On Chasing Celebrities

Dennis K. McDaniel, April 1998

To the Editor:

The December 1997 Perspectives was one of the most depressing I have read. The celebrity chasing was too much to bear. The essays on Roosevelt, Wilson, and Kennedy started it. The first two men are much on my mind lately, and at this moment I have an article in press that captures the first one nicely in this quote from the Congressional Record, ". . . [like] the Teddy Roosevelts, [they] are never truly happy unless they can see blood and bellow like a bull at a slaughter pen." (Congressman Martin Dies, 64 Cong. 1 Sess., p. 1,695, January 28, 1916.)

And Wilson? A man that even so moderate and mainstream a historian as Robert Ferrell says sent 50,000 Americans to their deaths; and for reasons that we have long known were pointless. Not bad enough? How about Wilson the racist, the instigator of federal government segregation in Washington, D.C., the smasher of the Bill of Rights? The man who sent Eugene Debs to prison because of a speech? A man on J. Edgar Hoover's side at the time of the Red Raids?

John F. Kennedy was such an extreme coward that as a senator he ducked one of the most symbolic votes of the entire 20th century--the censure vote against Senator Joe McCarthy. And yet he tried to wipe out Fidel Castro, a young man who already at that time had shown more genuine personal courage than Kennedy was able to summon during his entire existence.

Maybe you're happy that these people were members, presidents even, of the AHA, but it makes me ashamed--ashamed that this profession would write and publish about these people as though they are admirable, or even acceptable as human beings.

I turn a page, and then what? I learn that one of the members of our profession is actually and obviously flattered to have been asked to visit Hollywood and watch a movie being made. The story amazes me. How can a man who has written an excellent book on a worthy topic be at the same time interested in spending time visiting some celebrities? How can the two concepts be maintained simultaneously? Was I entirely wrong to think that this was a profession of intellectuals, people who live the life of the mind?

—Dennis K. McDaniel
State Museum of Pennsylvania