Historian stirs up political thinking (video)

Carolina Astrain
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In a group of Texans pressing him for his opinion, Rick Shenkman kept his cool.

The historian and author subtly reminded the crowd of 180 that he is also a journalist.

"My personal opinion doesn't really matter," Shenkman said.

But the crowd pushed and ached for answers:

"What do you think about voter suppression in this country?"

"What about Harry Truman?"

"What is your definition of New World Order?"

These were just a handful of questions posed to the silver-haired speaker at the Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts.

Voter registration booths and stacks of books on sale greeted attendants to this season's first Lyceum lecture, a series that was founded in 1974.

The topic of the night was the ignorance of the American voter.

"It's a complicated question of trying to figure out why so many people don't know that much," Shenkman said.

The speaker opened with an anecdotal story on how often presidents lie.

Shenkman contrasted the difference in Abraham Lincoln's campaign speeches in Chicago to those made in southern Illinois that contradicted his pledge to free slaves.

The historian credited the slow nature of news in the 19th century for allowing Lincoln to get away with his blatant lies on the campaign trail.

But then he turned the story on its head.

"Who here thinks politicians are more honest now that we have YouTube?" Shenkman asked.

Then he moved on and tore apart campaign promises made by John F. Kennedy, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

Wearing a blue plaid button-up shirt and a black DC skater cap, freshman Dalton Miller sat next to his date.

"I just like that he's already interested in government," said his mother, Tonya Milner.

The Vanderbilt resident had heard Shenkman speak at his Victoria College class earlier that day.

Milner was so impressed that he decided to show up at the evening lecture.

"I wish more people my age were actually here," Milner said.

What struck the freshman was Shenkman's candid approach to history.

"He's really informative and not shy at all," Milner said. "He doesn't even flinch."

Laughter punctuated Shenkman's lecture, and questions drifted well into the second hour.

"Why do politicians run for office?" Shenkman asked. "It's because they can't help themselves."

When one audience member asked the speaker why the Republican party chose Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate, Shenkman's response elicited smiles in the crowd.

"I do think Romney was twisted in knots," Shenkman said. "Like a pretzel coming out of a grinder."