Being “Presidential”: Thoughts on Teaching Presidential History

Teaching the second half of the U.S. History survey offers countless opportunities to draw parallels between history and current events (especially if one carves out time for the Bush and Obama years). In the past year alone, news stories involving police brutality, gun violence, and voting rights (to name a few) have garnered discussion, both deliberately and spontaneously, in my U.S. History class. I often wonder how much class time I should devote on these types of contemporary events. On the one hand, incorporating current events into my classes have often engaged students and sparked them to make at least general connections between the past and present. On the other hand, I also worry about oversimplifying these connections in a way that leads students to view history as repetitive and unchanging.

The 2016 presidential election will undoubtedly magnify these concerns. My first day of teaching next semester is less than 24 hours after the Iowa Caucuses. And with all but roughly 10 primaries or caucuses occurring between then and the last day of final exams, the 2016 race is sure to dominate (as it has been) the news cycle. As such, I think it is a particularly appropriate time to analyze the history of the presidency and presidential policy with my students, particularly because many of them are about to (hopefully) vote for the first time. How do others plan to incorporate the issues raised during this election in their classrooms? Should election season impact our curricular choices as history teachers? In a sense, survey classes, with their often unavoidable emphasis on breadth over depth, can lead instructors who specialize in all kinds of history to periodize their courses by presidential administration and emphasize electoral politics and top-level policy. I have seen these professors keep students highly engaged with this approach. However, I often worry about oversaturating students with policy at the expense of social or cultural history and, in some cases, more student engagement.

I think that one way around this possible dilemma – aside from balancing these different approaches – is to consider new approaches to presidential history that allow students to examine the interaction between policy elites and grassroots actors and better understand the complexities of presidential decision-making. In my classes, I seek to accomplish this by having students analyze presidential phone calls and meeting recordings. On the whole, these sources have fostered rich and rewarding discussions. Analyzing these recordings often lead to broader discussions about the “authenticity” or biases inherent in other types of primary sources and take students behind the scenes of the presidency, allowing them to examine how presidents thought, behaved, and acted privately and the logic they employed when making big decisions. This can both “humanize” seemingly distant and unknowable figures and also illustrate the very power of the presidency by showing students how executive decisions matter in the ways events unfold and policies develop. Below are five web sites from which I collect and play presidential recordings for my U.S. History students. As I prepare for the new semester, I am hoping that these sources lead students to make connections between presidential history and the issues raised during the 2016 election. I am curious as to how others plan to address the election in their classrooms.

  • FDR’s presidential recordings. There is an excellent conversation here between Roosevelt and A. Philip Randolph as the civil rights leader threatened to launch the 1941 March on Washington. Sound quality is not great, but the site at one time provided a scrolling text of the conversation for students to follow.
  • A meeting between JFK and the Joint Chiefs during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A good insight into how Kennedy conceptualized Cold War geopolitics and his relationship with the military.
  • Phone conversations between JFK and Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett as the latter blocked James Meredith’s entrance into the University of Mississippi. A good insight into how Kennedy gradually understood the magnitude of southern resistance to racial integration.
  • and These are my personal favorites – two great compilations of LBJ phone calls relating to the 1964 presidential election organized by Professor K.C. Johnson, whose book, All the Way With LBJ, examines the 1964 race through Johnson’s tape recorded phone calls and meetings. My class examines Johnson’s conversations with southern congressman over the seating of Fannie Lou Hamer’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Students tend to appreciate Johnson’s colorful language in these conversations.
  • Another compilation of Nixon recordings from Professor K.C. Johnson. Here, you can find a series of conversations between President Nixon and his staff on everything from busing, to Vietnam, to Watergate, to the All in the Family television show.

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