February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
Several years ago, after a dinner meeting of our Contributing Editors—most of them historians—the talk turned to current politics, and I noticed an interesting phenomenon. While their judgments about issues and personalities seemed to me no more or less profound than those of any group of intelligent citizens, they had one advantage over the rest of us: they could cite precedents; they could recall some parallel crisis or personality in our past, thereby moving the argument onto a plane of story and insight that is rarely encountered in an ordinary conversation.
At the time, it occurred to me that a group of such historians commenting on the news every week would make a fascinating television program. And perhaps it will, one day. Meanwhile, the editors of this magazine have decided to try to convert the rich lode of history underlying recent events into a regular column for our readers. The result, beginning in this issue, is “In the News,” a feature written by Bernard A. Weisberger, who will, in essence, read the newspapers and watch the television news for us, bringing his long career as a writer and historian to bear on whatever passing alarm takes his notice.
Weisberger is a graduate of Columbia College (B.A.) and the University of Chicago (Ph.D.) who has written fifteen books, taught history at the universities of Chicago and Rochester and at Vassar, and been both an editor and a writer for American Heritage since 1970. As a youth, he says, he “went off to Columbia with dim aspirations toward journalism. But when 1 got back from World War II, I was advised to by-pass journalism school in favor of a little polishing at graduate school, courtesy of the GI Bill. At Chicago I fell under the spell of a wonderful teacher named Avery Craven, and the rest was, for me, literally history. And it’s no accident that journalism and history converged for me in the topic I chose for my dissertation; it was about the Civil War correspondents who covered the Northern armies.”
The new column, Weisberger adds, combines his dual interests in journalism and history. “It would be simplistic, even sappy, to call history yesterday’s news or to describe myself as a reporter of it. But I do see history as a continuing story with an essentially unchanging cast—to wit, the damned, infuriating, fascinating human race, wrestling with its fate. What I like is to talk about people, and the people I encounter in the day’s news are not all that different from those who emerge from the documents I consult in writing a book or article. Perhaps it’s because I deal only with American history, which is almost all current news when measured against the whole time span of the past. Be that as it may, it’s a source of pleasure, irritation, and occasional comfort to me that I would happily share.”