Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley

Presidential historian discusses his latest text and describes the similarities between Presidents Obama and Reagan.

Historian Douglas Brinkley is a Rice University professor and renowned author. His numerous nonfiction books include a biography of Jimmy Carter, a New York Times best seller on John Kerry and The Great Deluge, an award-winning analysis of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. His latest work, The Quiet World, documents the U.S. government's fight to save wild Alaska. Brinkley is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and has taught at the U.S. Naval Academy, Princeton, Hofstra and Tulane Universities. He holds a Ph.D. from Georgetown University.


Tavis: Douglas Brinkley is an award-winning historian at Rice University and best-selling author whose many notable books include, of course, “The Great Deluge.” His latest is called “The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879 to 1960.” He joins us tonight from New York. Doug Brinkley, always good to have you on this program, sir.
Douglas Brinkley: Same, thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: I want to get to the text here in just a second. First, though, given that I just got done talking, of course, to Senator Bradley about this speech tomorrow night, I don’t want to color the first question too much, but what do you make of what the president has as his mission tomorrow night?
Brinkley: I think he’s going to continue talking about the new civility that we need in this country. It’s a post-Tucson State of the Union address. The visual of Republicans and Democrats sitting by each other, talking about the need, really, for national unity, and to tackle things like getting our deficit under control, finding new jobs, an economic message.
But it’s going to be one that the president’s sort of taking the high road, saying, “Let’s keep all the noise down on the right and the left and let’s get some things done.”
Tavis: You edited the Reagan diaries; of course Ronald Reagan, were he alive, would be 100 in a matter of weeks from now. We know when the president went on vacation during the Christmas holiday he was reading some Reagan material. What’s your sense of what the president is, should be, might be taking from Ronald Reagan, particularly where navigating the nation through a recession, and now with a divided government is concerned?
Brinkley: Well, President Obama had a few historians at the White House for a couple of dinners. I was lucky enough to be one of those asked, and he was very interested in Ronald Reagan, and I came away feeling that. Part of it is for what you just said – he saw that Reagan had a hard time in ’82 but came back to have a two-term presidency.
But there are other parts that are similar, oddly, to Obama and Reagan. They both had that Illinois background, the same state in many ways, although Reagan’s the only president actually born in Illinois.
Demeanor-wise, Reagan was a conservative, but a pragmatic conservative, and he found silver linings in things. He liked to be a mediator. He didn’t like to have enemies around him. He was a conciliatory person with his persona, and I think that President Obama recognizes that he likes that side of Ronald Reagan. He called him the “transformative president of his lifetime;” probably true. I think Reagan is a center-right politician and Obama’s center-left, but sometimes you’ve got to reach over to the other side of the aisle and make things happen.
Reagan is celebrated on his 100th birthday for turning his back on the hard right and doing arms control agreements with Gorbachev and the Soviet Union even though conservatives thought it was a boondoggle at the time, and many on the left are angry at Obama right now abandoning some of the economic programs near and dear to their hearts, but history might prove Obama right to be tacking so strong to the center.
Tavis: To your point, though, about Reagan being, of course, center-right, Obama being center-left; further to your point that progressives are upset with the president for a number of issues right about now, what evidence is there, why should we believe that this president is not going to, as he moves to the center, end up compromising and quite frankly capitulating on things that those on the left who supported him don’t want him or expect him to do?
Brinkley: Well, my answer is not going to be that inspiring to you, Tavis, but I don’t know if the left has anywhere else to go. The fact of the matter is, whoever runs the Republican Party against Obama is not going to be palatable to the progressives, and there’s not really a legitimate third-party movement.
So you have to kind of take a leap of faith that a second Obama administration would get dividends. Bill Clinton obviously had to triangulate, as they called it, back in the ’90s; did a similar thing, but second-term Clinton got some big forward motions.
An area I’ve been writing about, for example, conservation environmentalism, Clinton didn’t give the left much. Second term, he saved lands in Utah and created quite a conservationist legacy only in his last two years in office. So I think the left’s going to have to hope that today’s center Obama, on a second term, will again deliver some more goods to them.
Of course, they have the healthcare – he’s got to defend healthcare right now, and that’s going to bring the progressives behind the president in this spring fight.
Tavis: One last question, Doug, because I could talk to you for hours, given your background as an historian, of course, about this issue. I want to get to “The Quiet World” in a second here.
What reason is there for Republicans to work with him? They don’t want to see him reelected in two years, so now they have some say-so. They’ve got power and clout in Washington. What reason is there for them to work with him? Why not continue this obstructionist path that got you control of the house?
Brinkley: Because you had Obama get some successes with some bipartisan efforts, the START agreement being one, but you have people like Lisa Murkowski, for example, you don’t know which way she’s going to swing in the Senate.
But mainly Tucson was a huge American event, and what we learned from that, yes, there’s problems with mental illness in America and how we screen people and gun control, but it really was the American people saying we’re tired of you politicians name-calling and screaming at each other. Get something done.
So if you want to run for president as a Republican, you’re going to have to find the genial Ronald Reagan style. Huckabee has it, Mitt Romney, you might say, has it, but that shrill, in-your-face, Tea Party, hard right kind of Republican attitude I don’t think will fly in this season. Tucson was a game-changer.
Tavis: To your text, “The Quiet World,” a strange question – not the first or last I’ve asked. But it does seem that these days, when you think of Alaska, when you hear Alaska, you think of Sarah Palin, thanks to the media giving her so much attention these days. What does that do for an author putting out the first book in a trilogy about Alaska?
Brinkley: Well, I’m writing the history of the conservation movement, and this particular book, “The Quiet World,” Sarah Palin’s name’s not in the index, because from Alaska history, she hasn’t been that important – a half-a-term governor.
I’m beginning my book with John Muir and the glaciers in 1879, when ecotourism started providing an alternative – the saving of the beauty of Alaska, of Mt. McKinley and of the Aleutian chain, protection of polar bear and sea otters and the great caribou herds.
That started coming about always against the extraction industries – the gold rush, copper rushes; now, of course, there was timber, and now it’s big oil in Alaska. It’s always been a group of artists and eccentrics and sometimes the federal government, particularly during FDR, who had come in there and said, “No, we want to save these wild and special scenic places as heirlooms for our children’s children.”
This is the story of this eclectic group that I tell, of photographer Ansel Adams and cartoonist Walt Disney, who started doing documentaries on wildlife in Alaska, joining forces with Dwight Eisenhower. Many people – Sarah Palin has famously said, “Drill, baby, drill,” in the Arctic refuge or ANWR. It was Dwight Eisenhower’s reserve, the Arctic refuge. It’s been there for 50 years. It’s our nation’s crown jewel of our 500-wildlife-refuge system.
So there’s a real story about these wilderness protection pioneers and proto-environmentalists that I tell in this book, and it has some unlikely heroes, ranging from Eisenhower to Secretary of Interior Ickes to Walt Disney.
Tavis: Juxtapose for me, Douglas, what you just started to do a moment ago – the way we are treating or maltreating the environment, and not just the environment but the way we push to the background environmental issues in our political discourse and debate versus what you found and what you lay out for us in this first of this trilogy.
Brinkley: Well, Tavis, when you look at for example Eisenhower 50 years ago, he stop the development, he signed an international treaty on Antarctica. That’s why we’re not having oil refineries and building huge buildings down there. It was a special, almost holy place, and Eisenhower saved the Arctic refuge 50 years ago.
It’s very important that we keep these special, wild places. It defines the United States. Imagine our country without our national parks and our monuments. Here in California, imagine if you didn’t have in Southern Cal the Channel Islands or the great Highway 1, Big Sur up to Point Reyes up to the Redwood country.
This nature, this landscape of America, is what really defines us, because economies come and go. Politicians wanted to mine the Grand Canyon for zinc and copper, and Theodore Roosevelt said no. They wanted to build a railroad through Yellowstone; we said no.
Unfortunately, in Alaska the oil industry is just hovering all around the Arctic because there’s oil found there and they want to get it out of our wildlife refugees. American people have to say no, particularly at a time when glaciers are melting, species like the polar bear are being threatened, and there is a wildlife protection movement in these United States.
It isn’t a fringe left movement, it’s been conservatives and Republicans, Democrats, liberals – it’s people that care about nature, want clean air, clean water, and want to protect the great fisheries of Alaska and our great rainforests around the Inside Passage.
I try to really tell that story of our wild heritage. While it’s important that we don’t deal with the recession right now and start looting public lands for quick profits for one generation.
Tavis: What is it about the wilderness that leads some of us to think that it is there to be conquered, that it is an adversary, that it is something to be overcome, as opposed to – and I’m using this word embraced, appreciated in the way that you’ve laid out in this text?
Brinkley: Because the mainstream – and I’m not talking about the United States, believe me; China’s pollution today makes ours look like nothing. But there’s been an idea that civilization and progress is about conquering nature, that we are going to conquer the wilderness.
When we settled our country, the dark forest was considered in some ways evil, and something that you needed to plow or later, bulldoze. We now have a new understanding of the interconnectedness of ecosystems and the need for bird flyways and why all species matter. That, of course, with people like Thoreau and Emerson understood that, and Theodore Roosevelt down to pioneers in our modern day.
But we can’t just dump chemicals and plastic and mine and not have a conservation ethic in the United States. We’ve got to make the land – the one thing that defines us as human beings, and anybody watching in their neighborhood, are we giving the land to our children and our children’s children better than we found it? We don’t have anything to conquer; we have a lot to save.
Tavis: The new book from this celebrated historian, Douglas Brinkley, is called “The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879 to 1960.” Doug, good to have you on the program. Look forward to having you back for these next couple of texts about our wilderness.
Brinkley: Thank you, Tavis.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm