Crimson and Colbert

Drew Faust holds her own against Stephen Colbert.

Creative Commons photo by Office of Governor Patrick. Source: Flickr

Drew Gilpin Faust and Stephen Colbert. President of Harvard University and the host of The Colbert Report. Acclaimed historian and comedian extraordinaire.

In plain terms, two of the greatest global personalities you would never imagine under the same roof — much less engaged in witty, and surprisingly intellectual, banter — came together for the sake of education, remembrance, and a few bad jokes. On Monday, September 17, 2012, over a million viewers were treated to this exciting clash of spheres as academia met satire.

Before the interview began, the show commenced with a fierce liberal lashing of the GOP, of which the most memorable was a highlight of Rick Santorum claiming that “[the GOP] will never have the elite, smart people on our side.” Following this was a comically skewed, annotated list of certain not-so-bright moments of notable conservatives.

Next came a portion on Rosh Hashanah, which Colbert lovingly calls “Rosh Hashananah.” An extremely brief history of the holiday was provided before Colbert so graciously gave all of his Jewish acquaintances the chance to make amends and apologize to him for any transgressions committed against him. (1-800-OOPS-JEW is the number in case any of our readers are feeling exceptionally remorseful).

After dabbling in the religious controversy Americans have stirred up with the Islamic community, which was, to say the least, awkward, Colbert finally moved to his guest of honor of the night, the one and only Drew Faust. He begins by introducing both her and the new documentary based on her book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Colbert emphasizes the fact that she’s “one of those smart people” Santorum believes will never be attracted to the Republican Party. When he jokingly asked if she and Harvard are prejudiced against conservatives, against “stupid people,” Faust answers in the most elegant and diplomatic fashion, stating, “it’s never dumb to get an education.”

Next, the two discussed the specifics of Faust’s This Republic of Suffering. She explained that the American Civil War brought unprecedented levels of death that reshaped the relationship between citizens and their government. The Civil War changed the way people approached death, especially the way the government approached the death of its citizens. The absolute numbers of Americans who died in the war (approximately 750,000) would be proportionate to 7 million of today’s Americans dying.

Seven million.

That’s an astounding number, and one of the greatest points that Faust drives home is the inconceivable impact this had on society at the time. Before the Civil War, there was no formal record of citizen deaths through military warfare. Now, the government is held accountable to give citizens who died due respect for their sacrifice for their country. Coincidentally, this is where military cemeteries first began — just one of the many ways the Civil War completely reshaped our country.

But what was nearly as shocking is the reverence Colbert affords Faust.

For a man who may be known for his flaming disregard for propriety as much as his ability to induce raucous laughter, Colbert was surprisingly civil, closer to admiration than impudence for the majority of the interview. This, more than the facts Faust presented, was one of the greatest impressions left at the end of the interview.

Colbert allowed Faust to speak substantially on the subject of her book and on her passionate views of the Civil War without interruption, without disdain, and without sarcastic mockery. His style during Faust’s appearance contradicted that shown during some of his former interviews, such as that with historian Eric Foner, who appeared on the show in March 2010 to discuss the legitimacy of the Texas School Board’s decision to selectively edit textbooks. At least, he kept his satiric comedy to a minimum. The greatest part of the interview was actually spent on exploring the topic of the new documentary and of Faust’s book, not on the interviewee nervously laughing off Colbert’s quasi-attacks meant as jokes or, even worse, struggling to come up with wittier replies.

Faust handled herself with grace and impressive composure and calm against Colbert’s usual dominance in guest interviews. It’s always awkward to see an intellectual on The Colbert Report, so out of their element that it’s intensely uncomfortable. But Drew Faust proves herself to be the exception, not the rule. Props to you, Drew.

Whitney Gao ’16 (whitneygao@college) wishes Stephen Colbert — and Drew Faust —would talk to her.