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Sharing Lessons in American History in 140 Characters or Less

June 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
How does modern technology allow us to engage in conversations about the past? Gwen Ifill talks to presidential historian Michael Beschloss about how the Twitter-verse has opened up new ways to view history in the digital age.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: doling out history lessons on Twitter.

Gwen Ifill has that.

GWEN IFILL: NewsHour regular Michael Beschloss has written eight books and countless commentaries on the American presidency, but recently he’s discovered a new way to engage a different audience, taking us back through the nation’s contemporary history in 140 characters or less.

Michael joins us now.

Michael, what is with the 140-character chunks? When did you start doling out history this way?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: It is an antidote to all these long books I write.

It actually was during one of the debates right here in the studio we were watching, as you remember.

And Christina, our Christina Bellantoni, saw me looking at a search engine through Twitter comments on the two candidates. And she said, well, why don’t you just go on Twitter yourself?

And I said, essentially, I hadn’t really thought of that. Why don’t I try?

GWEN IFILL: So, as you started to post things you found along the way, I want to — before we show some of them, how do you come across these things that you find that you have been putting up?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I’m not only generally interested in presidential history, but, for years, I have been fascinated in what images can evoke.

You could see one picture, it asks a lot of questions, and I hope gets people curious about other larger issues that relate to it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s show the viewers what we are talking about.

This first picture I want to show here shows in the foreground the very familiar Lyndon Baines Johnson, but…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And that is not his third finger up there.

GWEN IFILL: And that is not his — that is his index figure in the air.

And if you see behind him, however, there is John F. Kennedy. They were not really very close, but there he is kind of reaching over to grab him. What is going on here and when was this taken?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That was taken just before the election of 1960.

But you look at it and it looks like sort of an icon of the 1960s, Johnson aggressively getting into the Vietnam War maybe and Kennedy sort of trying to restrain him. That is why that picture particularly touches a nerve.

But what actually happened was a couple days before the election, Kennedy came to Amarillo for a rally with Johnson. Kennedy began speaking, was at the airport, and Republican pilots began turning on their jet engines to drown out Kennedy.

Johnson was furious. So you can see him going, turn those engines off. You know, that is exactly what is going on.

GWEN IFILL: And this is 1960, before they were even serving together.


GWEN IFILL: So, perhaps they were even friendlier at the time.


GWEN IFILL: I’m curious about what people thought about it when they saw it.

But let me show you another one. The next picture, which I was fascinated by, there is Richard Nixon. And someone appears to be pouring a beer over his head?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes, I put this out without telling what it was. And I said, what do all you think it is?

And one person wrote, it’s Nixon celebrating his pardon by Gerald Ford in 1974.

It wasn’t.

This is Nixon actually at the Angel Stadium 1979. Angels won the division title. Bobby Grich, the second baseman, came over and poured champagne on Nixon’s head. And it is novel because that is not exactly a scene that you normally see with Nixon. Some of the others who wrote in said, is this just Dick Nixon partying hard?

GWEN IFILL: But what is interesting about it is, it goes completely against what we think of when we see — even if we think of him partying hard, it is not quite that way.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Against type. And that is why an image like this is so arresting.

And you get not micro. Nixon, it turns out, was absolutely delighted to have this done, because, five years after Watergate or so, he was trying to pull himself back. He was enough of a politician to know that a picture in the newspapers of him celebrating that victory with the champagne on his head was worth an awful lot.

GWEN IFILL: I believe that was beer.

I don’t know if they make champagne in cans.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No, well, it was champagne of bottled beers.

GWEN IFILL: Exactly.

Now, this is the picture that first caught my attention of your tweeting, as I was going through my timeline, which is…

GWEN IFILL: It’s very puzzling.

There is Bill Clinton clearly on the left, and in the center is George H.W. Bush. And next to him, he is shaking hands with George Wallace, the famous segregationist governor of Alaska. And I just couldn’t — I turned it upside-down trying to figure out where could this have happened where these three men were together.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, it is sort of like the Kennedy and Johnson. A lot of people said, is this Photoshop-ed? It couldn’t be possible that this picture exists.

And a lot of the people who tweeted about this to me said, this must have been Photoshop-ed, too, because, first of all, George Wallace is a figure out of the ’60s, and Clinton and Bush ’80s and 90s. So that doesn’t fit. Plus, he was one of the worse segregationists in American history, so why would Bush and Clinton be sitting at a picnic with him eating lobster?

And the other thing is that they didn’t really sort of see it in terms of Bush and Clinton being at a picnic years before they ran against each other. Why would they have been so friendly? Plus, Bill Clinton looks as if he is about 12 years old.

GWEN IFILL: Plus, Bill Clinton later went on to defeat George H.W. Bush. And then their famous relationship came around to now they refer to each other as father and son.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes. Now they are very friendly. But at the time of this image, George H.W. Bush was vice president, gave a picnic for American governors. Clinton was a governor. George Wallace was too. And by then, Wallace had recanted and apologized for a lot of his segregationist positions.

GWEN IFILL: So this was in Maine, in Kennebunkport.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It was in Maine. Lobster, and Wallace is drinking some Mountain Dew, if you look closely.


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Culturally appropriate.

GWEN IFILL: And another thing in that picture that we were looking at, there is a blonde woman sitting next to George Wallace. Who is that?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Wallace is sitting 1983 with his third wife. This was Lisa.

During the ’68 Wallace campaign, there were two singers. One was Mona. One was Lisa. So he finally married her.

GWEN IFILL: And the famous wife that we all knew about, Lurleen Wallace, was by that time dead.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Indeed. She had succeeded Wallace as governor. There was a one-term limit or four-year limit, so that Wallace could continue to try to pull the strings. And she died in the middle of her term.

GWEN IFILL: Fascinating.

So, as you look back as you come across these images, and you come across some audio occasionally that you post and other things, do you get — take any heart at all from the kind of reactions you are getting from people who suddenly have discovered this through you on Twitter?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I love it, because what I’m trying to do is get people interested in history and get them to think about some of the larger issues.

And these picture do this.

And the other thing is, you and I have talked about this. We’re living this an age in which imagery in presidential politics has become all the more important. So people have become pretty good at deciphering what they are seeing in a picture. And, oftentimes, there is an awful lot of meaning packed in there. And I hear from it — from people about this on Twitter.

GWEN IFILL: So, are you spending all of your days now scrolling for the next interesting thing to get a reaction?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I am not spending all my days, my book publisher, please note.

But it is an interesting sideline.

And since I’m not likely to write a book about political pictures, it is interesting for me to do.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Beschloss, thanks a lot for opening that window for us.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: My pleasure, Gwen.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, online, history buffs are tweeting on behalf of George Washington, Paul Revere, and other historical figures. You can read about it on the Rundown.