David Greenberg interviewed

Historians in the News

For 10 years, David Greenberg has been writing Slate’s “History Lesson,” which follows the Web site’s conventional-wisdom debunking formula. His column focuses on tropes of history present in our punditocracy, which he then methodically deconstructs. His first column, which appeared on Oct. 23, 1998, at the height of Bill Clinton’s impeachment woes, defended America’s proud history of partisanship. In a column entitled “Blundering Into Afghanistan,” posted less than 10 days after Sept. 11, 2001, Greenberg noted the history of empires’ foibles in Afghanistan. In April 2007, he compared Barack Obama’s subtle suggestions that a vote for him was a vote for tolerance to John F. Kennedy’s use of his Catholic faith. Though creative, sharp and politically liberal, he maintains the good historian’s temperamentally conservative ethos to carefully analyze and correct received wisdoms.

Greenberg has also written a short study of our 30th president, Calvin Coolidge (2006), and a longer study of various groups’ perceptions of Richard Nixon, Nixon’s Shadow: the History of an Image (2003). At the moment he is working on book that he calls a history of spin.

Greenberg is 40. He grew up in Newton, Massachusetts. His father is a philosophy professor at Brandeis and his mother is a psychologist. His wife Suzanne Nossel, who works at Human Rights Watch, was featured recently in a piece Hendrik Hertzberg wrote for the New Yorker. (She coined “Smart Power,” a term now employed by Hillary Clinton). He has two small children and lives in an apartment on Central Park North, a few long blocks away from Columbia where he received his Ph.D. in 2001. At the moment he teaches at Rutgers. We met at his place on Feb. 11 to discuss how history informs the current moment when America faces a new Great Depression and an African-American now serves as its president.

I remember a long piece you wrote for Slate some time ago in which you compared popular history to academic history. And you made a point that popular history tends to follow the “great man” view of history. So Joseph Ellis writes a book about George Washington and we all have to read it. Why should we discount the “great man” view of history? Almost everyone agrees that the history of the world in the last eight years would have been very different had the 2000 election turned out differently. And almost everyone agrees the situation we’ve had these last few weeks are very different because Barack Obama, not John McCain, is president. And you yourself have written two books that center on “great men.”

Right. And I don’t discount it. That piece was trying to lay out the landscape and identify the different camps and arguments that go on implicitly or explicitly between popular and academic history. But let me give you the case against “great man” [history] which I subscribe to [to] a limited extent. I guess Tolstoy makes it most famously in War and Peace [when he writes of] the idea [that] whoever is at the top of the pyramid is ultimately having to respond to these greater forces: rivalries between nations, changes in demographics, famines, changes in the nature of our social life. And so in the academy, social history and other kinds of longer-term history was seen as a way of getting at deeper forces shaping history [where] the person at the top is kind of the froth on the wave.

A couple of years ago, I remember Bill Bradley of all people -- who normally hasn’t impressed me terribly as an intellect -- wrote this very good op-ed that a number of people were talking about, about the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. And he says the Republican Party is based on this conservative movement that has clear ideologies, certain things they want in a president. It almost doesn’t matter who they put in the top because they get the same outcome. The Democrats are constantly searching around for the right leader who might somehow give them that vision. They were at sea during these years, Bradley argued, because they didn’t have the understructure. They kept hoping for individual people to deliver them....

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