Dr James D. Boys is a broadcaster, writer and historian of American political history. His latest book Clinton’s Grand Strateg: US Foreign Policy in a Post-Cold War World is published by Bloomsbury and out now.
What is an historian?
I believe an historian is someone who sheds light on what may happen tomorrow by explaining today through the prism of yesterday. An historian is, by necessity, part explorer, part philosopher and part storyteller, skills that are required in equal measure to convey the intricacies of the past to a wide audience to ensure that what is past is not forgotten.
What made you decide to pursue a career in history?
I consider myself to be a political historian as I examine the history of politics and the politics of history. This makes my life interesting as well as problematic in an academic sense. There is always an attempt to pigeon-hole people as ‘historians’ or ‘political scientists’ or ‘international relations scholars.’ My work deliberately crosses all three fields. I always liked the idea of history but growing up in the UK during the 1980s was a bad time to be learning it at school. There seemed to be a deliberate attempt to take the joy out of the subject. It was only when we did a case study on the Kennedy assassination in my final year, and I knew more about it than the teacher, that I suddenly became interested and started to think that it could lead somewhere. It was when I discovered the opportunity existed to study US history and politics that the future really opened up for me and gave me a focus that I have never relinquished, taking me through undergraduate studies, an MA, to Capitol Hill, Walls Street, my PhD at Birmingham and my study of Clinton’s Grand Strategy for Bloomsbury.
What is the one history book you couldn’t do without?
I’m going to need to plead guilty to being a sentimentalist here and say William Manchester’s Brief, Shining Moment on the life of JFK. I got a paper back copy for my 18th birthday that coincided with the 25th anniversary of the assassination and picked up a nice hardback version in Hong Kong several years later. It perfectly encapsulated what I always felt was great about history: the capacity to transfer you somewhere else in time and enable you to walk with those who have gone before. It’s a wonderful, romantic, emotive book that totally captivated me as a youngster and whose prose continues to resonate now, over 25 years later.
There are two that I have made great use of. The first is the Papers of the Presidents series that the US Government printing office runs, which has the digitised versions of Clinton’s official statements and speeches. This was a great asset when it came to preparing Clinton’s Grand Strategy as I was determined to make the text as referenced as possible and it always appalled me how poorly presidential addresses are referenced in most books. The USGPO make it easy for historians and yet all too few writers utilise this source correctly, resulting in poorly referenced material and confused annotation. There really is no excuse for it as far as I’m concerned and the website was a great help in this regard. The second site that has been of immense help has been the Clinton Presidential Library site, particularly given the recent release of de-classified materials. These came to light as I was completing the book and so I was able to utilise this material ensure that the book was as up to date as possible.
What is your favourite historical site?
My favourite historical site would have to be the Kennedy Library in Boston. It stands on an outcrop of land in Columbia Point and you can see it from the plane as you land at Boston’s Logan airport. It’s a magnificent building, designed by I.M. Pei that still looks remarkable thirty years after it was built. What’s remarkable is that Harvard rejected the chance to house the JFK collection, so it ended up at the University of Massachusetts instead, and so it has this fantastic vista that is perfectly in keeping with the president’s legacy. I honestly can’t recall ever being so excited about visiting a museum in my life as I was when I first went their in 1995 and it still gives me a thrill when ever I return.
You have a time-machine for twenty-four hours… where do you go?
If I could travel back into my own past I’d return to July 12, 1995. I met President Clinton on that day and I would warn him not to respond to the amorous advances of Miss Lewinsky later that year as it had a devastating impact on his presidency, his legacy and on the future direction of the country. I’m certain that without the Lewinsky affair you would have had a Gore presidency and no Iraq War, which would doubtless have been a far better result for everyone involved.
What is your normal working pattern?
I like to start with a clean slate and that means a clear desk and new computer folders to fill with new data and new files relating to each new research project. I love the sense of anticipation, of starting the next, latest endeavour.
Your area of historical expertise no longer exists. What would you research instead?
If I were not focused on Clinton’s Grand Strategy and American modern history I would happily go back a further 90 years to another dynamic era in US presidential history and examine the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who I find fascinating, though I imagine he’d struggle to get elected as a Republican in 2016.
Why is history important today?
History remains the best guide that we have for future behaviour. If we want to be able to attempt any prediction of where we are going, it is vital that have an appreciation of where we have been. That is the job of the historian: To aid our future trajectory by shedding light on our past. In an age of turmoil and terror, and with assumptions being challenged near and far, it is history that can help calm nerves and cool heads by revealing that humanity has experienced similar eras and emerged stronger and more resilient as a result. History, as a guide for both future action and as a method to inform the public about current events, is woefully under-utilised by the media and politicians and it is something that needs to be addressed.
What is your best historical fact?
I love the fact that at Clinton’s impeachment, the Supreme Court Justice, William Rehnquist wore the traditional black robes, but with gold bradding. This was not because he was the Chief Justice, and therefore above his colleagues, it was merely an adornment that he had personally added as he was an admirer of Gilbert and Sullivan operas and he thought it looked like something he had seen in a stage production. Can you imagine that? What it says about his state of mind and the application of justice? Remarkable!