Michael Beschloss has written nine books – and in the past six months, more than 1,000 tweets.
For a historian accustomed to quiet pursuits and tweedy acceptance, his Twitter account, beschlossDC, has become an unexpected source of popular and critical approbation. He has used Twitter to transmit historical-recording snippets, quotes, documents and – most successfully – era-specific photographs that dignify a newish platform of communication. Unlike many other academics, he has embraced social media to democratize the delicious elements of our nation’s past.
By lunchtime on April 25, the 57-year-old Washington resident had been on-air for hours with NBC News for the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library in Dallas. He also had sent nine tweets to his more than 24,800 followers, noting that Bush and John F. Kennedy were the only presidents since Ulysses S. Grant to have had both parents alive when inaugurated. And Beschloss passed along to followers a rare image of Harry S. Truman during the construction of his presidential library. And he related that Lyndon B. Johnson, eager for visitors to his library, once requested an announcement be made at the nearby Texas Longhorns stadium that the LBJ Library bathrooms were open. “Worked,” Beschloss added.
During a break from his broadcast duties, Beschloss chatted about his accidental entry onto Twitter last October – and his discoveries since. “During one of the presidential debates, I was on PBS with Christina Bellantoni (‘PBS NewsHour’s’ political editor) and I was using a search engine to find out what people were saying,” Beschloss recalled. “She said, ‘Why don’t you just go on Twitter?’”
He agreed, tentatively. “I really thought I would start doing this and discover this was something I wasn’t doing very well, and I would slink back to my books. It completely surprised me.”
“He was a natural,” Bellantoni said. “The photos – that’s exactly how you should use Twitter. Taking your expertise and adapting it for the medium.”
Beschloss long had wanted to put more images and sounds in his work, but his books, which often run more than 300 pages, were limited to only a dozen pages or so of photographs in the middle. For his two LBJ books and a Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis book, he relied on a trove of audiotapes – material he has yet to tap.
“With LBJ, you could hear so much in the intensity of his voice, even when you also heard ‘Gunsmoke’ on television or ice cubes rattling in a glass,” Beschloss said.
“No one else really did history this way,” he said of incorporating multimedia details on Twitter. “I thought, ‘If I were going to do this, this had better be a mirror of my own interests.’”
Time magazine, in naming Beschloss’ Twitter feed one of the 140 best of 2013, hailed the rarely seen images he brought to the masses. (The number 140 was chosen because it refers to the maximum number of characters in a tweet.)
His workflow hasn’t changed much, he said, noting similarities between adding a fact on a notecard or saving it electronically via Twitter. But the feedback from Twitter – from friends or casual online followers such as Mia Farrow and Morgan Fairchild – is immediate. It’s a sharp contrast to the year-long wait between writing and getting a book published and into the hands of a reader.
The big question: Has tweeting given him cool points with his two sons, one a college freshman, the other a high school sophomore?
That would be a no. “My kids don’t do Twitter for some reason,” Beschloss said. “They do Facebook.”