The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America's Best—and Worst—Chief Executives
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This event took place on Thursday, May 2, 2019
JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you for beginning your day with us.
As an organization that has often welcomed C-SPAN Book TV to tape many of our Books for Breakfast programs, we are honored to have this opportunity to host the founding CEO and chairman of this innovative Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, which is known more informally by its acronym C-SPAN, Brian Lamb.
Brian will be presenting his findings from C-SPAN's widely recognized Historians' Survey of Presidential Leadership in a new publication entitled The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America's Best—and Worst—Chief Executives. This book will be available for you to purchase at the end of the program today.
Forty years ago, one man had a dream—his dream to open the doors to Washington's policymaking by providing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the U.S. Congress without editing, analyzing, or commentary. A lot has changed in 40 years, but Brian's original big idea is now more relevant than ever. Over the years, C-SPAN has expanded from an unknown niche network to the network of record for public affairs, becoming a valuable tool for those wanting real-time access to the workings of the federal government and to those who influence it.
Adding to its TV presence C-SPAN has published a number of books using content from its very rich archives. The Presidents is an example of that effort. This publication draws on four decades of interviews, conducted mainly by Brian, with nationally recognized presidential historians or biographers, such as Ron Chernow, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Robert Caro, among others. Each chapter provides not just a complete ranking of all presidents who have completed their terms in office, but these interviews capture the leadership skills and character of the men who have held the office.
As America looks ahead to the 2020 presidential election, a reading of The Presidents encourages us to reflect not only about the broader lessons of history but it also serves as a text on leadership, ethics, and moral authority.
Please join me in welcoming the founding father and inspirational soul of C-SPAN, Brian Lamb. Thank you so much for coming.
BRIAN LAMB: Thank you. Good morning. Thank you for getting up early and coming in. I'll try to do the best I can to not provide sleep opportunities during the next 45 minutes.
I grew up in Lafayette, Indiana, I was schooled at Purdue University, and I was not a great student. I mention all this because many of you in this room are well-schooled from fancy Eastern schools. There are some Midwesterners sitting right here at this table; we were talking about it earlier.
But my experience has been just asking questions all my life. I was taught by a man named Bill Fraiser [phonetic] in high school when I was 14 years old how to interview from his perspective, and basically it was "ask questions and listen." That's the philosophy that I've taken into what part of this C-SPAN experience I've been involved in.
I remember a time when I was a disc jockey on a local radio station. I thought I wanted to be a radio star someday, reading poetry to coeds. There was a guy in Chicago by the name of Franklyn MacCormack on WGN Radio. I was 17 and my friend was 19.
One night when we shut the radio station down, I said, "You know, I would love to call Franklyn MacCormack in Chicago and just ask him some questions."
He said, "Let's try."
So we put a tape recorder on and we called him up. He answered the phone. He was doing his all-night show, beautiful voice and all that.
One of my questions of him at the time was, "How can I get from where I am to where you are?"
He gave me very good advice. He said: "Stay where you are as long as you can. You can learn all about this business by being in a small market."
He was absolutely right, and I did stay for five years as I went to school.
But, more importantly, I said to him, "Can we come up and sit in your studio all night and watch you work?" Much to my surprise, he said yes.
So Mike and I drove up there, sat all night in the studio, had the most terrific experience—and it was just an experience, just the opportunity to sit there and watch how he did his job. We learned a lot.
That is kind of the way that I've lived my life, until one day—and I'm going to talk about some New Yorkers here because I think it's very important for you to get the background on why C-SPAN even exists—I was allowed to go into a room with about this many people who were all cable television executives, back in 1977, and make a pitch.
My pitch was unsophisticated, wasn't well-thought-out. It was: "I think this cable industry has an opportunity to do public affairs in a way that has never been done before. Instead of some network deciding they're going to cover one particular hearing, we could cover them all, we could do other programs, other voices."
Out of the middle of that room came a man named Bob Rosencrans. He grew up on Long Island. Terrific human being. He has passed. He went to Columbia. He said to me, "I like what I hear from you. I think we can make that happen."
I said, "Really?" There were 40 people in the room and nobody else said a word, like, "Keep moving. We've got HBO and we need to move from there." So I said, "What should I do next?"
He said, "Well, let's get together and we'll talk about it."
So we chatted about it. He had a buddy with him who he was in business with, a guy named Ken Gunter. Bob was a liberal Democrat from this area and Ken Gunter was a conservative Republican, actually a former member of the John Birch Society, from Texas. Those guys were best of friends and worked together and succeeded very nicely.
We started right there. It wasn't smooth sailing. A lot of people in our industry said, "No, we don't like that idea," so we had to go back to the drawing board.
Eventually, the House had been talking about televising. They didn't know how or why, but they had talked to each other about it. They were losing out to the Senate. Sam Rayburn for years wouldn't allow cameras in the House hearings and in the Senate they always allowed cameras in. The Senate wasn't on television yet, but they got their faces on every night because they were senators, they had six-year terms, and all that.
I found out that they were going to go on television, and I went back to Bob, and he said, "Boy, I like that idea. I might be able to really sell this."
I said, "Well, let's don't try to make money with it just like this operation. Let's don't try to make money with it, let's just support it in some way."
He said, "I like that idea." He went back and he said, "Here's a check for $25,000. Take this, put it in the bank, and see if anybody else will do it."
So I started walking around asking people. I'd asked them before and they'd all said no. I went to see a man named Russell Karp here in New York who ran TelePrompTer Cable—that's a name you don't hear anymore—and I saw Ralph Baruch who ran Viacom.
They were New Yorkers. Ralph Baruch escaped Europe by walking over the French Alps to get away from Hitler and that whole crowd. Unfortunately, he's not here anymore. I think—I'm not sure—Russell Karp left our business a long time ago and I think he still lives here. Bob Rosencrans is gone.
Those three men were the first three checks, and they didn't react as if, "Oh boy, I can make more money with it."
I'll never forget—Russell was hard to get a hold of. He was a man about 6'5" and big, and I was me, scared to death of him. I'd already been in his office and he said no. He was a very strong business guy. Anyway, I walked up to him after a hearing. He had testified. I got him in the hallway because he couldn't get away from me, and I said, "Mr. Karp"—never called him Russ—"I have this idea. Bob Rosencrans has given me $25,000"—I had to talk very quickly—"and what we want to do is televise the House of Representatives when it goes on television next year."
He didn't miss a beat. He said, "I love that idea"—he was very political; I didn't know that at the time—and he said, "Had we had that, maybe we wouldn't have gotten the Vietnam War." That was his reaction, right or wrong.
Ralph Baruch came to Washington, and I said, "I've got to talk to you." I went to the Madison Hotel, he was there, and I went to his hotel room, and I said, "Here's what we're doing." Ralph Baruch, without hesitation, said, "You have my commitment for three years. Here's my check."
That's really how it started. There's more to the story than that, but that's how it started. And not a one of them wanted to know what the numbers were, they didn't want to know what ratings were, they didn't care whether we had stars. I promised them, "I'm not a businessperson but I'll learn it somehow or another with your help."
And I said to Bob Rosencrans, "What do I do now?"
He said, "Well, you write a business plan."
I said, "What's a business plan?"
He said, "Well, if you will do this, come to Connecticut where I live and I'll spend a day with you and we'll write a business plan." Bob Rosencrans was just a wonderful human being. I'm really sad that he's gone.
We did it. We wrote a business plan. It wasn't very sophisticated, but it was a business plan, and I could say: "Bob Rosencrans helped me write this. I have his check, I have Ralph Baruch's check, I have . . ."—you all know how this works. That's the only way something like this can work.
One of my favorite moments ever was when Bob said, "I want you to meet my mother."
I said, "Where does she live?"
"In New York City."
"How old is she?"
"Why do you want me to meet your mother?"
He said, "Because my mother watches C-SPAN all the time."
I used to go on The Larry King Show, and every time Larry would ask me "How did you start this?"—he didn't remember from one day to the next, but he'd always ask me—and it was fantastic that I was able to say, "Bob Rosencrans and his mother listen."
She'd call him up and say, "Bob, I can't believe this guy Lamb was on the radio last night and he's giving you credit for C-SPAN. I love it."
Anyway, she's about that big. She came from Austria. Her husband came from Russia. You heard the stories. They are so committed to public affairs, and it was a highlight for me to go to her apartment and meet her. She was so proud of her Bob, and she had a reason to be proud of her Bob because he was just a genuinely committed guy.
He also, by the way, was responsible for writing the first check for something called PublicAffairs Books. That's where this book was published. Brooke Parsons is with us today from Public Affairs, and that's where the first—I think he wrote a $500,000 check in this case to Public Affairs Books to get that started.
He's also the guy that wrote the first check for bloggingheads.tv, which was started by Bob Wright down in New Jersey. Anyway, that is still I think in business today. Some of you have probably been on there.
The civic-mindedness of the American businessperson is critical for something like C-SPAN. It did not come from the government. There's not a dime's worth of federal funds in C-SPAN. There never has been, and there never will be as long as I'm there, because I don't believe in mixing taxpayer money through the government for media. It's just my own personal belief.
But that's how this all started—again, not a scholar; a speech major from Purdue University.
I decided that the only way I was going to get to know this—and we've got a very famous historian in this audience, Ted Widmer, a fantastic historian. I've interviewed him several times. He's got a book coming out on Lincoln, which is very interesting, that you'll learn more about. He said either today or tomorrow he's turning the manuscript in and it'll be nine months to a year before the book comes out.
I had to figure out how I was going to learn this stuff. I was not a historian, I'm not to this day a historian—and this is a long way of leading up to why this book exists.
But I decided, after I interviewed a man named Richard Norton Smith in 1993—he's on the cover of this; very important to me personally and to the C-SPAN network and all that. I interviewed him one day. He had a book on Washington.
I said, "How did you get started in all this?"
He said, "Well, I was with my family and they wanted to go to parks and zoos and all that stuff. The only way on these vacations that I'll go is if I can go to the gravesites of presidents."
Of course, his family said, "Whatever you say, Richard. We want you with us." So they started out, and he went to every gravesite of every president.
He is a historian of the finest, and I said right there on the spot, "I'm going to do that."
So in the next 18 months I went out of my way every day I could to find a gravesite, and I finished all of them. He was running the Reagan Library at the time, and I went out, and I had taken a picture at every gravesite, even in three cases where there was nobody within sight. In those days there weren't such things as selfies. I stood there with this camera like this so I could prove to him that I'd been to these gravesites.
Then I said to myself, "I'm going to one-up him." I'm never going to one-up him historically, so I went to all the gravesites of all the vice presidents. I had a leg up on that because 14 of them became presidents, so I'd already been to their graves.Again, going back to my Franklyn MacCormack story on WGN, the idea of going there was helping me figure some of this stuff out.
Then, when C-SPAN continued to grow and we continued to do authors and we did books, it seemed like for us an alternative besides just the politics of it.
Then on this program called Booknotes, which morphed into Q&A, and it has been 30 years that this has been on the air—which I will be stopping in a couple of weeks just because it's time to stop it—I started interviewing historians about presidents. All of this started accumulating in the way of information.
Susan Swain, whose name is on the book as a co-editor, is incredible at editing. She has done her own interviewing. She's going to take over the Q&A program when I step down, which I'm very happy about.
We've done 10 of these books, and this one, The Presidents, is tricky because a lot of you in this audience have a lot of opinions about presidents. Some of you are historians and know a lot more than I'll ever know about it. Whenever you play around with presidents you get slammed.
The best thing about this little book is that there are 44 chapters, and they're all different historians, and they all have their own approach to it, and there are about 10-11 pages on each president.
I need to qualify it. These are not biographies. They are slices of the presidents' lives. Some of them are terribly relevant and some of them aren't. But it is a primer. This is just an opportunity if you're interested to start digging in, and then we have created a website where there is a lot of background information that you can go to.
But these little vignettes in here have some fascinating information in them. Just a small tiny little thing was that James K. Polk, who you haven't thought about in a lot of years—was a one-term president; he walked out of the presidency and three months later was dead, 53 years old—had four diaries. The diary thing is something that—I don't know how many of these new presidents will keep diaries, but that's one of the things that I learned.
Ted did a book on Martin Van Buren, a really good book. It was only a couple of hundred pages. That's an easy read. The worst ones are these 700-800 page books, and that's why we did only 11 pages on each president, so it's easy to capture the moment. But James K. Polk had his diary. In the front of this book is a picture of a man named Peter Drummey, who is at the Massachusetts Historical Society. I was there—and this is the kind of excitement that I get in doing this. The John Quincy Adams diary, which is the most amazing thing you've ever seen—there's a picture of him right in the front of this book where he is looking through it.
And I said—and this is how goofy it gets for somebody—"Can I touch that? Can I handle it?"
"Sure, go ahead."
He's watching me like a hawk. You make the wrong move and you're a dead person. And I understand why. It was a massive diary. He wrote it almost all of his life. There was only one short hiatus period.
But you learn a lot of little things. I want to read, and then we can open it up for questions. I want to hear from you all.
A woman named Edna Greene Medford, who is the dean of arts and sciences at Howard University, a fabulous human being, just a wonderful person who has been on C-SPAN for the last 30 years, we asked her and Richard Norton Smith and Doug Brinkley to write little essays that would go in this book kind of framing the book and the presidency.
There's one paragraph with which she leads off her essay. I'll just read it, and there's not a soul in this room who's going to disagree with this, but it's something that the younger people are now for their own reasons—and we were talking about this earlier—discovering without knowing why they're feeling strange about this democracy and this republic and this country. I think this says a lot, and it starts like this, just one paragraph:
Americans take great pride in our exceptionalism. We think of ourselves as the guardians of democracy, the citizens of a nation without parallel, more moral and infinitely more humane than the rest. We explain away contradictions to our self-image as simply anomalies, but history suggests otherwise. It reminds us that seeds of inequality and injustice took root alongside the love of liberty, that this counternarrative reflects American political and cultural as much as the notion that we are a land of opportunity and a defender of the rights of all.
This for me personally—a lot of you in this room were way ahead of me—not just this paragraph but this experience of finding out what it was really like through these presidencies has been a tremendous education. We only hope—there's no money in this for us—no money in this for me—PublicAffairs gets all the money, and they deserve it—that people will get an opportunity to learn a little bit at a time about the presidency and about their country.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
I'm a big fan of these presidential ranking systems. Did you rank them in some way?
I remember the first one of these for me, and possibly for some of the older people in the room, was in 1962, Arthur Schlesinger's father put out the first ranking system in my memory, and in that Woodrow Wilson ranked fourth and I think Andrew Jackson ranked seventh. Eisenhower, who had just left office, ranked 22nd and Grant ranked nearly last.
In the more recent ones I've seen—and I'm totally approving of these changes—Wilson and Jackson have dropped considerably; Eisenhower has moved up to be neck and neck with Truman, something neither one of them would have been very happy about; and Grant is up around 15, and many people think someday he'll get to be in the top group because of his support for civil rights.
What do you think is coming down the pike? What do you look for in terms of major changes and assessments the next time you put this book out?
BRIAN LAMB: Let me explain a little bit about our survey. It was Susan Swain's idea at C-SPAN to do the rankings in the way we list it in the book. I wasn't particularly in favor of it. These rankings are interesting, but I don't think they are the end-all be-all.
Back to your point, Eisenhower in our survey is 5; Truman is 6; Grant is not quite 15 in ours, he's 22, but he has come up from 33; Jackson is on his way down from 13 to 18.
I think what we're doing—and this is the same thing with my own personal experience—I think it's just learning more about what they did, even though we have 10 categories that they're judged on, and one of them is what it was like in their current time.
But some of the stuff that they did is really hard to accept, no matter when it happened. To put somebody who has been anti-Semite or a white supremacist—it's very hard to see them certainly in the top 10.
Woodrow Wilson is falling also, and he was, as you said, way up there. In ours he's still 11. I don't think the future's going to be that good for him given what we're seeing right now and given what we're seeing among the young people. They're not buying a lot of these excuses. As the dean said in her remarks there, they're just not willing to look the other way like a lot of people have over the years based on the fact that they may have liked them, they were either in their party or whatever. So we're probably going through a very important change in the country. Who knows where that goes, but thank you for your comment.
QUESTION: Don Simmons.
During the Civil War President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. I believe that has never happened since, so it's an illustration of a presidential power taken and then surrendered. Are there other such examples?
Second, do you expect that will happen with some of the powers that President Trump is asserting?
I would literally turn to a historian to answer that, and I'm going to ask Ted if he has any opinion on that.
TED WIDMER: The question about Abraham Lincoln and habeas corpus or about Donald Trump?
BRIAN LAMB: Whether we're going to get more of it.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Simmons]: Other instances of presidential powers taken and then surrendered.
TED WIDMER: I'm trying to think. We're in an interesting week in which this question is in the news on an hourly basis, I would say.
A lot of us—I'll respect, too, that there are people from both party backgrounds—are hoping—the traditional form of oversight over the White House is Congress, and that's how the founders wanted the system to work. Congress is the first branch and the most important branch, and we'd like to see Congress live up to its responsibilities, because presidents left unchecked will not check themselves. That's just human nature, and it's the nature of our system, that people will take as much power as they can possibly get.
But if we have an effective balance with strengths on both sides, which is how the system was designed, then it'll work much better. So we're hoping Congress will find some backbone.
BRIAN LAMB: I think the only thing that we can really look to as protecting the future are the checks and balances.
You can go back to the Nixon experience. I worked in his administration. I was very young and very naïve, and when the tapes came out and I read the transcripts, it was very difficult. I left. Frankly, I was 26 years old or something like that. It was not in complete and total disgust as much as it was everything stopped in Washington and it was a terrible period. We now since that time have learned a lot more about that.
Judge Sirica had a lot more to do with the downfall of Richard Nixon than he ever gets credit for, and that's—again, it wasn't just The Washington Post—they had the ink and they had the paper, and they can tell us day after day how important they were and are—but there's a lot more of the system that's important to keep your eye on, like the Supreme Court decision on the tapes; like the fact that Alex Butterfield, for instance, in those days spoke up and said, "We had the taping system." I can go on and on about this.
As a matter of fact, I'll divert just a second to tell you one of the people that I do admire most in politics and history would surprise you because it's not a president, but it's the wife of a president. It's Mrs. Lyndon Johnson.
Here's why, only one reason why. I did the last interview with her on television. I don't know how many years she lived after that.
I always had a question for her because C-SPAN has run on its radio station almost every Oval Office conversation that President Johnson had that was taped, and they're very interesting if you haven't listened to them. I'm not talking about the silly ones. I'm talking about the hard-nosed policy and discussions with members of Congress.
The question I asked, and it was the first question in the interview—it was an hour interview; and she couldn't see at that time, she was blind; it was down on the ranch where she lived a lot of the time—I said, "Mrs. Johnson, before we start, I have one question. When you were in the White House and the president was taping those telephone conversations, did you know that you were being taped?"
The answer to her question was "No." If you go back and listen to the tapes, she was honest all the time. As a matter of fact, when he was doing something, wanted to cut corners, she would say, "Now, Lyndon."
One of those great stories is Walter Jenkins. For those of you who know that name I don't need to go into great detail. He wanted to cover it up. She wanted to give him a job. She felt sorry for him, that he'd had this great career and then had been picked up for some activities at the YMCA right around October in the election year. He wanted to bury it. She said, "No, Lyndon. He's our friend."
You go back and listen to it, and that's an honest person. That was again a marvelous opportunity to see, because of these tapes, who's honest and who's dishonest.
Lyndon Johnson, I worked around him also for two years. Whatever you want to say about him—one of the best words in history and in politics is the word "but," B-U-T, but. I hear people do this all the time: "Lyndon Johnson did a marvelous thing for civil rights in this country, but Vietnam." If you liked what he did in civil rights, you overlook often what he did in Vietnam.
From my perspective—I was in the military—Vietnam was one of the worst things that has ever happened to this country in history because of a lot of reasons that you all know. The interesting thing about history is apply the word "but" every time you think about this when you're talking about a president: "So-and-so was a great president, but . . ."
Woodrow Wilson is a good example, and that's part of the reason why he's going down. Anyway, I'm rambling.
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
The change in the background of our presidents says a lot about the country. So one thinks of Andrew Jackson bringing in the West or whatever it is and then having a black president. Who would have thought? Woodrow Wilson wouldn't have thought of a black president.
So now the question is, what about women? We have so many women presidential candidates. We had a very exemplary woman who couldn't make it. What do you think about the future for women?
BRIAN LAMB: All you have to do is turn on your television set. All you have to do is come to the House of Representatives.
When I first went to Washington, one of my "I'm going to go there to see it for myself" times was when I was in the Navy, working at the Pentagon, at night I would go by myself down to the House of the Representatives and sit in the balcony, sit in the gallery. One of the interesting things—and I want to be careful not to overstate this—is there was a lot of drinking that went on in the nighttime sessions, and they weren't on television. Nobody would know it. There was a time when I sat up there and they had a band that they had broken out. There was this guy playing the sax and all this stuff, but nobody knew it. Absolutely nobody knew it.
There were very, very few women. There are over 100 women [now] in the House of Representatives.
The answer to that is it's going to happen. When it happens, I don't know. It could happen in the next election. We've been slow as a country, as you know, but from Indira Gandhi to Ms. Meir over in Israel, on and on around the world. We're slow to it, but it'll happen.
What I said about the television is the women who are appearing now on television, they may be more than the men. When I was again starting out in television, there were no women commentators—one or two, and they got all the attention—because understandably the women didn't have any visibility.
One of the best books that I ever interviewed was Nan Robertson's book, The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and the New York Times. It's hard for me to believe that in 1992 no women were allowed to sit in Washington in the Press Club in the audience. They had to sit up in the balcony. You go down that road and you're going to see how ridiculous all this stuff was in the past.
Yesterday I was online looking about women voting. If you want to have an interesting experience—and you all know [women were allowed to vote in] 1920 in this country—go and look at the other countries. There's a Wikipedia page that will show when every other country started women voting, and it's incredible. Much beyond 1920.
So it's going to happen; it's just a matter of time. Let's hope that you and I are still around to see it.
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Carol Spomer.
I just have a question as to getting a glimpse of the top rank, the bottom rank, and was there one that was most surprising to you as to where that president turned up?
BRIAN LAMB: Thank you, because I need to explain also that I didn't rank these presidents. We took Mr. Schlesinger's idea.
I will say one thing we did add to it is a little balance. When you go to political scientists in most universities there's not a lot of balance there, and so we infused a little balance in these surveys.
Not much changed, by the way, which is interesting. I think that comes through. You can go online on Google and go to Wikipedia, and they have a chart with all the different surveys, and you can track everybody's different survey.
As far as ours, Abraham Lincoln, number 1; George Washington, number 2. We opened up our book tour at Mount Vernon, and I don't think they were too happy with us. I'm kidding. As far as they're concerned, it's George all the way, all the time.
By the way, he has the most successful site in this company among presidents, and it's run by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, and there's no government money involved in that one, either, which is interesting.
FDR is 3, Theodore Roosevelt 4, Dwight Eisenhower 5, Harry Truman 6. Jefferson's hanging in there at 7, but I'm not sure how long that lasts either, but there's so much emotion about what he wrote more than a lot of the things about his personal life that are there.
On the bottom, none of these will surprise you. The one that freaks everybody out is how in the world there could be one, two, three, four, five below William Henry Harrison, and William Henry Harrison, who was the governor of the great Indiana Territory, is number 38, and he was only in office 31 days.
The ever-popular James Buchanan is last. There are a lot of reasons for James Buchanan being last, including—he didn't have anything absolutely directly to do with this—the Dred Scott decision came down during his presidency. Actually, there's even a speech, I think, where he indicated he knew how it was going to come out. He may be there forever.
A lot of people today who have such emotions about the current president think he's going to end up below James Buchanan, but if you apply all 10 of our categories I'm not sure that would be the case. I don't know. I won't be judging him.
There were for me no surprises because I don't have a strong feeling about where they belong in the first place, but a lot of other people can get very exercised about this stuff.
JOANNE MYERS: Before we proceed further, could you just say something about the qualities that you used to measure them because I think people would be interesting in hearing that.
BRIAN LAMB: Sure. I have to find it here in our introduction:
- Public persuasion.
- Crisis leadership.
- Economic management.
- Moral authority. In some cases—and I won't go into great detail—moral authority puts some of these presidents way down because of that alone.
- International relations.
- Administrative skills, which is a tough one to really judge.
- Relations with Congress. That's where Lyndon Johnson made out like a bandit, and if you listen to those tapes, you can see why. They're really fascinating if you haven't ever listened to them. They will teach you more in one hour than you can ever get anywhere else about the relationship between human beings and how he cajoled people to pass the things that he wanted passed.
- Pursued equal justice for all.
- Performance within the context of the times. It seems to me that's a tough one. It's a really tough one to judge.
JOANNE MYERS: Do you think also because of the political climate today that the qualities will change and there will be more emphasis on certain ones, like truthfulness, going forward in judging?
BRIAN LAMB: I do. But that's where I personally am coming from.
I remember back when we started C-SPAN that my role model was Bob Rosencrans, and he was the most ethical person that I've ever met in business. There was never any doubt for him: you just didn't break the law, you didn't cut corners. No matter what was going on in our industry, Bob was always saying, "We're gonna do the right thing."
By the way, he was not a proselytizer. He was not a moralizer. He just lived his life. His kids are fabulous. He's got 11 grandkids. It's just a tremendous family.
QUESTION: David Hunt.
My question was—you really answered it just now—what are the criteria used in judging presidents?
But let me ask you, because you've answered that now, what do you think are the most important personal qualities that a president should have to be successful?
BRIAN LAMB: One of my favorites is tell the truth. It has been hard on a lot of them. It's hard on politicians to tell the truth.
I said recently—I probably shouldn't have—in a Wall Street Journal article that was written that the thing that has changed the most for me is the amount of lying that goes on in Washington, DC, and among our politicians on all sides. I don't care how strongly you feel about your side, there's just a lot of lying going on.
I think in the future, kind of dovetailing on what you said, that the moral authority is going to be very high on people's lists.
I think John Kennedy is in for a rough ride. If you haven't read the Mimi Beardsley book that was published, it's really tough. You read that and you wonder—he got away with it, and everybody wants to fall in love with John Kennedy. It's your business if you want to or not. But you read that book, and it's just like all of these characters and their decision to use their power to prey on other human beings.
It's going to get worse and worse, I think, because people are more attuned to it now than they used to be and we know a lot more. There's just a lot in the past that we didn't know about.
There are fabulous New Yorkers in this book—Ron Chernow and Harold Holzer and Robert Caro and James Traub and Amity Shlaes. They're all based in New York, and they're all in this book for their own presidencies, and there's nobody who's done—first of all, Harold Holzer has done 53 books, most of them on Lincoln, and he just lives, eats, and sleeps it. He's as much as an authority as anybody I know.
But what Rob Caro has done for presidential history and Lyndon Johnson is just one of the most fascinating things I've ever been able to be around. I've interviewed him many hours and we videoed him down at the library.
We've known him when they wouldn't allow his books to be sold in the bookstore; we've known him when they've allowed his books to be sold in the bookstore.
Everybody who's interested in his fifth book, he says you're going to have to wait a while—and he's 83 years old—and they're all anxious to see how it comes out, and it will all be based on how he comes out on Vietnam and civil rights.
They started to warm up to him down at the Lyndon Johnson Library when he went positive in the fourth book on civil rights, but he wasn't even invited to speak. He has now been invited to speak.
These presidential centers around the country are important, but they are very, very strongly, with their backs against the wall, defensive about everything from their presidencies, and it has been interesting to watch that, too.
I will just tell you one of the libraries—I won't tell you who it was—did not want us there because of where they ranked in this poll. We said, "Fine. It's your business."
But these libraries, except for two of them—one of them is the Rutherford B. Hayes Library in Fremont, Ohio, which is run by the State of Ohio, and the Mount Vernon—well, there are three—Mount Vernon is run by the Ladies' Association; and Lincoln's, which is relatively new, since 2005 or 2006, is run by state money and fees. These federal libraries are funded in two different ways. One is the money that comes through the door; but there is federal money that comes in to run the library itself; and then there's the foundation money that comes from the true believers of that candidate or people who want to support them.
It can be very difficult. Those of you who followed the Nixon Library problem and why they didn't want the feds to run it, and then when they decided to, they finally got the papers, and then they got terribly upset with the way Watergate was portrayed.
It's hard. Truth is hard. Truth is hard.
QUESTION: Anthony Faillace.
Who of the presidents would you most like to interview, and maybe you could give us a flavor of the kind of conversation you'd have?
BRIAN LAMB: Never thought about it. Never thought about it.
I've interviewed, I don't know, six or seven of them. They're the hardest interviews I've ever had for a couple of reasons: (1) they've answered almost every question you can imagine with all the different people who get to them; (2) everybody's watching every question you ask and every single thing you do, and so you have a tension about you that's not normal.
Most interviews I do there's no tension. When I interviewed Ted [Widmer], I wasn't uptight at all. But it's a conversation. It's fun. It's interesting. I can't wait to hear what he has to say. He did this great interview on Martin Van Buren.
It's, I suppose, the obvious, but often they are so capable of not answering the question. They are. They're very capable.
They're also capable—you've seen it—of dominating the conversation, going off on a tangent. They're just not that much fun.
I've got all kinds of stories about what it was like to interview presidents, and they're not meaningful in the course of human affairs. I'll give you one quick one.
Bill Clinton was very open to us, and we had probably six or seven interviews with him. But when he was in the White House we asked if we could come in and do an hour with him, which is very difficult anymore to ever get, and do a little tour of the Oval Office and then sit down with him for about 40 minutes and talk politics. He's one of the better people to interview because he doesn't rush in to give an answer.
Anyway, we're set up, 2:00 in the afternoon, we've got our people there. This is another thing you can't see is about 15 people show up on the president's staff and stand at the back of the room and glare at you. I'm not exaggerating. It's like, "Don't you dare" whatever it is. So you look back, and you see all these people standing there.
Two o'clock came around, and he was to be there, and they said he's running a little late. He's always late. Ten after two, no; 2:20, no Bill Clinton; 2:30; no Bill Clinton.
About 2:35 they said, "The bells just went off. He'll be here in five minutes." So I went outside. He came up. We hooked our microphones up. He was terribly interested in Socks, the cat, and played with the cat for a while.
We walked into the Oval Office. We did the tour—and he's really good at it—and sat down. He was behind his desk, and I'm sitting there, ready to start the interview.
I ask him a question and another question, and all of a sudden I looked up at our cameraperson in the room, and he says this—and I'm thinking, They're not doing this. They're not gonna to do this to me. So I kept asking questions. Then I got a severe, "Now!"
What had happened was they took the 40 minutes he was late out of our time, and there is no way I am, in spite of the fact that I'm just a lowly Hoosier from Lafayette, Indiana. The hair did stand up on the back of my head, and I don't care if it is the president of the United States. I was so mad I left the Oval Office immediately.
He was oblivious to what was going on. He said, "Oh, let's all get up here and have a picture."
I said, "No, I'm gone." Didn't say anything. I just went back to the network.
That happens all the time, and that's why when you ask the question—I'm not going to go through that anymore. I'm done with that stuff. It's not a joy.
It's fun to tell the stories, but you gain nothing from that except a nice little 20-minute tour of the Oval Office.
It's not a good answer for you, but that's—I could go off and say, "Oh, it'd be so much fun to interview Abraham Lincoln," but not gonna happen.
QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Lamb. Zack Baddorf.
It was interesting for me to hear your story about sitting in the congressional galleries and watching the jazz band or whatever it was because obviously in that time there was less transparency, and I think C-SPAN obviously changed a lot of that.
We've seen so much more information be available these days. We even have congressional representatives live streaming making their own dinners. So, so much information. Yet at the same time there are so many silos of information as well, polarization, people receiving just conservative news or just liberal news, and I think it's sort of divisive.
I was wondering if you could talk about your view of the changing media landscape and that polarization that exists.
BRIAN LAMB: Zack, interesting observation. I'm not your normal viewer and taker of information, so it's hard for me to know. I have friends—like you do, I'm sure—who send me articles everyday from their point of view, and I just go, "Stop."
I get up at 4:00 in the morning. I start by exercising and turning on the television set. I go to Fox and MSNBC and CNN and the local news constantly—and C-SPAN of course—all three channels, and I'm constantly looking. Teach me something.
Those who only reside at one place, I just can't deal with that. It's like this morning. We have set up our phone call program in the morning from 7:00 to 10:00 so that we take one from the right, one from the left, one from the middle, all this stuff.
I'm watching this morning saying "Bill Barr is the worst human being that ever lived on the face of the earth and he ought to be fired," or impeached if they could get away with that one; and the other one saying, "Bill Barr is the greatest attorney general in the history of the world." And I'll guarantee you, other than when they're watching us, they're either watching CNN or MSNBC or Fox. It's a free country.
I must tell you, though, I grew up in a media environment in Washington where everybody in the media said they were fair, objective, and just down the middle, and that was a bunch of baloney. I'm a little happier—it's frustrating, but a little happier—knowing when I tune into CNN it is "Trump prosecution central;" when I tune into MSNBC it's an arm of the Democratic National Committee and they find Republicans who agree with the Democratic National Committee; when I tune into Fox they often ignore what's going on as a way for them not to have to—and I'm talking out of school here—defend the president of the United States, or some of their hosts defend the president of the United States, no matter what.
By the way, if you haven't looked lately, the First Amendment agrees with all this. You can do any of this you want to.
I watch it all. I have the same human reaction a lot of people do. I think we're healthier in a way knowing exactly where people are coming from. There's no doubt in my mind where all these people are coming from.
There's so much choice, if you don't like it, you can go other places. I would just recommend that you go different places and listen to the different voices and absorb it on your own terms instead of just saying, "I'm going to go home every night and be only in my comfort zone."
I can't tell anybody. We really misunderstand what freedom of speech is. When I hear somebody call our call-in show and say, "You gotta shut that guy down"—really? Do you understand anything about what's supposed to be special about our Constitution? And a lot of people need to learn it. We try the best we can to keep all these sides coming in.
You all are being very patient this morning. This is really deep stuff this early in the morning.
QUESTION: Well, this isn't deep. I'm Jackie Aaron.
Apropos of your comment about the defensiveness of the staffs at the presidential libraries, what is the line taken, for example, by the apologists for James Buchanan?
BRIAN LAMB: They're very unhappy. They think he gets a rough deal. There aren't many apologists for James Buchanan. Let's start with that. But if you go to Wheatland in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, you'll find somebody who says, "You're giving this guy a raw deal."
The book on him is: "Worst. President. Ever." It's probably not altogether fair because the man had as much experience as anybody who has ever been president, including being secretary of state, senator, representative, all of that stuff. That's why I don't get too carried away myself with these polls, because it's not nearly as important as understanding how the whole historical thing works.
Having a poll is good enough for a day or so. Knowing what's the background on—say the worst thing about this country over the last 250 years is slavery, and when I was growing up in Indiana I had absolutely no idea about it—and this education for me is just frightening. When you see the way we have treated certain people in our society, it's just frightening.
QUESTION: I'm Marlin Mattison from Weill Cornell Medical College.
I wanted to mention that for my spouse and I one of the true highlights of every week is listening to Q&A. This program is spectacular.
Recently, you had an interview with Robert Caro, and he described the process that he goes through to be able to write about his subject, what he requires for himself.
My question is: What is the process that you go through? It's clear from the excerpts that you show, videos, and the questions that you ask, that you do a great deal of preparation, but I would be interested in knowing how you go about preparing to actually have an interview with an author.
BRIAN LAMB: Thank you.
First and foremost, I have another person in this little game besides my long-suffering wife, a fellow named Nikhil Raval. Nik and I work together. He's the producer. We have this long conversation day after day after day, sparring back and forth, having fun over the next interview. We decide. He goes out and finds the person and asks them to come on. Not everybody will come on.
Politicians don't want to sit for an hour. That's another development over the years, to go back to your question. They don't want to sit for an hour and talk through these situations. They prefer their six minutes on a program. They can get in, have their say, and get out.
I personally, if it's a book, read the book, most of the book. It's not always the case that all of it is necessary to read in order to be ready for an interview. I get online and look up everything I can find online. I spend about 15-20 hours getting ready for it. It's not necessary. It's just the way I wanted to do it because this is all part of my own personal learning experience.
I literally sit down and interview somebody, and my first thought there is, What can I get that person to say that will go over my shoulder, into the camera, out to the country, and people can learn? It's not about, Can I get them? Is it a "gotcha" thing? We don't have ratings.
I am not a star. We don't have commercials, and our industry—going back to Bob Rosencrans, Rob Baruch, and Russell Karp and many others, they said, "Go do your thing." They have never, ever questioned us in 40 years about "How big is your audience?" There's not anyplace else that I know of in television that that happens. Nowhere else does that happen. We're just lucky to do it. I'm educating myself, and then I want to pass it on.
Nik is also from an immigrant family. His parents came from India. He's another Midwesterner. He was born in Chicago and went to the University of Illinois. There's something about the Midwest I have to say that's very special, and I'm sure you all agree.
But Nik has an instinct. We talk about clips. He'll find them. That's all that is, is a way for you, if we're talking about somebody in history that we've never seen for a long time, and he just comes up with a 30-second clip so you can feel what they're like. That's how it's done. It's no magic. It's that simple.
JOANNE MYERS: Well, after this morning all I can say is Brian Lamb on C-SPAN is wonderful but Brian Lamb in person is better than the best. Thank you.