Douglas Brinkley is the William Ginsburg of the Kennedy death circus. Before the crash, the boyish, gap-toothed Brinkley was known primarily as a Michael Beschloss-in-waiting, a telegenic historian fielding calls from the cable news networks. Now the University of New Orleans professor has parlayed a contributing editorship at George and a friendship with Kennedy into a job as a necropublicist. Between Saturday and Tuesday, Brinkley appeared on MSNBC, Late Edition, Meet the Press, Good Morning America, Dateline, Today (twice), and NPR (twice). He also penned columns about his relationship with Kennedy for Newsweek and the New York Times, and was quoted everywhere else ink touches paper.
According to the Washington Post, Brinkley cut a $10,000 deal with NBC for a week of exclusive Kennedy commentary, but then agreed to provide it pro bono. Editors at George are reportedly so annoyed about Brinkley’s death punditry that they have dropped him from the masthead.
Even amid this week’s staggering hyperbole, Brinkley’s emotional profligacy has distinguished him. He is, as he rarely fails to remind his audience, 38 years old like Kennedy, a vegetarian like Kennedy, and a Sagittarius like Kennedy. That identification with Kennedy accounts in part for Brinkley’s tenuous proposition: that Kennedy’s death is the signal event of his generation, the moment Gen X lost its innocence. In the opening paragraph of his New York Times op-ed, Brinkley opined: “It’s as if suddenly, an entire generation’s optimism is deflated, and all that is left is the limp reality of growing old.” Kennedy’s death may have affected his friend Brinkley this way. I am not sure anyone else outside Kennedy’s circle was so moved.
Brinkley has also mounted his thanatic pulpit to tell and retell anecdotes about Kennedy’s decency: how he declined an honorary doctorate because he felt he didn’t deserve it, how his racial compassion sparked him to visit Mike Tyson in jail. (Brinkley has grown comfortable enough with Kennedy-family talk that he no longer limits himself to John Kennedy. In his second Today jaunt, he opined about would-be bride Rory Kennedy: “It’s the activist and the feminist in Rory Kennedy that I think is her greatest contribution to American life.”)
It’s a historical truth, handed down from Mark Antony to Jesse Jackson to Earl Spencer, that celebrity death is a fabulous marketing opportunity, but Brinkley is not cynical about his prolific Kennedy comments. “I have been in a deep, deep depression, and my way of responding was to be proactive,” he says. “I could have shut up about this and not done anything, but I really believe that this is someone who matters.”
Brinkley’s belief that Kennedy is someone who matters–matters enough for two op-eds and countless TV gigs, in fact–is a good starting point for understanding the young prof. He is an appropriate eulogist for Kennedy because they shared a vision of American culture and politics. Kennedy’s worthy democratic instincts inspired him to use entertainment to teach politics. Brinkley’s worthy democratic instincts inspire him to use entertainment to teach history. In Brinkley’s case, as in Kennedy’s, the results have been both inspiring and awkward.
Brinkley (who is not David Brinkley’s son–that’s Columbia history prof Alan Brinkley) stands at the intersection of academia, serious journalism, and TV punditry. He is striving for a place in the pantheon of popular historians such as Stephen Ambrose and Arthur Schlesinger. Brinkley abhors the narrow academic history that has dominated universities. He scorns scholarly monographs and favors a democratic, populist history. As history grew more and more abstruse in the ‘60s and ‘70s, historians ceded the role of public intellectual to journalists. Brinkley wants to take it back. (Kennedy himself admired Brinkley’s approach enough that, according to Brinkley, he had been trying to land Brinkley an appointment at Harvard’s Kennedy School.)
Brinkley first came to prominence as America’s leading neo-beatnik, a believer that the best way to learn history is on the road. In 1992, he led 17 students from Hofstra University (where he then taught) on a six-week history road trip, from the Grand Canyon to Route 66, from Ken Kesey’s farm to Jack London’s ranch. He turned this “Majic Bus” trip into a popular book. He now guides a civil-rights bus journey for inner-city high-school kids every spring. The Majic Bus also inspired C-Span to start sending its own buses around the country.
The Majic Bus illustrates both the charms and flaws of Brinkley’s notion of public history. Brinkley is the kind of professor freshmen love, because he is a kind of Überfreshman himself, wildly enthusiastic and infatuated with popular culture. He believes Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson are the giants of American literature. He quotes Ramones lyrics. He loves the word “troubadour.” He refers to Lou Reed as “poet Lou Reed.” The Majic Bus is full of passages like this: “How could I be a great bop wanderer, a mystic in search of ecstasy, a hobo scribbler of haiku and jazz poems, somehow discovering, in Kerouacian terms, how to ‘dig’ life in the divine world to the fullest?”
Brinkley is a cheerleader for American history. Everything is a celebration. He likes to cite Kerouac’s “I am not anti-anything” (except “racists” and certain big corporations). The civil rights movement was great. The Beats were cool. Dylan is amazing. He even wrote a kindly biography of Jimmy Carter. Brinkley skirts the arguments against his rosy vision. When his Majic Bus students encountered a couple of belligerent Buchananites spouting nativist claptrap, Brinkley’s immediate reaction was to treat the pair as loonies and hustle his students back onto the bus. His America is conflict-free. Here, too, he resembles Kennedy, who was a cheerleader for politics, publishing a magazine that detached politics from ideology.
The Majic Bus brought Brinkley minor fame. Blessed with preternatural gregariousness, good humor, and a love of attention, he’s been tireless about pursuing both celebrity and the cause of popular history ever since. “The word that is used around Doug is ‘operator.’ That is said scornfully or dismissively,” says historian and Brinkley mentor Ambrose, who tapped Brinkley to succeed him as director of University of New Orleans’ Eisenhower Center. “He is an operator, and I think that’s wonderful. He’s entrepreneurial and enthusiastic. It’s very American.”
It’s hard to find anyone who knows Brinkley and dislikes him. It’s also hard to find anyone who knows Brinkley and doesn’t worry about his obsession with fame. “His name-dropping is almost pathological,” says one friend. In my conversation with Brinkley, he touched on a dozen famous politicians and artists he knows. His writing is full of sentences that begin something like, “As John Cage once asked me …”
Brinkley worked assiduously to join Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin on the air. “TV is the most important medium for conveying history. For historians not to reach out smacks of elitism,” he says. He will happily decorate any TV or radio story with a veneer of American history. Recent months have seen him comment on the Kosovo bombing, ground troops, Rosa Parks, Independence Day, impeachment, and Al Gore’s military service, to name a few topics.
Meanwhile, he has pursued a writing career that would fell a less industrious man. On the same day his Newsweek and New York Times Kennedy pieces appeared, Brinkley published a sweet article in The New Yorker about a 50-year correspondence between Ronald Reagan and a member of his fan club. Brinkley publishes in the Atlantic, Newsweek, American Heritage, and George. His work ranges from routine commentaries on the day’s political news to celebrity puff profiles. He writes more journalism than most hacks, and certainly a lot more good journalism than most hacks. At the same time, he has managed to write or co-write eight books in the past seven years, including three full-scale biographies and a lively 600-page history of the United States. (Brinkley’s oeuvre demonstrates his genius for endearing himself to all kinds of people: He has done books with the widow of Dean Acheson, the ultimate establishment figure; with Hunter S. Thompson; and with Carter.) He is currently working on a profile of Gore, a biography of Rosa Parks, and a biography of Henry Ford.
Brinkley’s sunniness and ardor are appealing, but his public history has its shortcomings. His idols, Ambrose and Schlesinger, have won the admiration of the academy and the public. Brinkley has won the public but has not wowed the academy. Some of his colleagues’ dismay is simply jealousy of his entrepreneurship, but some is more substantive. His books read like good journalism–and that’s no insult–but they are not great history. “He has made no analytical contribution at all,” says one Ivy League historian who professes to like Brinkley.
Arthur Schlesinger went on television to mourn the death of President John Kennedy. Douglas Brinkley goes on television to mourn the death of celebrity magazine editor John Kennedy Jr. This is why his ambition to be a public intellectual may falter. A public intellectual resists the frivolous. Brinkley does not resist the frivolous. As his mentor Ambrose says, “I wish he would spend less time on John Kennedy and more time on Henry Ford.”