020: David Greenberg, 37


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

20: David Greenberg, 5-22-06

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Studies and History, Rutgers University
Appointment to the Faculty in History. Affiliations with Political Science and Jewish Studies departments.
Area of Research: Political and Cultural Affairs, Presidential History, History of Journalism and Politics
Education: PhD, American History, 2001, Columbia University
Major Publications: Greenberg is the author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (W.W. Norton, 2003). David Greenberg JPG
Soon to be published: Presidential Doodles: Two centuries of scribbles, scratches, squiggles and scrawls from the Oval Office for Basic Books, 2006; a biography of Calvin Coolidge for the Henry Holt’s American Presidents Series edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (publication date 2007).
Greenberg is also working on another new book tentively entitled Pseudo-Politics: A History of Spin.
Awards: American Journalism Historians Association Book of the Year; Washington Monthly Political Book Award; Several annual “best of” lists, including CNN, Christian Science Monitor, Financial Times, and The Progressive all for Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (2003).
Distinguished Service in Support of Teaching, Department of Journalism & Media Studies, 2005.
Rutgers University nomination, National Endowment for Humanities Summer Stipend, 2005.
Rutgers University Research Council Grant, 2005.
Rutgers University Aresty Award for Research Assistance, 2005.
Rutgers University Interdisciplinary Studies in Information Policy and Security Grant, 2005.
White House Historical Association Award, 2003.
Bancroft Dissertation Prize, Columbia University, 2002.
Whiting Fellow, 2000-2001.
Josephine de Karman Fellow, 2000-2001.
Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy Fellowship, 1999-2001.
J. Bartlett Brebner Travel Grant, Columbia University, 1999, 2000.
Gerald R. Ford Library Grant, 1999.
President’s Fellow, Columbia University, 1996-2000.
Richard Hofstadter Fellow. Columbia University, 1995-1996.
Javits Fellowship, 1994-1995, declined.
Additional Info: In all, Greenberg has written more than 240 articles and reviews for among others American Prospect, Atlantic Monthly, Boston Globe, Columbia Journalism Review, Lingua Franca, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, New Republic, New Yorker, New York Times, The Progressive, Slate, Washington Monthly, Washington Post, and other periodicals.
He has also written for numerous scholarly journals including: Foreign Affairs, The Journal of American History, Reviews in American History, and Daedalus.
He is a regular contributor to the online magazine Slate, where he writes the “History Lesson” column and other occasional reviews and essays.
Before pursuing his PhD, he served as Acting Editor and Managing Editor of The New Republic magazine.
He also served as the assistant to Bob Woodward, for Woodward’s book The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House (Simon & Schuster, 1994).

Personal Anecdote

One day in 1999, as I was sitting at my desk not making much progress on my dissertation, I got a call from an agent I knew in LA. He remembered I’d worked in Washington journalism before starting grad school and asked if I might want to write a script for a new prime-time political drama. It would have to be written “on spec,” he explained-meaning I wouldn’t be paid unless they used it. But they were looking for writers, and if they liked what I wrote, they might want to hire me on. Envisioning another lost month on my dissertation as I fiddled with a teleplay that went nowhere, I explained that I didn’t have time for such flights of fancy. So passed my chance to write for “The West Wing.”

What does this anecdote reveal? Beats me. Maybe that the rewards of writing history carry sacrifices? Or that graduate students aren’t as smart as they think they are?

When I was about to graduate college, I discussed what to do with my life with my senior essay adviser. We talked about my pursuing a PhD in history. He noted that in my field-post-World War II politics and culture-many of the best books were written by journalists. Something clicked. I knew I didn’t want to go straight on to grad school. I knew I wanted to be a writer. It struck me that learning about politics up close as a journalist in Washington, DC wouldn’t be a bad way to spend a year or two.

Or five, as it happened. I worked my way up to become managing editor of The New Republic. I also realized, though, that I wanted to be writing books, and I didn’t have the confidence that I could do so (and support myself) without an institutional home like a university-or without the spans of unencumbered time that academic summers afford. So I headed to Columbia University in 1995, attracted by the lure of New York City and by a history faculty whose example suggested that writing history of the highest caliber didn’t mean abandoning general readers-that, in fact, it might entail just the opposite.

After one year, I got a call to return to TNR. The editor had just stepped down; did I want to be one of the acting editors until a permanent successor was chosen? I couldn’t say no. Then, toward the end of that summer, after the late Michael Kelly was chosen as the new boss, he asked me if I wanted to stay on in some senior capacity. It was hard to decline, but I did. I returned to New York for a year of orals preparation. Passing up a chance to write for “The West Wing,” I guess, was part of a pattern.

What I learned as a journalist has served me well as a historian, and what I’ve learned as a historian has served me well in my continuing journalistic pursuits. Compared to writing for TV or mixing it up in the world of Washington punditry, the appeal of academia-with its paucity of jobs, unremarkable salaries, and infamous politics-may not be entirely obvious. But at the end of the day I can’t think of too many other jobs in which you’re hired above all to write books about those subjects that you and you alone decide are worth your life’s energies.


By David Greenberg

  • “Rather, Nixon’s Shadow tells the story of how Nixon was perceived and understood by different groups of people throughout his career and afterward. In this sense, it is the history of his image. As I explain in the introduction that follows, I believe that history consists not only in what important people did and said but equally in what they symbolized–what they meant–to their publics. I’m as interested in understanding these publics as I am in understanding Nixon, as keen to pinpoint what qualities of theirs shaped their images of Nixon as to discern what Nixon brought to the equation. My usual short answer, therefore, is to call this a book a history of Nixon’s image.” — David Greenberg in “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image”.
  • Nixon's Shadow JPGObviously, there are some changes with which we’re all familiar. For example, after Nixon, reporters became aware of the ways that a politician’s private demons or neuroses could inflict themselves on the nation. They took it upon themselves to start policing what has come to be called “character.” Clearly, that has spilled out of control in the last decade or two. But the impulse to scrutinize the people who would lead the nation remains a sound one. There’s also another, more subtle legacy of Nixon upon the press that I write about in my book. Nixon’s aggressive manipulation of the media reinforced reporters’ resolve not to be spun. Journalists in the Nixon years felt that they had to find a way to indicate to their readers that they knew that Nixon was being dishonest or evasive or manipulative. As a result, political writing — even in supposedly objective and neutral forums — took on more of an inside-dopester tone. I think it’s this tone — as opposed to any ideological bias, which is actually pretty minimal — that upsets most readers who get upset when they listen to Peter Jennings or read the New York Times. A lot of audiences would like our reporters to tell it to us straight and let us judge for ourselves if we’re being spun. — David Greenberg in a September 2003 interview with journalismjobs.com discussing his book “Nixon’s Shadow”

About David Greenberg

  • “A brilliant book full of fresh insight and analysis by one of the most original young minds among professional historians. The first serious and comprehensive look at Nixon by a writer of the new generation, Nixon’s Shadow is thoroughly fair-minded and yet critical. Under the scholarly microscope Nixon again fails to conceal his self-inflicted wounds.” — Bob Woodward reviewing “Nixon’s Shadow”
  • “Groundbreaking….A landmark in Nixon scholarship.” — Robert Dallek, author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 reviewing “Nixon’s Shadow”
  • “[Greenberg] goes boldly where few men (and fewer liberal historians) have gone before.” — Wall Street Journal reviewing “Nixon’s Shadow”
  • “Greenberg has done more than provide us with a new understanding of the 37th president. He has produced a work that consistently challenges much of the received wisdom about how politics works. Indeed, I am hard pressed to think of a book on politics as bracing and original as this one. … Apart from his provocative–and, to my mind, largely convincing–thesis, Greenberg offers treats at almost every turn. … Because David Greenberg has pushed aside the obvious, because he has mined not just historical records but also books, films, TV sketches, and other artifacts of popular culture, he has produced a strikingly compelling portrait of one of American politics’ most fascinating figures. In the process, he has shaped a treasure trove of insights about how politics really works. This is not just the debut of a highly promising thinker, but also a work that has already fulfilled that promise.” — Jeff Greenfield, Washington Monthly reviewing “Nixon’s Shadow”
  • I just wanted to say I appreciate your article entitled “The Pledge of Allegiance: Why we’re not one nation ‘under God'” on the Slate website. I’m a high school senior in a rather small Wisconsin town, and I think I caused a bit of an uproar when I proposed in our local papers editorial section that the words “under God” shouldn’t have been added to the pledge, because I believe that patriotism and theism need not be linked. … Needless to say, I think most of the town wholeheartedly disagreed with me, and it made me feel downtrodden to hear rebuttals to my statement. … Your article made my day. It was not only an enlightening mini-history lesson ( I want to be informed if I have to give a rebuttal at the drop of a hat!), but also good support for my bruised ego. It was quite uplifting to know that there are highly educated college professors (or assistant professors) that have the same opinion as myself, and can support it so eloquently. As a student of the Perry Miller view of United States history, I found your article fascinating. Please keep writing! — A reader’s response to David Greenberg’s Slate column “History Lessons”
  • “Loved this class.”… “He is very very smart and you can learn a lot in his class.”… “Great professor, really cares about the material.”… “Very passionate and knowledgeable about subject.” — Anonymous students

Posted on Sunday, May 21, 2006 at 5:25 PM

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