A new book by William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History at Duke University and Center for Documentary Studies cofounder, offers a different take on a perennially timely topic: the Clintons. Publisher’s Weekly‘s starred review of Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) called the book ”a superior portrait of how the personal dynamic between the Clintons affected their achievements in public life.” CDS director Tom Rankin recently spoke with Chafe about his process as a historian and writer in choosing the topic and the approach, how it relates to his previous work, and his own relationship to the “politics of the personal.”
Tom Rankin: From the perspective of a major historian, how is it to write about something that is not quite in the past, something that you don’t have the luxury and benefits of longevity of time and looking?
Bill Chafe: You recognize that reality as a given, but you also recognize that if you don’t get things written now you are losing a lot of vitality from the record, so it’s really important to frame the issues in a way that the next generation of historians will be able to use effectively to carry it forward to their own conclusions. Almost everything that I have ever written has been part of my own life—The Unfinished Journey always comes up to the present; my books on the civil rights movement, certainly the sit-in book, Civilities and Civil Rights, which was published a decade after the civil rights movement had made its major impact. Almost everything I have done has been a part of that process, and yet I find the insights that come from being a participant in some of these movements and actively engaged is actually helpful rather than distorting. So that’s why I think this is something that makes sense to do.
TR: I hadn’t thought about it that way but it does overlap immediately with the documentary impulse, which almost always comes out of the first person witness, where the documentarian can get at an emotional truth that combines with some kind of factual research.
BC: I tried to make this clear in the preface and introduction. The way in which I see this book is that it is part of a continuity of work rather than a departure, and something which embodies things that I have been passionately concerned about for all my life. So although it might seem on the one hand that writing about a president and the first lady is very different from writing about how the sit-ins started, ultimately you are talking about how individuals changed history. And it all fit together in my own mind as I did that.
TR: Do you think your interest in writing things that you also experienced makes you distinctive in the field of history?
BC: I think more and more people are doing that. I think that for more than three decades, historians who are social historians working on issues of class or gender or race are people who almost always have an investment psychologically in what they are writing about. And I think that’s true of most historians, period. I don’t think you find many historians who don’t have some link of personal passion to the subject matter they are studying.
TR: Why Hillary and Bill, and how did you think about what you could bring to a story so written about, so talked about, that would provide a new lens?
BC: The interesting thing, I think, is that even though they have written about themselves extensively (each of them has written a memoir, and Hillary has written another book about children), and other authors have written superb books about each of them that always mention the inter-personal relationship, they don’t make the chemistry of that relationship the centerpiece. And, ultimately, I concluded it was the centerpiece, and you couldn’t understand anything about how either of them behaved without understanding the personal dynamic that went on between them. And the fact that no one has really made that the focal point of any book so far, I think that was something that was a real challenge and a real attraction.
TR: How long were you thinking about it?
BC: I wrote a book during the period of time when I was [Duke Arts & Sciences] Dean called Private Lives, Public Consequences, a series of eight biographical essays that linked the personal and political—whether it be the impact of John F. Kennedy’s combat experience during World War II on his decisions in the Cuban Missile Crisis or whether it be Franklin and Eleanor and their relationship and how they affected each other, all the way through Nixon and how his obsession with being isolated and thinking huge thoughts also made him manic. I had this sense of wanting to understand more, including personality in the study of politics. I think it was really when that book came out, which was just four years ago, that I decided Bill and Hillary had such a distinctive quality about them that it was very much worthwhile to focus on them exclusively.
TR: Talk a little bit about your method of research and writing. You obviously had to read everything that’s been written about Bill and Hillary, and then figure out how to synthesize and interpret.
BC: I had been through whatever papers were available in the Clinton Library, and had some interviews that were confidential, but I think what I did was different. I was very fortunate in the sense that I had these two writing fellowships—one was in Australia for eight weeks and one was in New Zealand for five weeks. I knew I couldn’t carry all my stuff with me, so what I did was to spend two or three months before I went on these trips taking notes on everything I had. So I went to Australia with four hundred pages of single-spaced notes. And then I just wrote. The way I write is I put numbers in Roman numerals, for example, IIIA, next to a certain subject and then gather all the IIIAs together and then see how I’m going to organize the chapter. What I found fascinating was that it was incredibly challenging but also exciting to write because I was really writing it almost as a fresh story. With the notes gathered in that way, you use what’s there, and you later go back and footnote, but basically what you’re doing is writing a very clear narrative. And a narrative has its own power and its own pace and its own compelling quality. So I actually have never enjoyed writing as much. It was really exciting. I was not surrounded by books. I was surrounded by notes and I would write every day. I wrote the first four chapters in Australia, and I wrote three more in New Zealand. It was a very good way to write the book.
TR: Is that different from the way you’ve written other books?
BC: Yes. Because the other books were always much more based on different archival sources. This book has primary sources in it but it’s nothing like the other books in terms of being grounded in reams of boxes of papers, pages from archives.
TR: You write infinitely better than most of your academic colleagues with your ability to craft a compelling narrative. It’s lyrical while also being grounded in history, engaging in a way most academic writing isn’t. How did you come to that?
BC: That’s a good question. I actually think I came to that initially about twenty-five years ago. I’m pleased with how most of my books read. But I spent a year at the National Humanities Center almost thirty years ago, and at that point we had an oral history program and we had a terrific secretary in the program who did most of our transcription for our interviews. I dictated a good portion of the The Unfinished Journey, my book on postwar America. I find dictating is a much more direct and cogent and coherent way of writing. And then I was able to move from that, when computers and word processing became more popular, straight into doing the same thing in my own head with the computer. I remember when I was writing my first book I was constantly revising as I was writing. I finally got that burden off my back, because if you’re constantly revising you’re basically never moving forward and you’re lacking a kind of flow. So I stopped doing that, and that was very helpful.
TR: Your style of telling history is so open to any reader where so much that comes out of the academy seems forced on a narrow audience. This book, in particular, has a compelling fluidity. And the way you tell it has a distinctive orality.
BC: Yes, I think that’s true; it does go back to that experience of writing by dictation. It’s an intriguing part of my academic growth. I do think that when I’m writing now on the computer I never go back and revise a paragraph until the entire chapter is done. And I’m looking at it three weeks later and I start making revisions. I just don’t interrupt myself and go for the perfection of the moment. It’s crazy to do that.
TR: The subtitle, The Politics of the Personal, is such an important and revealing window of this book. Can you talk that deeply about your earliest memory of a personal relationship with politics or earliest memory of a political moment?
BC: I had the very good fortune of having a grandfather who’d come over from England in 1903, the fourteenth child in a family of fourteen. He and I were extremely close. He was a wonderfully engaged person. He never went to high school; he actually worked as a night watchman at Harvard and as a grocery clerk in a supermarket. But he was always very interested in politics. When I was seven, eight, nine, ten years old I spent a lot of time with him and we’d have these conversations about politics. My entire family was Republican. I was the first person to begin to think about going Democratic and that was because of John F. Kennedy. And my grandfather and I got into a routine of having active and contentious discussions about politics. We didn’t agree, but we had great conversations. And I was totally into politics during college and in high school, but that was connected to the civil rights movement. I grew up in a multi-racial community and I immediately became very involved in the church. But the church I was involved with was one where I believed in the social gospel. When I was fourteen years old I went to an annual meeting of my church and said, “Why don’t we have any black people in this congregation?” That’s political, right? When I was in college I headed up a Boston–area wide student group of American Baptists from Wellesley, BU, Harvard, MIT. We would go around and take over a church program in a different community three or four weekends a semester. We would do the sermon, the youth groups, the Sunday school, et cetera, and our theme that year was “Jesus Christ the Revolutionary.” The bottom line is that the politics was always there and usually with some kind of social justice kind of component.
And when I was twenty years old I worked a summer long job for Endicott “Chub” Peabody, who was running for governor of Massachusetts. Then I moved to New York and immediately got involved with West Side Democratic politics, and I campaigned for Bobby Kennedy in 1964. Then I became a speechwriter for Herman Badillo when he ran for mayor of New York in 1965, and he almost won—we went from 3 percent to 31 percent in the primary. Then I did the same thing for the governorship. I managed two congressional campaigns for Ted Weiss, who was the first leading anti-war Democrat who ran for Congress. I’ve long been involved; politics is part of my blood. The most important decision I ever made was when I decided after that level of involvement I had to stop doing that because if I kept doing it, I would end up being divorced and not have any family. Politics was that consuming. At that point I realized what I would do politically would be through my scholarship rather than through eighteen hours a day working for a candidate. But politics has always been personal, always been there.
TR: Talk about your relationship to documentary studies, which has been so clear in your work.
BC: I think what we’ve done here at the Center for Documentary Studies and will continue to do is so much a part of making history alive and vital and political. And that’s been one of the huge contributions of staying as long as I have stayed at Duke. There were four different times when I almost left Duke, and probably none closer than when I almost went to Yale in 1990, and then ten years later I almost became a university president. Thinking about that retrospectively, I’m glad I didn’t do any of those things, because it really is important to plant your seed and see it grow and see it come to fruition. I have the feeling that if I had left, that seed would not have come to fruition. So I feel much better about having hung in there and seeing things like the Center for Documentary Studies blossom into what it has become, and whether that would have happened with or without me I’m not sure, but it’s great to be able to see it all happening.
William Chafe kicks off a national book tour for Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal on September 20; local appearances include:
Pittsboro, North Carolina—McIntyre’s Books—Tuesday, October 9, 6:30 p.m.
Durham, North Carolina—Regulator Bookshop—Saturday, October 13, 7 p.m.; reception to follow at the Center for Documentary Studies