President's Lecture Series: Douglas Brinkley
The President’s Lecture Series at ODU has varied immensely through its 15 years, beginning in 1991 with segregationist writer James J. Kilpatrick to this year’s first speaker, CNN presidential historian and Rice University professor, Douglas Brinkley. Brinkley is recognized as one of the foremost scholars on the history of America’s presidents. Commencing the fifteenth season of the PLS and tenth in conjunction with the campus literary festival, co-director and ODU professor Michael Pearson welcomed the abundant crowd for Brinkley’s discussion, titled “The Evolution of the American Presidency.”
Brinkley began by digging deep and finding a historical figure few people know, Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress. Thomson maintained the minutes of meetings, detailing every discussion and squabble between the Founding Fathers. Thomson wished to publish these journals, yet opted to burn them after the presidential race of 1800 between rivals Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Emphasizing the intensity of the time by bumping his fists together when calling the campaigns fierce, Brinkley stated Thomson decided the public did not need to know the turmoil between the founders deciding to help develop a strong president instead.
This introduction set the stage for an action packed hour-long sharing historical information on numerous presidents, detailing a few who have stood out, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
Brinkley pointed out that presidents’ legacies have been praised and scarred based upon their war efforts in office. One example of a president whose legacy is persevered is Lincoln, who fought a war of necessity. Due to Lincoln uniting a divided nation, he is typically considered the favorite among presidents. Presidents scarred by wars of choice are Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Brinkley applied these thoughts to the 2016 election stating both candidates have distanced themselves from the U.S.’s most recent wars.
Transitioning from war to executive power, Brinkley enlisted Teddy Roosevelt’s ushering the era of the executive orders utilizing the Antiquities Act protecting lands such as the Grand Canyon. This legacy is observable today with the National Parks Service celebrating their 100 year anniversary and locally at Fort Monroe.
Next was F.D.R. welcoming the friendly federal government era. Roosevelt is responsible for the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration, programs which helped citizens. This era continued until Reagan.
“Reagan is the revolution in 1980,” said Brinkley. This era created the idea that the federal government is not our friend.
Brinkley then brought his knowledge of the American presidential evolution to the 2016 election. He stated that Hillary Clinton has made her candidacy base from being a hawk in foreign policy. Donald Trump has shaped his campaign by isolating himself from the modern presidential eras. The lecture then turned to what could happen based upon results of the upcoming election. Brinkley stated a Trump win will create a “revolutionary moment in American history,” enabling a segregationist mentality pushing socially conscious people to protest. If Clinton wins, Trump will immediately be her critic.
Brinkley concluded by asking, “Is this the last gasp of white privilege, or a reclaiming of an older heritage and privileged class of American whites?” In his final thoughts he stated the importance of holding the president accountable and rallying behind her or him like Charles Thomson.