Historian and Rice prof Douglas Brinkley, whose Katrina book may be TV’s next big thing, knows what America will look like under Trump — or Hillary.
HOUSTON’S MOST FAMOUS historian, Douglas Brinkley, doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of a tweedy, mild-mannered academic. Over the years, he’s flown to Haiti for Vanity Fair to hang out with a Glock-toting Sean Penn, cruised the high seas with Johnny Depp, and dined with President Obama.
Lured to Rice from Tulane in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, Brinkley is also one of the city’s most prolific authors of popular nonfiction. Over the years, he has penned no less than a dozen books, scores of journal articles and somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 articles in magazines such as Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the literary executor for the late Hunter S. Thompson, an old buddy, and he edited the diaries of Jack Kerouac.
And soon some of his work hits the small screen, and it hits close to home. Brinkley’s award-winning 2006 masterpiece, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, is being transformed into a television miniseries by Ryan Murphy, showrunner of FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson. Also for FX, the new show will be called Katrina.
With all of his adventures and efforts to document events in America’s present, it’s easy to forget that the telegenic Brinkley is best known for his expertise about America’s more distant past, especially its chief executives. CNN once called him “a man who knows more about the presidency than just about any human being alive.” He has written books about presidents Reagan, Ford, Kennedy, Carter and both Roosevelts, among others. His most recent book, published earlier this year, is Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America. He has some thoughts on Hillary, Trump and the future of the republic.
Has there ever been a presidential campaign like this before? I think the big story here is the media coverage. For a long time we talked about 24/7 cable-television saturation, but now with new media sources, it’s every second. It’s gotten so rapid, it can seem unglued. There can seem to be nothing holding down the story. It’s just flying past every moment. By the time you and I are talking in this interview, I’m sure there are two news cycles we’ve missed. Nobody is waiting for the next day’s newspaper and so that’s very unique.
What about Donald Trump? How does he fit into history? People have compared him to third-party candidates, people like Ross Perot, who won 19 percent of the vote in 1992, or P.T. Barnum who was a great showman. But if he won, it would be an extraordinary rebuke of the American political system as we know it today. If Trump wins, it’s a revolution in America.
What would future historians say if Trump wins? It would be the final end of kind of a joint establishment foreign policy. In that way, Trump would be a revolutionary president. We wouldn’t have seen something quite this dramatic of a policy shift. The key to when you study American history since World War II is that there’s usually been a consensus between Democrats and Republicans on a lot of things. And that’s formed what used to be called the Wise Men, or the ruling class, the Eastern establishment. Today we call them elite. If Trump wins, it’s not just beating the Democrats, it’s also a dismissing of the power wing of the Republican Party.
But if he won, it would be an extraordinary rebuke of the American political system as we know it today. If Trump wins, it’s a revolution in America.
Has that ever happened before? If Trump became president it would actually ring my Andrew Jackson bell. Jackson is someone who wanted to open up democracy, bring in more voters, was seen as somebody who was hardscrabble, spoke straight, never scripted, didn’t feign to be an intellectual. These are things that Trump echoes a bit. There was also an ardent language to Jackson; the Indian removal of Andrew Jackson is equatable to the deportation of Mexican Americans of today. It would be empowering people’s sense of anxiety that they don’t have a piece of the American pie anymore, that they been marginalized. Some people call it the mob rule. Suddenly a new group comes in and they throw out all the bad guys.
What if Hillary wins? What historical bells will that ring, and how will historians talk about her? If she gets elected, people will talk about Bill and Hillary in the same breath as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. It becomes a tale of a power couple who dominated the political scene, not from one cycle but for many. I think that they will say the two giant women of the 20th and 21st century politics are Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton has not been a beloved national figure, but I think once it really sinks in, if she defeats Trump, the national media will build her up as the historic first woman president and a pioneer in women’s rights. And also, if she wins, I think it means that [both] the Clintons are large historic figures. And a lot of historians will ask, “Are we living in the age of Clinton?”
What about Obama? Barack Obama was such a once-in-a-lifetime charismatic candidate — gave electrifying speeches, had a million-megawatt smile and kind of a storybook back life — that he’s almost an aberration. But the Clintons seem to have been able to kind of pin down the Democratic Party apparatus for decades now. I mean in national politics, Obama’s been huge, but in Democratic politics, Bill and Hillary Clinton have seemed to own the store.
If Trump loses, will there be a role for him in American politics? He will try to argue that, even though he lost to Hillary, it’s just a setback to the revolution that he is leading and he will want to remain a major voice. As soon as Hillary Clinton in 2017 hits her first bump in the road, there will be Donald Trump saying I told you so. But I think for electoral politics, he could never possibly again get the Republican nomination. He would almost be a pariah figure in Republican politics. And if he ever took it seriously again, I would imagine it would be as a thirdparty candidate, which he would bankroll on his own.
“If she gets elected, people will talk about Bill and Hillary in the same breath as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. It becomes a tale of a power couple who dominated the political scene, not for one cycle but for many.”
What do you do you see as the future of the Republican Party? I think it’s an anomaly. I think it might be a bright future for people like John Kasich from Ohio, because there’ll be a feeling that, in order for conservatism to move forward, it’s going to have to be optimistic, not fear-based. So it will go harking back to Ronald Reagan, the sunny optimism of the conservatism, and it will go back to George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism that he ran on to get elected, before 9/11 turned him into a war hawk and things changed. So it will be the discarding of Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani and the reemergence of a little more of what I would call the traditional conservatives and sunny optimistic conservatives, not the pessimistic crowd.
Let’s talk about Hurricane Katrina. You and your family rode it out in a high-rise building in New Orleans, while you were still with Tulane. Those turned out to be fateful days. It forced you from your home, and also gave you the material for a brilliant book, and soon a TV show. I got to see the wrath of Katrina. I was perched right over the Mississippi River, and I saw the river running backwards, in the opposite direction. There was debris flying everywhere. It was almost indescribable, the power of nature. It made me realize how insignificant human beings are in the grand scene of things. We’re all quite helpless when a storm of that magnitude confronts us. I had a bird’s eye view of the storm, and I then started wandering around the French Quarter, the Lower Ninth Ward, and started to work rescue boats and also talk to people around town. At that moment I was writing a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and I put it on hold to write The Great Deluge.
Why? I realized that I was an eyewitness to all this. I was kind of a socialite in New Orleans so I knew everybody. I knew people in the police department and City Hall, and the governor’s office. So I knew how to reach folks very quickly. Reporters coming down to New Orleans from The New York Times and The Washington Post were at a disadvantage. They were trying to get their sources together and I already knew everybody. And I realized that it was kind of my calling to write a descriptive book about what transpired during the ghastly week of Katrina. I was seeing doctors working around the clock helping people, and firemen doing rescue missions. Everybody seemed to be putting their trade to work. I happened to be a historian that had learned my trade well. So I would employ my trade capturing what occurred there.