Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2006 OAH/NCPH Convention (Wash. D.C. April 19-22)


Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN. This page provides highlights from the annual meeting of both the Organization of American Historians and the National Council on Public History. The meeting was held in Washington DC in April 2006.


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Days 1 & 2: Wednesday & Thursday, April 19-20, 2006

Basic News

Dick Cheney was leaving the Hilton where the 2006 OAH convention is being held in Washington, D.C. just as the historians were converging. I am happy to report there were no incidents.

Some 1800 historians preregistered for the convention--just 100 short of the record, which was set in Boston a few years ago. The OAH needs every last one them to help pay off the organization's debt.

The conference this year began on Wednesday and runs through Saturday. Next year, as if to confuse the members, when the annual meeting is held in Minneapolis, it will run Thursday to Sunday. The year after that, in 2008, when the convention meets in NYC, it will run from Friday through Monday. Got that? In each case the reason is the same: these are the only dates the OAH could book the hotels.

The convention opened with unseasonably warm temperatures. Fortunately nobody has had to traipse from hotel to hotel through the heat to make their sessions. All of the regular sessions are being held conveniently in the Hilton. The only complaint I have heard so far about the Hilton is that they didn't think to order more copies of the New York Times. Members who happened to try to reserve a copy the night before have learned that that's no help. They let you reserve it but of course that doesn't mean they actually intend to hold it for you, as at least one historian discovered when he showed up this morning looking for his paper.

Members have been surprised to discover that the sessions are just an hour and a half long this year instead of two hours. The sessions were shortened to create room on the schedule for more panels. Instead of the usual 150 panels there are 200.

The Highpoint

Thus far the highlight of the convention was a stirring Thursday night Plenary Session devoted to the topic, What's Wrong with U.S. Immigration Policy. Some 200 historians attended. It's too bad more didn't. They missed an exceptional program. (CSPAN where were you?)

The evening featured talks by David Gutierrez and Otis Graham. Graham, the old lion of immigration studies, delivered a rousing lecture that at times sounded like a speech. Unafraid of offending the audience he forcefully argued that our immigration policies are a mess. Eight million immigrants have entered the United States in the last five years, most undocumented. And the effect of their presence has been to lower wages for blacks holding low-wage jobs. History once again is repeating itself. In the 21st century it is Mexican immigrants lowering wages. In the 19th century it was Europeans. And once again black leaders are complaining as once upon a time Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and A. Philip Randolph complained.

Quoting the conservative historian Victor David Hanson, Graham observed of the new wave of immigrants: There are too many, they are coming too fast, and they are all coming from one place. Who are the winners and losers? The winners are corporations, anti-union shops, and bosses who want to be able to assign workers to dangerous work without worrying that they'll complain to inspectors. The losers? Blacks and the poor, the environment, and third world countries which are losing the highly educated to American suburban jobs. Should we go on like this, Graham said, we face the prospect that America will contain one billion people by the end of the century, which would be a catastrophe for the environment given the rate at which Americans use resources that distort the climate.

A weird coalition, Graham said, is behind our current policy: corporations, universities, labor unions, and religious groups. Corporations of course claim that if immigration is restricted the sky will fall. The one lesson history teaches, Graham said, is that corporations always lie every time they claim ending immigration will be devastating.

After Graham's speech historian Paul Spickard stood up to comment. He started out with a compliment and then quickly got to the point. Spickard, who teaches immigration at the same school where Graham taught the subject, accused him of racism. Graham shot back that this is the accusation of the intellectually bankrupt. When Spickard said that Graham's talk had sounded mean-spirited Graham, an old Marine, said that he may well be guilty of mean-spiritedness, as his brother would attest. It's the racist charge he abhors.

Gutierrez surprisingly said he shared many of Graham's concerns but went on to sketch a very different approach to immigration, suggesting that we can't turn off the spigot and that in any case we will have to come to terms with the presence of millions of non-citizens. And why not? At times in our history there have been nearly as many non-citizens as citizens and sometimes more. That is, we have had millions of people who lacked full citizenship rights: blacks, women, and others. Already we are adjusting to the presence of non-citizens. Thirty-thousand non-citizens are in the U.S. military. He suggested that down the road, perhaps in fifty years, we will have to consider regional citizenship to come to terms with facts on the ground.

Other Highlights

Wednesday opened with a day-long symposium on the Teaching American History grants. Maris Vinovskis of the University of Michigan delighted a mixed crowd of high school teachers and historians with a compelling series of anecdotes. One historian has said that fifty years from now we will look back on this period as a Golden Age of history funding. But what, Vinovskis asked, will we have gotten for our quarter billion dollar a year investment in history education? If we think we'll be able to raise those perennially low performance scores we can forget about it. Only minor improvements are likely. And in fact history shows that it's possible that scores could well drop, jeopardizing future funding. Our only hope this year, he half jokingly commented, was that the new national scores may not come out until after the funding schedule has been approved for next year.

Wednesday night at the first Plenary Session just 100 historians or so turned out to hear about the plans of the leaders of four Smithsonian museums. Lonnie Bunch probably had the best line of the night. The new director of the yet-to-be-built National Museum of African American History and Culture, he said: "I have no building, I have no collection, and I have to raise more money than God. And my daughter said to me when I told her I wanted to return to the Smithsonian, 'Are you crazy?'"

Brent Glass, representing the National Museum of American History, discussed the plan to renovate the museum when it closes in September. He disclosed that the museum will tell the story of American history though our various dreams: the City on a Hill, inalienable rights, the self-made man, the Statue of Liberty, freedom of the West, the Hollywood happy ending, Levittown, and MLK's dream of racial equality.

Not many sessions concern contemporary events. One panel dealt with the Michael Moore documentary about 9/11. (The Verdict: Ed Berkowitz concluded that Moore made a mishmash of some important history leaving misleading impressions. See podcast interview posted on this page). Another panel helped trace the rise of the religious right. (See podcasts listed above.) There are no panels on Katrina or Iraq. Historians Against the War are not holding any public gatherings. Asked about the absence of any panels on Katrina one historian with the OAH indicated in an off-hand way that well, the AHA had had a panel, as if one panel was enough.


Day 3: Friday, April 21, 2006

From 8:30 in the morning until well past 9:30 at night they talked. And talked. And talked.

The most exciting discussion of the day no doubt was one of the last. It was the Plenary Session on presidential assassinations. This was like no panel I have ever seen at an OAH meeting. The only history professor was Eric Rauchway, the moderator. Of the others only one at first seemed to have a clear-cut reason for being there. That was Michael Kauffman, the author of American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, who may be best known locally for the tours he leads through Booth's escape routes. (On one trip, he recalled, a secret service agent who happened to tag along wanted to know what was the meaning of the t-shirt, "Following in Booth's Footsteps." He was assured it was meant to be taken quite literally.)

The two others? Well, each had a purpose for being named to the panel but it wasn't immediately apparent. What after all was Sarah Vowell doing there? Most people know her as a contributor to "This American Life" on NPR. But she's also the recent author of Assassination Vacation. And what was John Weidman doing there? Wasn't he associated with Sesame Street? Yes, he was, but he also worked with Stephen Sondheim on the play, "The Assassins." (which he kindly showed clips from). The play, in case you missed the reviews,"explores the history of presidential assassination in America, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, Jr. Assassins climaxes in a surreal sequence where the assassins convince Lee Harvey Oswald that his act is the only way he will connect -- with them, with history, and with the world." I should mention it's a musical.

How had the panel come about? As the program committee was working with the local resource people someone happened to mention that this is the 25th anniversary of Reagan's attempted assassination. And hey, it was right here at the "Hinckley Hilton" where it happened. Shouldn't historians commemorate the event in some manner? Sure. Then came the brainstorming. Marty Blatt recalled seeing a performance of the Sondheim play. And John Dichtl remembered Sarah Vowel's new book. And soon it was all arranged. (Vowel agreed to waive her usual fee of $10,000 to appear. No it wasn't because she was excited to hang out with historians for a few hours. As she explained in this HNN podcast interview, she was anxious to meet John Weidman.)

Vowell stole the show.

When someone in the audience noted that Vowell and Weidman are helpful in attracting a broader audience to history, Vowell cracked, "Yeah, we're the gateway drug. We're the pot and you're the cocaine."

Asked about Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President Garfield, she opined: "If you are writing about Guiteau and you can't make it funny you're a terrible writer." She was referring to Guiteau's having been the only member of the Oneida free-love colony who couldn't even get a date. Yet he continued to think of himself as a ladies man.

Asked about the American Dream Vowell noted that it's problematic because one man's dream may be another's man nightmare. "What if your dream is to live in a giant white house with columns and slaves. The slaves are probably not too happy about that."

And so on. And so on.

We were ostensibly talking about presidential assassinations, remember. So this was all a mite strange. When someone in the audience asked why our killers didn't use knives instead of guns a panelist remarked matter of factly that it's because knives are impractical. But to this crowd on this night that sounded like a laugh line and people laughed. It was that kind of event.

CSPAN should have been there. (Unfortunately CSPAN thus far hasn't been at any of the Hilton events.) Maybe they're too busy covering the visit of China's Hu.

One of the best moments of the evening, Eric Rauchway noted in an email to HNN tonight, came"when Kauffman was talking about where on his flight Booth might have broken his leg, and said, something like, who cares, really, it's not that important to the story. And at that moment, someone somewhere to my left said, 'Historians care!' And shortly after that, someone somewhere to my right said, 'Some historians care.'"

The most thoughtful observation of the evening may have been John Weidman's. What linked all of our assassins? It may have been, he suggested, the fact that they all were raised on the American Dream. An essential part of that myth is that we actually should expect our dreams to come true. And if they don't? For some of us the disappointment can be overwhelming. Someone is to blame, aren't they? They should be punished.

About 150 people showed up for this panel. It's a shame more didn't. (That's a theme of the convention. Great panels. And smaller audiences than there should be at the big events. Day 3 ended with a Plenary Session on AIDS. Twenty people showed up. That made for a very empty auditorium. Latest number of attendees? 2,405.)

AIDS Plenary Session

Day 4: Saturday, April 22, 2006

The OAH has its first pony-tailed president. He is Richard White, the well-known Stanford historian.

On the final day of the OAH's annual convention White was installed as president after the outgoing president, Vicki Ruiz, delivered the traditional presidential address. If you think that's a lot of presidents for one sentence, I'm just getting started. The OAH also has a president-elect, Nell Painter. And it has a new incoming president-elect, Pete Daniel. After Richard White got through explaining the positions each person holds even he admitted that that's an awful lot of presidents.

Because this convention ended on a Saturday it did not feel like the final day of most history conventions. There were lots of good panels to attend. No one seemed to mind as they usually do when conventions end on Sundays and everybody rushes to the airport. Some 400 people stuck around to attend the awards ceremony at the end of the day--the largest crowd any event at the convention attracted.

Earlier in the day a lively panel explored the ways academic freedom is allegedly under attack on various campuses. David Montgomery, past president of the OAH, delivered a stern speech deploring the attacks on freedom at home, which he warned we can get used to all too easily. (Click here to listen to his speech.) Lisa Norling recounted the attempt by public officials in Minnesota to exclude professional historians from history projects. She observed that recently the state legislature made the teaching of patriotic history mandatory. (Click here to listen to an interview she conducted with HNN.) The AAUP's Jonathan Knight said that the greatest threat to academic freedom is "adjunctification." In 20 years if trends continue, he warned, academic freedom won't exist. Adjuncts, he noted acidly, are not in a position to express their minds freely and to risk controversy. Currently there are 1.2 million faculty m embers nationwide. Fully 46% are part-time. When the audience was asked to join the discussion North Dakota's Michael Taylor recounted several harrowing encounters he has had when he tried to teach controversial subjects. As he recounts in an audio interview he did with HNN, he has regularly been called into the office of administrators to justify his teaching following the complaints of students and parents. Once he was criticized for recounting the history of the Bonus Army. Students said it was impossible to believe that the US army fired on veterans.

Allen Weinstein, archivist of the United States, warned of another danger to history. At a luncheon meeting the soft-spoken historian -- so soft-spoken people had a hard time hearing him even with his microphone turned up -- recalled his shock at learning that his predecessor's office had approved the secret reclassification of archival documents by federal agencies. He promised that the archives will never again sign such an agreement. Asked how he found out about the secret reclassification program he said, "Just like you. I read it in the New York Times." HNN wanted to interview him. he declined saying his goal today was not to make any news. He succeeded. But he promised that Tuesday his office will be making news when it releases draft guidelines about the reclassification of documents in its control. The rule will provide that they can be reclassified but if they are the American people will know about it.

In her presidential address Vicki Ruiz traced the impact of Latinos on American history in 1848, 1898, and 1948. In 1848 Mexico lost half its territory to the US in President Polk's war. In 1898 Cubans and Puerto Ricans surprisingly backed the war with Spain. To them the chance to defeat Spain was more important than any fears that America was acting imperialistically. During World War II 500,000 Latinos served in the US armed forces. After the war Mexican-Americans challenged the antimiscegination laws in California. Several court decision laid the basis later for the Brown decision. She concluded eloquently, "Contrary to the conventional wisdom that Latinos arrived the day before yesterday," they have been here a long long time. "Our America is American history."

At the Business Meeting there were several news-making headlines:






Click here to read HNN's complete coverage of the OAH 2006