History profs just want to get called

History is hot.

Pick up a newspaper or flip on TV and you will find college history professors quoted and interviewed ad nauseam. Try it tomorrow or a week from now and it will be the same. Gwyneth Paltrow and John Elway, step aside. History professors are in vogue.

Dragged into the limelight from their cloistered library nooks, historians have in the past year been called to expound on topics ranging from the Clinton impeachment, the movie "Amistad," and whether Thomas Jefferson had children by his slave, Sally Hemmings.

Journalists may write "history's first draft," but most knew little about Andrew Johnson's 1868 impeachment and desperately needed those tweedy academics to draw then-and-now comparisons. How desperate were they?

Just ask Robert Dallek, a Boston University professor who wrote a recent tome about the Johnson impeachment and another about failed presidents. In the news business, Dr. Dallek is sizzling.

"It's been a slow day - only three reporters have called so far," he says in a phone interview from his research office in Washington last week. "Some days you get no calls. Then things start popping and the phone doesn't stop."

It isn't always that way, though. Historians are usually a tougher sell than political-science or business professors. But not since impeachment hit the front pages.

Dallek averages five to 10 calls from print reporters and one to two TV interviews a week. A database of publications yielded 388 hits with his name last year and 36 this month - compared with 84 hits in 1996. On a recent day, he was called by this paper, The Boston Globe, and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer in swift succession.

He's hardly unique. William Leuchtenburg of the University of North Carolina, Walter McDougall of the University of Pennsylvania, and Ernest May of Harvard University are hot too. Last April, Time magazine included these and others on a panel of historians charged with deciding the best American presidents of the 20th century.

To some historians, this sort of thing seems superficial at best and corrosive of their profession at worst. Whether they should sit with the facts, ponder, and write - rather than offer snippets geared to events - is a fiercely debated issue.

Others point out, however, that historians' role in public discourse is small and getting smaller. The likes of Henry Steele Commager - an Amherst College historian who held forth prominently and forcefully on McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, and Watergate - are long gone.

"If you compare how much historians participate in public discourse now as compared with 50 to 100 years ago, it's a lot less," says Peter Novick, professor of history at the University of Chicago, who has traced the history of his profession in one of his books.

Public appetite, media demand

Despite this, Roy Rosenzweig, a professor of history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., contends public interest in history is growing, not shrinking. His research shows a big segment of the public actively engaged with museums, family histories, and still affected by key national events like the assassination of President Kennedy.

"I think the public appetite is always there," he says. "We've seen, in the last 15 to 20 years, academic historians respond by becoming more attuned to talking with the general public in a more meaningful way."

Public hunger for history may or may not drive media demand for historians. But Dallek says he knows for sure it has an "infinite appetite for getting experts to comment." Or it may just be due to the growing ranks of diligent professionals like Randell Kennedy at Campus Crossroads, an academic media-relations company in Keene, N.H.

Promoting professors to the news media is valuable to colleges. It builds morale on campus and name recognition off campus. Alumni and students like to see professors' names and affiliations in lights, Mr. Kennedy says.

Not all historians are eager to talk, however. Some like Peter Onuf, a leading Jefferson historian at the University of Virginia, will talk to reporters, but reluctantly.

"Happily, I was on the road so I missed most of the calls," he says of the weeks after DNA evidence showed that Jefferson, the nation's third president, may have fathered children by one of his slaves. Dr. Onuf's typical four or five media calls a year jumped to 75 in five months. "For me, [talking to the news media] has to do with citizenship. If people want to know about Jefferson, I have an obligation to talk."

Others, however, would dearly love to talk to the media - or just about anybody else. Nickolas Lupinin, a professor of Russian and European history at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H., yearned for a media call for years. Then, lightning struck a few years ago when he was asked to appear on National Public Radio with Secretary of State Madeline Albright to talk about NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe.

After that, he still had "maybe one call" a year for a while. But then Russia's currency and economic collapse hit last summer. Now he gets regular media requests for his views. "I love them, personally," he says of these interviews. "But I know it can reverse right away."

Retreating to the ivory-tower

Amid the flurry of kleig-light interviews, some historians are left grappling with an overpowering desire to retreat to ivory-tower objectivity - leaving them vulnerable to merciless ribbing about the arcana of favorite subjects.

During impeachment hearings last month, the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington went ahead with little apparent concern for current events. Historians got awards for studies of British naval policy in the 1800s and wool production from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. Press accounts noted the irony.

And that may be one big reason historians and the press are uneasy bedfellows. Historians have seen it before - and they know history repeats itself.

"The first few times you're on TV or have a larger audience taking your work seriously, you say, 'Wow, this is great,' Onuf says. "But really there is just this machinery that keeps cycling.... They love you for a couple of weeks, and then they leave you."

*Send e-mail to claytonm@csps.com

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