portrait Interview with Richard Shenkman

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 56 ~ January, 2002

Richard Shenkman, a noted historian and author of the acclaimed book Presidential
, is the editor and founder of http://wwwHistoryNewsNetwork.org,
an Internet magazine featuring articles by historians and on current events.
Shenkman has written five books on history, including Legends, Lies and Cherished
Myths of American History
, which was on the New York Times Best Seller List
for four months.

Shenkman previously was an investigative reporter for KUTV News in Salt Lake
City, Utah, and then became the Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief for KUTV. He later
served as Managing Editor of KITO-TV (CBS affiliate) in Seattle, and was Managing
Editor and Co-founder of tompaine.com,
an Internet magazine started in 1998.

An Emmy-award winning investigative reporter, Shenkman exposed an orphanage
in Thailand exploited by a children’s sex ring and also uncovered fraud and
abuse at Utah’s largest power company, leading to a rebate of over $60 million
to state rate payers.

An adjunct lecturer in journalism at American University, Shenkman graduated
with a Cum laude degree in History from Vasser College and attended the Program in
American Civilization at Harvard Graduate School. He has been a frequent guest
on national television shows, including the Today Show and Prime Time Live,
and also appears regularly on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.

Derek Alger: You recently launched HistoryNewsNetwork. What prompted
you to start an online site about history?

Richard Shenkman: I have long been frustrated with Americans’ ignorance
of history. Two decades ago I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in
which I chided journalists for not working more history into their pieces. Around
that time I started a TV show on Manhattan Cable in which I interviewed historians
about current events in an attempt to practice what I was preaching. Of course,
nobody picked up the show. I have to admit it was pretty dry, which in TV means
bad. Clearly, a show covering current events and history wasn’t going to be
a TV spectacular. But then along came the Internet and it occurred to me one
day — while taking a shower — that this might be the perfect vehicle for bringing
history into the public square. On the cheap you could set up a magazine and
give historians a platform to talk about current events.

DA: History is inescapable in truly understanding current events.

RS: Yes it is and yet how few people — either policy makers or reporters
covering them — bother with history. And the public couldn’t care less. So
we make old mistakes over and over again.

DA: Can you give an example?

RS: Take the debate about the surplus back in the Spring. It was ludicrous.
Politicians spoke — and journalists took them seriously! — about this sea
of black ink as far as the eye could see. Well, as Bernard Weisberger pointed
out in an article we published, surpluses tend to disappear really fast. To
think that we could budget for a decade in advance — which we have never done
before — was silly. Budgeting just two years or so in advance was damn near
impossible. But politicians went ahead and tried budgeting for 10 years because
it was politically convenient. Republicans wanted to give back to their supporters
big tax breaks; Democrats wanted to promise their supporters expensive new federal
goodies. The media should have called both groups on the absurdity of the debate
but did not.

DA: Online publications create an instant community of discourse. How
has HistoryNewsNetwork been greeted?

RS: Well, historians have approved, of course, because they like being
taken seriously. HNN gives them a chance to reflect on events before a national
audience. While a few historians scorn current events — and have said some
nasty things to me — the overwhelming majority understand what we are trying
to do and approve. The few who have reservations seem to feel threatened by
public attention.

DA: Why is that?

RS: They’d rather be left alone. In part, that’s because historians
are wary that involvement in public debates will possibly lead them to corruption.
Like old Bancroft, every page they write will be a vote for their party. (I
could name a few who have been corrupted, but won’t). In part it’s also due
to the Vietnam War. The war badly divided history departments around the country,
leading academics to withdraw from the public stage in hopes of avoiding quarrels.
One of our goals is to get them to return; to say, it’s safe now, come back.

DA: You obviously have a great passion for the history of our Presidents.
How did you gravitate toward a study of the Presidency as a major interest?

RS: I inherited my love of presidents from my mother. She came by her
love during the Great Depression, when her father hanged a portrait of FDR on
the wall of his bar/restaurant on the lower east side of New York. He was an
immigrant from Romania. He loved this country so much he told everybody he was
born here. And part of his patriotism was to love presidents, particularly after
FDR, of course. I’m not sure he had any great love for Harding or Coolidge or

DA: Understandable.

RS: When I was in high school I bought a huge portrait of George Washington
and put it above my bed. I still have it, though he’s no longer looking over
me while I sleep. Washington in particular was a great influence on my life.
I read Flexner’s biography and came away convinced that even if I wasn’t a genius
I could — like Washington, you see — make a contribution and prosper if I
had a strong enough character. If you look in old president books I collected
as a kid you see it’s always the passages about character that I underlined
and commented on. So my love of presidents is rooted in childhood. Only years
later did I begin to take an academic interest in them.

DA: Your book Presidential Ambition really examines the reality
of gaining power at any cost. Do such compromises and abuses result from our
system or due to the character of our Presidents?

RS: The chief theme of the book — which some reviewers seem to have
missed, leading me to rewrite the introduction when the book appeared in paperback
— is that it’s the system that’s mainly to blame for the awful compromises
presidents make. I make the point that even if George Washington were to run
for president today he would have to compromise himself. He’d be campaigning
with Martha, taking acting lessons, and accepting contributions from corporate
donors. To be sure, the character of the individual counts, but even the strongest
men have discovered that in a mass democracy the only way to win is by constantly
making emotional appeals.

Since the election of 1840 when Tippecanoe ran and won after being packaged
like a bar of soap, all presidents have learned to sell themselves. Even an
Eisenhower had to sell, sell, sell. It was Ike after all who ran the first 30
second campaign spots. In the 1960s it was popular to say the system was at
fault for everything. But then we had so many presidents in a row who seemed
personally flawed (LBJ, Nixon, Clinton) that we came to the conclusion that
it was the individuals who are to blame, not the system.

DA: What do you think?

RS: I looked at this history and saw a systematic failure. And the further
and further back I went I saw the same failures over and over again. Not to
make light of it, but there were just too many guys who wanted to be president.
So they fought like hell to beat the other guy. And when the fighting became
intense, they stooped. Every generation they stooped a little lower because
the country became a more complicated place, giving them new opportunities to
win by stooping. Before the 1880s, for instance, not one president exploited
the fear of immigrants (or pandered to them) to win office. After the 1880s
virtually all of the presidents did.

DA: Why was that?

RS: Because immigrants had become a decisive factor in electoral politics.
Each of these decisive new forces, like immigration, made gaining power and
keeping it more complicated and more corrupting. The only escape from the cycle
is when you get a leader who is so popular he can win without making compromises.
But that rarely happens. Even George Bush, Sr., a genuinely upright character
if ever there was one, found that to win in 1988 he had to conduct a terribly
embarrassing campaign, one of the most offensive in American history. Remember
all those ridiculous photo ops at flag factories? He was saying his opponent
wasn’t patriotic, which was nonsense. But was it Bush’s fault? I let him off
the hook. If you were in his shoes and you really wanted to win, would you have
campaigned much differently? We can’t hold it against these fellows that they
want to win.

DA: Most are familiar with the adage, “Power corrupts and absolute power
corrupts absolutely.” But in Presidential Ambition you state that in
our system it is the lack of power that corrupts. Could you elaborate?

RS: I see you read the book! Yes, it’s the lack of power that corrupts
as well as absolute power. To understand this, look at the way presidents wield
power. The ones who are at the top of their game, who command overwhelming majority
support, find that they can get lots done without having to trigger emotional
compromising appeals.

DA: What’s a good example of that?

RS: Think of FDR during the Hundred Days. He had Congress eating out
of his hand. So at that time he didn’t try anything underhanded. Now skip ahead
to 1937. After his landslide election he found he was still unable to get his
New Deal reforms because of opposition in the Supreme Court. Feeling powerless,
he decided to stoop to pass the devious Court-packing plan. Had he had the power
to achieve his reforms he never would have felt driven to tell the country the
lies he told about the court-packing plan. (His big whopper was to say that
it was intended only to help the aging justices with their workload.)

You see most clearly, though, the principle that lack of power corrupts in
the ways presidents gain power. It’s always the ones who are least certain of
victory who compromise the most. Take Nixon and Watergate. Why did he approve
of all the White House horrors that led to the Watergate break-in? It was because
he was fearful during his first term of losing reelection. With good reason.
He was a minority president facing a Congress held by the opposition at a time
of intense social conflict. Compare Nixon’s election for president with Ike’s.
Ike was a god to many people. So when he ran in 1952 he had far less of an incentive
to compromise to gain power. Indeed, like Washington, the less he compromised
the more likely it was that he would gain power. But he was rare. We don’t have
enough genuine military heroes to keep the system clean.

DA: You mention that we live in the age of biography, and I guess, this
combined with such overwhelming media exposure leads to what you also refer
to as politics reduced to the level of gossip.

RS: Politics is all gossip now, isn’t it? Or so it seems. It’s about
who is sleeping with whom, how they look, how they speak, where they vacation.
Political reporters might as well be writing Page 6 of the New York Post.
Politics has become personal because politicians have discovered that’s
the best way to connect with the voters. And the media have discovered that
the personal is what people really care about. They don’t care about the dollar
or trade; to care about those subjects you have to understand economics and
the public doesn’t.

But the public does care about and does understand personality; people knew
they didn’t like Al Gore when he showed up as three different people at the
three presidential debates. So both the politicians and the media turn every
election now into a contest of character. Character, you see, is an issue susceptible
to public debate. You don’t have to know anything to have an opinion about somebody’s
character. Of course, it’s been this way since the infamous 1840 election, which
turned on the question of William Henry Harrison’s character. But at least in
the days before television issues got some attention.

DA: And today?

RS: Now the only issues that get attention are the economy or war and
as we saw in the last election, even the economy doesn’t always rank terribly
high. Gore’s stiffness seemed to count a lot more with voters than his promise
to keep the good times going. TV does that. It reduces politics to a Broadway
Show, turning both voters and journalists into drama critics. The war we are
now waging on terrorism may turn politics serious again in a way it hasn’t been
since the Vietnam War, but will it reduce the power of television? Probably