Douglas Brinkley

Dr. Douglas Brinkley was interviewed on December 11, 2014. Dr. Brinkley appeared on Booknotes on April 18, 1993, where he discussed his book The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey.

Interview Transcript

Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtje, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Begg.  Today is Thursday, December 11th, 2014, and we are recording from the JW Marriott in Washington, D.C., where we are speaking with author Dr. Douglas Brinkley, who appeared on Booknotes on April 18th, 1993, to discuss his book, The Majic Bus, An American Odyssey.  Hello, Dr. Brinkley, thank you for speaking with us today.

Thank you for having me.

How did your book come to be on Booknotes?

Well, I was a professor at Hofstra University in Long Island, and I did my doctorate at Georgetown, and I had written a biography of Dean Acheson for Yale University Press and one on James Forrestal for Knopf, but when I was starting my first real big teaching classes at Hofstra, I always had an idea of taking a bus and going around the country in a kind of an all-purpose, 3D, almost American on-the-road history class. This came out of my experiences if I would go to Europe, you know, with when I was an undergraduate at Ohio State, and you know, those student abroad programs. I did one in Oxford and one in Edinburgh, but I realized that America, you couldn't really do it in such a, really a country to be seen. There's so many different forms of America that was best to take to the open road, the highway, and so I would hold, you know, kind of a class on the road, an all-purpose American  studies class. So I did that at Hofstra in 1992, and I documented, you know, my travels, and I started in every year doing these Majic Bus Trips, as I called them. So I wrote the book called The Majic Bus,  M-A-J-I-C , An American Odyssey, which delineated my road odyssey with my students, and in it, you know, we would go to visit Martin Luther King's Auburn Avenue or Willa Cather's home in Nebraska or John Steinbeck in California, and I kind of was trying to capture the road trip as an educational endeavor, and hence the book came out, and Brian Lamb invited me on to book notes.
And how did you prepare for your appearance on the show?

You know, I was at that moment in time very influenced by the writer Jack Kerouac, who wrote the novel On the Road, and Kerouac used to say, "First thought, best  thought."  That meaning sometimes, particularly in Washington, D.C., people self-edit themselves a lot, and I just wanted to be quite spontaneous on the show and just have no preset agenda, just simply say what I felt or what I thought without worrying very much about consequences. Obviously, there's parameters that act kind of thinking you don't want to insult anybody or say something that's out of school, but you know, I have a, my mother and father were high school teachers. I grew up with a station wagon and a 24-foot coachman trailer. I became an American historian because I get to visit all these historic sites.I went to all the presidential libraries and national parks when I was young.   So I noticed the difference in college. Everybody was taking the humanities, which history is in, so seriously, it was so boring. Like how can you talk about Gettysburg in a very antiseptic kind of classroom environment when just a few hours away was the Gettysburg battlefield where you could go and tour and lecture from the battlefield. The field trip was always my favorite part of education when I grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio.  So why not if you didn't have an extended semester of field trips around America? And so, you know, that was the, that message of my book really spoke to Brian Lamb and the people at C-SPAN a lot because their mission, we were actually on the same missionary path in a weird way because I was trying to say there are a lot of different forms of America, that there's a lot of provincialisms and that even Washington, D.C. and particularly New York City are very provincial places. Fantastic world city New York, but when people that live just in New York don't have a sense of what's going on on the Boise River in Idaho or what's going on in Santa Fe, New Mexico or what people are doing or thinking in Amarillo, Texas, hence you had to get out there and C-SPAN was trying to bring public policy around America. At the same time, I was trying to say education needs to be without borders. We had to do a little more about teaching kids about the vast cultural diversity of the United States.

And what do you remember most from your appearance on the show?

I remember most, it was the beginning of my friendship with Brian Lamb because Brian and I just hit it off and we talked a lot about the mission that he saw at C-SPAN and he enjoyed the book tremendously. Brian and I have subsequently become just real good friends. I recently went out to the Brian Lamb School at Purdue University and spoke on Neil Armstrong, who was a Purdue graduate for Brian. And when I say friends, I mean we would be able to share information from time to time about what we're thinking about American culture, politics, education and ways to enlighten the American public by virtue of the fact that I, parents were teachers, so I didn't grow up very rich. I grew up in Wood County, Ohio. I went to a public school for college, Ohio State. I realized that there was a kind of embedded elitism of the East Coast, that kids don't have the opportunity to go to private schools. And I didn't even know what a private school was.  I'm from a rural public high school. And I think that, so PBS to me was a little fanciful. I did a lot of national public radio interviews in my life, including the time of the Majic Bus, but people always talked like they were from Britain. I mean, why are people interviewing me? And I find out they were from like New Jersey, but they had a British accent, you know? And so I was, you know, with Brian I felt an American kinship, that he was from Indiana and I grew up in Ohio and a kind of a Midwest, in the Midwest we don't take on affectation like that, particularly on American ones.I grew up my life in Northwest Ohio wanting to beat the British. I grew up my high schools where Oliver, my first history hero was Oliver Hazard Perry, who beat the British at the Battle of Lake Geary and Matt Anthony Wayne who beat the British in the War of 1812 battles of that era. William Henry Harrison had his fort in my hometown. So I didn't go into American history to make, write books to have Americans who wanted to be British interview me. So I ended up enjoying the directness of C-SPAN and the fact that I felt Booknotes and Brian Lamb were asking questions that were in the American grain. 

So Brian Lamb frequently asks biographical questions. I know that you all spent some time talking about your upbringing, which you've already brought up and your connection to Kerouac, your desire to get out on the road. But did that surprise you at all? Is this normal for other interviews that you've experienced?

No, I thought it was a unique and very smart way to do an interview because you have to understand who's the person talking. I mean, all of us carry some kind of predisposition. We might want to think we're enlightened and balanced, but we all have our, you know, things that influenced us during our upbringing. And Brian taps into that.  Who are you?  Where are you from? He has a very topographical approach, which nobody would ever say that to him. But he thinks like I do in terms of place. The first thing I always ask of somebody is where you're from. Not because it's an easy beginner, but I love America so much.  They say I'm from Terre Haute, Indiana. You know, we talked to them about that. If they say, you know, I, because I love all these American name places and I've traveled so much around America and Brian's a little bit that way.  But the Majic Bus was a bit of an autobiographical memoir.  So it did make sense that you would approach it on what brought a professor of history that just wrote on Dean Acheson and James Forrestal's establishment figures to get a bus and a driver and go take a bunch of students all around the United States for semester earning college credits. That's a gamble, taking what, 17 kids out on the road? Not sure I would do it now. Then I would do it. Once at the 17, I later took 27 kids, students and two buses.

But you know, that ironically, one of the things the book notes inadvertently captures is that moment of that book notes interview was at that moment, nobody was emailing yet. In 1992, virtually nobody was emailing by the end of the Clinton era. In 2000, a billion emails were ricocheting around the world an hour. That really, the technology revolution, a couple of our kids had a couple laptops, which was only like two out of all of them. And we were still using pay phones to call home. It was a rare deal. Two of the students had these oversized cell phones. So the technology revolution had not fully hit youth culture, college culture in '92, let's say by '98 it had. So the Majic Bus may have been, in the end, that book notes interview, the end of a kind of era where you could do a road trip like that, where it all wouldn't be people recording everything you say, every bad moment, videotaping, you know, taking selfies every second, you know, YouTubing, what you're doing and all of that. I wouldn't do this kind of course in that environment. I would ban it all if I went now, I'd be a no electronics trip or one or something because it takes away from the experiential learning. I'm a historian and I want to take people to the Battle of New Orleans, to the Plains of Chalmette. I want them to imagine what it was like for Andrew Jackson in that battle. 

I don't want their mind saying, I'd say YouTube, I'm going to tape it and show my friend all the time. And so I'm not convinced that this new technology is, in my view, does not enhance learning as much as going to being places. I'm writing a lot about conservation and nature right now and I see young people having nature deficiency disorder.People don't know the tree, the name of the tree, if it's an oak in their own backyard, they don't know an oak from a maple, you know, they don't know what kind of grasses grow in their neighborhood, let alone their own local history. But so anytime in one stunt, in the Majic Bus, kids were getting a little bored. We were my students, we were driving through Georgia. So I just pretended that a mound of dirt was a memorial to the baseball player Ty Cobb. And they are all just snapping photographs of it. And then I later said, look, there's not Ty Cobb's grave. You guys aren't engaged in anything right now. You're just wanting to say you saw stuff. You're wanting to check mark stuff off. I want you to get engaged with what we're doing a little bit deeper. I just recall that moment because already then I had skepticism of what technology and education would do.Now we're talking about people doing classes on the internet where I'm anti that because part of the Majic Bus experience is interacting, getting to know people. You know, we were born in the beginning alone. I mean, we're children alone. And a lot of what socialization is, is interacting with other people. And that's part of your education. And a lot of things don't work on a teleconference.  A lot of things are by little communications, little raising of the eyebrow, a little scratch of the neck, a little bit of a sigh, all those things that make us human. And so the Majic Bus in particular was to stress the humanities more than history as a social science to be learned.I wanted it to be something to be experienced.

The Booknotes hour long format differed greatly from most television interviews out there at the time and even more so in subsequent times, which were three minutes or less. What do you think the benefits or even potential drawbacks of this longer format would be for the interviewee and for the audience?

There's zero drawback to it. It's only a plus. I mean, you're just giving somebody a chance to have a public forum. You're able to talk in an hour. It's a reasonable amount of time to discuss a book. People work really hard on these books to just have even one hour is condensing. But other media shows give you two minutes. How do you explain all of your research in two minutes? Or if you're lucky, you might get on a longer form interview program on PBS and you might get 10 minutes or 15 minutes at most. With an hour, you're able to kind of express yourself or what your intentions were and tell people about the journey.  Not only that, because C-SPAN has done such a genius job of archiving its interviews, it's now become really the key to our nation's recent past. Meaning, all of these interviews now, you can go and look on anybody who's on Booknotes and sit and really get into them.  So many people you've interviewed on Booknotes, you can go back and really understand what it is they were trying to say and do. So it's become an amazing resource for scholars to footnote and listen to transcripts of Booknotes interviews.

Well, you mentioned how the longer format allowed you to get into conversations about your research. And Brian Lamb would ask in-author questions about their research and their writing methods. Do you think that the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing interesting?

There's no question that people enjoy finding out about how people write, because in almost every person, they think they have a book or two in them. Actually, Sinclair Lewis, the great novelist from Minnesota, wrote Main Street and Aerosmith, among many others, Elmer Gantry.  Sinclair Lewis used to say the first rule of writing is to put the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair, which is all it is. It's just discipline to do a book. But all of the people that watch Booknotes think, "I might want to write a book someday myself.  I want to tell a story about my uncle who was in the Vietnam War. I want to write a biography of Harper Lee. I want to take a look at the counterculture of the 1960s. I want to write a book about the birth of the conservative movement in Missouri."  Everybody's got these ideas. And so the question that most people ask authors is, "How do you do it?" And that deconstruction approach to deconstruct how a book is made is, I think, Brian Lamb's greatest gift as an interviewer, because he allows you to see how that process comes about, and it becomes extremely useful. That's why I watch Booknotes. I like to hear how other writers do it. I, for example, handwrite all my books with yellow legal pad, and then I get them put on a computer.  Now, I have created a form. I've written a lot of books now, so I've created a very old-style way. But on Booknotes, I learned that other people have done that too, that I'm not alone, that there's dozens of us. I thought before Booknotes that I may have been some antiquated guy from another era, but there's something about pen to paper that, particularly for me, is very appealing. And I've already made it clear I have suspicions of technology and what it means for the planet in the long run. So just the pen and paper and the way I can organize things is my style. But people like Norman Mailer wrote their books that way. There are Christopher Hitchens. There are many others who start organizing their thoughts like that.

So judging from the extensive marginalia in the books, Brian Lamb read them very thoroughly before the interview.  Do you think that this sort of preparation from an interviewer is common in your experience? 

Let it be said on the record of this oral history for George Mason University and the C-SPAN project that Brian Lamb is the only person working in the television medium that reads the books from cover to cover. He is so generous in this regard. He's totally unique. Everybody else is a skimmer. Brian Lamb is a reader. 

Were you surprised by any of his questions?

I was a little bit surprised that Brian was willing to trust in, I felt, an instinct that I had that, and it comes out of a suspicion of New York, elitism generated from New York, that perhaps people that I write about in my book that were considered counterculture figures like Bob Dylan or William S. Burroughs or Jack Kerouac or Ken Kesey, that maybe they were actually a part of the American story because they hadn't been co-opted to be a certain way, that they had kept the essence of their American identity.  Because up until that Booknotes interview or at least the Majic Bus book, I was trying to introduce some of those writers into the mainstream, that just because they have peculiarities in their personalities or may have been very avant-garde or edgy in some of their  writing.In fact, if you love America, you have to love your artist. You have to love Miles Davis and Jackson Pollock and our poets and philosophers and all of that. I was a little surprised that Brian was quite as engaged in all of that because C-SPAN is out of Washington D.C. and it is seen as public policy a little more than somebody like myself, a historian talking about the virtues of Tom Robbins, even Cowgirls Gets the Blues or why Leroy Jones' book on blues people is seminal. I'm not saying I mention those writers on the show, I'm just saying my mind, I look at America as this beautiful, vast, great country with all these rich heritages, but often times people want to label and stamp things and box things up and I wanted the Majic Bus to show a  fluidity of America and Brian kind of, as they say in the music room, riffed on that.

Well, you mentioned that you watched the Booknotes program. Did your experience on the show change the way you viewed it at all?

I became a great admirer of Booknotes from doing Booknotes.  I had seen it previously, but once I experienced that kind of interview style of Brian, I recognized that this was the ticket. See I write a lot of history books and so I look for transcripts, just like in oral history it's a transcript that I'm making right now, but most of the times you will find that the people that do the interviewing have all these long, drawn out questions, meaning they're eating up a lot of the tape and then the answer is truncated. So it really becomes more about the interview, like here's Charlie Rose as a prime example. With Charlie Rose he'll go on for like 10 minutes before he asks a question. Your answer is shorter than the question. Brian is a 180 of that. He would ask a very incisive direct and the key to Booknotes is the directness of the question.  Who is this person? Why did, let's say, who is Henry Stimson? Why was he chosen as Secretary of State? The basicness of the question stripping the ornamentation from the question allows really a better answer than just a lot of babble up front from the interviewer.

I'm self conscious about my questions now.

That's going to be in the oral history now, your self conscious comment. I want to see it there.

Brian Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on the program once.  If asked back, would you have gone on again?

I was offended Brian never invited me a second time. No, I'm just kidding. That was to open up, it makes sense. It's to give more people a chance to have a say. I suppose at some point it's probably okay to do round twos if people's careers are long enough.  But I liked the principle that you got your one shot at Booknotes and that had to hold up.

As you may or may not know, George Mason has been gifted all of the personal copies of Brian Lamb's used on Booknotes. This amounts to more than 800 non-fiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think the potential benefits of such a collection might be?

I think it's really wonderful to have a collection like that, to have the actual book of the author and then have it with the interview itself so people can look at what people were talking about in America in that particular period of time. As you mentioned, these are non-fiction books. Maybe because I have a little bit of a chest cold right now, I didn't articulate as well as I meant to about my Booknotes interview. I was trying to really say I knew it was a non-fiction format, but I was injecting a lot of novelist and artist into my conversation. Brian seemed to enjoy that a lot. I had thought that it was a little more of a policy, books on generals and presidents and wars. But I learned from my Booknotes interview that it's actually about American culture in the end. But the George Mason project is tremendous. It's going to be a great boon for people that are doing communications and media studies. It's also a great window into that era of America and what we were thinking about and talking about. It's hard to believe that that era now is historic. In 100 or 200 years from now, this archive of testimonials that you guys, George Mason, will have will be a wonderful resource to people to understand what it was like in America as the 20th century turned into the 21st century. 

Was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book after it appeared on Booknotes?

Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I think I'm probably one of the greatest beneficiaries of Booknotes ever because C-SPAN has a great following with teachers. And I mentioned that my parents are both teachers. But the following of teachers means that they caught that. And I got all sorts of letters because teachers said, "You're an activist teacher. You went and did something. I'm teaching history. I do my own mini majic bus. I take people around Arkansas's Ozark Mountains for three days and do history."  So I became very embraced by the education community of America who liked the paradigm of what I was doing.  Booknotes exposed them to that. And I know this because even now, wherever I go on a new book, if I just did the book The Nixon Tapes or I did a book The Wilderness Warrior on Theodore Roosevelt or a biography of Henry Ford, I'll go to book events and invariably somebody will have my majic bus book. And it emanated from my Booknotes interview that they went and got the book. So there's a little bit of a following of the majic bus book among teachers.  I receive about five letters a week from teachers around the country that are still using it. And in fact, I may be unique that Brian Lamb later wrote a foreword to my book, The Majic Bus. Now, the reason I asked Brian Lamb to do that foreword is that I was noticing all of my letters that I was getting from my book was coming from the C-SPAN audience pool. And it was largely coming from teachers or educators because, look, the great American tradition is seeing America. See America first or going in. The road trip is, I think, probably the most significant coming of age experience. When you hit a certain age, you want to go see Yellowstone or Yosemite. And you want to feel your country that you're part of. And teachers are the people that need to get young people excited for those. Because in the end, my majic bus book wasn't just a book. It was about trying to say that it's about finding your own place in America. But to try to open up and to buy only-- I used a line that there's only truth in transit. You're only going to get to see and understand America if you go and experience it. You just can't do it from a distinguished library in downtown Philadelphia. Or you just can't do it from a laptop at your home.  You got to get out there and interact with the topography of America, the people of America, the subcultures. Because there's not one America. There are many forms of it.

Did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing?

It made me really understand the power of C-SPAN as a network. Up until that point, I really focused in on the network as something that was covering congressional affairs. And they would cover talks that were going on in Washington, DC. I saw it as more DC-centric.  After my Booknotes interview, it was like a eureka moment. And I recognized that actually what you're doing is something that PBS should have done and failed because they had a liberal, ideological slant.  And that was they weren't giving the slices of opinion of America, letting people talk. They were distilling thinking and presenting it as to us, which is a way of propaganda, form of propaganda, liberal propaganda.  And C-SPAN was unadultered, unfiltered. And that's the way I like my history. I like raw documents and primary sources and going to the site. So I found a symbiotic relationship with C-SPAN emanating from that appearance. 

So you mentioned several books. What have you been working on since your appearance on Booknotes? And what works are you most pleased with?

When I was a kid, it all gets back to this Majic Bus concept I mentioned to you. We used to travel around the country. Well, when I did the Majic Bus classes with students, in fact, C-SPAN later  covered my civil rights tours through high schools all over. I brought high school students all over the South on civil rights tours. And we'd go to Birmingham and Selma and Montgomery and the like. But now I have three children of my own and I am taking them to all the national parks and monuments. And the fun of that is I'm doing my scholarship based on it. So I'm trying to write a six volume, History of the American Conservation Movement. And the first volume was called The Wilderness Warrior, Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America. And the second book was The Quiet World, Saving Alaska's Wilderness Kingdom. I'm now finishing Rightful Heritage, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America. So as of 2016, when that book will come out, early '16, I would have completed three out of my projected six volumes. God willing, if my health holds up, I will plan on trying to make that my major historical statement on the public lands of America and how wonderful it is that we have these places to go hiking and skiing and hunting and fishing and meditating and just the greenness of parts of America, but also the desert areas that are saved in marshlands and swamps and all. Because I don't think of America as just business. I think of it as the land itself. And I love America so much that it's like the song America the Beautiful or This Land is Your Land. I have that kind of romantic passion for the places of America and I hope I get to continue writing about that, but doing it in a serious scholarly fashion.

Well, in your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes, either in then contemporary society or since?

​​​Well, the big thing about Booknotes is that it showed people that cable television, a new industry, could outdo the PBS model in presenting ideas to the American people and as an incredible and sensible form of discovering history. When you're getting Ken Burns' Civil War, it's fantastic. But you're being manipulated with music and visual images and all of this and with his particular vision where on Booknotes, you're able to listen to that, let that author, an author explain what they're doing and getting a lot of different people. It's just like Ken Burns can't own American history. There are all these other people in the trenches writing fantastic books or memoirs and all. And so it becomes, I think Booknotes became the book club of America. When I was a boy, I used to get book of the month clubs. Then I didn't want them anymore because I started collecting first editions or rare books and things that I didn't like. I wanted the first edition of the book. But Booknotes to me was the great book, the book form that whatever was on that show, a lot of people would then read it and discuss it.  I mean, Oprah Winfrey made a lot of noise for a while about picking Oprah's book club. I always respected that because anytime you can promote books and get people reading, it's a good thing. As a professor, I always tell a student, I mean, if you have a student who's a 4.0, a student straight A's, they're going to read all sorts of stuff.  Once in a while, I find a student that's often, I should say, I find students that are kind of stuck and I'll say, what do you like?

You like baseball, okay, then let's read a biography of Joe DiMaggio and do your paper on DiMaggio. If you like modern dance and that's your thing, do a book on Martha Graham, a paper on Martha Graham and let me, find a passion.And I think Booknotes opened up all these different ideas of a form for writers that had no form. I would ask you, since you're doing the oral history, where would those writers go before Booknotes? You'd be lucky to get on a PBS interview and NPR on a very truncated format most of the time. That was about it. So cable took over the  television industry and Booknotes became the most erudite and coherent yet unpretentious intellectual form that's available, was available and still is. I still think the programming on C-SPAN is really important in a society where everybody's looking for their YouTube and I gotcha moments. C-SPAN has the integrity to allow writers the chance to express themselves fully and in  an unedited and manipulated fashion. 

Well is there anything else you'd like to add about Booknotes, C-SPAN or Brian Lamb?

Brian's a great American figure.  He's like a presidential medal winner kind of person so I hate to call him a media figure because he isn't that. He's something more than that. But I've never met anybody who did more to help my career than Brian because he believed in me and a lot of it is by believing in me.  My majic bus idea was not necessarily beloved by people in the Ivy League schools. This is a guy from state, went to Ohio State.  Now got his doctorate at Georgetown saying that we got to rip kids out of classrooms so they go take extended field trips and all. That's not what they teach at Harvard and Yale. But by Brian giving me this form it made my idea and validated it and he's continued to validated it when C-SPAN got the yellow school bus which I'm kind of a godfather. The majic bus became the book that in many ways led to that inspiration that C-SPAN could take that bus around and go to historic sites and in cemeteries and battlefields and museums around the country and bring programming from there. And what's so neat about that is there are all these great local historians in America and it's not just that C-SPAN would expand it out of Booknotes to then say well let's  also go into the backyards of writers. Let's go and interview people where they're from and things like that. So it's really one of the most successful American media stories of the cable age. I think C-SPAN is really nothing like it.