HNN Interview: Lewis Gould

Direct Textbooks Textbook resource center

Lewis Gould, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, is well-known as an authority on the American presidency. His latest book is about the U.S. Senate: The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate (Basic Books, 2005). The following interview was conducted by email by Rick Shenkman, the editor of HNN.

Americans generally have a low opinion of Congress. In one recent poll only 34 percent said they had confidence in the institution. (President Bush at the same time had the approval of 35 percent.) If you were answering a poll about the Senate, would you say you had confidence in the institution?

I have confidence in the potential of the United States Senate to play a more constructive part in national affairs than it does right now. Is that potential likely to be realized? Not if the present emphasis on partisanship and pork continues as it has in recent years. In 1897 a newspaper editor wrote that “the Senate ranks lower in popular estimation today than it has at any time in the history of the country.” The polling you cite does not suggest a major change in that situation.

Are there any senators today who impress you?

Harry Reid is evolving into a very effective and tough Minority Leader. On the Republican side, Mitch McConnell is a better debater than most and a sharp advocate for his party. Should he succeed the inept Bill Frist, he will prove a difficult test for the Democrats. Lindsey Graham and Russell Feingold are worth listening to in debates and hearings.

Looking back through the history of the Senate over the last 100 years was there a Golden Age when the institution functioned properly?

I found no golden age in the 20th century. The League of Nations debate was conducted on a high level of constitutional reasoning with both sides focused on the large issues at stake. The contest over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though not quite on a par with the League battle, struck me as embodying what the Senate ought to be about. For the most part, however, senators spend time reminiscing about past decades when the body was more collegial and responsible. Yet, when I explored these supposed ages of comity and mutual respect, such as the 1930s or the 1940s, the actual behavior of Senate members at the time fell well short of these qualities.

It used to be that political scientists and historians were preoccupied with the failures of the presidency as an institution. Now here you come along and say the Senate's in trouble. Where did the Senate go wrong?

Research and writing on Congress is extensive but has not attracted the attention of scholarship about presidents. I have tried to provide some guides to further reading about the Senate in the book but this volume, like any work of synthesis, rests on the findings of many writers. There has been an upsurge of interest in Congress and the Senate in recent years as the successes and failures of the legislative branch have seemed more relevant to contemporary problems. Any list will leave someone out, but I have admired the work of Richard Harrison on Congress in the Progressive Era, John Milton Cooper on the League of Nations fight, Byron Hulsey on Everett Dirksen, Julian Zelizer on the modern Congress in general, Michael Foley on the Senate in the 1960s, and Barbara Sinclair on the evolution of the modern institution.

I’m not sure that the Senate “went wrong” since I was hard-pressed to find when it was acting “right” on a sustained basis throughout much of the 20th century. Writers have tended to assume that because the Senate performed with deliberation and responsibility at some points in the chamber’s modern history (the enactment of the New Freedom in 1913-1914, the League struggle, debate over the United Nations in the mid-1940s, the Civil Rights bill in 1964) that this reflected a usual level of comparable performance on legislation. Instead, I became convinced that the Senate’s failures outweighed its successes for most of these years.

It's been said that the Democrats really wanted to oppose the Iraq War but felt for political purposes that they couldn't (they remembered what happened when they opposed the first Iraq war). Have senators throughout history let politics drive their votes on war? Shouldn't we be appalled at this?

Since the Iraq war has been called the greatest strategic blunder in recent American history, the thrust of your question is why the Democrats did not oppose it in 2002-2003. Were they simply placing expediency over substance? No one seems to be asking similar questions of the Republicans who would appear equally culpable in letting “politics drive their votes on war.”

As politicians, senators naturally test the political winds all the time. Three years ago it seemed prudent to prominent Democrats to be on the side of what promised at the time to be a short war and the removal of a dictator who had weapons of mass destruction. Now that we know how matters turned out (so far), the Democratic dissenters seem prescient and the votes for war unwise. What was most dismaying in retrospect that there was no real debate on the war and its potential consequences in the Senate at the time or since.

Historian Bernard Weisberger has recently commented that it seems that declarations of war are a thing of the past. He notes in a forthcoming book that we haven't had a real declaration of war since 1917. (In 1941, he suggests, the debate was moot since the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.) Would it be desirable if the Congress had to declare war before presidents starting firing missiles and invading countries?

The problems with declarations of war in the modern world is, of course, the perceived need to respond quickly to a threat to the United States. Presidents have persuasively made the case that deliberation and a thorough airing of issues cannot occur when seconds and minutes count. Now whether the debate on the Gulf War resolution in 1990 counts as the functional equivalent of a declaration of war is another question to be considered. The performance of presidents, freed from congressional participation in war-making decisions, has not been such to settle the argument in the executive’s favor (Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush). Declarations of war also presume that a condition of hostilities exist against a nation-state. The war on terror is an attack on a tactic in which a congressional declaration that the United States is fighting against a concept would seem a stretch from what the Framers intended.

Now that we've taken care of the easy questions, how about some hard ones. For instance: It's clear the Democrats are unhappy with Samuel Alito. He's too conservative for them. If you were advising the Democrats, would you tell them to stage a filibuster? Or would a filibuster backfire?

On the Alito nomination, the two months between now and when the hearings start in January will determine what the Democratic strategy should be. The White House lost a preliminary skirmish since the president wanted confirmation before Christmas. My sense is that if strong reasons develop to oppose Alito, the Democrats won’t need a filibuster since they might win over a few Republican moderates. Much will also depend on how the 2006 Senate races are shaping up. If the Democrats seem poised to regain control of the chamber (not quite as long a shot as it seemed three months ago), Republicans might remember that filibusters favor minorities and be reluctant to give up that weapon if they are out of control in 2007. That would take the nuclear option away and make a Democratic filibuster more powerful.

Since I argue in the book that the filibuster has distorted the workings of the Senate since 1900, I should be consistent in saying that it ought to be dropped and the rights of a minority in the Senate safeguarded in the many other ways that the chamber’s rules provide. But your question did not go to that larger point.

The Alito nomination comes at a time when Harry Reid is gaining a political ascendancy over Bill Frist in the chamber. Will Frist be William F. Knowland to Reid’s Lyndon Johnson? If so, Judge Alito’s candidacy may be in trouble.

Karl Rove once studied under you, so this is a difficult question. Do you think he acted improperly in the CIA Spy Affair? Even though he hasn't been indicted, it's clear that he spoke to journalists about Valerie Wilson's CIA employment even though he apparently assured the White House press spokesman that he wasn't involved in any way with the disclosure.

Karl Rove was indeed a student of mine during the spring semester of 1998. As someone still seeking his undergraduate degree, he used the individual conference courses that the University of Texas at Austin provided in its History Department to gain additional credit hours. He asked me if he could take an undergraduate conference course with the purpose of writing an essay about Theodore Roosevelt and the election of 1896. Over the first four months of 1998, during my last semester of teaching, he did the research and wrote the paper. We communicated by means of letters and regular phone calls. In the process, Rove developed, as I suggested he would, a greater appreciation of the political skills of William McKinley.

In the summer of 1999, as the Bush presidential campaign began, Rove called me to say that reporters would be getting in touch with me. Rove was advancing the idea to the media that Bush might do for the Republicans in the twenty-first century what McKinley did in the late nineteenth–establish an enduring national majority. Not wishing to be identified with the Bush campaign, I told reporters off the record about Rove’s course and where his ideas about McKinley had originated.

Then in early 2000, Nicholas Lemann wrote an article in the New Yorker which dealt with Bush and Rove. Though he never spoke with me, Lemann described me as the leader of a “cabal” of conservative historians intent on rehabilitating the reputation of William McKinley. Suddenly, I was an intellectual influence on Rove and thereby of Bush. This neat pattern ignored several salient facts. The last time I spoke with Rove was when he called me in the summer of 1999. As I indicated in my book Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans (2003), I am not a Republican in my political allegiance. Finally, I did not regard the Bush-McKinley parallel as persuasive. At the same time, Rove had reached his conclusions on that point on his own and it did not seem appropriate for a former teacher to be offering opinions in public about a student’s judgments on this or that aspect of a course. I suspected that the flaws in the McKinley-Bush comparison would emerge in due time, as indeed they have, without comments from me.

Since Valerie Plame Wilson was a covert agent, the behavior of Rove in that matter raises serious questions about his motives and judgment. Whether the recent story in the Washington Post about his possible departure from the White House is like finding a horse’s head in his bed is not yet clear, but even the most enduring political friendships can come apart, as Colonel Edward M. House and Woodrow Wilson demonstrated. Perhaps Rove will be writing his own memoirs on his career and his education sooner than he might have anticipated.

Your father was Jack Gould, the New York Times television critic. In the movie, Good Night, and Good Luck, he's mentioned several times in a positive context as a crusading journalist who understood the importance of television. How come you didn't follow in your father's footsteps and become a journalist?

In college I gave some thought to becoming a journalist. At that time, there was a typing test for admission to the Columbia journalism program. Having emulated my father with a two-fingered style, I wondered if I could pass the test. Going into the same profession as a famous father also seemed not the best possible choice. Meanwhile, the History faculty at Brown--James Blaine Hedges, William G. McLoughlin, Klaus Epstein, and Forrest McDonald--introduced me to their subject and I was hooked. That people would pay someone to read about the past, do research in original sources, and talk about it with students struck me as an ideal arrangement

My father was a journalist first and a crusader only when circumstances warranted. In fact, he would have resisted the idea that a television reporter and critic should campaign on behalf of causes or individual programs. Although a Democrat in his political allegiance, he pursued a story into Lyndon Johnson’s television interests as far as he could in 1963-1964. If he had been able to find more evidence about the president’s shady and well-concealed dealings, he would have run with the story. In the same vein, when Edward R. Murrow did not allow a controversial program to be shown under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency during the Kennedy years, Dad criticized Murrow hard, despite their long years of a professional association. Dad’s first allegiance was to the story, irrespective of ideology and partisanship. Not a bad standard for historians as well.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


R. R. Hamilton - 6/30/2007

I was an undergrad student of Prof. Gould back long before our names had so much latin attached. I well remember his riveting rendition of Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech, complete with his hands making a little halo over his head as he shouted, "Press not this thorny crown upon the brow of labor..." (paraphrasing). Anyway, from this interview he seems little changed in 30 years -- and I mean that in the best possible way.

It's interesting to hear that Karl Rove thought of George Bush (43) as a new McKinley. The parallels might be stronger if Bush had, like McKinley, replaced his vice-president with a younger, more vigorous man in his re-election campaign -- someone like Tom Ridge, for instance, and then been assassinated shortly after his second inauguration, again like McKinley.

McKinley had his own "splendid little war" followed by cries of imperialism and a decade-long insurrection (in the Phillipines) that killed thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Filipinos.

Actually, I find eerie similarities between the 2000 and 1916 elections, but that's another story.

If you see Prof. Gould, please convey my high regards.

R.R. Hamilton
Bachelor of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin, 1981

History News Network