Looking back at famous Americans
Every once in a while, I’ll read a book of history and want to throw a party: bottles of champagne, hors d’oeuvres, music, and even dancing, though I am as awkward on a dance floor as a Mississippi farm boy on ice skates for the first time. Encountering such a book leaves me giddy, “High as the flag on the Fourth of July,” as the song in the old musical “South Pacific” puts it.
Which brings me to The American Story: Conversations With Master Historians (Simon & Schuster, 2019, 397 pages.) In this marvelous book, David Rubenstein interviews some of the preeminent biographers of the United States to gain further insights into their subjects. Here we listen to such writers as David McCulluogh on John Adams, Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton, Doris Kearns Goodwin on Abraham Lincoln, Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson, and Taylor Branch on Martin Luther King, Jr., as they expound on the subjects they’ve spent years studying, researching, and shaping into print.
Here, for example, Rubenstein asks Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, why we don’t have “one real big memorial” for Franklin?
Isaacson answers; “Every now and then, you get David McCullough saying ‘Sign up to get a John Adams memorial, sign up to get a Franklin Memorial.’ I think we see Franklin all around us. Wherever I am, I see the fingerprints of Dr. Franklin. It’s like the epitaph on the stone slab in St. Paul’s Cathedral, where its architect, Christopher Wren, is buried: ‘If you seek his monument look around you.’”
Because Rubenstein largely asks his questions following the timeline of each famous American’s life and because his interviews are extensive, The American Story also provides us with 15 mini-biographies of famous Americans as well as Chief Justice John Roberts on the Supreme Court.
From Jack Warren Jr. we learn that one of George Washington’s great gifts was his ability to “think in the long term,” thinking what the country might be like in another century or even two.
Cokie Roberts, who has written several biographies about the role of women in the early history of our country, explains the historical importance of letters written by these wives, sisters, and mothers, as they reveal their fervent patriotism and bestow a treasure chest of details about life in that far-off time.
H.W. Brands, biographer of Ronald Reagan, remarks, “I cannot overstate the importance of Reagan’s sense of humor in his political success. He used to open nearly every speech with a joke.” Brand tells us that some of these jokes were banal or silly, but “…as people laughed, they would think, ‘Maybe this guy’s not so bad after all.’”
These interviewees also surprise us with dozens of little-known facts about their subjects. A. Scott Berg studied the list of supplies taken by Charles Lindbergh on the first solo flight across the Atlantic and found one item, a paper cup, which probably solves the mystery of how Lindbergh peed while remaining in the air so long. Richard Reeves makes us aware how truly ill John Kennedy was throughout much of his life from back problems and Addison’s disease, so stricken at times that he three times received the last rites of the Catholic Church. From Thomas Jefferson’s biographer, Jon Meacham, we learn that both Jefferson and Franklin bathed their feet in cold water every morning for several minutes, attributing to that health practice physical benefits and longevity. In a time when the average life span was in the mid-forties, Jefferson lived to be 83, Franklin to 84.
Foot bowls, anyone?
We also learn about the biographers themselves, what roused their interest in these historical figures, and sometimes how they researched them. Cokie Roberts, for example, mentions that the Library of Congress has put newspapers from the mid-nineteenth century online (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov) and that they are “such fun to read.” Check out the site, and you will agree.
Rubenstein asked Jon Meacham, Jefferson’s biographer, “After five years of studying him, do you admire him more than you did before, or do you see so many flaws that you say, ‘This is not the man I thought he was’?”
Given the state of current affairs right now, it’s worth quoting part of Meacham’s reply at length:
“The reason I find biography so compelling is that when you look at great American figures, whether it’s Jefferson or, Lord knows, Jackson — Andrew Jackson’s life was sort of a combination of Advice & Consent meets Bonanza; you didn’t want to cross him because he would shoot you — Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, when you look at the great figures, their vices are almost as large as their virtues.
“To me, the whole world turns on that word almost. To me, it’s remarkably inspirational that flawed, sinful human beings were able to, at moments of great crisis, transcend those limitations and leave the country a little better off than it was before. And Thomas Jefferson did that. For all his contradictions, for all his derelictions … the country was a better place, the world was a better place on the Fourth of July 1826, when he died, than it had been in April of 1743 when he was born.”
The American Story is filled with insights such as this one, wisdom and a knowledge about personality and character delivered by historians and biographers who have learned to take the long view.
Read, enjoy, and learn all at the same time. What could be better? An excellent find.