Brian Lamb launched C-SPAN’s Booknotes program 30 years ago, interviewing authors of newly released hardcover nonfiction title, but today the show generates books of its own. For the past year, C-SPAN’s team of hosts, marketing specialists, and executive assistants have collaborated to produce a book, and much more, doing what they do best at the intersection of technology, television, and the printed page.
Released on April 23, The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best—and Worst—Chief Executives (PublicAffairs) is C-SPAN’s 10th publication, and along with the book’s 10-page chapters on America’s first 44 presidents, the D.C.-based network has also launched a website with digital access to the original TV interviews that were the foundation for the book’s chapters.
All of it is the result of a survey conducted by C-SPAN every time a new president enters the White House, in which 100 historians rank the leadership qualities of the incoming president’s predecessors. Though the book, website, and interviews offer a glimpse of the presidents, the creation of the book provides an opportunity to see inside the nation’s leading source for television coverage of books.
From Screen to Page and Back
The path to creating The Presidents begins with Lamb’s interviews of historians, each of whom has authored a book about a president. Robert Caro speaks about Lyndon Johnson, John Ferling discusses James Monroe, and Doris Kearns Goodwin talks up Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Transcripts then go to editor Susan Swain, who reconfigures the interviews to create an excerpt that captures the spirit of the conversation, which is no easy task. “She is a brilliant editor,” Lamb says. “When I interview people, you almost have to listen to it or watch it because you’re going to get scrambled. I jump around on purpose. She’s able to take that and make it into these little chapters.”
Swain has edited all 10 of C-SPAN’s publications, and with time her editorial technique has become more refined, she says. “In the beginning I was concerned about being really careful, about not changing words for the authors.” With The Presidents she brought a heavier touch to the page to ensure clarity. “I’m not changing any meaning, but I’ve decided that the authors would care more about good syntax.”
Swain hands the chapters off to Rachel Katz, who, along with a colleague, offers comments on the drafts. At the same time, Katz works with a team to create a website that has data from the survey of presidents as well as streaming content for the TV interviews. The goal, Katz says, is to create an opportunity to introduce readers to major books about presidents in an accessible way.
“Really, this is a work of the historians that we have interviewed,” Katz says. “We want to give them their due credit.” As a result, below the survey rankings, every author’s book is listed and linked to for purchase.
Lamb adds that librarians and archivists, in addition to the authors themselves, are essential to the success of the books at the heart of the project. “We would not have The Presidents, nor would the authors have these books, without librarians and without archivists. They’re the unsung the heroes of any book about politics that was ever written.”
As the book goes through development, employees donate time to the project, doing fact-checking and copyediting before compiling the finished work in the order that the survey ranks the presidents. The manuscript is then sent to PublicAffairs executive editor Ben Adams, who shepherds the book to market. All of the proceeds are donated to C-SPAN’s Education Foundation. “These books are very much a reflection of the mission of C-SPAN,” Lamb says. “It’s a cooperative thing.”
A New Take on the Presidents
The completion of the book is the beginning of sharing deeper insights with readers, and it also gives the editors an opportunity to reflect on the survey, which began in 1999. Perhaps only the top of the list, a pantheon that includes Washington and Lincoln, and the bottom, with the likes of Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan, remain relatively similar over time. Closer to the middle, some presidents have moved up while others have moved down, often as a result of what has been published about them.
“It’s been interesting to watch the power of big biographies and how they influence the process,” Swain says, pointing to the recent spate of books about Ulysses S. Grant. “There have been some major Grant biographies, and Grant has moved up 11 points, and I think there’s a real cause and effect there.”
Though Lamb says that he has no interest in passing judgement on the presidents, he marvels instead at the things that are less known about them that help readers understand that they are human beings. “People know more about presidents than any other figure in public life—they often have opinions about them.” And yet, he adds, “they don’t know a lot.”
In some ways Lamb counts himself among them and is constantly looking for new insights. In this volume, he says he was struck by presidential health problems: “You know the health problems of a few. But you don’t know the health problems of James K. Polk, who walked out of office and died, or Grover Cleveland and the removal of the cancerous tumor in his mouth.”
Even the less fortunate presidencies have stories that resonate today. Swain often jokes about William Henry Harrison’s place at number 38 on the list: “He isn’t dead last, even though he was in office for 30 days, so it makes anyone who follows him a net negative.”
Still, Swain says Harrison’s campaign is important today. As a candidate, he used a log cabin as his 1840 campaign’s image, and it was part of a successful effort that drew 100,000 people at some stops. “They paraded log cabins through streets,” Swain says, “so it became his meme.”
Swain adds, “I think for people who are curious about American history and like learning about presidents, we’ve given them this menu. You can get in at this level, learn something you never knew about this president, and if you want to learn more you can.”