Sidney Blumenthal Sees ‘A House Divided’ in Past and Present

The journalist, author and former Clinton adviser came to GW to celebrate the school’s acquisition of the History News Network.

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HNN Editor-in-Chief Kyla Sommers and Sidney Blumenthal at last week's launch event. (Long Nguyen)
April 17, 2019

By Ruth Steinhardt

The George Washington University’s Department of History last Wednesday commemorated its acquisition of the History News Network (HNN) newsletter and website with a discussion by journalist and political adviser Sidney Blumenthal.

A longtime subscriber to HNN and friend of founding editor Rick Shenkman, Mr. Blumenthal said living and working in Washington, D.C., keeps him constantly aware of the interplay between past and present.

“We’re surrounded by history here,” he said. “It’s a palimpsest. We walk on ground that, especially in our current environment, has deep resonance, and we can always learn, on every single block, of the past that affects us today.”

Mr. Blumenthal’s career is wide-ranging. A former staff reporter at The Washington Post, he is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton.

His current project is a five-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, an interest that has followed him since a boyhood visit to Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Ill. His early teens coincided with both the early days of the modern civil rights movement and the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, which he said made explicit the ways that century-old history still reverberated.

Mr. Blumenthal began his Lincoln project because he was seeing similar convergences in the 21st century, he said.

“The questions confronting us today all had their roots [in Lincoln’s era],” he said. “Rather than spending all my time in contemporary journalism, I could more effectively over a longer period of time write on history.”

The biography’s soon-to-be published third volume, “All the Powers of Earth,” follows Lincoln’s construction of an entirely new political party in the face of powerful racism, nativism and anti-immigration movements that culminated in unprecedented violence.

“I have certainly been influenced by living through a period of nativism, racism, polarization, a house divided, in writing about those very questions,” Mr. Blumenthal said.

The question of history’s relevance to the present is essential to HNN, which publishes original essays by professional historians and aggregates history-related material from other sources to help put current events into historical perspective.  HNN also publishes blogs by historians and news about the historical profession.  

“It is a wonderful site,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “It provides real insight into the latest historical thinking and what historians are working on, what they’re doing, and I eagerly await my HNN email every week.”

In December, HNN founding editor Rick Shenkman passed the title of editor-in-chief to double GW alumna Kyla Sommers, B.A. ’13, Ph.D. ’19.

Dr. Sommers said her goal as the site’s chief steward is to maintain the quality of pieces and breadth of subjects it covers, while also using it as a tool to help prepare GW history students for their future careers. Next semester, she will teach a class in which students will help research, edit and prepare pieces for publication, alongside learning skills like grant writing.

“We want to help give students really strong CV skills when they graduate,” she said.

University News, Ruth Steinhardt