Search for New House Historian Has a Taste of Old-Fashioned Patronage


Quietly, and with none of the furor that accompanied his first choice, U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has appointed a new House historian.

Last month, Mr. Gingrich tapped John Kornacki, director of the Everett McKinley Dirksen Congressional Leadership Research Center in Pekin, Ill. Tony Blankley, Mr. Gingrich's spokesman, said last week that Dr. Kornacki was "extremely qualified" for the post, which will now be called the director for legislative resources.

Dr. Kornacki principally oversaw the archiving of the papers of the late Senator Dirksen and of two other Illinois Republicans, including Mr. Gingrich's predecessor as Republican leader, Robert H. Michel. Dr. Kornacki also developed outreach programs to train public school teachers in courses on the Congress.

"It's an exciting time with all the change in Washington," said Dr. Kornacki.

"To be a part of it -- or to be recording the history and contemporary issues -- that's a very, very exciting time for me."

He will be the third House historian in six months.

History remains fertile ground for debate. Earlier this spring there were very public clashes over the historical accuracy of the Disney film "Pocahontas." Protests by veterans forced Smithsonian Institution officials to scale back a planned exhibit on the implications of the Enola Gay and its atomic cargo to a display dominated by airplane parts.

And part of the shuffling of historians centers on the question of how Congress should treat its history.

The revolving door at the office of House historian began spinning in late December, when Mr. Gingrich sacked Dr. Raymond Smock and hired Christina F. Jeffrey, a political science professor with whom he once taught at Kennesaw State College in Georgia. In early January, the speaker fired her within hours of learning that she had once criticized a junior high school curriculum on the Holocaust for inadequately representing "the Nazi point of view."

What does the House historian do? Mr. Gingrich wants a House historian out on the electronic hustings, explaining to the public how the government works.

But the speaker's sweeping calls for change have raised fears among professional historians that that role could strip the post of all credibility and turn the historian into just another public relations flack.

"He was looking for somebody who could go on C-SPAN and educational television and explain in an accessible way, to typical Americans, about government, and the House, and what it means to democracy," Mr. Blankley said. "That was what he was looking for, beyond the merely archival function that has to ++ be carried out, of course."

Stephen E. Ambrose, a historian at the University of New Orleans who has written biographies of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon, said of Mr. Gingrich's plans, "That sounds more [public relations] to me than history."

By contrast, scholars said they prized the compilation of official and informal congressional documents, a key component of the job as it was carried out by Dr. Smock, the former House historian.

"It's absolutely imperative to have a historian of an established reputation in academia who would not simply be a creature of the person who appointed him," said William R. Emerson, director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., from 1974 to 1991. "This is what worried me about Mr. Gingrich's selection [of Dr. Jeffrey]. That person has no stature in the profession."

Dr. Kornacki received his doctorate from Michigan State University, not in history but in resource development -- a program dedicated to the study of responsible use of natural resources. But Joseph Cooper, a political scientist who is provost of the Johns Hopkins University, said Dr. Kornacki's seven years at the Dirksen Center demonstrated he could perform in his new post. The House historian-apparent has edited one book, based on a conference held at the Illinois center.

"Even though he doesn't have a professional degree in history, he's not a person without a lot of experience in preserving papers," said Dr. Cooper, who belongs to the board of directors of the Dirksen center.

But Dr. Cooper acknowledged that politics played a role in Dr. Kornacki's appointment. "You would have to expect in a Congress controlled by Republicans they would select somebody who shares their values and their orientation," Dr. Cooper said.

It's not as though the office has cut a broad swath on Capitol Hill during its 12-year existence. Dr. Ambrose said he had not heard of the House historian until the flap over Dr. Jeffrey hit the newspapers. Former U.S. Rep. David Price, a political science professor at Duke University, said he was largely unaware of the activities of Dr. Smock.

Scholars do not all oppose the idea of having the House historian represent the institution. Dr. Price said he had spoken to Democratic House leaders about hiring a non-partisan person to explain its workings to the public. James MacGregor Burns, a retired historian at Williams College, also said the job should go to a scholar interested in promoting the House.

"Clearly, Gingrich wanted to move in the direction of that interpretive mission," said Dr. Price, who lost his congressional seat last fall. "It could easily verge over into propaganda if it's not done right. Knowing Gingrich and his approach to the institution, some of the things he said lent some credence to these concerns."

Some scholars emphasized the need for an historian with strong credentials.

"They were really going to focus on outreach programs and other which is fine, as far as it goes," said Harold Hyman, a constitutional scholar at Rice University, referring to Mr. Gingrich's plans for the post. "It's a little bit like what the museum does at a presidential library. But what are you going to reach out with if you don't have the scholarship to base it on?"

Whatever the other duties of the job, the historian should do basic research, several scholars said, pointing to the work of the Senate's historian, Richard Baker.

Documenting the evolution of a proposal into law helps future judges determine legislative intent, which is not always immediately apparent from reading the official Congressional Record, a sanitized version of debate by federal lawmakers who often revise their remarks.

Military historians, in particular, have been able to create respected accounts of the institutions that employ them, scholars said. But they called the initial selection of Dr. Jeffrey, a political scientist at a little-known college, an act that undermined the office.

"It smacked of an anti-intellectual position," William E. Leuchtenburg, presidential scholar and professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said of Dr. Jeffrey's selection. Mr. Gingrich, a former college professor who has a doctorate in history from Tulane University, acted like "somebody with a hostility to the historical enterprise, which is strange from a man who was a historian himself," Dr. Leuchtenburg said.

Dr. Smock, then a lecturer at the University of Maryland College Park, was named to the post when it was first established in 1983. At that time, Mr. Gingrich, then a minority back-bencher, supported the position in preparation for the celebration of the bicentennial of the Congress in 1989.

After firing Dr. Smock, Mr. Gingrich plucked his fellow Georgian from relative obscurity and gave her the job paying $85,000, roughly the same as a full professorship at an Ivy League university.

In one way, Speaker Gingrich was acting like his predecessors, professors said. He was "perhaps indulging in the kind of patronage that he has been deploring," Dr. Leuchtenburg said. "It's something one might associate with patronage-happy Tammany Democrats."

Said Dr. Ambrose, sounding a similar theme: "The revolution isn't so revolutionary, as it turns out."


David Folkenflik covers higher education for The Baltimore Sun.

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