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History professor to get national audience
November 9, 2011Tweet
Stephen Ortiz is headed for prime time.
The assistant professor of history will be featured at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 26, on C-SPAN3’s American History TV as part of its “Lectures in History” series. The network will air the talk on the New Deal that Ortiz gave in the Anderson Center on Oct. 31 to his Modern American Civilization class. The lecture is scheduled to re-air four hours later at midnight and at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27. It also will be available on c-span.org.
“It’s not a tack-on lecture,” Ortiz said. “It’s a lecture I would do in any case. It’s part of the course.”
Ortiz said he was contacted last year by Luke Nichter, an acquaintance and a director of C-SPAN’s history programming, about taking part in the series. Ortiz believed that a lecture to his Modern American Civilization class about the second New Deal was ideal for the series, as discussing FDR-era reforms would be fun for students and relevant to the 2012 presidential campaign.
The class, which covers the end of Reconstruction to the end of the Cold War, was moved from the Lecture Hall to the Anderson Center Chamber Hall for the taping and Ortiz made the class optional for the 240 students.
“I felt that was the only appropriate thing to do if people did not want to be filmed,” Ortiz said.
More than half attended the taping, moving to the front of the Chamber Hall as two cameras filmed from behind the students. Ortiz emerged from backstage and began his lecture on The New Deal from 1935-1940.
“The challenges were not so much about the environment – although having the lights in your face can be a little distracting,” he said. “The challenge was knowing that you have 50 minutes with a Q&A at the end. The biggest challenge was trying to get a neat narrative trajectory that ends on time. … You can’t say ‘OK, we’ll come back to this on Wednesday because the (TV) audience isn’t coming back on Wednesday.”
Those who watch Ortiz’s lecture will see a fascinating talk that summarizes five critical years of American history in less than an hour. Ortiz began the lecture by discussing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s opponents on the left: Father Charles Coughlin, Huey Long and Francis Townsend all believed that the New Deal was not going far enough to lead the country out of its economic catastrophe. These three pulled FDR to the left and a populist stance as three major pieces of legislation were passed: Works Progress Administration, Social Security Act of 1935 and the Wagner Act.
By 1936, unemployment had dropped and FDR publically put himself on the side of working people by adopting an aggressive, populist tone against his opponents on the right: “economic royalists and the wealthy.” Ortiz, who used a PowerPoint presentation during the talk, then played a powerful audio recording of FDR speaking at a campaign rally in Madison Square Garden, exactly 75 years from the day of the lecture: Oct. 31, 1936.
“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.
I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.”
FDR would get that second administration, trouncing Republican nominee Alf Landon and a Union Party created by supporters of Coughlin, Long and Townsend. Ortiz detailed some of the president’s missteps in 1937, such as a Supreme Court-packing plan that was called “an abandonment of constitutional principles without precedent and justification” by FDR’s own party. Following the Fair Labor Standards Act that established minimum-wage and maximum-work weeks in 1938, FDR would focus more and more on the looming threats from Axis powers.
Ortiz ended the lecture by noting that FDR transformed the Democrats into a more ideologically consistent party that would run national politics into the 1960s.
“Economically, it’s more ambiguous,” he told the students. “On the one hand you have high rates of economic growth. You have many things that will lead to post-World War II prosperity. On the other hand, unemployment remains a problem through 1942 and into World War II. And there are growing concerns that FDR and the New Deal have intervened so heavily on the side of the people that they have transgressed against the liberties of the wealthy.
“An economic assessment in many ways depends on how you feel about how government should be involved in American life. Who the government should be and what side the government should be on were as much political issues of 1938 and 1940 as they are in 2011.”
Tying history to the present day is a common thread in Ortiz’s courses.
“We’re not just talking about history as a set of things that happened in the past, but the ways in which it has contemporary relevance,” he said. “I try to make clear that the dilemmas of the 1930s can be the same as the dilemmas of today. There is the same type of rhetoric and vocabulary about how we understand the role of government.”
Ortiz, who wrote a 2009 book on the New Deal called “Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill: How Veteran Politics Shaped the New Deal Era,” is now working on a book project about the domestic influence of veteran organizations on U.S. foreign policy through the years.
Ortiz is no stranger to television, either. In 2008, he was featured on the PBS program “The History Detectives” and a 2010 talk from the Roosevelt Reading festival was included on C-SPAN2’s “Book TV.”
“It was excruciating to watch,” Ortiz said with a chuckle. “When the camera is on you unrelentingly for an hour, it (shows) every little rhetorical tick you have, every goofy gesture you make and you’re nervous about whether it makes sense.”
Does that mean Ortiz will skip his hour on C-SPAN3?
“I might watch some of it, hide, then watch some more – and hide,” he said.