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Past Prime

The historian as pundit.

WHEN THE DUST clears on November 7, history will record a handful of lasting images from this year's election: A1 Gore's convention kiss, George W. Bush's proctological epithet about a New York Times reporter, the word "rats" flashing momentarily across a TV screen, and, well, Michael Beschloss.

In the last few months, the well-coiffed historian turned commentator has become a virtual one-man news cycle, appearing on the tube some 40 times since the Republican convention. It's not hard to see why. Realizing that the term "pundit" increasingly denotes opinion that is flip, ephemeral, and shallow, talk-show hosts and producers--particularly at the prestige networks--have looked for commentators with more heft. Commentators with deeper knowledge, commentators able to step back from the rush of events and see the big picture. Historians! And Beschloss, it turns out, is a pretty good popular historian. His 1991 book The Crisis Years was a compelling reinterpretation of cold war foreign policy: scrupulously researched (more than 100,000 pages of documents and 1,500 secondary sources in the making), subtle in its attention to detail, and yet highly readable, even suspenseful in spots.

But the skills that make Beschloss a good historian have nothing to do with the skills that make him a successful pundit. Beschloss became a good historian by doing the same thing all good historians do: sifting through documentary evidence and carefully disentangling chains of causation. But on television, reacting to a debate or a speech or a poll minutes after it takes place, Beschloss doesn't do any of that. Indeed, he himself admits it's "absolutely impossible." Instead, he sprinkles his political handicapping with anecdotes from past campaigns and facile historical analogies (W. as Ronald Reagan, Gore as Hubert Humphrey, Joe Lieberman as JFK). Meanwhile, Larry King introduces Beschloss as the "famed" and "noted" presidential historian; Peter Jennings praises him as our "resident historian who gives us such a great sense of history"; Cokie Roberts notes that "Michael is normally devoting himself to history, but a little present-day is a good thing." Beschloss, in short, has figured out how to appeal perfectly to producers and hosts who want the aura of a serious historian without the substance. That's hardly a crime. But it isn't history, either.

Beschloss's emergence as America's preeminent tele-historian had improbable beginnings. After graduating from Williams College in 1977 with a bachelor's degree in political science, Beschloss went to Harvard to do graduate work-not in history but in business. Still, he spent the next few years revising his undergraduate thesis on the relationship between FDR and Joe Kennedy. With the help of his former adviser, historian James MacGregor Burns, he published the manuscript in 1980.

The modest success of Kennedy and Roosevelt allowed Beschloss to postpone his intended career as a foundation chairman in favor of a second project on the 1960 U-2 spy plane incident. But his big break came in the late '80s. CNN was beginning its around-the-dock news coverage, and producer Gail Evans decided that reporting of the Reagan-Gorbachev summits could benefit from historical analysis. When Evans, who had also studied with Burns, mentioned the idea to her former professor, he suggested Beschloss.

Beschloss's debut opposite anchors Reed Collins and Bernard Shaw during a 1987 summit created an instant splash--a splash due as much to Beschloss's good looks and poise as to his grasp of historical detail. The network was so impressed that it brought Beschloss back repeatedly: for later summits and then during coverage of presidential elections and inaugurations. In 1994 Beschloss, fellow historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and journalist Haynes Johnson began providing regular historical perspective on what was then "The Mae Neil Lehrer News Hour" As "News Hour" producer Lester Crystal recalls, "We thought it went so well with what the show's all about in terms of providing depth and context."

With the "News Hour" segment gaining popularity, other networks sought out historians to quiet critics who derided their talk shows as mindless. Soon people like FDR biographer Goodwin and Boston University Professor Robert Dallek began doing the talk-show circuit. But none of them has achieved as much success as Beschloss. For one thing, they're a little frumpy. (By contrast, Jay Leno calls Beschloss "the handsomest political historian I've ever seen.") For another, their academic ties make them less willing to propose simple historical analogies. (Asked about historical parallels to the Clinton impeachment trial, for instance, Goodwin said on the "News Hour" in October 1998 that there was no dear precedent and condemned people who look for "an analogy to something that bolsters their own case.") But while Dallek and Goodwin sometimes struggle (often unsuccessfully) to show the limits of analogy, Beschloss freely uses it as a cover for gossip.

Take his commentary on Clinton's stage-hogging during the Democratic convention. "Even the fact this convention is here in Los Angeles ... is what [Clinton's] wanted for years," Beschloss revealed. "He watched the Los Angeles convention of John Kennedy in 1960 as a boy, loved it, tried to get it here in 1996, couldn't do it. So everyone who's here knows that the reason we're all in Los Angeles is not A1 Gore but Bill Clinton." Or on the parallels between Lieberman and JFK: "President Kennedy, he had sort of a sense of humor about [his Catholicism]. He used to say during the 1960 campaign, 'If you want to know how many people are in my crowds, count the number of nuns and multiply it by 100,' which is sort of funny."

And sometimes there's no historical gloss at all. After successfully predicting that Dick Cheney would be Bush's running mate, ABC's "resident historian" revealed his winning methodology. Had he distilled a trend from past selections? Not really. "I actually saw Dick Cheney on the evening of the Fourth of July.... He was going around schmoozing with political figures and journalists," Beschloss explained. 'And I actually turned to my wife and I said, 'My God, he's running for vice president.'"

Increasingly, Beschloss, who is ostensibly on television because of his ability as a historian, not only doesn't put that ability to use on the tube; he barely puts it to use at all. The Crisis Years was his last significant work of scholarship. Since 1990, he's co-written a book on the cold war with Strobe Talbott, authored a flawed transcription of the LBJ tapes, and provided what are essentially captions for the coffee-table book Eisenhower: A Centennial Life. Just out is The American Heritage Illustrated History of the Presidents, destined for a junior high school near you. Punditry's gain is looking more and more like history's loss.