Whether in a Rice classroom or via his work as a public scholar, U.S. presidential historian Douglas Brinkley draws from America’s past to illuminate the crises of the moment.

Photo by Tommy LaVergne

Douglas Brinkley the Katherine Tsanoff Brown Professor in Humanities, is that rare academic who is equally comfortable in the classroom and the national newsroom — a popular professor, public intellectual, prolific author and pundit. During the pandemic, which coincided with one of the most consequential elections in decades, he kept up a demanding schedule of media commentary; for example, Brinkley appeared regularly on CNN news broadcasts in his role as CNN’s presidential historian. We caught up with Brinkley at his home in Austin, where he’s putting the finishing touches on a new book about environmentalism, fielding questions from the media and anticipating a return this fall to the classroom.

While we are accustomed to seeing you around campus, many people are more familiar with your role as a public scholar. How did you become comfortable on these different stages?

My mother was a high school English teacher and armchair Shakespeare drama scholar. My sister and I were taught very early how to do public speaking. My sister, Leslie, is the reporter for KGO-ABC News in San Francisco. We are  both very involved with current events, but we  aren’t afraid to go in front of the group and talk. And that’s why I enjoy teaching at Rice so much. 

I’ve missed terribly the [classroom] interaction with students. I’m not a big Zoom kind of professor. I like pacing around, drinking a cup of coffee and trying to get a conversation going among students about our tenuous times. But last fall, we were able to intertwine the Biden-Trump showdown in an online course while we were studying other presidential elections. It becomes really fun, the students get engaged and it makes history seem relevant. You can’t teach somebody American history in a course, but you could get them excited to learn more about it in their lives.

How did you intertwine those recent and past presidential elections?

If I’m lecturing on Richard Nixon and Watergate, for example, there are characters like Roger Stone, who was part of the Watergate scandal, and John Dean, who was also part of Watergate — and they were all over the airwaves [during the Trump administration]. Roy Cohn is Donald Trump’s hero, and he was also [Sen.] Joe McCarthy’s lawyer. You start finding connections to the past. 

It’s hard to have perspective on the pandemic in all its tragedy while we’re living through it. Is it too early to ask how history will view this event?

History will treat the pandemic of 2020 and 2021 as a seismic moment in U.S. history. I mean, when you have a death toll that exceeds America’s wars of the 20th century all wrapped up into one, it’s pretty mind-boggling. Are we going to be having more coronaviruses to come, or was this just an unusual one-off event? That’s frightening because it takes so much preparation on our part to not be caught blindsided again by another killer virus.

In 1960, Time magazine picked scientists, collectively, as the Person of the Year. That’s why John F. Kennedy came to Rice on Sept. 12, 1962, and talked about public science and the need to invest in STEM — and computers, aviation and medicine. Any president has to listen to the scientific community, particularly when it comes to issues like climate change and pandemics.

I’ve missed terribly the [classroom] interaction with students. I’m not a big Zoom kind of professor. I like pacing around, drinking a cup of coffee and trying to get a conversation going among students about our tenuous times.

On Jan. 4, 2021, you and Princeton’s Sean Wilentz led a group of historians and constitutional scholars to publish a statement deploring efforts to disrupt the congressional certification of the 2020 election. What came two days later must have been quite a shock. 

I think that Jan. 6, 2021, is a dark day in U.S. history. It was horrifying to watch fellow Americans ransack the Capitol and kill police officers. And it’s a date to never forget — an attempted coup d’etat. The thought that such a brazen attempt to overthrow a free and fair election even occurred is staggering to me. We’ve been able to vote through all of American history and not have a direct attack on our nation’s capital in such a fashion since the War of 1812.

It’s a warning sign that our country has a lot of illness — from mass shootings and violent riots to the fact that some of our basic birthrights, like the Fourth Amendment, a right for privacy, are being trampled on. Add climate change and systemic racism into the mix, and we have a recipe for disaster if we don’t get our act together. 

How will history view the Donald Trump presidency?

He looks like an asterisk president, a strange one-offer. But he could come back, and we may be living in the age of Trump. How will he be ranked right now as an American president? He’s probably the worst president our country has ever had. And people in my field say this is good news for James Buchanan, who used to be on the bottom.

We’ve been able to vote through all of American history and not have a direct attack on our nation’s capital in such a fashion since the War of 1812.

President Joe Biden often used the phrase “lower the temperature” in terms of calming some of the divisiveness in the country. How’s he doing? 

I love the Bob Dylan song, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and it’s odd that the change agent happens to be Biden, our oldest president ever. He has suffered a lot of blows in his family life. And he has a working faith, meaning a religious faith and calm demeanor. So he might be the right president for our time. Already, one could feel that Biden is calming waters and, at least, getting the insanity of tweet-bullying out of our public discourse.

I think of Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War, losing his son. He would go to Rock Creek Cemetery and have a rocking chair and just sit there and mourn his son’s death while in the middle of the Civil War. In Biden’s case, it’s the loss of his first wife and child in an automobile accident, then losing his son, Beau, more recently to cancer, and having his other son, Hunter, deal with alcohol and drug abuse issues. He’s gone through a lot of pain, yet he still is able to present himself as a happy warrior.

One of the jobs of the modern American presidency is to be a grief counselor in chief. With a 24/7 media cycle, we kind of demand that our presidents heal the nation in times of disaster — school shootings, mass murders, hurricanes. I think of Ronald Reagan when the Challenger blew up, Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing and Barack Obama after Charleston all giving incredible speeches that healed the country. Trump didn’t know how to give that kind of speech; he operated by dividing the country and didn’t know how to show public empathy. Biden is very openhearted; he feels other people’s pain and understands the hardships other people go through.

The main point of history is to remind us that our own times aren’t uniquely oppressive.

In addition to your scholarship around presidential history, you’re a scholar of the environmental and conservation movements in the U.S. When did you first discover a love of the natural environment?

My mother and father were teachers, and they got their summers off for vacation. We had a 24-foot Coachmen trailer and a station wagon, and we would do family trips to the national parks. By the time I entered college, I had been to the 48 lower states and had gone to the Everglades, the Great Smokies, the Grand Canyon, Sequoia — on and on. We were a national park family, and it turns out that those are my greatest memories of my childhood. 

When I first started teaching, I had a road class where students would earn college credits, living on the road and studying American history by going to presidential libraries, cemeteries or battlefields. So I’ve always liked that idea of learning American history on the road.

I tell students to pick [a cause] that they endorse and get involved with. It could be volunteering one day a week or for just a few hours; you don’t have to write a check. It’s just about giving your time.

I try not to soapbox my personal beliefs, but obviously they come out in lectures from time to time. In my career as a public historian, I’m very actively outspoken on saving national parks and wild and scenic rivers. I’m a big environmentalist — I want to make sure that we protect our natural resources in America. If I have a foe, it’s somebody who takes our natural resources for granted or poisons or pollutes in an indiscriminate and illegal way. The one common ground we all have right now is air and water, and we want to make sure we keep both clean.

I tell students to pick [a cause] that they endorse and get involved with. It could be volunteering one day a week or for just a few hours; you don’t have to write a check. It’s just about giving your time. Right now, I’ve been reading about how the Tennessee River is really being destroyed around Decatur, Alabama. I’m doing research on the side for a small nonprofit, just to write an op-ed piece about the Tennessee River to help understand what’s going on at that one place. I can’t spend my life fighting for the Tennessee River, but I can put my shoulder to the wheel a little bit.

Tell us about your next book.

It’s called “Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, and the Great Environmental Awakening of 1945 to 1964,” and it’s coming out in May 2022. It deals with [the period] after World War II and issues like nuclear fallout and a whole host of pesticides and chemicals that had a negative effect on wildlife and humans. Rachel Carson was the great marine biologist who started studying the consequences of DDT spray. She led a great crusade to ban certain pesticides, and it really launched the environmental movement. John F. Kennedy embraced her research, and we started having regulatory panels. 

The interior department building is named after Kennedy’s secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall. He did everything to save parks and wilderness and seashores during the 1960s. Kennedy was responsible for creating Padre Island, Cape Cod and Point Reyes as national seashores. And so it was a group — Rachel Carson, Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Washington University biologist Barry Commoner — that were worried that we were contaminating the Earth with too many chemicals and pesticides. I wrote about Theodore Roosevelt’s generation of conservationists and then I published a book on FDR, and now I’m looking at the Cold War era.

President Biden likes to quote the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney, especially lines about hope from “The Cure at Troy.” Can we “hope for a great sea-change on the far side of revenge”?

The main point of history is to remind us that our own times aren’t uniquely oppressive. America’s going to get on track eventually. We do have some serious ruptures in our public faith in institutions. There seems to be a disdain for the U.S. federal government in many quarters. It used to be that people would be called for public service, whether you worked in the military or the Peace Corps or you planted trees with the Civilian Conservation Corps. We have to think of a way to get young people believing in the government and believing that our country can still do great things. 

I always like the line novelist Jack Kerouac once said about young people, “They’re all angels of pure future.” They’ve got everything in front of them.

I’m hopeful because I keep seeing our country go through difficult times and seem to persevere in the end. One could look at the fact that the election did hold — Biden is president; that hundreds of people were arrested for mob violence on the Capitol; that our judicial system worked when Trump was trying to say that he would be the winner of the election. There’s still a coherency to our country. 

I have three kids, and they all tease me that I use the word “onward” as my motto in life. You know, we’re going to be hit with adversity all the time, but we have to move forward and go onward. I’m excited to get back in the classroom, hopefully, this fall at Rice and have students back on campus — to pick up the pieces where we all left off.

I always like the line novelist Jack Kerouac once said about young people, “They’re all angels of pure future.” They’ve got everything in front of them. I think it’s important to be engaged in American politics. I never care whether somebody is on the right or on the left if they’re a student. I just want to make sure that they feel that this country’s worth fighting for.  

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