This week marks the end of Now & Then, the CAFE show that I’ve been lucky enough to produce for the last two-and-a-half years.
In addition to working with the brilliant Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman, researching the anecdotes for each show – the “buckets,” as we call them – has given me a high-octane opportunity to flex my archival history muscles.
I also get to dig extensively to write my Time Machine articles, which detail another anecdote that resonates with each week’s episode.
This search – for quotes, context, and obscure cultural artifacts – has led me to a few archives that I believe can be useful for any lover of history.
So, as we say goodbye to Now & Then, I wanted to share a few of my favorite freely-accessible databases, and to offer some brief highlights of the sources I’ve found therein…
My academic background is in 20th-century American history, so one of my biggest challenges at the outset of producing Now & Then was familiarizing myself with Early American figures and happenings. The Whiskey Rebellion? The XYZ Affair? The assumption of Revolutionary War debt? These all still lived in the realm of high school history flashcards for me, rather than in living and breathing personae.
In addition to taking advantage of Joanne’s generous tutelage, I took to the National Archives’ Founders Online portal to get a better understanding of how the Founders and their allies spoke. The archive has a fully-searchable collection of a broad swath of letters that informed our system of government. There is some truly heavy stuff in here.
At the same time, I was stunned by the sheer weirdness and goofiness of so many of the missives. And I got an opportunity, in our tenth episode, “Projecting America at the Olympics,” to follow one of the most surreal epistolary back-and-forths I’ve ever read.
The episode, broadly, concerned American diplomacy through sport. For our first anecdote, however, we decided to look at how Thomas Jefferson presented the power of the new American nation while he was serving as Foreign Minister to France in the 1780s. I did not expect moose to loom so large.
In brief: Jefferson got into a scientific rivalry with the powerful French naturalist-aristocrat the Comte de Buffon. The Comte was convinced that large animals could not thrive in America. Jefferson, in an effort to prove the Comte’s folly, enlisted John Sullivan, the Governor of New Hampshire, to kill, stuff, and ship the largest moose he could fell to France. Jefferson also asked for large horns from a number of beasts. (Here’s one of Jefferson’s initial entreaties to Sullivan.)
Sullivan took more than a year to deliver, but when he did, he revealed a true ordeal to get the moose. He had appealed to a Captain Colborn to secure the animal, a task that had ultimately required the Captain and his team to lug a moose carcass over treacherous and icy lands for some two weeks. Sullivan’s relaying of the quest is Jack London-level Call of the Wild drama.
Jefferson was thankful, sort of, but was annoyed at the decayed state of the moose and the small size of the horns that Sullivan had sent over. Jefferson thanked the exhausted Governor, but sort of passive-aggressively entreated him to keep looking for larger horns. Something about Jefferson’s cautious language here had me in absolute stitches:
Should a pair of large horns of the elk or deer fall into your way by accident I would thank you to keep them till some vessel should be coming directly from your nearest port to Havre. So also of very large horns of the Moose, for I understand they are sometimes enormously large indeed.
Jefferson, in all his bravado, pettiness, and bizarre attention to detail, was a much fuller figure to me after reading the full Moose Imbroglio Letters (my terminology).
If you’re interested in the inner thoughts of the Founders and Framers, you simply must play around in this archive.
Back in November 2022, I got to go to Boston with Heather and Joanne to hear them record a live episode and receive an award at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS).
MHS is a history haven of the first order, and I got to speak with the brilliant staff about a resource of theirs that had become a bit of an obsession for me: Their online archive of John Quincy Adams’ diary, which he kept for more than 68 years, from his adolescence in 1779 to his death in 1848.
The entries are both confessional and stately, filled with mundanities and also providing invaluable, first-person accounts of America’s growth. My most joyous use of the diary concerned Adams’ life-long, angst-ridden, love-hate relationship with the flute.
When Heather and Joanne recorded their episode “The Meaning of Madison’s Flute: Who Owns Music?” I saw an opening in my accompanying Time Machine article to detail this epic musical relationship.
I searched “flute” in the diary database and read through every entry, from Adams’ initial acquisition of a flute at Harvard in 1786, to his rapturous review of a flautist at a Covent Garden performance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea in 1816. I put together a roughly chronological relationship of Adams’ flute love in my resultant article, “Taking Lessons’: The Role of the Flute in John Quincy Adams’ Political and Social Life.”
In one particularly poignant entry, Adams confessed to a self-denigrating 1795 incident at a tense French state dinner, in which he told his hosts, while discussing his desire to improve American musical culture:
If I could be permitted to cite myself as an instance, I am extremely fond of music, and by dint of great pains have learnt to blow very badly the flute.
The vulnerability! The shame! The mix of diplomacy and hobbyism!
If you have any interest in the inner-workings of a brilliant and troubled American mind, you must read some of Adams’ scrawlings.
In June, Now & Then responded to the Supreme Court decision in Haaland v. Brackeen, which upheld adoption policies for indigenous Americans that privileged keeping adoptees within Native American families and cultures.
One of the anecdotes in the resultant episode, “The American Nation and Indigenous Nations: Sovereignty & Struggle,” concerned the 1960s Minneapolis origins of the American Indian Movement (AIM).
I took to JSTOR and Reveal Digital’s Independent Voices archive to search for some first-person quotations from the Movement’s leaders. Independent Voices is an open collection of some 19,500 issues of alternative magazines and journals, published by feminist groups, racial liberation organizations, and campus activists. The archive reveals the stories, tactics, and art of American dissent in the second half of the 20th century in an absolutely riveting way.
I spent a day reading through the archive’s extensive pieces on AIM and the long Indigenous American effort to secure equal rights. Some of the material made it into the episode – including some fascinating background on the AIM-funded Indigenous housing project Little Earth – but I also kept some choice quotes that didn’t fit in the show for my own personal archive.
One such piece was a 1976 interview with AIM’s Dennis Banks published in the alternative Montana journal Borrowed Times. Banks is remarkably candid, discussing his own disappointments with the Wounded Knee uprising and speaking with awe about the power of Indigenous American women leaders.
This quote stays with me:
In the last 400 or 500 years, Indian women have endured terrible suffering, mentally and physically. They have been beaten and robbed of all dignity. And yet, they’ve maintained a race of people, nations of people. They’ve held us together. They’ve seen us become drunks, they’ve seen us commit suicide, they’ve seen us sleep in another bed, and yet they’ve maintained all dignity, all sanity. They have maintained the Indian Society throughout the many pains of 50,000 years. They are truly the real warriors of history.
I’m an unabashed fan of PBS NewsHour. I think the show provides some of the most cogent and in-depth political analysis and interviews out there.
Imagine my excitement when I learned that the American Archive of Public Broadcasting site has free, transcript-searchable uploads of almost every NewsHour episode dating to the show’s debut in 1975, back when the program was hosted by Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil.
I used these episodes extensively while prepping Now & Then, often isolating clips that we could include briefly in episodes.
This April, Heather and Joanne covered the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army in the context of Russia’s detainment of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in our episode “Hostages as Messages.”
I took to the NewsHour archive to look for perspectives on Hearst, and I found a wild 1978 interview between MacNeil and Carter-era Attorney General Griffin Bell. In the conversation, Bell, with a level of candor that would arguably be a major political scandal from an AG today, wrestles with whether Carter should pardon Hearst for her participation in her kidnappers’ crimes. On the pardon question, Bell said:
Now, if she got that kind of treatment, people would say, well, she got that because she was rich. On the other hand, if she’d been some unknown nondescript person, maybe she wouldn’t have got as long a sentence.
If you want an unvarnished look at how politicians and public servants of the 1970s-1990s parsed complex moral and cultural issues (and if you want to marvel at how openly they discussed these struggles), you simply must visit the American Archive…
One of our siblings at Vox Media is New York Magazine. Much of the magazine’s remarkable archive is available on Google Books. I sincerely believe that these articles comprise some of the best journalism of the last 60 years, and I’ve read a whole lot of its explosive prose while prepping Now & Then.
In October 2022, we released an episode called “Fat Cats and Hidden Hands in Politics,” a look at political dark money inspired by GOP super-funder Leonard Leo’s bolstering of arch-conservative causes.
Heather and Joanne looked at some of Leo’s antecedents and direct inspirations, including 1970s GOP direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie.
In June 1975, New York Magazine’s Nick Thimmesch penned a profile of the then-young, ascendent Viguerie. The lengthy, New Journalism-inflected piece is both rollickingly entertaining and super disturbing. Viguerie openly sketches out his plan to manipulate Americans through a cultural focus on school curricula, abortion, and urban crime.
And Viguerie confesses that negative, fear-based campaigns were going to go much further for Republicans than more optimistic ones:
People are more strongly motivated by negative issues than positive ones. When there are no negatives or enemies, the appeal isn’t strong. The Democrats know this, too. It’s hard to pick up an appeal letter of theirs without seeing the name Richard Nixon or Watergate in it.
A confession: I’ve started reading New York Magazine chronologically, cover to cover. I’m still only in 1969 (the second year of publication), but I’m having a true blast…
The most telling moments of a presidency can often be off-hand remarks during press conferences or semi-private fundraisers. The University of California Santa Barbara Presidency Project’s online database has not only iconic States of the Union or wartime addresses, but also the more (on the surface) routine orations of each presidential administration – some 157,000 documents worth of them.
When Beto O’Rourke confronted Texas Governor Greg Abbott in the aftermath of Uvalde and now-Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman poked fun at his challenger Mehmet Oz on Twitter, Heather and Joanne came up with an awesome idea for an episode: “When Parties Push Back.” They looked at other moments where political figures bravely confronted hostile opposition, from Massachusetts Representative Anson Burlingame’s willingness to duel South Carolina’s Preston Brooks after Brooks caned Charles Sumner in 1856, to FDR’s 1936 “I Welcome Their Hatred” speech.
For the Time Machine, I wanted to find a slightly more recent incident in which a political figure fiercely criticized an opponent who was flirting with extremism. Enter the UCSB American Presidency Project, which brought me to a series of fundraisers at which then-President Bill Clinton appeared on behalf of the Democratic National Committee and his Vice President and then-presidential candidate Al Gore.
Clinton was technically a lame duck and had remained largely out of the fray in the early months of the race. However… after Gore’s presumptive opponent, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, gave a speech at South Carolina’s notorious Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating, Clinton let loose. Per his March 30th, 2000 DNC luncheon fundraiser remarks in New York, the full text of which is available at the Presidency Project:
Governor Bush went to Bob Jones University. You can’t imagine what a big deal this was to a Southerner. Anybody that went through the civil rights revolution was more offended by that, I think, than anything else — because — it’s okay. I’m sure there are a lot of—you know, there are good people everywhere. But if you’re going to go there, you should say, “I don’t agree with your racial and religious policies.
If you play around with search terms and eras here, I guarantee you’ll find some off-the-cuff and obscure comments that can really make American political battles come to life…
A final shout-out. The Internet Archive, a non-profit online library run out of San Francisco, has been under fire for copyright concerns. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in March, in a case brought by the publisher Hachette, that the Archive’s pandemic-influenced decision in March 2020 to open up its library to all users, rather than relying on a more typical waitlist and due date system, broke copyright law. The Archive just filed an appeal.
While the fate of the Archive feels a bit up in the air, for now the collection is largely intact and legal to access – and it’s magnificent.
This June, Heather and Joanne recorded an episode on water in American history, “There’s Something in the Water,” inspired by the Biden administration’s agreement with Western states to share and conserve water from the Colorado River amid the ongoing Western megadrought.
I wrote a Time Machine inspired by Joanne’s memories of the 1977 California drought, which saw widespread water rationing.
The piece, “‘Everyone I Know Has a Dirty House’: California’s Reaction to a 1970s Drought,” included a source I found buried deep in the Internet Archive: Northern Californian comic book artist Shary Flenniken’s Drought Chic.
The book’s illustrations reveal the class-based braggadocio around water conservation. In one panel, attendees at a swanky cocktail party try to one-up each other about taking showers every other day and hiring elite water experts. One speech-bubble dialogue:
“Who’s the good-looking man in the Pierre Cardin suit?” a well-dressed woman asked her husband. “Our plumber,” the man sourly responded.
I hope you can find something in these archives that excites you, and I hope this little peek behind the curtain of researching Now & Then and the Time Machine is a fitting tribute to a show that has meant an incredible amount to me.
I want to thank Heather, Joanne, Preet, Executive Producer Tamara Sepper, and the entire CAFE team for all the support that they have given me in this research, and I am also sending immense gratitude to the brilliant CAFE community that has shown so much love for the show.