -- are you a full professor now. associate professor. just a little inside baseball, stories guys. >> this isn't the place to -- >> right. associate professor of history and journalism at rutgers, new brunswick, author about nixon and coolidge and a book called "republic of spin" an in side
history of american presidentry. a very timely moment, good work, david. this is a history of the white house spin machine. formally an acting editor of the new republic, david is a long-time contributor to slate and now writes a history column for politico. to david's right, although not politically, is annette gordan reed. professor of american history at harvard law school and in the history department and carol k. force heimer professor at the radcliff institute. a renowned law professor and scholar of american history, gordon reed has published six books. among them, the hemmings of monticello, an american family, 2008, which won numerous awards, including the pulitzer prize in history an the national book award for nonfiction. a leading and field changing
scholar of jeffson, reed's most recent book is the most blessed of patriarchs thomas jefferson and the empire of imagination. and actually, annette and peter will be signing that book outside in the book exhibit after this plenary theater. now, for those of you who got a program early, you might have thought sean wallence will be here, but he will not be here because he is somewhere else. and jacob weisberg has agreed to join us which is exciting. jacob is a veteran journalist and political writer and currently chairman of the slate group. weisberg is the author of several books, including the bush tragedy, which is a new york times best-seller in 2008. with former treasury secretary robert e. ruben, weisberg co-wrote in an uncertain world published in 2003. his first book in defense of government published in 1996.
and his newest book, a biography of ronald reagan, who is one of my candidates for worst president ever, was published by henry holt and company in january, 2016. so that is the order we're going to go in. and we hope you all have your ideas for worst president ever. so let's begin with david. >> push to talk they told me oh. kay, thank you, claire. and it occurs to me we all have written books for the american presidents series of coolidge, reagan and andrew johnson. so some of them could possibly be in our mix too, today. although, it did occur to me and people were saying right before, this whole panel could be rendered moot by the next election. so maybe it would have been better to have this in 2017.
but as people saw my name on this and the question was, so who is your choice? and i should say, i really didn't address the question that way. i mean, we could get to that and i probably can throw out some candidates. but what i want to talk about is what do we mean by worst? what do we mean by a bad president? because when we think of great presidents, the criteria are pretty clear. and we might quibble a little bit, but there is a very small number that probably all of us would put there at the very top. but you might call it the anna corin formation, that bad presidents are bad in many different ways. and so i want to go through a few of the different kinds of bad presidents and see which of these really makes for the
worst. there are -- first of all, the completely insignificant and forgettable presidents. and as a historian of the 20th century, like everyone else, i have trouble with all of the 19th century which had the whiskers and the burnsides and which was which. so you take someone like fillmore who could be a candidate for worst. i took the trouble, because there thwas a research intensive panel to go to white house.gov and this is what they said about millard fillmore. he demonstrated that through methodical industry and some competence -- some -- not a lot but some. he demonstrated that methodical industry and some competence an uninspiring man could make the american dream come true. [ laughter ] this is at white house.gov.
it should be building him up, i think. so one kind of worst president is thein effectual, the forgettable and insignificant. there was a great bit on the simpsons years ago, we are the forgotten presidents. you won't see us on any dollars and cents. i'm fillmore, i'm harrison, i'm hayes, i'm william henry harrison, i died in 40 days. millhouse appropriately singing it. and then we get to the presidents who were bad in another way. who faced crisis and just did a terrible juror. and these, i think, are serious candidates for the worst that we should talk about. herbert hoover obviously comes to mind here. someone who, before his election, hoover -- i've been talking about my book "republic of spin" had this great campaign
spin, one of the first bio pic campaign films and called master of emergencies and he was seen as this wizard. he fed europe after world war ii, during the mississippi flood 1927, which was the worst natural disaster in american history until katrina, he was commerce secretary and deputized and the film shows him pulling horses out of the river and feeding bedraggles children and he getted an emergency and he doesn't do anything. he does reconstruction finance corporation toward the end but largely seen on all counts as just he couldn't rise to the challenge. and it is interesting, having written about coolidge, he has a whole cult of conservative admirers. trickle down economics. reagan put up his portrait in the white house. but hoover, the conservatives
renounce him. so he has no fans at all. another possibility, and claire's comment about reagan suggests this, what about presidents who actually did a lot, but in a direction we don't like. and a lot of people i think do still see reagan this way. i think if we were to have held this conference, this panel 20 years ago, 25 years ago, probably a lot of people would be saying reagan. and i'll leave it to jacob to talk about reagan more. but i think now, even among liberals who don't generally approve of the direction he took the country, it is hard to say he was the worst. he was re-elected. he did a come plish a lot of his -- accomplish a lot of his goals. and i at least are uncomfortable putting the worst label simply as a matter of my own political judgments as opposed to
historical judgments, if we could make that distinction. and maybe that is a neater distinction that is tenable but one i would like to put out there. another interesting figure, i don't think too many would put as the worst, but people are certainly -- his reputation has come down recently, is andrew jackson for his indian removal policy. certainly that is something that we look back on with shame and disapproval. but again, jackson was someone who accomplished a tremendous amount and transformed the nature of american democracy and do we think that could make him the worst? probably not. so then the final category of bad presidents are presidents who do damage to the country in ways that transcend party and politics. what they did really wasn't about having politics -- policies too liberal or conservative or took us too far
in this direction or that, but were just corrupt, abusive of power. and this is where i do come back to richard nixon. when i wrote nixon's shadow, my first book, there was a kind of rehabilitation of nixon in the air. saying, well, look at these liberal policies on the dollars front or detaunt. and since that came out -- and i argued against that, by the way. and since that book came out, that has really dissipated. and what is now talked about with nixon, what is remembered for younger people, what they know, only presidents resign, i'm not a crook, watergate, that is nixon's lasting legacy. and for his abuses of power, which again were deemed such by a bipartisan majority. so unlike the clinton impeachment or the andrew
johnson impeachment even, this was not a power struggle between two sides. it was barry goldwater and wiker and all kinds of republicans from left to right as well as democrats who wanted nixon to go. so i am tempted to say richard nixon is the worst, but we're open to discussion. annette. >> well, i did think a little bit about who was the worst. i was asked to do a biography of andrew johnson for the times book series. and it was something that i had never thought that i would ever be doing. that whole era is important, but it is something that is -- it is in some ways more heartbreaking than slavery. to think of people who were hopeful and at the same time having their hopes dashed. i did think about what it meant
to be the worst president. because every year i'm a part of a survey, they ask us to list people. and the year that i did johnson, the year that the book came out, he made it all the way to the worst. buchanan had usually been at the very bottom. but thumbs up for buchanan. buchanan was usually there but andrew sneaked past him to take the top or the bottom wrung, however you want to put it. and then i was think being how you make this determination. and some in ways, the way that david was speaking, buchanan, i would say, would be the worst if your thinking about someone rising to a particular challenge. he was in a set of circumstances that were extremely difficult. and to say, well, you should have done this or you should have done that, in a situation that seems almost entractable,
and irresistible force meeting an immovable object and what do you do. people said he didn't act, he was passive. but was a -- that was a sufficient situation. johnson on the other hand, had people who were competent and willing to go forward, with whom he could have worked in f he didn't just -- if he didn't just have the serious flaw that he hated black people. and because he hated black people, he was not really willing to go along with people. you had -- you had a congress and people who would have worked with him, people with a plan, a plan for reconstruction. a plan to go forward. someone who could have maybe stopped some of the violence that was going on in the south against african-americans. so you have on one hand a person, buchanan, who is facing just a crazy situation and doesn't rise to the occasion. of course he didn't do some of the things he was supposed to do. but it is hard to think of what would have happened in that time
period. you -- people might offer some suggestions ever how he could have gotten -- suggestions on how he could have gotten out of. this and then you johnson, who could have done better. there was a way ford. and because of his stubbornness, not liking black people, he didn't take that way. and set the country back considerably, a lot of the problems that we had to deal with over the past decades were problems that maybe we have could have not, if overcome, but started to overcome if he had been better able to manage himself, to be larger than himself. and he -- that is what you want in it a president. the good presidents, the people -- the characteristics that you are alluding to are people who can rise to the occasion, who could step out of maybe even their own petty prejudices and realize that there is something bigger than themselves. and he could never do that. and he could understand why. he was someone who worked his way up from nothing.
it is almost the miller -- the sort of phrase in the white house.gov comment, someone who worked up from nothing and ill literal at until a late teen and whose wife taught him how to read in his early 20s and occupied any office anyone could have up to the presidency. so someone like that, who said i rose this way and i'm right and i know i'm right and that was a quote for him and that is the way he went through the world. so that is a tough way for a president to be, inflexible, a person who thinks that he knows it all. so he is a candidate for one of the worst presidents. i would -- buchanan and johnson go back and forth. it depends on what you're looking for. someone who can't -- who is in a difficult situation and can't figure out how to get out of it. in hindsight, we have the benefit of hindsight and we could say, well if he would have done this or tried that, but
still i'm not comfortable with that idea. then you have another person who had something in hand, who had talented men, and people who were helping and there who were willing to help him and he wouldn't accept the help. so we'll talk about the absolute worst. but those are my two candidates for the worst. the new people, reagan, when i did the surveys, very often i would put reagan, as i recall, i stopped doing them, but reagan in the top -- not because i thought that he -- i enjoyed what he did or i thought he did the right thing, but he did do what he set out to do. and he made a movement. and there were a number of people who went along with him. and so in that sense, he was effective as a president. so i too, i would not, i would not cast him -- i thought the task was to think about, for the list, who had been an effective president, not my favorite people. he was not one of my favorite people and i think a lot of what he accomplished was not -- was
extremely problematic. the modern people, some people might suggest bush. if sean were here, he would have probably said w. he said it before. >> he wrote a whole article about it. >> we would have known his answer already. that is a candidate. but it is too soon to tell. we don't know what things for which he will be given credit, 100 years from now, 50 years from now, how things turn out and i feel comfortable talking about people from the 19th srntsrnt century. i would like to go back that far. nixon, maybe not. the resignation, the vietnam high jinx in paris with the peace talks and so forth, just really unconscionable stuff and so he is a person i might throw in the mix as well. >> thank you, claire. thanks for that. i'm sorry that i wasn't able to be sean willence. but i am pleased and flattered
to be considered a scholar by implication of being on this panel. i'm really a political journalist but i've written about 20th century political history and cob temporary history. i did argue sort of the sean willence proposition at a disastrous event that being invited to participate in this discussion put me in mind of. at the end of the bush presiden presidency, the w. bush presidency, i participated in an intelligence square debate in new york and i argued the affirmative of the proposition resolve george w. bush was the worst president of the past 100 years. we didn't do buchanan or johnson. and on the other side were karl rove and bill cristal. and on my side was a british journalist names simon jenkins. we were on the way in and he thought it would be poor manners to criticize an american president in his own country.
i said, okay, i'm out here on my own. and karl rove, true to form, argued the proposition, not just that george w. bush was not the worth president of the past 100 years but he was in fact the best president of all time. but bill crystal took what i thought was a shrewder tact and said, bush wasn't a great president, he might not have even been a good president but he wasn't the worst, come on. hoover, carter, nixon. and they actually won the vote. although, i suspect that rove stacked the hall in his favor ahead of time. i think when -- we think about the question, first of all, we have to acknowledge, it is a parlor game but it is a fun parlor game for nerds like me, to list the best and the worst and you could do the same thing with baseball players. we had a debate the other night who about the cultural figures should be if there were a mt. rushmore for culture and the
conclusion was they shouldn't have carved the stuff in the stones at all. but, you know, the -- it's part of the reason it has to be a parlor game and doesn't go beyond that. you are making comparisons that aren't really -- they are absurd. how do you compare poke to harding or the mexican war to teapot dome and the bad thing. but whenever people play it at whatever level of seriousness, including the surveys that annette stopped participating in, they are really thinking about the same quality -- the same issues. so when you think about gret presidents, i -- great presidents, did they have big accomplishments and create the national parks, create the new deal or play a role in ending the cold war. and that is sort of at the top of the list. but embedded in that is also a political argument about what accomplishments we think are admirable. then, there is the sort of
slightly different question of whether they had a big impact for good or bad. whether they were consequential. i did a very well-timed interview with barack obama in 2007 when he was just sort of thinking about running for president and he sort of talked about it with me before he talked about it with a lot of other people and he described being in the washington hilton where they have the white house correspondents' dinner and looking down the long row of the black and white photographs of the presidents and for him the decision whether to run for president was whether he could be one of the important ones, one of the consequential ones. he didn't want to run for president just to be president. >> sure. >> and of course -- sure. exactly. and low and behold, he ended up running. and but i think -- did a president change politics and society in a meaningful way. and then there is the whole
category and character and leadership questions. do we admire them as people? do we think them embodied something significant about the national character and that gets down to other qualities, were they important political thinkers like jefferson and madison or great writers like lincoln, were they eloquent and that get news personal qualities that go beyond just what they did as president. so for bad presidents, it is the flip side but a little different. did they have large negative accomplishments? and those could be active or passive failures. did they escalate a war like lbj or get drawn into a war or fail to act in an economic crisis like hoover? did they drop an atom bomb or two atom bombs. in those historical surveys, i was looking at it. it is interesting, the block that was the worst, at least if you looked over time, fillmore, pearce, buchanan and johnson and
grant. so all of the presidents surrounding lincoln on both sides who were tasked in various ways with failing to prevent the civil war and failing to manage the aftermath in a better way. so but just being -- you know, as a predictor of being regarded as bad, proximity to lincoln is the number one -- is the number one indicator. the other -- and then the other side of that is did they not have -- were they not consequential or not have a bi m impact. and you talk about presidents not getting re-elected and ford and carter and through no special fault of them own, garfield and mckinley. it doesn't make you a bad president to get assassinated after 40 days but it doesn't make you a good one either. and lastly, did the person have bad character? like nixon or -- i defer to the expert on andrew johnson sitting next to me but people sometimes sort of describe him in ways that make that case.
i think to be in the running for best president, one of the best presidents, you have to have all three of those things. you have to have big accomplishments and consequential and have strong personal qualities. to be one of the worst presidents, you can't have all three because you can't do important bad things and be inconsequential. right. so we ask to sort of choose. and i would dismiss the inconsequential presidents as a different category. you have an argument about which presidents are the most pitiable or irrelevant or historical laughing stocks but that is not the same as worst president. sometimes it gets a little lumped together. so just to wrap up and i talk about reagan in a minute, but i do want to say that having written about bush when he was still in office and having written about reagan a couple of decades after he left office, i do think this is very hard to see from up close. it is a -- politics is a very distorting lens around the sort of question of who is bad and
who is worst. and that -- for that reason, it may be better to sort of talk about the -- the more distant historical period. but it is irresistible. and just to sort of start out, i keep trying to come up with someone different, but i have to come back to nixon. because i think nixon is the only president, at least who i understand well enough to say this about, who really had that quality of shakespeare villain. i think it is not enough in a way to have done bad things or not responds to a event. you have to have a kind of bad character that has -- has a sort of transcending theatrical quality and in some ways make you a sympathetic character as a great villain. being compared to richard iii or mcbeth. and i think nixon does it on accomplishments too. obviously the secret bombing of cambod cambodia, escalating the vietnam
war. and i think one that is not -- not appreciated enough but everything that nixon and watergate did to destroy trust in government and the ability of government to function and take on problems. i think it is a negative legacy that we still live with today. so i'm going with nixon. >> okay. so what i would like to do is start a conversation among our friends here. would you like to thank -- i would like to thank jacob for alluding to warren harding. there is a reason why the rumor that warren hardings wife poisoned him gained such traction because across america people longed to poison warren harding. so thank you for that. so i think -- there are a couple of themes that i'm seeing here. one theme that david brought up was our political judgment versus our judgment as historians. and that may seem a little sort of insider political
history-ish, but i think it is a really important point. i think for those of us who worked in the reagan archives, for example, one thing you see is the president advisers saying what will the president want. why won't the president tell us what he wants. one vision of a not very good president would be this guy floating through eight years in the white house with nobody actually foeing what his -- knowing what his agenda is. so -- and annette brings us -- i think what is a really important point, which is great presidents exceed who they are. and bad presidents squander opportunities. and not to get too romantic about it, but there are certainly historical moments that if a president can seize them, they can, in fact, become greater than what they are and who they are. and even more than his
accomplishments, i would say franklin roosevelt was that person. did he become more than who he was in certain ways. he wasn't enough. but it was more. and finally, i want to come back to jacob's point. just of a throw-away at the beginning about whether it is to criticize a president in his own country. i wonder if this would be a different conversation if we had someone who was a non-u.s. historian on the panel. because of course presidents are perceived very differently outside of the united states than they are in side. so i just wanted to start the conversation with that and then if we can let it flow for about 20 minutes. and then i think we have microphones up here. so at a certain point i will signal and we want to add the audience into the conversation, too. if you have something to say after i sort of give the word, come up to the microphone and
ask us a question. >> i have a question about -- on the point of nixon, for the two of you or all three of you. you mentioned an overseas reputation. do you think that people overseas would view nixon more favorably than the two of you? and me as well? do you think he has a better reputation? >> i think he absolutely does. even at the time, during watergate, they would say, i don't understand what everyone is so worked up about. we do this all of the time. [ laughter ] but it was -- it wasn't just that. i do think there was a sense in other parts of the world that this was a kind of peculiar american fixation. and i think it does have to do with -- other countries have this concern, too. but there is an american concern with the abuse of executive pow te er that goes back to our founding and throwing off the monarchy that i think is kind of
baked in. but a lot of europeans and others were much more positively inclined to nixon. and they may not have liked him personally, but he wasn't -- the villiany wasn't as apparent i think to them. >> i think part of this gets to the distinction between an academic scholar on the one hand and a popular view on the other hand. and we should talk about that with respect to reagan where the gap is the biggest. but with nixon, when you are outside of the country, with all presidents, they get flattened out. they aren't known for many as things. they get fewer lights, good and bad. and after nixon died i wrote a long perverse obituary saying he was the last important liberal president and he started the epa -- he founded the epa and presided over functions of domestic government and he was
the president that proposed a guaranteed income and his health program would have been well to the left of obama care or clinton care. but when you get to europe, those subtleties are completely lost. you are known for watergate. you are known for the opening china -- you are probably known for mccarthyism. and that may play in your favor or it may not. but i think it is not a complex view. >> okay. so that litany of things that he proposed, would you like him better if they had actually come to fruition? would you have for given him his sins if those things have come to fruition? guaranteed income, national health care, all of those kinds of things. but he was still -- he was still dirty dealing and all other kind of stuff. >> well part of it is that some of that did come from his dirty dealing, right. he thought -- he thought
liberals hated him so much and he hated them so much he tried to outflank them on the left and as a result the liberals that he advocated were very poorly worked out and thought through. i don't their a guaranteed income is a good idea. it is a left wing idea that mystified everybody and it particularly came out of pat moynahan working for him and having the same sense of woundedness about the left that nixon did and said here is how we get them. but it was insane politically because what if you win. and actually ronald reagan played a little known role in defeating the guaranteed income which might well have passed otherwise. but having gone -- have a worked early version of work welfare in california he came to washington and testified in the senate against it and said in his common sense way, you can't pay people not to work because no one would work. i know i wouldn't. >> and he didn't. >> right.
[ laughter ] >> the thing i would say about nixon with these liberal achievements is, you know, this was the 60s. the public opinion was in a much more liberal place. he was the first president since 1848 to take office with the opposing party in control of both houses of congress. now it has since become fairly routine that we've had divided government. but he -- he sort of seeded a lot of this to the democrats in congress because foreign policy is what we really cared about. and so i think this gets to another distinction that we need to think about in rating or ranking presidents and which is the difference between the president and the president's administration. you know, nixon was not liberal. but yes, his administration did a lot of liberal things. and how do we separate those? and your point earlier, both of you spoke about moral character,
whether in johnson or in others. and i think that when we do talk about -- we play this parlor game, the person is important, too. and so simply -- eisenhower is kind of undergoing this renaissance now. and he basically turned a lot of his domestic policy over to rayburn and lyndon johnson. i don't know if he could give -- eisenhower that much credit. that is about what happened in the years he was president. so that is, i think, a distinction that should factor into our thinking. >> so, let me just sort of quick this back to annette, since you got to ask the other two questions and i want to put you on the spot. no, it is good. it is a great question. which is how do we think about best or worst presidents from the perspective of african-american history or
native american history to the extent that -- and i'm thinking about the conversation about why african-american voters are so overwhelmingly voting for hillary clinton, and the decision has been organized around pragmatism, that african-american voting committees have historically been very pragmatic and kept allegiances to the best of the worst. so how do we think of good and bad presidents in an atmosphere in which racism has actually fully defined the american political structure? >> well, you try -- i'm not speaking for -- just observing african-americans. i think in the sanders-clinton thing, it is not terribly mysterious. african-americans don't know sanders as well as they know clintons. and i said this, you know, last year. that he was polling at -- at
zero to 2% when he started out and has gotten better since then. but he hasn't had a black constituency. he's been in vermont, that doesn't have very many black people. he's not had to respond to a black constituency. and so you -- it is a question of who you know. and the good things you've done and the bad things. versus somebody that you don't know at all. and he has sort of changed his message -- adjusted his message over the months to try to talk more about issues that involve african-americans, but that really wasn't what he was doing at first. it was all an economic message. and if we just solve the economic problem, everything will be okay. well most african-americans know that is not true. you could bring the socialist paradise here and there would still be racism and white supremacy. so that is not a sufficient answer for people. so i think it really is pragmatic. it is basic -- who is going to be -- you said the least worst
or whatever, the lesser of evils. because you know that even if blacks who are doing relatively well, you think about the people who are doing less well who cannot afford to have a really, really bad, hostile president. people who will not eat or not have a place to live, people who will suffer. marketedly if the wrong people are in power. so if the republicans get -- my taxes go down. but there are other reasons that i -- that i would not want them in office. certainly people in office. so i think that it is really down to the question of who is going to be hurt. how many african-american people are going to be hurt if the wrong person gets in office. and it is -- and it is terrible to have to play those kind of games but that is essentially what it is. >> can i -- i think here, too, i mean, you see the importance -- to go back to your original comments about and r-- andrew
johnson, whether it is failure, maybe johnson or maybe buchanan, but less so, have had their worst impact on african-americans. there is no doubt that the failure to have a successful reconstruction was a great -- was of great consequence for african-americans. it affected all americans. when you get to herbert hoover, well, of course, african-americans suffered in the depression along with others. but there wouldn't be, i think, a great deefyance there between how whites and blacks would rate him. now i think reagan might be an interesting question here. would we -- would a poll of african-american historians or african-american citizens of great or worst presidents, would reagan come out markedly lower
than he does among whites. i would suspect yes, but i don't know. >> i think he probably would, just because for reason. he starts his campaign in philadelphia or mississippi and he's sending a message from the beginning. and even if his policies -- leaving his policies aside, it is what he unleashed, i think, in terms of people's attitudes about race that -- now is the time for refrenchmetrenchment. we've been trying to go forward and now we don't have to pay attention to that. well he didn't -- well he kind of did say. >> that but he sent the signal that all of these things wornt be important. and he put things -- he was problematic. it is the one reason he wouldn't be a top president. but i never rated him as a worst president. because of that. the president's bully pulpit he used in a way that ended up being negative for people. >> talking about reagan, and then in a minute and i want to talk about jefferson.
but -- >> jefferson has no part of this conversation, okay. >> how can you do that? but i mean, i agree with you. i wouldn't -- having studied reagan recently, rate him as neither one of the best or the worst. i would rate him as one of the most significant of the 20th century because i think he changed american policies. he founded a new conservative movement. american politics since has really in a lot of ways taken place in the context of reagan. but i think he does have one possible claim to greatness, which is the end of the cold war and the second term. and i sort of ended up making a case that reagan's second term in -- in terms of the union, was not a continuation of his first term but a repudiation of his first term and he took this radical turn towards kind of a radical disarmament that put him
severely at odds with just about everyone else in the administration with the exception of george schultz, who he really clung to and protected for that reason. and it is still hard to -- it doesn't add up. it doesn't -- what reagan did does, in the second term, does fit very well with so many of the things he said and did in his first term. but he did go to rec evac and compose the elimination of nuclear weapons. and he some ideas that were funny ideas on the right. he thought the soviet union would collapse. and i found something in his desk which they have in his archives, if you look at it, a piece wrote in 1962 where he essentially forecasted it. again, not on the basis of anything in particular. he knew about the soviet union because he didn't know very much and it was an embarrassing and naive view. but on the basis of common sense, he said, first of all, he met communists in hollywood and
thought they were dumb and not that hard to beat. and second of all, he thought it defied human nature. nobody would choose to live like that. so it is just a matter of time before the people there wouldn't stand for it any more. and in a funny way, that sort of naive, very unsophisticated view turned out to be more correct than the serious academic views. but i do think reagan played a really significant role in the peaceful conclusion of the cold war and i think we'll be grappling with that for a long time and that has him knocking on the door of the great presidents with a lot of debate. >> i receive aid tweet from the -- i received a tweet from the crowd that said the microphone -- the one that annette and jacob is using, so speak directly into it if you k. and second thing, a tweet came in that said, finally someone pointing out the long shadow of lincoln. don't blame buchanan. i think it was annette who called that to our attention.
and it made me think of something else would you like to put -- i would like to put to you, which is both of sort of contrasting presidents, does it matter that warren harding seems like such a shlump because he follows a war-time president -- wilson. does it matter that eisenhower seems so dull because he was followed by kennedy? so what is it that presidential shadows do and also, what about shifting in media? that as a new kind of media comes online, like roosevelt is able to project a presidential image in a way that hoover never could. so i wonder if you could speak to that a little bit, the lang shadow and how shifts in media affect our view of presidents. >> well, i mean, the conventional wisdom on the war front is that you don't have great presidents without war. i mean, the chance to show yourself, to show your medal in
leading the country in a conflict. the media matters. the people who matter it and are good at it, the cliche is kennedy in his press conferences, able to charm people as he talked to the press, who was not the most -- they weren't really challenging him but he charmed them even when they are naturally under his control in any event. barack obama certainly is a president of social media. and he's used that very, very well. it will be interesting to see what happens afterwards. of the people who come next, if they'll be able to do that. because none of them seem terribly savvy. well i guess trump tweets. >> yeah. >> i take that back. he tweets. his twitter feed is going all of the time. it is an important part of his shstick. i don't remember -- i don't know about cruz or sanders or what they're doing. >> last seen ted cruz after a mob in brooklyn.
after his trip to new york, he went to a motsa factory. >> i missed that. >> yeah, i guess. >> well i think that is an interesting question. and i don't think -- >> we can't hear you. >> i'll get closer. sorry, i was too far. the -- okay. all right, good. there we go. how is that? better. much better, thank you. should i repeat everything i said before? the -- part of what happened with communications element, that is an interesting way to look at things and reagan is crucial there, both in the use of radio and tv. but now with media, we have this generational bifurcation which i don't think any president can get around because younger people communicate -- if you are under 30, you communicate in ways that people over30 actually can't do and can't understand. and so there is no -- it is not that we haven't had the first president who really knows how
to use snap chat, no president is going to know how to use snap chat because no person over 30 knows how to use snap chat. they may be able to simulate some sort of presence on social media. and that is what it going on in facebook and twitter. trump is authentically a twitter rage-ahol rage-aholic. no question. he does it the way that crazy people who don't have a billion dollars do it on twitter. but i think -- i think other wise, that game is sort of a loosing battle because i don't think politicians could keep up with changes in communications technology. >> i have a slightly different view of the role of media in making presidential reputation. so i've been researching this book republic of spin. i came across one president after another who was hailed as a genius with modern media until the presidency became a disaster. so herbert hoover, i mean,
walter litman, brown, drew pearson are writing about him in 28, 29, like this guy is a master of modern publicity methods. but then with the depression, he can't get a break. they actually hire edward bern acme, father of modern publication to help with the moral program and eventually he said, look, i'm not a magician. you need a jobs program. and jimmy carter, too. if you look at the early carter presidency, he is hailed as a wizard with this stuff. the cover of the new york times magazine, there is a cartoon of carter in the control room with abc, cbs, nbc, all sort of doing his and if he had been a good president for eight years, he would be remembered as ronald reagan, i think. as the great communicator.
he was that through the '76 campaign, and a little bit into '77, but he had, you know, the misery index and the hostage crisis, and he couldn't rise to the challenge. so i tend to think the people we remember as good with media tend to be the people who had successful presidencys and not the other way around. >> the only thing i would say about carter is that carter was good campaigning. i don't know that he was that great in the media once he became president. first, he was on too much. and he wore a cardigan sweater sitting in front of a fire. carried his own garment bag. he did all these symbolic things that didn't hide the fact that maybe, you know, he wasn't that great a president. but i think he was much better as a campaigner using the media than once he actually got into the white house. >> although, you'd have to say the carter interview in "playboy" was a strange moment that has not been repeated
since. i want to invite the audience to begin. we'll continue this conversation up here, but audience member, who'd like to contribute to the contribution, we'll just go back and forth. if you'd like to line up, if you would do us a favor, just say your name before you ask a question, that would be great. >> i'm jim lowe. the only mention that's been made of native americans was yours in passing, and i wanted to make a comment about nixon and another nomination. nixon's native american policies were superb. they are considered by native americans to be the best of any president, including -- i mean, grant might be second and maybe fdr third. and i have no idea why. i think he must have had one good adviser somewhere. but if he gets credit for -- i mean, if he gets blamed for bad things done under his administration that were done because of advisers, he should get credit for that.
and i remember visiting his terrible presidential library and seeing a room about school desegregation. which is, of course, true, against his will. and then the very next room says, better american indian policy. and that one happens to be correct. so we have to give him credit for that. and i think it goes into the balance. but my candidate would be franklin w. pierce. he's the only candidate, the only president nominated by his party, elected, and then though he wanted to be renominated, they wouldn't. that's a distinction. and another distension is when he left washington and came back to new hampshire, nobody met his train. [ laughter ]
and then there's a third distinction. and he beats out, narrowly, andrew johnson for being the most alcoholic president. i think he comes in second, because i'm with annette, i think the guy who got impeached and would have been convicted had it not been for outright bribery should win the prize. >> hi, my name is shawn driscoll. i'm a graduate student. i kind of want to pose this to you. everyone loves redemption. everyone loves that third act when someone redeems themselves. i want to pose this to you. i won't even venture into the 1800s. but people like taft, people like arguably nixon, carter, arguably as we're seeing clinton. what can be said about the idea of a third act, redemptive acts?
>> i think there is upward revision for a president. sometimes it's because of their achievements in their post-presidential life and sometimes it's just, you know, they seem like a nicer guy and all the bad feeling. sometimes i'm actually not surprised. i think george bush sr. underwent this upward revision because of his son. [ laughter ] but when you actually go back and look at the first george bush presidency, to me mind, it's still actually a very poor presidency. there are a few things in foreign policy where he should get credit. but it's not one that deserves what it's been getting recently. similarly with eisenhower. but i do think -- yes, i mean,
especially nixon, carter. they're presidents who have made it the purpose of their post-presidency to rehabilitate their reputation for history. i tend to think it doesn't work. we go back and we look at the presidency, and that the post-presidency is a footnote, that last chapter of the book of the biography. but i don't think it -- i mean, it may affect popular perceptions at the time, but i don't think it affects historical judgments significantly. >> i was going to say, it seems to me that revision upward tends to be a somewhat gradual process, where its revision downward can be quite dramatic. and right now, again, it's a sort of non-scholar on the panel, seems to me that we're seeing significant downward revisions mainly on issues of race. both in relations to african-americans and native americans, and that's, you know -- woodrow wilson, big down arrow. you talk about jefferson. seems to me that phenomenon is
probably affecting jefferson's reputation, even though he was president 200 years ago. i mean, the other thing is hamilton, which isn't helping his reputation either, right? but i think you can have the big downward -- but in the popular conception, you know, presidents who i think some time ago would have been assumed to be racism or racial policies would have been exchanged to some extent as characteristic of their age if they lived in a, you know, pre-civil rights era, certainly pre-slavery era. now that's no longer excused and a close examination of were they in any way -- even if they were merely typical, that can be a powerful lever against them. >> no president was as bad as
jefferson davis. he was the first president to leave office in a dress. >> they call that a farewell dress, right? [ laughter ] . >> hi. i'm erica coleman. two things. i want to piggy back on what was said about nixon's policy regarding native americans. i want to kind of disagree just a little bit. not necessarily disagree, but, you know, give another perspective on it, because even though those policies were maybe profitable to native american communities, on the one hand. on the other hand, when you look at the friedman, then those policies seem to be detrimental. and i'm thinking about particularly a supreme court decision, which nixon had no direct role in, but it was
still -- it still occurred under nixon's administration, and that's the santa clara versus montanez decision, which thurgood marshall and the other eight agreed that sovereignty trumped civil rights, and that made civil rights a problematic issue in indian country, and that's why to this day, they continue to have a problem with the citizenship because of that particular decision that occurred under nixon again. nixon was not directly related to that. but i don't want to give these people the impression that those positive policies from nixon did not also have a detrimental effect. the other thing that i want to bring up, and i'm sorry, dr.
reed, but we have to talk about jefferson. we have to talk about jefferson. >> as a president? >> as a president, yes. we do have to talk about jefferson as a president. and i just think about some of his racial ideologies. particularly in relationship to lincoln. because we don't have a problem calling jefferson a racist, okay? but lincoln embraced some of those same ideologies, and yet it would be controversial to call lincoln a racist. so when the question comes up about the role of presidents, whether they're bad or worse as it pertains to racial issues, then i think jefferson certainly had a place in this conversation, and i would like to know your thoughts about how
it is that jefferson -- i mean, we have worked jefferson over, and yet we have given lincoln a pass. >> well, i mean, you mentioned the movie -- the play "hamilton," jacob. i mean, jefferson is sort of the all-purpose stand-in for racist white people. and all slave holders as well. i mean, george washington owned -- i don't believe that george washington's racial views were -- i have no reason to believe that they were significantly different than jefferson's. james madison's were exactly the same. but the problem is because of the declaration, people fixate on jefferson. even though he didn't -- he's not an outlier. somebody said to me that he was an outlier on the racial question. and i think what this basically does is to try -- it ends up making whites of the 18th century better than they actually were on the race question. and so there's some sort of innocent community out there and jefferson is the person who
stands out. so yeah, lincoln, these are the racial views of the time. white supremacy has been a prevalent part of american life. it's as much a part as republicanism, as any kind of other ideology. so yeah, you talk about him as a president. i was thinking about mainly as his action as a president, but certainly his attitudes about race were the attitudes of the people of his time. i do not think he was an extreme racist. i mean, people say that, that he is, but i called him a common garden variety white man for his time period. and that's the way i feel about it. i mean, you look at the notes in the state of virginia. white people were smarter than black people. white people look better than black people. those are not -- i meet people who think that every day. so that's not something that strikes me as being out there. but for whatever reason, he's
the sort of person -- and it really is the declaration, who's put up as -- sort of takes all the sins of whites during that time period on his shoulders. even though other people had those same sentiments. >> but don't we do the same thing with lincoln? because lincoln and the emancipation proclamation and with him being seen as the great emancipator, so it erases a lot of the policies, or at least a lot of the ideology that he also had about black people, the inferiority. repatriation. the whole nine yards. >> you're right, people don't talk about that as much because of -- the end of the civil war, how he died, his martyrdom and all those things. that's secondary to his personality. you're right. people don't bring that up as much. but the sentiments are there. >> i would just add to the key difference between jefferson and lincoln is on the slavery question, where lincoln, despite having views that were certainly
racist, by the definition of that term, was vehemently anti-slavery. and to the extent that we do separate personal views from presidential actions, the anti-slavery that was a strong motivator for his politics, i think, you know, has understandably kind of carried the day in his both historical and popular reputation. for those who read more deeply, know more deeply, that sits very uneasily with some very unpleasant views about african-americans as well. >> i just want everybody to know that i have tweeted the president of the united states and asked him to join this conversation. i don't know why he hasn't tweeted me back yet. but as soon as he does, i will interrupt everything.
over here. >> we do have to talk about jefferson, but i'm wondering if you can talk about a different jefferson, jefferson davis, the president of a failed state. where would he rank, as well as his counterpart, abraham lincoln. you know, the fact that you could even vote for him in 12 or 13 states says a lot about how hated he was at that time. >> well, again, that's an interesting comment about how hated lincoln was at the time. his election was, in many ways, the trigger. i think it gets to the point
we're all making about the difference in historical judgment and how one is seen at the time by the citizenry of one's own time. lots of presidents are hated. franklin roosevelt, the whole -- all those people who would refer to him as "that man." but then over time, you know, republicans kind of let go of that. fdr is one of newt gingrich's favorite presidents. they find ways to take what they admire, so lincoln now is kind of on all sides. there are probably a few neoconfederate lincoln haters out there, but that has mostly become an irrelevant point of view. fdr hating mostly irrelevant. even jfk is embraced by the right for his tax cuts and they try to claim his mantel, too. so i think one thing that's a marker of greatness may be that the other side, as it were, kind of comes around and tries to
appropriate the legacy, rather than continue to attack. >> it's sort of an interesting how do you view the other side. the fact that people hated lincoln because they thought he was going to end slavery. it's maybe a value judgment, but you have to think about -- i mean, there are some types of a program that you should be proud to incur. and that's why people now -- people who come around to the idea that slavery was not a good idea and think that maybe he was right on that question. so i wouldn't make somebody the worst president just because a large swath of the population is angry at something that he's doing. i'd have to think of what it is that he's doing first, the merits of what he is doing. >> one of you made the point that it's hard to be a great president without a war.
i think it's hard to be a great president or a transcendently bad president without a period that has a claim on people's imagination. it's easy to be a great president at a time soon after the founding. it's easy to be a great president or an awful president around the civil war. you can say the same thing around the great depression and the civil war. but if you lived in the late 19th century or early 19th century, these periods that don't have as much of a claim on people's historical imagination, it's hard to be that important either way. >> my name is george hill. i teach american history in germany. i have two questions. the first one is you had 44 presidents in the history of your country tonight. basically, every president has
been named. what does it mean about your political process in this country, that you have elected these people. we're not talking about emperor william ii. these guys were elected by the american people, and perhaps when we meet again in new orleans, we'll be talking about president trump -- >> you know who else was elected. >> my first question is how does this debate -- we should also talk about the times that they are elected. my second question -- i'm sorry, i have to go back to abraham lincoln. in december 1862, lincoln issued the preliminary emancipation proclamation. he offered the southern states to come back to the union and they could keep slavery. just for one second, imagine the
southern states that accepted his offer. can we really base our understanding of abraham lincoln on the fact that someone did not take an offer that he offered them? >> well, there is something we say here in the united states that derived from a television show called "the lone ranger." and it's who are we, white man? and i'm not referring to you. i'm referring to the fact that the electoral process has changed dramatically over time. and become more inclusive and not more inclusive. so looking at who gets elected often correlates with how the electoral process has been opening up or shutting down. i think a second thing that is probably worth throwing to the group here -- it's god. >> i think that's obama.
>> sorry about that. [ laughter ] >> that was james buchanan. >> damn, i've forgotten what it was. all right. so the question of the process opening up and closing down over time -- oh, what i was going to say was i was reminded by reading something online the other day that when george washington was first elected president, they didn't imagine that there would be political parties, right? so a lot of this is closely alied to the fact that we've had two or more parties, even though they've changed over time. >> we're not the only country who's elected some pretty bad people. so it is sort of -- this is a risk of democracy, right?
that you have mortals, and you have divided sentiment, and i think it's actually -- i mean, i would say contrary to the gentleman's question, we actually -- despite not having worked it out methodically, had a fairly narrow pool that we came down to. johnson, buchanan, nixon, you know, w was out there, but it's too soon to tell. so it was kind of remarkable consensus. i think for me as a historian, the more i work in history, the more charitable i feel toward even presidents whose ideology or even accomplishments i disliked. both the pressures of the job, the challenges, the flukes, the happenstance. just ordinary people being thrown into this tremendously
difficult job. >> paul galob was the senior editor of the american presidents series. he said to me one time, because he's the one person who's had to read all of them, all of the books. and he said every one of them had something going for them. every one of them was in his own way extraordinary. they didn't just sort of walk out of no place. even johnson, as bad as he was, he clawed his way. he was very, very savvy. he was a talented person. despite his problems. so, you know, once you get into an office like that, it's tremendously different. it's hard to do stuff. it really is. we look at people and we make judgments about people who are actors. we are not actors. we are reactors. but to have the responsibility for making decisions that sends people off to their deaths, we have chosen to do something else. we're not prime movers.
so it's really, really hard to make the kind of judgments -- total judgments about people who are in those positions. i mean, we do it anyway, but you have to keep that in mind, that it's hard to accomplish things. >> historians do gravitate toward these figures who do have some literary complexity to them, whether it's literary or not. there are presidents who were probably pretty successful and important, but who aren't that interesting. and there are presidents who were really bad and unsuccessful who present fascinating puzzles about failure. nixon is always going to be a fascinating figure. and eisenhower, it's much harder to make him a fascinating figure. i mean, the great unsolved puzzles of eisenhower are not ones that keep people up at night.
>> hi, i'm going to add a tiny bit more european perspective. it comes in the form of seconding the nomination of woodrow wilson. not so much for his segregationist policies, but for his foreign policy, where i think he might have actually fit the bill of this achievement of totally failing to achieve what he wanted to do in post-war europe, and yet still having an enormous negative impact, leaving an enormous mess behind him that gave way to a disaster. >> can i say one thing about woodrow wilson? when i was working on my bush book, for some reason i came across freud's book about w woodrow wilson. how many of you knew that freud wrote a book about woodrow wilson? it's fascinating. it's a diatribe. he definitely thought woodrow wilson was the worst american president basically because he thought he was the religious fanatic. he thought that woodrow wilson was a really dangerous man because it was a moralistic,
intolerant view of the world. >> although the book was mainly written by william bullet, who i think is listed as a co-author. >> freud didn't finish it. >> right. and there's a lot of -- bullet has his own problems with wilson, that he's using the prevailing authority of freud to sort of do a job on wilson. >> well, fair enough. it's a good hatchet job. >> but i'd also like to come back to the point annette made about jefferson and the sort of ordinariness of racism. one of wilson's great effects on europe is to create all these states where, you know, which have been contributed to the second crisis, and of course, he did that with the help of a lot of historians, many of whom were from columbia university, who themselves had ideas about race, ethnicity, which they mapped on to europe. so the ordinariness of the
historian president wilson in a larger emerging profession of history is an important thing to note there. >> and i'm also just going to push back a little bit on that. because it's not on the question that it was wilson's plan that left europe a wreck. because it's not clear that a return to the same great power politics that led to world war i would have done us any better. and you do see with fdr, who really was a wilsonian with his foreign policy. and despite the cold war, the establishment of the united nations, it does start to pave the way toward self-determination and toward, you know, a more plausible system of international law. far from perfect, but i think the vision deserves a certain credit. >> john riley.
discussing presidents and their post-career, one president does occasionally get a paragraph, a photo in a textbook, it's john quincy adams, who had a career in congress and was noted for his strong opposition to the gag rule. and of course, he does pass away on the floor of congress. but i haven't heard his name mentioned. >> there is a new biography by james traub, he's like jacob, a journalist who really knows his history. >> quincy adams is quite an interesting figure. his post-career. johnson also had a post-career. very short. >> just a few months. >> a few months. >> i am john from rhode island. welcome here. i just want to ask each of you simply, when you started your
careers, was there, for each of you, a lousy president that has since been considered pretty good in your eyes? >> a lousy president? >> i would go back to reagan. i grew up in a liberal household. i remember in 1980, we had a mock debate at my high school, and i played reagan because there was nobody in the whole school who supported him and i was the only one willing to be, like, devil's advocate. so i grew up in a reagan hating culture. and so going back and doing this book for me was really eye-opening in a lot of ways. i haven't gone all the way to the other side, but i do think that most of the prejudices i had growing up about reagan were in one way or another wrong. and i've come to think he was both a much better president in many respects than i ever would have thought. and also, just sort of a more appealing person.
i mean, it's hard to spend a lot of time around reagan -- i don't know if claire would agree with this. but he's kind of hard not to like because he has a genuine sense of humor. he's nice to people. everyone around him seems to have liked him. he is almost uniquely among presidents didn't seem to have a huge ego or an inflated sense of his own abilities, and you kind of spend time around him and get to be a little bit sympathetic to him. >> the other one who i have not studied myself, is grant. we mention grant in passing as someone who for years was in that bottom tier. the scandal. gilded age corruption. perhaps reconstruction when the dunning school was still prevalent. so grant was saddled with this reputation. great general, bad president. and i think that is really changing a lot now. there have been some recent biographies of grant.
they're more in the works. ron churnow is writing one. there are others. and i think grant, partly because of his putting down of the kkk, again, the racial question, newly conceived, newly understood is contributing to a revision of grant, who used to be a basement dweller. >> i would say grant, too. that's what i grew up with. great general, but all this corruption. i didn't really know about the -- not until i was an adult, the ku klux klan trials, and he did give reconstruction a shot. he was very, very much supported by african-americans. but my initial thought about him was just no, corruption, and good general, too bad what happened with the presidency. but it's much more complicated than that for the reasons that he said. >> and i would say carter. not because of the post-presidency, but having spent a lot of time in the carter archives, i've become
more and more impressed about how unprepared the democratic party was to have a president like carter. and there's so little carter scholarship right now that we won't know the answers to some of these questions. but a big part of carter's struggle was trying to bring the democratic party out of this very divided moment where the party had sort of splintered and reformulated itself, not unlike what's happening to the republicans now. i also just wanted to throw something in, which i think is interesting given that we're in this electoral moment about whether we are about to see our first woman president, which is how few women have gotten up with questions in the audience, and how, you know, despite the fact that we've got an equally representative panel here in terms of gender, how disinvested many women are in presidential history.
just a comment, not exactly a question. and we have a couple more minutes. i can't remember, was it this direction? >> hi. bob zecker. maybe to divide the worst presidents, you have to do a 19th century category and a 20th century. because i want to say, and we can disagree, a word for nominating both reagan and w, even though it's quite early. and the reason i would say that is because there was a progressive move, for lack of a better term, toward accountability of the pentagon, towards civil rights very imperfectly, and a new deal social coalition. and then both of these presidents said, the taliban, or where we're going to, you know, get rid of the voting rights act. and in that respect, that would make a parallel to andrew johnson and grant.
there was an opportunity for reconstruction to happen. and then both of these presidents, not by their lonesome, you know, did push back. and i would argue that's what reagan did. yeah, very amiable guy, but i guess i'm saying you have to look at what did reagan accomplish in his presidency, but what did it set up for the political system decades forward, and i would argue both andrew johnson in the 19th century and reagan and bush really put us in a bad situation. >> so i want to ask the panel with this last comment, we have about three minutes left, and one of the things i'd like to do is pretend i'm judy woodruff, and since everybody has been on television probably with judy woodruff is to say if you want to address that, but also you have about half a minute for your closing statements on this panel as well.
>> mine is so quick. mine is a limerick that i wrote when i was in college about warren harding. there was an old man named warren who hated all things foreign. he liked to live normally, drupg, and informally and spend his time gambling and whoring. that's my limerick. barack obama was on "wait wait don't tell me" when he was a senator. listen to it, he is hilarious. when he said something's funny, people quoted it out of context and it went downhill and he could not be as funny as he actually is in life. lincoln, we treasure for his humor. barack obama is very funny and used humor. does hillary have a sense of humor. is there hope for a sense of humor? quick reflections on whether there's any hope for humor, and why do we treasure it so much in lincoln if we won't permit it -- we, the american people won't
permit it in presidential candidates for president now. that's all. >> all right. so pick and choose, guys. >> great limerick. i think it's a great point about humor and how it's not permissible to the same extent. i think you're right about that. i will say a president who nobody mentioned, bill clinton. no sense of humor. it's one of the reasons i think he's not -- doesn't kind of transcend the moment to the same extent. i think part of what this -- what i take away from this panel is that the fascination with presidents and part of this parlor game coming back to what we were saying at the beginning, it's a great excuse to talk about character and about people and how they interact with events. and to me, in the one sense, it's not that different from doing a literary criticism. it's not necessarily proper history. because looking at these people as characters, in some cases out
of context, making out of context comparisons is not really understanding any particular moment. but the reason it's a game we can't resist playing is we love to try to know these people as people better than we do. >> i think there's hope for humor. i mean, some of the e-mails that we've seen from hillary clinton sometimes show flashes of humor. it's a very difficult thing. it's very tough for her. because everything she's saying is being watched. and the news cycle is maybe, what, five minutes now? not even that. three minutes from one thing to the next. people know exactly what you're saying. so people have to measure themselves very, very carefully. so i definitely think the humor will stay there. you don't think clinton has a sense of humor? >> i don't. can you find an example? >> well, whether he -- he has great charm. he may not have the humor, but he's certainly a popular person.
and his capacity connects with people maybe substitutes for that. i can't think of any particular thing at the moment. >> yeah, i'm not sure what to say on the humor except, i mean, i'm sorry, i've been working on this book for many years that just came out. and it's a part of human spontaneity. sort of what we've come to call authenticity, which i think is a dangerous word. it encompasses a lot of things. but in a way, what it's getting at is our politics are so scripted, staged, choreographed, we have speech writers writing the words. they're tested by focus groups. that we crave this kind of spontaneity in our leaders, politicians. humor is one facet of that. it's the spontaneity, the sense that not everything is so calculated.
i don't think hillary clinton is humorless. but i think she's a very guarded person. i mean, i don't even think she's inauthentic. i think her authentic self is someone who is very cautious and guarded and methodical. and that too is a virtue in presidents much of the time. i mean, the other thing i'll say is a comeback about this issue of character and the presidency. so much of what we are trained and i think is correct to think about with history is that, you know, individuals, of course, matter. the agency is real. but there are these larger forces that impose these great constraints. and yet, when you get to the presidency, you actually start to see wow, this individual's one particular decision did matter. and that's not always true in other realms. and it does take you back to character. and it's why i think that character, both for great presidents and for the worst
presidents, reenters the picture where these discussions of -- which are very important discussions to have. what was nixon's native american policy? or what was such and such position on this? important questions. but they don't speak to the presidents and the hold that they have over our imagination. and in a way, that's what discussion is about. >> and with that, i want to thank the audience for your attention, your wonderful questions, your wonderful tweets, and i want to thank the panel and say what a great pleasure it has been to share the stage with three such wonderful thinkers, but also three of my favorite writers. [ applause ]
the national parks service was created in 1916. during its centennial year, former national parks service director robert stanton spoke at the organization of american historians annual meeting about the agency's origins and current challenges. this is an hour and a half. >> welcome to this session, and we hope more will be coming in. and i know you're giving up your cocktail hour. but we are going to have a reception right behind the black curtain here when our session is over. so you're all cordially invited to that. i'll make some introductions, a few remarks. and this is how we'll proceed after the introductions. i'll talk abouthe