February issue of "Our Campus" features Prof. Brands and his intimate White House dinner
Fri, February 12, 2010
H.W. Brands dined in the White House with President Obama and eight other historians. Photo by Caleb Miller
In the early January interview with H.W. Brands’ for this article, his closing comment about President Barack Obama’s health care reform was a harbinger of the Jan. 19 election of Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy: “But it [health care] may well fall apart still. The Republicans have been back in their home districts and states revving up opposition and if the Democrats lose a single vote in the Senate they might lose the whole thing.”
Brands, author and UT’s Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History, was one of nine presidential historians invited to an intimate White House dinner with U.S. President Barack Obama last June. Other scholars included Michael Beschloss, Douglas Brinkley, Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Kennedy, Kenneth Mack and Garry Wills.
“I got an email from somebody who schedules the events in the White House explaining that there was going to be a dinner of several historians and the President,” Brands said, “and asking if I was available, so I made myself available and traveled the next week to Washington.”
The 22 books Brands has authored include two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize: The First American and recently
released Traitor to His Class. He speculated that his invitation stemmed from his latest book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt because of the parallels between the Obama administration’s challenges — what is being call the “Great Recession” — and the Great Depression facing Roosevelt in the ‘30s.
In a small White House dining room, the president and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel laid out what they hoped to gain: a historical perspective from people who had studied previous presidents and how those presidents accomplished what they did, Brands said.
“It was a way of reading all the books of all of these historians without reading the books — invite the historians in and let the authors tell you what the most important findings are from their research,” he said.
Brands is unaware of any other president who has hosted a group of intellectuals for an intimate, two-hour affair.
“I was trying to imagine what other presidents would have been inclined to do it and been comfortable doing it, spending a couple of hours with a bunch of intellectuals,” Brands said. “Not very many presidents would.”
He said Woodrow Wilson might have because he was a professor himself, John Kennedy invited Nobel Prize winners but that was mostly for ornamentation, and Theodore Roosevelt would invite very knowledgeable people to the White House but then tended to do all of the talking.
“And a lot of presidents would have thought that what the ivory tower-types have to say is really beside the point,” he continued. “But Obama has been an academic himself and so he wanted to hear from all the academics — not all of these historians are academics — but several of them are and they all have a foot in the field of professional history.”
The Obama that Brands observed was not much different from the one on television. He was not sure if that was because he was essentially in his perform-as-president mode for the dinner, or if what people see on television is what they get — what he’s really like. He was not obviously a different person in small groups than he was in front of large groups.
“He didn’t say or do anything strikingly at odds with what I would have expected from having seen him on TV and read about him from a distance,” Brands said. “So there was no particular revelation.”
Other public figures and presidents often are different, he said.
“The elder George Bush who I have met on occasion was much more comfortable in small groups than he was giving large speeches,” Brands said. “And he conveyed a very different impression.”
Brands described Obama as a “very competent guy.” He seemed to have a very clear sense of what he wanted to accomplish in his administration. “And the reason we were there, I gathered fairly quickly, was not to offer him advice on what to do, but perhaps how to do it,” he said.
Obama seemed on that evening to be a fairly cautious guy, and he was listening more than he was speaking. He wanted to understand how other presidents had succeeded and failed, and what relevance that might have on achieving his objectives. So it was more a matter of technique than strategy, Brands said.
A major way of restructuring the social safety net in the United States, Social Security provided pensions to elderly people at a time when most of them did not have pensions, Brands said. Health care reform was — or maybe is if it passes — going to provide health care for people who do not have health care.
“And it’s going to make America a kinder and safer society for the people who live here,” he said. “And from a political standpoint, Social Security was very controversial when it was passed, and has become the most popular federal program in American history.”
Obama could certainly hope that as controversial as health care reform is now, it will become popular in the future, Brands said. President Franklin Roosevelt encountered much of the same negativity from many of the same sources, conservatives and Republicans, when he pushed Social Security.
President Lyndon Johnson found similar opposition in the ‘60s with Medicare, he continued. Medicare has been wildly successful, at least from the political standpoint.
“It has never been challenged, nobody has ever talked about undoing it, everyone who has Medicare is darn glad they have it,” Brands said. “So nobody is about to say let’s get rid of Medicare. So in that sense it’s been very successful.”
Brands sensed that the president gained a greater appreciation for the context of what some of his predecessors had done. “He made more explicit references [after the dinner] to some of the points that were raised during the conversation,” Brands said.
For example, Brands said the president likened his projected health care reform to social security, which they discussed. “Whether he would have come to that on his own I don’t know,” Brands said. “So it’s hard to know exactly what the causal connection was.”
For Brands, dining with the president did not spark a particular interest in writing about him.
“That’s not to say I’m not interested,” he said. “If I do [write about him] it won’t be because I had dinner with him, it would be because he turns out to be an important president and an interesting story.”
Brands would rely more on a record that is available to any journalist or historian than meeting the president for two hours, unless he had the opportunity to sit down with him for 30 hours, and conduct intensive interviews. “That would be a different matter,” he said.
After an evening of discourse focused on politics and how to frame poltical messages, Brands said he noticed a change in Obama's approach to health care reform. Obama wants health care reform to pass. So Brands said he must weight his options: Does he let his supporters in Congress carry the ball or does he get out in front of it himself?
"He began to make more public speeches on behalf of health care reform than he had prior to the dinner," he said. "But that's not at all to say that the dinner caused the change. It was inevitable that he was going to become more personally involved as the process got closer to completion."
The problem with history, Brands concluded, is that it does not give any single lesson to a president. “The historian can say this president did it this way that president did it that way, take your pick.”