Mount Vernon CEO Doug Bradburn Explains What It Was Like Giving Donald Trump a Tour

Bradburn and Trump

Doug Bradburn, the CEO of Mount Vernon, gave Donald Trump and French president Emmanuel Macron a tour of George Washington’s estate in April 2018.

Now Bradburn is talking about the Trump visit.  Here is a taste of an article at Politico on Bradburn’s attempts to keep Trump interested on the tour:

During a guided tour of Mount Vernon last April with French president Emmanuel Macron, Trump learned that Washington was one of the major real-estate speculators of his era. So, he couldn’t understand why America’s first president didn’t name his historic Virginia compound or any of the other property he acquired after himself.

“If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”

The VIPs’ tour guide for the evening, Mount Vernon president and CEO Doug Bradburn, told the president that Washington did, after all, succeed in getting the nation’s capital named after him. Good point, Trump said with a laugh.

Here is more:

The president’s disinterest in Washington made it tough for tour guide Bradburn to sustain Trump’s interest during a deluxe 45-minute tour of the property which he later described to associates as “truly bizarre.” The Macrons, Bradburn has told several people, were far more knowledgeable about the history of the property than the president.

A former history professor with a PhD, Bradburn “was desperately trying to get [Trump] interested in” Washington’s house, said a source familiar with the visit, so he spoke in terms Trump understands best — telling the president that Washington was an 18th century real-estate titan who had acquired property throughout Virginia and what would come to be known as Washington, D.C.

Trump asked whether Washington was “really rich,” according to a second person familiar with the visit. In fact, Washington was either the wealthiest or among the wealthiest Americans of his time, thanks largely to his mini real estate empire.

“That is what Trump was really the most excited about,” this person said.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is what I wrote about Trump and American history in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

But the problem with Donald Trump’s use of American history goes well beyond his desire to make America great again or his regular references to some of the darker moments in our past–moments that have tended to divide Americans rather than uniting them.  His approach to history also reveals his narcissism.  When Trump says that he doesn’t care how “America first” was used in the 1940s, or claims to be ignorant of Nixon’s use of “law and order,” he shows his inability to understand himself as part of a larger American story.  As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in the wake of Trump’s pre-inauguration Twitter attack on civil rights icon John Lewis, a veteran of nonviolent marches who was severely beaten at Selma: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.”  Gerson describes Trump’s behavior in this regard as the “essence of narcissism.”  The columnist is right: Trump is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself.  Not all presidents have been perfect, and other have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies; but most of them have been humbled by the office.   Our best presidents thought about their four or eight years in power with historical continuity in mind.  This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it.  Trump, however, spits in the face of this kind of historical continuity.  This isn’t conservatism; it is progressive thinking at its worst.  Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries.  Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.” 

Sam Wineburg, one of the country’s foremost scholars of historical thinking, writes:

“For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.”

I chatted with Bradburn in this episode of his Mount Vernon podcast and you can listen to our interview with Bradburn in Episode 17 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

The Author’s Corner with Kevin Levin

interpreting-the-civil-war-at-museums-and-historic-sitesKevin Levin is a historian, educator, and the proprietor of the popular Civil War Memory blog. This interview is based on his new edited collection, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017).

JF: What led you to collect and edit the essays in Interpreting the Civil War?

KL: With the United States recently having completed a 4-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, I was interested in how the war was interpreted at historic sites and museums throughout the country. I wanted a better sense of how recent scholarship and shifts in our popular memory of the war impacted interpretation on the ground. With that in mind I gathered together a group of public historians and educators to talk about how their respective institutions approached the sesquicentennial. I asked them to focus on how the specific challenges posed by their location and clientele shaped their exhibits and public outreach. My contributors include some very well known public historians working at high profile sites as well those who work at places that are a bit further off the beaten path.

JF: I realize that Interpreting the Civil War is an edited collection, but does the book have an overarching argument?

KL: Given the ongoing public debate about Confederate monuments it will not be surprising to hear that taken together the essays serve as a reminder that interpreting the Civil War for the general public is fraught with challenges. Contributors to this volume shared both successes and failures. The most successful public programs turned out to be those that took chances in engaging new audiences and addressing topics that have been both ignored and/or mythologized over the previous decades.

JF: Why do we need to read Interpreting the Civil War?

KL: First and foremost, I hope these essays will be helpful for practicing public historians. This book is part of Rowman & Littlefield’s “Interpreting History” series and is intended primarily for pubic historians, but I suspect that general readers interested in interpretive controversies as well as the long arc of Civil War memory will find much to consider. Essays cover the history of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina and questions surrounding how to interpret the battle flag that was recently removed from the State House grounds as well as the challenges of interpreting the war in the former capital of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. Other essays offer insight into where we may be headed in our work as public historians. A historian with the National Park Service assesses its sesquicentennial programming and offers suggestions on what work still needs to be done while the final essay offers advice to public historians on how they can engage various constituencies in communities that are currently debating the public display of Confederate iconography. I can’t think of a better moment for just such a book.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KL: I never intended to become a historian. In 2005 I finished an M.A. in History at the University of Richmond and was teaching full time at a private school in Charlottesville, Virginia. In November of that year I started a blog called Civil War Memory, which within a few years had become fairly popular. The exposure that the blog offered paid off gradually with opportunities to speak and write and eventually led to a contract for my first book with the University Press of Kentucky that was based on my thesis. As much as I enjoy writing, I still think of myself primarily as an educator. Although I am not in the classroom full time, my greatest joy is working with history educators on their professional development and working with students on field trips and other settings.

JF: What is your next project?

KL: I am finishing up a book-length project that is tentatively titled, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. The book explores the wartime role of body servants or what I call camp slaves in the Confederate army and how these stories evolved after the war and into the present as the myth of the black Confederate soldier. My next project will address the current debate about Confederate monuments. I plan on structuring the book as a travel narrative that will allow me to visit and interview some of the most vocal participants on both sides of this debate in different places and weave into the story the history of these very same monuments. No title yet and I am still working through the overall structure and goals of the project.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

Our First Summer “Patrons-Only” Episode is Here

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Todd Allen

If you are a patron of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, you have heard from producer Drew Dylri Hermeling this morning about how to access our first patrons-only summer mini-episode.

Our guest on the episode is Todd Allen, the new assistant Special Assistant to the President and Provost for Diversity Affairs at Messiah College.  Todd is a scholar of the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement and wrote his doctoral dissertation on museum interpretations of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965.

For more than a decade Todd has led “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Bus Tour,” a premier Civil Rights bus tour that takes participants to nearly every major historical site associated with the Movement.  Stops on the tour include Greensboro, NC; Atlanta, GA; Albany, GA; Montgomery, AL; Birmingham, AL; Memphis, TN; and Nashville, TN.  The tour combines historical site and museum visits with lectures, conversations with major Civil Rights Movement veterans, and documentary films.  I took the tour in June 2017 and wrote about it here.

In this episode, Todd talks about the origins of the tour, Civil Rights Movement tourism, his building of relationships with the veterans of the Movement, and a whole lot more.

We are thrilled to share this special episode with our patrons and send it along to all future patrons as well.  Please consider becoming a patron by visiting our Patreon page and making a pledge.

Empathy Can Lead to Sympathy

WhitneyI really like Christopher Bonner‘s post at the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.

It is appropriately titled “The Bonds of History.”

Here is a taste:

In recent years, Whitney Plantation has been transformed into a site for the memory of African enslavement in American and Atlantic history. The New Yorker recently produced a video that combines images of the stunning Louisiana landscape with commentary from Dr. Ibrahima Seck, Director of Research at the plantation. Both Dr. Seck and theNew Yorker note that preserving this site of bound labor and diasporic life is not “designed to make people feel guilt or to make people feel shame.” What then is such a site designed to make people feel?…

In telling “the story of slavery,” organizers of Whitney Plantation offer some similar points about the value of that story. Dr. Seck notes the aim of the museum is to preserve not only the memory, but also the existence of the enslaved, to “tell their story, [to] bring them back to life.” He is also invested in using the site to promote social justice: through the history of slavery presented at the plantation, we might understand and address contemporary problems. There’s something appealing in this idea that history, particularly the history of slavery, can have tangible political results. It seems to me to be tied to a hope that history might reach a kind of conclusion, a desire to produce a finished product, or a hope that the past has an end. In pulling away from the idea that the Whitney Plantation should evoke feelings of guilt or shame, Dr. Seck acknowledges that history does evoke feelings, which tend not to have conclusions or tangible ends.

And so, again, what are those feelings, or what should they be? I recently had a conversation in class about Cape Coast Castle as a site of memory. My students connected that site to ongoing debates about historical memory surrounding Yale’s Calhoun College, South Carolina’s State House, the Jefferson Davis Statue at University of Texas, and Byrd Stadium at University of Maryland. As we talked, I told my students that I want them to know the past in its complexity and that memorials rarely encourage that. But I wasn’t sure how to convey to them the challenge of our feeling things about the past, and I didn’t know for sure how I might, or whether I should, try to mold those feelings. Thinking about Whitney Plantation and the work of my fellow bloggers has helped me move toward answers to those questions. I don’t want students to feel guilt or shame because I think those emotions can obscure a sense of historical contingency and can discourage the project of understanding how and why the past happened the way that it did. But I do want students to feel sadness and disgust as we talk about lost opportunities, lost lives, and historical horrors. I want them to feel anger at injustice. I want them to feel empowerment through stories of struggle and progress. I want them to feel excitement and happiness with the opportunities history gives us, as limited as they are, to grasp what is still such a broad array of human experience. And ultimately, I’d like students to recognize and understand that we are all connected to the past, and I’d like them to feel something of that connection.

Bonner is wrestling with some of the same things I tried to deal with in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  In that book I distinguished between “empathy” and “sympathy.”  Good historical thinking requires empathy.  In order to fully understand the past, we must learn to see the world from the perspective of the people we encounter when we enter it.  Empathy cultivates understanding, a skill desperately needed in our democratic society.

Sometimes an engagement with the past can be an emotional exercise.  The past can inspire people, but it can also instigate hate.  As Bonner writes, it stirs the emotions.

I think sympathy has a place in the doing of history, but only before one learns to empathize, or walk in the shores of a particular historical actor.  How can you sympathize with a person in the past if you do not first understand her or his story in all its complexity?  In other words, it seems to me that empathy, in may cases (but not every case) can lead sympathy and activism. But sympathy is not where we begin.

Thoughts?