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

July 02, 1995|By DAVID FOLKENFLIK

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.

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