Historian On Think Tank Resignation Over Former Trump Official's Hiring

Aug 4, 2018
Originally published on August 5, 2018 2:27 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Marc Short, the former director of legislative affairs for the Trump White House, has found a new position in public policy at a think tank in Charlottesville, Va. The University of Virginia's Miller Center specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy and political history. Mr. Short was recently hired there as a senior fellow. Two historians, Melvyn Leffler and William Hitchcock, resigned from the center in protest. William Hitchcock joins us now. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: Why did you resign?

HITCHCOCK: Well, there were really two sets of objections to bringing Mr. Short from Washington straight out of the White House with his sword still reeking from the political arena that he's been in. He's a very skillful but very prominent defender of some very controversial policies of the Trump administration. Also, he was a man who steadfastly stood by the president when the president tried to sort of wipe away or sweep away the events of August 11 and 12 last summer in Charlottesville, which is where I live and work. And we were very sensitive to that. But there were also very specific professional objections. I mean, we didn't feel that we would have hired H.R. Haldeman in the middle of Watergate to come to our center to give us the unvarnished truth about Richard Nixon. And in the same way, we just felt that Mr. Short didn't belong in our nonpartisan scholarly center on the presidential history.

SIMON: To follow up on your example, though, wouldn't a lot of presidential scholars love to have some kind of insight into what H.R. Haldeman said about Watergate?

HITCHCOCK: Yes, indeed. And, in fact, the Miller Center is distinguished for interviewing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of former presidential officials. And in none of those cases have we ever paid those people to speak or have we ever offered them a senior fellowship at the Miller Center as a quid pro quo. So this was a curious sort of rupture, really, if you will, in our scholarly practice.

SIMON: The Miller Center says in a statement that senior fellowship positions are part time and that they're not faculty appointments. They just last a year. And, of course, your position is or was a faculty appointment. Did you give up more than was necessary? And are you depriving people there from learning from all of your experience?

HITCHCOCK: Well, we are scholars who write and who speak regularly on presidential history. We're certainly not giving up that work. And indeed, I myself expect that I will be writing on and studying the Trump presidency for years to come. It's one of the most fascinating moments in our history. But the issue at stake here was who should be a part of the process of writing that history. Now, obviously, government officials are free to write their memoirs and free to give lectures on college campuses. And I hope Mr. Short will give those lectures. But I didn't feel it was appropriate to bring the subject of our analysis into the room with us. I mean, I think that he should be under the microscope rather than a member of the team doing the forensic analysis. So just as a scholar, as a matter of research, I couldn't then turn to him for unbiased information about the Trump administration.

SIMON: Can you think of any figure in the Trump administration you would welcome?

HITCHCOCK: Oh, heavens, yes. I would point to H.R. McMaster, for example, who, after all, has a Ph.D. So he has academic credentials. But he also wrote a very highly regarded book on civil military relations. And he's shown independence while he was in the White House. I think Ambassador Nikki Haley is a figure who has a long-distinguished career before she came into the White House of elective office. And she's shown real independence of judgment. The debate about removing the battle flag from the South Carolina capital, for example, demonstrated she could step outside of her party and take a risky position. Dan Coats, the current Director of National Intelligence, has demonstrated a lot of independence of thought and has spoken out. So what we're looking for is somebody who is not merely a foot soldier and a mouthpiece. I think that's a reasonable distinction to make.

SIMON: William Hitchcock, professor of history at the University of Virginia, thanks so much for being with us.

HITCHCOCK: It's a pleasure. I really appreciate the opportunity.

SIMON: And we have reached out to Marc Short. We're waiting for his reply. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.