Remini’s ‘Short’ History Packs Whole Lot of Punch

Posted November 17, 2008 at 5:05pm

While describing his role as House historian, Robert Remini suddenly interrupts himself, lurches forward and raises his usually hushed voice. “Do you know people don’t know how their government works?”

“That’s something!” he adds, his voice getting louder. “It’s not just the history of the country. They don’t know how a law becomes a law.”

It’s this audience that Remini hopes to access with his newest book, “A Short History of the United States.” Starting with the arrival of the Indians to North America and ending in early 2008, Remini covers the highs and lows in between in 336 pages.

Remini’s career as a historian has spanned several decades and includes profiles of American leaders such as former President Andrew Jackson, about whom he wrote a three-volume biography and won a National Book Award, and, more recently, institutions such as the House of Representatives.

He was spurred to write a narrative on the country’s whole history after finishing his account of the House in 2005.

“I thought the same could be done for the United States,” he says. “And it could be so available and manageable — and yet complete — for the average American.”

The 87-year-old Remini’s passion for the past is anything but brief.

It started flourishing during World War II. During down times as an anti-submarine warfare officer, Remini often visited local libraries and came out of the war wanting to be a historian.

“‘You’ll starve,’ my father said to me when I told him.”

Remini, who grew up in New York City, went to graduate school wanting to study 20th-century New York political history. However, he was convinced by an adviser to turn his attention to a 19th-century New Yorker, former President Martin Van Buren.

It was while researching Van Buren that he first took notice of Jackson. That, in turn, sparked his chronicling of the era, which later included studies of Jackson’s adversary, former Sen. Henry Clay (Whig-Ky.), as well as other contemporaries including Sen. Daniel Webster (Whig-Mass.) and former President John Quincy Adams.

“I always thought it would be wonderful in the afterlife, if you could listen to them debate,” he says, referring to Clay, Webster and Sen. John C. Calhoun (D-S.C.) — who were known as the Great Triumvirate because their debates dominated the Senate — along with other great speakers of the past.

Remini has also traveled across the world in search of historical nuggets from that era. In Spain, he sought evidence of Jackson’s marriage to Rachel Donelson Robards. He never found the document, but discovered letters that illuminated Jackson’s desire to expand U.S. boundaries.

Remini chuckles, whispers and shouts when he tells stories and gestures when he speaks. When he laughs, which is often, the creases on his face disappear.

So far, there is no 20th-century figure he’s been interested in profiling.

“I have to really feel some kind of connection with the individual,” he says. Those individuals he has connected with largely remain within Jackson’s era, many of whom he praises for their great oratory skills and dynamic personalities.

The regular research and discovery of new facts continually renews his love of history.

“I can’t not be writing and researching and thinking about history,” he says. “I will never retire.”

His position as House historian adds to that excitement. He is mandated to educate the American people and Capitol Hill about the history of the House, he says.

Who was the first Jewish Member of Congress? Lewis Levin (American Party-Pa.). Who was the first woman? Jeannette Rankin (R-Mont.). How many blind people have been Members? Three. These questions have all been fielded to Remini and his office.

Additionally, he regularly interviews Congressmen, studies their documents and even has floor privileges as House historian. Because of his age, the guards never stop him to look at his badge, he says with a laugh.

“I walk right by, and they think I’m a Member,” he says. “I feel like a Member” when on the House floor.

Despite spending years analyzing the lives of dead politicians, Remini was never interested in pursuing politics; he lacks the temperament, he says.

There is never a dull moment in a “Short History,” and the pace remains consistently quick throughout.

In the Cold War section, for example, former Sen. Joe McCarthy (D-Minn.) is introduced at the bottom of one page, and his death is recounted on the top of the next.

The facts, events and ideas Remini chose to include in the book were based on their relevance today, he says. A speech by John Quincy Adams about the importance of Americans not going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy” in foreign territories is mentioned multiple times in different eras in the book.

Additionally, Remini says he learned about the importance of compromise while writing his history.

“It’s one of the most important things we’ve learned from history,” he says. Partisanship and rigid attitudes have historically been unproductive in Congress, he adds. It’s a message he hopes to provide to freshman Members.

It is also a topic he plans to further explore in his next book — on the Compromise of 1850.

Remini remains optimistic about the future and believes the country will bounce back from its current downturn through innovation.

But he also says it is a dangerous period, and Americans must stay informed about their country.

“Some people have suggested that we’re on the decline,” Remini says. “Hopefully this book will help to prevent that, if it is true.”