Doris Kearns Goodwin, Presidents, Modern Communications, and History

Ideas and Issues

9781416547860_p0_v4_s260x420New Orleans   Over the last five or six months since I’ve added to my daily chores serving as the station manager at our 29-year old 100,000 watt radio station, KABF/Fm 88.3, broadcasting from Little Rock, every Friday either when I’m there or by patching in via telephone, I do an  interview show from 9:00 to 9:30 AM, we call “Wade’s World.” This last Friday was a special doubleheader starting with Chris Newman, the legal director for the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) and then a special second feature where I got to interview Doris Kearns Goodwin, the well regarded, Pulitzer Prize winning historian on the occasion of her new book, The Bully Pulpit:  Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.

            Goodwin was an easy interview, gracious, knowledgeable, and experienced.   The one thing I’ve learned doing these interviews is a simple lesson:  it’s easy to get people to talk, but it’s hard to get them to stop talking.   Goodwin was a pro, and practiced at both speech and silence, ending her comments and then patiently waiting for the next question.   Praise the lord!

            The most interesting – and genuine – exchange we had in my view was towards the end when somehow some question, probably about timing, provoked a response from her about how much she enjoyed spending time with her subjects through their letters, journals, and diary entries, compared to what other historians would have in the future with essentially the ephemera of modern communications dominated by the internet with emails, Facebook, and the like.   I had then commented that even at the Presidential level it was hard to imagine in the wake of the NSA revelations and everything else we know about the internet that there won’t be a copy of every such communication available at some point in the future.   She had then commented something to the effect that that was a good point and she hadn’t thought about that, but of course it would all be out there.   The next day reading an interview she had given earlier to the Wall Street Journal, she had been even more emphatic, saying, “With email and Facebook I don’t know what kind of material we’ll have 200 years from now.”

            How quaint a quote, so gracefully shrouded in the 7 years she has spent with subjects and events 100 years ago.  In truth even now, much less 200 years from now, I think historians trying to do any kind of a thorough job will be inundated with information almost too voluminous to imagine!

            Email, as so many must realize by now, doesn’t disappear when we press “send,” it simply goes onto a permanent digital signature on your computer and an untold number of others, as do all of your postings on a website, Facebook or Twitter account.  Pressing “delete” simply moves such messages elsewhere.  I’ve never really looked at it all, but my computer guy for years, Mark Madere, has most of my email in folders by years and quarters.   Moving to a new server I watched it strain for days to move 65000+ messages from the last year or more.   And, that’s little me, not a super-whoop like a President.   Even ignoring Nixon and his tapes and their impact on his terms and legacy or the amount of video now available as well, you can read about supposedly secure Presidential communications from protected tents now.   A senior American diplomat was quoted in the New York Times saying, “We do operate with the awareness that anything we do on a cellphone or Blackberry is probably being read by someone somewhere or lots of somewheres.”   And, that means even as there might be a discard program somewhere in the White House, there is likely to be a message saved somewhere else on another device.   Even as his Blackberry comment is becoming antiquated and he really means email, the tasks for historians trying to tell the “rest of the story” will only become harder and harder.

            For a storyteller like Goodwin, the notion that historians now and even in the next few years could be buried by big data and forced to weave their narratives not just from interviews and public documents but from fancy searches of emails and algorithms that measure time spent, keywords, and tens of other factors to try to get to the root of what was really happening and how an actor might have been a piece in the play, must seem like a different world indeed.   The time is clearly coming when newspapers will be even less than the first draft of history, and history’s like Goodwin’s will be more on the order of a better second draft, with the final chapters that piece the real history together more likely only coming once ALL of the information becomes available for the future historian who will then have the skills to pull all of the loose ends and millions of pieces of information together to tell the stories that Goodwin narrates so well.