Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Education of a Talking Head

A guest post by Brooks D. Simpson, Department of History, Arizona State University

[Note: The regular blog is being upgraded with new software, so you've been redirected here.

Because it just recently appeared on Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, and because a number of other sources have linked to it, I thought I should republish this post in its entirety. It's divided into parts, as it was on the other blog, so if you have read some of it you can conveniently go to the parts you've not yet seen.]

Part 1

Mark’s comments on his experience with the PBS Ulysses S. Grant American Experience show caused me to reflect anew on the process, as I experienced it from a somewhat different vantage point. Perhaps I can shed some additional light on what goes on in such endeavors and what that says about the ways we transmit historical understanding to a wider public.

In late 1998 or early 1999 a scriptwriter for the project contacted me and asked me if I’d be willing to review a prototype script for the project that was being prepared as a part of a NEH grant application. At that time, I was the author of a rather focused study on Grant, Let Us Have Peace, and I was already engaged in writing what will eventually be a two-volume study of Grant’s entire life. I was finishing the first volume of that study, entitled Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822-1865, at the time. I had also written and spoken about Grant elsewhere, so it made sense for someone to contact me.

The draft script revealed that the scriptwriter and others had envisioned a narrative pieced together from several biographies of Grant, notably those by William McFeely and Geoffrey Perret, as well as other studies and essays. The writer envisioned a cast of talking heads drawn from McFeely, Perret, James McPherson, Eric Foner, and yours truly, as well as the editor of the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, John Y. Simon. The writer already had something of an understanding of Grant, but wanted clarification and advice, especially when different interpretations were in play. There were some problems that at first glance might seem merely petty, but they weighed heavily on the writer’s mind. Several of the talking heads not only disagreed with each other: they also did not like each other. One author resented the fact that in the original draft another scholar was to hold forth on a period in Grant’s life where the offended author thought he should be featured. Another question arose regarding the credibility of one of the authors whose recent work had been severely criticized by several scholars, including me, but who had a screen presence the writer wanted to incorporate. Finally, the writer had reserved a great deal of space for a PBS favorite, Don Miller, who was in no sense of the word a Grant expert, and who seemed to be assigned to mouth many of the findings of others.

Thus there was layer upon layer of contested terrain. Matters of scholarly credibility battled the need for screen presence: Miller and novelist Max Byrd, who has just finished a fictional treatment of Grant, were clear favorites, because they would tell the stories the writer wanted to tell in a way the writer liked, much as Shelby Foote had done for Ken Burns. There was also something of a concern with tokenism: there was an evident need for African American and female faces to appear on screen. At the time, the writer had come up with one black scholar, who was not especially known to me as an expert about either Grant or the period. In short, there were other considerations in play here that one does not wrestle with when writing a book.

Finally, it was interesting to see how the writer chose to deal with contested areas of interpretation in Grant’s life as well as the relative importance he would devote to various events. In some cases, the writer had settled upon an interpretation after reviewing the literature; in other instances, he threw up his hands, as in how to resolve a disagreement as to the nature of Grant’s presidential ambitions in the late 1860s. William McFeely believes that Grant hungered for the office, partly out of a fear of being forgotten: there’s absolutely no proof for this interpretation. Others claimed that Grant despised politics and politicians and had no hankering at all for the presidency, which was closer to the truth, but did nothing to explain how in the end Grant decided to accept the Republican nomination in 1868. Quite willing to offer definitive answers in other controversial areas, including Grant’s relationship with alcohol, the writer was at a loss as to what to do in this instance. That McFeely’s interpretation was offered without support was not terribly important, because it was important to have McFeely be part of the team of talking heads. The writer in phone conversation gave me the impression that my advice would play a meaningful role in resolving these difficulties. We’ll see whether that was true.

Part 2

Perhaps the most important decision I made about my participation in this enterprise was made at the beginning. I decided that instead of arguing that the American Experience crew follow my understanding of Grant, I would understand from the beginning that this was their Grant. I might contribute an insight here and there, I might nudge a bit when I felt it was necessary, but much of the game was already out of my hands. This was not as large a sacrifice as one might assume, since large parts of the script seemed influenced by my work, and even more so once the AE folks reviewed a galley of the Grant biography as well as what I had to say about Grant in The Reconstruction Presidents. I also understood that style mattered as much as substance and that credibility would be weighed against appearance and story-telling ability. Nothing I said would reduce the attention given to Byrd or Miller, despite questions about their credentials; in the end, the error-ridden biographer slipped a few gaffs past the crew, despite my repeated warnings to verify every single thing he said. The bet I could do was to advise that more people be invited to contribute to the project, including Clarence Walker, David Blight, Joan Waugh, and Mark. This shifted the balance a bit away from biographers and favorites to other folks, and may have even cost me a few precious seconds of air time … but that really didn’t matter. It did for another participant, who experienced a bout of bad health during production, and openly wondered whether he would be cut out altogether if he happened to die before the program was aired.

Make no mistake about it: the American Experience folks sought my advice on a number of occasions, including a day-long meeting in Boston. The question was whether they would accept that advice, and how they would balance that advice against other advice and the seeming (seeming because they are self-imposed) demands of the format. They loved the drama of Shiloh and the Wilderness, but did not hesitate to pass over Chattanooga in a sentence, because to devote more to it would take away from the momentum of the story (although they were very wiling to offer a somewhat inaccurate reenactment of Grant’s arrival at Chattanooga in October 1863 as a way to open the first episode). They hungered for expertise and credibility, but held on to using talking heads that were not as credible because they liked the way those heads told stories. It did not bother them to use photographs out of place (postwar photos of West Pojnt to represent Grant’s West Point, for example) even as they wanted to make things just right.

Thus, what at first glance appeared to be an effort to offer viewers a new understanding of Ulysses S. Grant was in fact a far more intricate exercise. Realism and accuracy were useful here, dismissed there. For example, much was made of the opening scene, in which a worn and hobbling Grant arrives at Chattanooga in October 1863. Much of the story that followed was heavily dependent upon people retelling the narrative first presented by Horace Porter in his 1897 book Campaigning with Grant. There are some classic aspects to that narrative, including Grant’s ability to size up a situation and issue orders. And yet the impression one got from the opening was that Grant arrived at some makeshift house in the woods, sat down by himself and began writing. Not quite. Grant met several officers, including George H. Thomas, who was in command of the Army of the Cumberland, in a house in Chattanooga. By some accounts it was an icy encounter. Grant learned a lot about the situation in ensuing discussions with officers, then began writing orders; however, there were several staff officers in the room, and impression left by the scene of Grant as solitary figure is in fact wrong.

Nitpicking? Perhaps. Slighting what happened in favor of a larger truth? Perhaps. But it was always clear that certain scenes, especially reenactments, were done for effect, to craft a mood. This was most evident when it came to looking at amber-colored liquid in a drinking glass. Much the same could be said of the decision to feature Byrd and Miller. Neither had credentials per se, although perhaps Byrd’s novel might score points (he had contacted me to ask about some questions in an effort to make sure some of his claims had a basis in the record). I had met Miller on an excursion through the battlefields of the Vicksburg campaign (I had been a hired gun there, too). He claimed to be writing a book on the Vicksburg campaign; I later read that he was willing to accept the idea that he was an expert on Grant’s generalship during the campaign. That his knowledge was no greater than that gleaned from a reading of several standard sources, and that the Vicksburg book has yet to see the light of day, was in large part irrelevant, because Miller, like Byrd, could give the folks at AE what they wanted: a dramatic-sounding rendition of the obvious and well-known. So much for the quest for credibility.

Part 3

What the scriptwriter and the project directors wanted was a narrative, one where the voices of the talking heads reinforced and highlighted the narrator’s story line. There would be little discussion, little disagreement. The only significant exception to this happened to be over Grant’s interest in becoming president. Here it did not matter that McFeely’s claim that Grant sought the presidency to escape a return to obscurity lacked a basis in documentation: however, rather than settle upon one answer, three heads – those of McFeely, John Y. Simon, and Miller – were shown in sequence, with Miller splitting the difference.

McFeely: Grant did want to be president, and Julia Grant wanted him to be president even more. And he, he needed something very important to do. He had had a very important job as commander of the army and he needed another very important job.

John Simon, Historian: Grant never wanted to be president. It involved politics. He hated politics. It involved newspaper publicity. He didn't like that. It involved speaking in public. He didn't like that. It meant being away from his family. He didn't like that.

Miller: I don't think Grant knows what he wants. There's a lot of speculation about Grant, at the time and after the fact. Did he really want to be president of the United States? Grant never advanced himself in the sense of pushing the issue. He had this feeling that if he showed himself well, that offers would come his way.
Watching the result struck me as odd. Fan that I may be of the narrative form, I also think that these programs could highlight different interpretations instead of the homogenized harmonious narrative that usually dominates, and yet airing three different opinions where the only sense of resolution was in the order they were presented (one extreme, the other extreme, the Goldilocks middle) struck me as somewhat jarring precisely because it was not in tune with the rest of the program’s mode of presentation. That traditional style resembled a narrative in which people told stories about the central character, only in this case the storytellers and observers were scholars and others of varying levels of expertise and knowledge. Their job was to embellish, highlight, and augment the predetermined narrative: if what you said fit, in style and demeanor as well as in content, it would go in. If it didn’t, it ended on the cutting room floor or its videotape equivalent.

Being a talking head was a peculiar experience. I took a second trip to Boston, and found myself being set up and made up in a house on Beacon Hill just down the street from where Henry Adams lived as a young boy, followed by a full day of taping. Given my willingness to cooperate with the producers, the idea was that I would address areas not touched by those people who had gone before me, as well as add a few insights of my own. And yet it didn’t quite work out that way, in part because what I thought I should do was not what they wanted to do, and to find a way to satisfy both parties was difficult.

I wanted to strike a certain pose, not too formal (thus a denim oxford shirt) but not too relaxed (thus jacket and tie). That was fine (I had actually asked ahead as to what others had worn so that there would be some contrast). Having done some television before, I knew the idea was to say something in a memorable, thoughtful style, as if I had some special insight or wisdom to contribute … and it would help if I gave it a little dramatic pizzazz as well. I thought that they would simply ask me to speak on X and Y or tell me that they needed someone to talk about Z and that would be that. Instead, I found myself being asked very specific questions, designed to elicit particular answers or stories. How well I told those stories (at least in the eyes of the director) would determine whether it would be my talking head that would tell certain stories.

And make no mistake about it: in certain cases I liked the idea of being the talking head that would tell the story of Grant in the nighttime rain at Shiloh, smoking his cigar as he pledged to “whip ‘em tomorrow”; I wanted to be the person who would tell the story of how after his daughter Nellie was married at the White House, someone found Grant in her room, thrown across her bed, sobbing. In the former case I was lucky; in the latter case … you can’t always get what you want.

There is no doubt that one of the oddest facets of being a talking head is the requirement of the format for one to say the obvious in a most profound and dramatic way. Nowadays I can make fun of the process, but it’s clear that those who can pull this off get air time (thus Byrd and Miller). It was left to me to utter a line that would be prominently displayed in advertising material for the program. I say it the first time I appear onscreen: “How could this strange career be explained? What about the heights to which it ascended? What about the depths to which it descended? How could such an ordinary man achieve such extraordinary things?” Later I offered a variation on that theme, gravely observing: “No one could quite explain what Ulysses S. Grant was about, the secrets of his success. How could such an ordinary man achieve such extraordinary feats?” One of those quotes ran in several previews of the program, most amusingly in TV Guide, giving me the rare distinction of being quoted by name in that publication.

Part 4

Needless to say, after viewing and reviewing various versions of the program, I was almost tired of the whole exercise when I participated in a week-long symposium on Grant at Gettysburg College. Several of the other talking heads were present: so was another Grant biographer, Jean Edward Smith, as well as the directors of the two episodes. On Wednesday and Thursday evenings attendees gathered to watch a penultimate version. Oh, there was a little nit-picking on the part of the audience, as one might expect (that goes with the territory of doing Civil War history). As I had long ago decided this was someone else’s Grant, it was easy for me to shrug off these remarks. What was more welcome was the overall impression that people liked what they saw, even if what they saw was mostly in line with new understandings of Grant. For people who follow the evolutions of historical interpretation, there were few fresh perspectives; however, that was not the program’s intended audience. Rather, it challenged in a fairly direct fashion the notion of Grant as a stupid and corrupt drunk who was equally ham-handed in war and politics, while reminding people of the important role Grant played in winning the war, reuniting the nation, and advocating equal rights for blacks. Understood as an introduction, perhaps even an appetizer, the film for the most part works in the same way as did Ken Burns’s The Civil War. Or so it seemed to many people who sat and watched, including a fellow who finally tapped me on the shoulder in some excitement over what he was seeing. I turned to see Jack Kemp with typical enthusiasm celebrate Grant as his sort of Republican.

In the end, however, I also thought that the program represented something of a missed opportunity. Too much of what passed as analysis was in reality a series of informed assertions adorned with the credibility of self-assured talking heads who presumably lent their authority to the entire enterprise. A third episode could have achieved so much more: instead, the two episodes tended to follow the usual narration of Grant’s life with the dividing line at 1865. As art, I appreciate the use the film made of certain talking heads; as a scholar, it was obvious that style trumped substance too often and that the expertise of several contributors was more apparent than real. If in large part I was pleased with the story of Grant presented in the program, it still seemed to me that in several instances it was constrained by the need to refute an imagined previous critical and dismissive understanding. There was far too little opportunity for discussion and disagreement: in truth Grant remains a contested figure, and thoughtful exchanges between scholars, even if issued as a supplement, would have been educational indeed. The whole enterprise involved a series of tradeoffs and compromises, with the flattening of a lively narrative that such a process ensures.

And that, in the end, is what contributes to nag at me. If I had been treated well by the folks at AE, the fact remains that in turn I had given them something much more valuable: my credibility. Simply (and immodestly) put, it would have been hard for the program to claim credibility without my participation at various stages of design and production. That had been illustrated when C-SPAN overlooked me when it had done a series on the American presidents: I received a number of inquiries as to what happened (there’s always intrigue and happenstance behind those decisions). And yet it was the appearance of credibility and authority that seemed to matter most. My writings did far more to shape the content of the program than did my actual participation: I could not prevent several errors, and I can’t say that my participation as an advisor had nearly as much impact on content as it did on some casting decisions. Inaccuracies were brushed away as inconsequential; that the information relayed by a talking head might not be quite right was irrelevant so long as it was delivered in impressive style. Had the narrative been supplemented by a roundtable discussion, it might have been far more engaging, and it would have opened the eyes of the viewing public to the notion that scholars debate issues and individuals. At a time when advances in production and media offer an opportunities to pursue various approaches to a subject, the decision to rely primarily upon a single overriding narrative left open the chance that we had contributed in our own way to constructing a Grant no more three-dimensional or complex than the face on the fifty dollar bill.

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