The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ron Chernow is a historian. Now he’s taking a comedian’s job. Huh?

Historian Ron Chernow is the featured speaker at this weekend's White House correspondents' dinner. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The headliner of this year’s White House correspondents’ dinner is not, by his own admission, funny.

Unlike previous guest stars, he is not known to sing, impersonate presidents or, as the Peiro Brothers did for President John F. Kennedy in 1961, juggle.

His name is Ron Chernow. He’s the best-selling author of several books, including a biography of Alexander Hamilton that was the inspiration for a hit Broadway play.

In turning to a writer of endnotes, not punchlines, the White House Correspondents’ Association is trying to refocus a dinner overrun by journalist-celebrity selfies and comedians whose controversial monologues have distracted from the dinner’s spirit of honoring journalists, celebrating the First Amendment and awarding scholarships.

“If journalism is the first draft of history, who better than to explain this moment than a historian?” said Olivier Knox, the association’s president. “Because of the success of ‘Hamilton’ the musical, I thought Chernow was at the intersection of scholarship and entertainment.”

And that fits, historians say, the recent (historically speaking) phenomenon of historians as celebrities whose best-selling books thrust them into popular culture and fortune.

Historians such as Chernow, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss and others are recognizable figures from their appearances on cable news, late-night TV, and on the red carpet after their works are transformed into movies, plays and HBO shows.

It wasn’t always this way.

In the postwar years, historians such as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Richard Hofstadter — “Really Towering Historians Who Speak with Considerable Cultural Authority,” as one historian described them in a 2007 essay — became household names by writing giant tomes and advising world leaders on important matters.

The rise of TV (first the networks, then cable) and then social media has fueled an intense desire by viewers and tweeters to learn and share the historical context of every news development, even if the anecdotes aren’t really antecedents but seem so in 140-character bursts — a concern of many historians, both best-selling and not.

The modern shift to historians as Hollywood-like celebrities took hold with novelist and historian Shelby Foote’s starring role in Ken Burns’s 1990 PBS miniseries on the Civil War. After it aired, reporters camped out at Foote’s home. Female admirers called and sent him poems, including one that included this line: “I’m saving myself for Shelby Foote.”

Foote told the Baltimore Sun that the fame “has run me damn near stark staring mad!” A Washington Post reporter called to ask how he was doing and he replied, “I spend too much time on this goddammed instrument," referring to the telephonic device through which he communicated his answer.

Foote died in 2005, missing out on Instagram.

The rise in celebrity historians coincides with a steep decline in college students majoring in history, as many university departments in the humanities are struggling for funding and students in a technology-dominated world.

What hasn’t declined in academia is the existential debate over the more popular narrative-driven history written by those such as McCullough and Chernow, who never formally studied history in the academy.

Their books, those critics say, are often lacking the analytical and contextual perspectives published by university presses. What matters most to these celebrity writers, the criticism goes, is telling a good story — and that critique applies to their media appearances, too.

Todd Estes, an Oakland University history professor, published a scathing essay about McCullough and his 2003 visit to the university.

“McCullough only tells stories and eschews any real analysis of what the stories mean or how and why they are significant,” Estes wrote, describing the author’s then-recent biography of John Adams as “little more than a collection of stories and anecdotes, albeit stylishly done.”

Estes, in a meeting with students, asked McCullough to place his view of Adams in context with previous biographies.

“He didn’t answer the question for one simple reason: He couldn’t,” Estes wrote.

McCullough has fiercely defended his approach to writing history.

“I don’t like to write history as viewed from the mountaintop,” he said in 2011 interview. “If I can’t try to make what happened as real and compelling as a made-up what-happened, then I don’t want to write it. And if critics are bothered by it, that’s fine, doesn’t bother me.”

He added, “I don’t think history ought to be reserved for the high priests of academe. That’s one reason our children are so inadequately educated in history.”

Academic historians are not immune or opposed to notoriety. Many have successfully crossed over into the mainstream becoming — how to put it? — minor celebrities in their own right: Joseph Ellis, a longtime professor and author of several books on the Founding Fathers; Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian and New Yorker writer. James McPherson, a Princeton scholar and best-selling author on the Civil War.

The danger that celebrity and academic-turned-minor-celebrity historians face in their elevation to public figure status is succumbing to a sound/Twitter bite world yearning for quick, clean answers — and often assurance — from historians about the news of the day.

“They want us to stand up and talk about the past and somehow to shed light on the present in ways that the past can’t do,” said Yale historian Joanne Freeman, whose recent history of political violence was named a notable book of 2018 by the New York Times. “But the past offers insight, not answers.”

Given the current political climate and the title of her book — “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War” — Freeman often has to tell audiences, “ I’m showing lots of things that have echoes in the present but I’m not saying that we’re walking into a civil war.”

And now Chernow is walking into a roomful of journalists, a group not exactly known for patience and taking the long view. Many will no doubt live-tweet Chernow’s remarks, which will be focused on the history of the First Amendment. Chernow was not available to comment, according to his publicist.

Meanwhile, pop culture is busy drawing in more historians.

Comedian and TV host Samantha Bee released a series of short videos of academic historians who are not household names roasting President Trump, who will be dining at home Saturday night.

At the end of one video, a historian says, “Trump doesn’t need a historian to roast him.” In unison the historians say, “History will do that.”

And that’s a wrap.

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