When you’re watching a political program and you see a guest who’s identified as a historian, that person is probably not literally a historian, if the label means someone who earned a Ph.D. in history and is now a professor at a university. That’s because what nonhistorians would assume historians study—the past-tense version of what, in the present tense, we call news—isn’t what most of them actually study. Historians these days are more interested in ordinary people than politicians, and more interested in broad structural changes than particular events.
Alan Brinkley, who died this year at 70 after a long illness, was unusual for being a real historian, at the top rank of his profession, who also took seriously his relationship with a general public that wants historians to explain what’s going on in the world. It wasn’t just that he would appear occasionally on television as a commentator. His historical research and writing was substantially about American politics and government in modern times; he was the primary author of a popular and first-rate American history textbook for high school students; and he was unusually committed to teaching basic survey courses in American history to large numbers of undergraduates. Being a public, political historian was a mission for Alan as it was not for most of his peers.