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tv   Conversations with American Historians Richard Norton Smith - Part 4  CSPAN  January 31, 2022 7:00am-8:01am EST

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and eulogies. what is your opinion and world history about individuals who
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have been in power? well, i guess it depends on what they did with the power. but how important has the individual been? well, i mean, were you the question you've raised of course is the classic of you know, do people make history or people made by history. and of course, you know, i'm going to split hayes here and suggested something of both. that it's a combination of the circumstances. which then afford exceptional leaders the opportunity to? to lead had one sense teddy roosevelt lamented the fact that he didn't have a war. that the way great presidents. established their greatness and of course it can't lincoln being his hero. and you could look at washington you could look at. and other presidents was in effect.
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in combat if lincoln had been president in another time would he cut anywhere near the same figure? so who in world of history are your favorite? well, course the goal is my hero, i think the goal is and i understand he's not he's not someone that is why do we popular among americans? who was he? charles de gaulle was a literally larger than life figure born in 1890 a military man who defied the military establishment of his day? for example, tactically the strategically the the prevailing credo of the french army was a defensive this was the lesson
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learned from world war one with trench warfare you you couldn't be offensive if the other side was armed with machine guns and tanks and poison gas. the goal on the other hand was a very early advocate of the tank. and the mobility that the tank afforded. the creative commander but but you know the goal's greatest act of defiance came in 1940 when? the french government fell it had been rotting away for years. and when the nazi blitzkrieg overrun overran much of france and those in power in paris look at the odds. and what seemed to them to be
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the only rational course? and gave way signed an armistice and then were replaced. by a nazi collaborationist government led by ironically the goals former mentor a very elderly hero of world war one already philippe paytime national picket who many people believe was at least from the age of senility at that point? but anyway pitta and his collaboration is government. basically yielded to it was victory the goal refused to he believed that the france was a mystical. honorable entity. that was at that point at least inculcated in him. he left paris at great risk. flew to across the channel to london established himself in
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the middle of june 1940 as the incarnation of something called free france. which at that point really existed in his imagination only he gave a famous radio speech on the 18th of june and where she said france has lost a battle but francis not lost the war. and he shared a vision. which bidelines came true? um and so the irony is a to go who's seen as an authoritarian figure was in fact defined by his his willingness to defy authority. for the rest of the war. um, most of that i'm using london as his base. he built. free france he brought many of the french colonies in africa for example to his standard vc condemned him to death in absentia. but over time vc lost whatever
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claim to any sort of moral authority than it had. and and the dagal movement gained steadily. who is by the way who's vichy vichy is a town in france known previously for vichy water. and it became the temporary capital. um of what would call collaborationist france um from 1940 until the end of the war. the devel made some enemies. he churchill was his great sponsor. but you have to remember for de gault to succeed intransigence was was necessary. he had make people to believe. out of thin air that he and something called free france were real that there was in fact a mass.
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popular movement of resistance that was willing to die. in the name of france how often was he elected? he at the end of the war. became an kind of provisional president. but he was not a man. who was a accustomed to working with parties remember french democracy before the war was notorious for a change of of leadership and the unstability the instability of the french political system was something that to go found at that point in his life beyond his control so he walked away in 1946 and for 12 long years. was what the gold admirers referred to as crossing the desert he retired to his country home at columbia disease, which is not that far from the german
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border in northeast, france. and waited for the french people to call him back and waited and waited and then in may 1958 the cold came because of the algerian war algeria was a french colony. there was a rebellion underway france in effect proposed to to give algaria to independence. well, of course the french colonial forces didn't want to be independent civil war was threatened in france and eventually it reached a point where the parties even were desperate enough to send for the one man who was thought might be able to damp down the immediate crisis. the goal brilliantly food well gears he was he was a master of.
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oh. uncertainty he stood on a balcony. before a curing crowd of these rebels and said, i understand you. and of course, they took that to me that he supported them. in fact is exactly the opposite and israel. he would be the the target of at least six assassination attempts. some of which came very close to succeeding that were grounded in in algeria in resistance from the far right wing elements that wanted to keep french algeria french. what was his relationship to the united states? well, it was a problematic and unfortunately, he was grateful generally grateful. of the assistance at the people of the united states gave to free france during the war. unfortunately fdr took an instant disliking to de gall. it's one of the things i think that even many admirers of
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roosevelt scratched my heads over he thought to go had the makings of a dictator. he was not alone in that but to go. in one of his classic one-liners said don't they know i'm too old. to be a dictator which when you start to think about it is a pretty shrewd observation. he took over to him as we all have our crosses to bear and effect. the goal was was one of his they had a stormy relationship, but one ultimately that was based in great mutual respect. so when to go became president of france, he created the fifth republic. in 1962 and then was elected by popular vote overwhelmingly elected president of france. and served until 1969. when clearly the tide had turned he'd been in power for 11 years.
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his historical mission in many ways had been accomplished and he left many people think he deliberately provoked a situation a minor referendum on reform of the french government and he said if he lost he would he would quit of all the people though that you could mention. why de gaul and when did you first in interested in him and how did you go about learning about him? why because among other things first of all the figure himself. he's just towering classical throwback in many ways. he was a he spoke of himself in the third person and he was profoundly i think self knowledgeable when he said to gaul is a man of the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow. which was talking about we some rather large hole. and i suppose i'm probably prone
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to sympathize with that point of view. i i would i would probably be happier living the day before yesterday. i don't know about the day after tomorrow. i have some problems with the the contemporary scene, but go back to the when you first as a child. i i how young became aware of him really in 1958. i was 6 6 when when he came back to power, i mean he was a name at that point, but but you know, i've followed him and and by the early 60s had had latched on to him. stop and think of all the great figures the towering figures evil and good associated with world war two. no one. started with the west in terms of tangible resources support organization legitimacy recognition you name it?
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no one started with the west. and created more and it was in no small measure. the creation of de galls imagination a vision he famously wrote he wrote the extraordinary war memorials three volumes of a woman was which stand out with the famous line all my life. i have thought of france in a certain way. and to him it was a france of the of the madonna and the tapestries and and and you know medieval greatness clearly. it's france of the day before yesterday and that concept of grandeur. french grandeur is synonymous with the goal. and i find that terribly attractive. where would you send someone who says? oh, i'm intrigued now. i want to know more about him. whether a number of biographies very fine biography about his memoir.
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yeah, remember is it's it's it's elegant literature. do you go i'm on other things to go with a great writer. he is this. as i say a throwback like caesar, he was a great soldier. a great civilian leader and a great teller of his own story. and right many of those on the world what about a biography? there are a number of there's a two volume actually in french. it's three volumes by man named and i'm forgive me. my pronunciation is not very jean blackout tour i believe is but two volumes that were that were the first volume was published in 1990 at the time of the to go centenary published here originally published in france in three volumes. there's man named don cook. who wrote a very fine one volume biography called the last great frenchman?
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um, and finally john fenby he wrote a biography of a tank i check but he also wrote a book called the general which is a much more recent. and which incorporates a lot of for example that the goal papers and and more recent research who would be jonathan fenby. excuse me, who would be number two on your list. well, of course, i've yeah i've churchill. failing if in my apartment i have i think four four shelves of books on churchill you read them all. most of them for example, there's the in this format the eight volume official biography by martin gilbert. which you you dip into? i think william manchester. the two volumes that he wrote are among the finest historical
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literature that i've ever read, and i know manchester take some hits from professional and academic historians, but nobody can match manchester's narrative? gifts you've just literally there are very few authors of whom i think you can honestly say when you pick up the book you cannot put it down. i i tell people the best single biography i've ever read is is life of douglas macarthur american caesar the best political biography i've ever read not that you're asking but is a t harry williams huey long. so there are a couple books that people can go out and read and really enjoy while we're on it something you mentioned the academic biography compared to the more commercial. what's the difference? well, i you know i get in trouble sometimes.
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because i insist there shouldn't be a difference. i am i guess in a minority a distinct minority there. i mean, i think great biography is a is obvious. it has to be rigorously researched. it has to include if you will academic standards. in terms of the evidence that your marshalling. but having done that. it seems to me that's half the job. the second half and in some ways maybe even the more important half is crafting that information first in a way that is you know, actually honest and rigorous but secondly that is readable. and hopefully compellingly readable had it. how did you learn to read? and and what would you say is your technique to read to read in other words, do you read fast?
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do you read slow? do you read i'm convinced knights warnings. nothing very profound here. i swear you you read much faster and with a different level of comprehension if it's a subject you're you're already interested in i can remember literally the weekend in 1970. eight yeah over 78 americans caesar was published. i mean to me an event. a book is an event in the way that for some people a star wars movie is an event around which they build their calendar. you know, i i'm look ahead and see what's coming down the road and you know, i'll build that day and some days around getting that book as soon as i can and i can remember americans caesar. i bought it and i spent the weekend. in my apartment in boston and was then called longfellow place. near beacon hill and i didn't
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leave the apartment for three days. i read i read the book from cover to cover and it's a big book, but it's absolutely riveting. you know, they're at no. i don't and that that's a good question. i've never taken now i do for research purposes obviously, but but that was what it is is it's the equivalent of a great movie. or sometimes a great theater work. it's all about abandoning. the dreary contemporary existence however you define that? it's changing that. credibly emotionally and intellectually. inhabiting another time place a great authors can in fact transport you?
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it requires talent on the apartment. and imagination on yours but it's you know, it's perfectly possible in the way that you lose yourself in a in a great movie. how long do you read at one time? you know, that's a good question. i shorter than i used to i'm afraid like everything else. shorter spurts there are some books frankly. i used to for example, i used to reread every summer main street by sinclair lewis, which is among other things a very funny book i grew up in a small town. not totally december. to go for prairie. the fictional actually sucks center, minnesota. i mean small towns or small towns. and there are universal. traits and and maybe that's why
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growing up in a small town. i i first time i read it i you know that feeling of just delight of losing yourself. of literally walking into another dimension. as long as you've got the book open. and and then i would reread it every summer but go i mean the time of date is that matter? no, do you read in the middle of the night? it doesn't now but for example because now i am i'm no longer punching a clock. i don't you know, i don't go to an office. you know, i don't have to get there at 8 o'clock and stayed a little six or whatever. i have a much more latitude. which means the work as well as the pleasure is broken up into into fragments. i don't sleep terribly. well, so it's not unusual to get up at three in the and read for an hour.
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or write for an hour you know and i'm gonna go back to bed, you know and get up at mid-morning. it's there's no i often think to myself wouldn't it be nice to be like most people who i assume follow pretty much a pattern to their lives. they do pretty much the same thing pretty much at the same time every day. and and it's the old, you know grass is always greener. on the other hand if i i can't wish it that much because i really haven't tried very hard to emulate it. why didn't you get a phd because a lot of people think you're a doctor. oh, i know. well, i always quote barbara tuchman the late great barbara tuchman who once bravely? admitted that she said the best thing that ever happened to her. was that she did not get a phd in history?
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and the reason very simply was she wanted to write. for more than historians she wanted to reach what used to be called. the general educated reader, you know. america is in real danger of losing. middle brow culture and and i suppose maybe i'm most comfortable. it's the you know, they watch pbs. and they they're the their old current with the theater. and they know what books are on the best seller list. and anyway, that's metal brow. i think so. yeah. what's hybrid and and there are public intellectuals? david mccullough and i'm not saying david mccullough's middlebrow. he's a very very rigorous scholar, but he obviously has
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great popular appeal and i suspect we talked about it. um that he values that he he works toward that that he certainly sees that as a legitimate measure of success the whole point. for people like me i guess. of working as hard as i do i is to reach a mass audience and i don't mean mass just in terms of numbers or commercial sales. i mean look the one thing we i think can agree on is there's a whole in this country where civic education used to be. i think the fragmenting of the culture. the coarsening of the culture there are a number of factors that contribute to it. um, and i think middlebrow culture in some ways is one of
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the casualties of that. omnibus i mean, i remember as a six year old kid watching alistair cook host omnibus. what was on sunday afternoon? it was the forerunner of 60 minutes, but it was a it was a cultural. program what did bernstein's young people's concerts. i can remember as a kid on sunday afternoons watching when it bernstein. conduct a seminar as well as the new york philharmonic and nobody you know, that was perfect for the course. that's what television delivered commercial television it had a sense of. of responsibility which brings us to our long-running? dispute about mr. pele the the who was a genius of middlebrow culture because mr. pele on the one hand who was and cbs winds peaway of sated memory the man who who largely created the
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columbia broadcasting system and who had a ignoring that influence on the particularly early days of television before we leave it go back to the you say you read main street every every year every summer. you still do it? no, actually i don't because there's so many books, you know, but i want to ask if you do anything else like that on a regular basis. i read willa cather. over time or i mean frequently but see there are books that you shouldn't read until your reach a certain point in life. how many adolescents? our spoon-fed hemingway particularly because for the wrong reasons because the words are simple and therefore it's the story and the emotions. and the motives must be simple. i never read word. anyway until i was five years
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old. and then the hemingway centenary. was in 1999 and i read everything he wrote. and not only that i read everything you wrote and then i went and visited his birthplace. and then i went all the way out to, idaho. to pay my respects. it is gravesite. not far from the house where he ended his life in july 1961. and and i came away from that intense immersion in hemingway. i think with a much better insight appreciation whatever now i don't i mean there's still a lot i have to learn about anyway interesting enough is not very much in any way i'd want to read again. i'm glad i did was valuable. i think i understand the cult and all of that on the other hand. unfortunately the tragedy i'm more interested in hemingway biographically. almost and i am as a writer of
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fiction. i mean how hemingway who had real real genius? became corrupted. by celebrity that's a story. that's a story in some ways greater than any story. he ever wrote why because it's a story of the 20th century. it's a story of it's the modern garden of eden. it's the temptation. that exists. in our modern shallow. shabby throw away temporary culture. did it ever hit you? i like to say no, i mean and i think the evidence is i i mean i am i am appropriately obscure. um, never was a networker. i never spent time and again, i don't. i'm always speaking for myself. i'm not i'm not even being implicitly critical of anyone else, but we all know there are people in the city. in washington who very effectively i'm very
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appropriately from their perspective spend a lot of time. for lack of a better word networking and it's good for their career and that may very well be good for the culture. why haven't you? what i'm not very good at it. i'm somewhat contemptuous. there's a wonderful summer setting up mom novel. called cakes and ale and if you read nothing else, i read cakesale every year. is a brilliant scathingly. coruscatingly brilliant portrait of literary careerism based on a real a real contemporary moms a man named horace, walpole. but the character is named. alroy kier. and basically, the story is alloy kier has been approached by the widow. of a late author the great man
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of letters. and she wants him to write. his biography unfortunately, there's a few messy details involving his first wife. and they're affair and the fact that she ran away from him and and you know before he was the grand old man of letters. he was the uncouth. figure who would would never be admitted to a gentleman's club? let alone thought of as the quintessential. literary figure of his time and all right here of course who doesn't care about facts. he only cares about advancing his own interests his sales. probably his speaking phase in a modern context. anyway, all right, here is is for him. the truth is an inconvenient.
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element that he can brush aside without ever bothering him he appears to be a man without a conscience. but it's it's really funny. very british. i'm a great fan of something mom. i think he's an underestimated writer. where was he from? and when did he write? he was actually born in paris. his father was a diplomatic corps. moved early to to live with an uncle rather loveless household with an uncle and aunt who became? recurring figures in his fiction his great novel that most people know is of human bondage and it's very then we ought to biographical and in it the mom
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figure. his name is philip carey and his cross to bayer is he has a club foot? mom didn't have a club foot. but mom was short. ugly spoke with the stammer he was gay. and he married. a woman it was a disaster. had a daughter. which wasn't a whole lot more successful. but he wrote this extraordinary novel. which again i think adolescents are often. fed, and i'm not sure you shouldn't wait. it's it's about the perversity of attraction. philip carey is a man. was to say has this impediment. which i doubly calls into attraction calls it a question
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his own sense. of attraction and he meets this waitress mildred. who is by any conventional standard? unattractive used to be word slatteringly which would apply to her betty davis famously portrayed her in the in the first movie brilliantly, and she despises philip, gary for the extent it is need he needs her and a very perverse. in the truer sense of the word relationship of people who should repel each other and indeed to some degree do repel each other and yet they find their their their drawn to one another. it's a complex novel. it's a tragic. novel about perils of love which also opens a window on moms view
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after all his own life experience he in some ways been there there is a real mildred mildred was based on a real person and so it's a classic case of of an author mining his own experience his own unhappiness his own sense of inadequacy. and that's think how brave that is. i mean that's that's courageous to take to take a story as unflattering. of oneself. and and to put it out there. and that it's a great book and but anyway, but mom wrote a number of great books. how does well you could. in reflection of what you've just been talking about stuff. you've pulled out of the air about somerset monitor or any way, but how do historians? and i asked this because i've
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listened to this for years and years. how do historians? or start with you, of course, remember all this? you have any idea is there is there a white? you know, it's a it's a very fair question and i wish i had an answer. i think that some people just we're born with deficiencies. as you know, i don't drive a car. would never get close to driving your car and many people think that's a that's going to be some sort of phobia or or shortcoming. it certainly a departure from the norm. we were talking about networking one reason. i don't network is i'm not i wouldn't be very good at it people think i'm an extrovert and i'm not an extrovert. um and the order i get the less extroverted i am i would make a very good.
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14th century monk, i think and in the equivalent is sitting in an apartment in grand rapids. immersing myself in a in a life of gerald ford i don't know about other forms of literature. well writing can be a monkish existence. but how do you remember? all i can say is i can't explain it. i can only describe it. as as long as i remember. i've had. a particular kind of memory i mean, i don't know, you know, i've never called it. photographic and i'm not sure what a photographic memory is. all i know is there's a heightened was said a few minutes ago. i'm convinced. i'm convinced that you're doing something. you love to do if you're doing something that really engages
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you, you know, actually emotionally if you're looking to an experience. and then you're you're immersive experience. i'm convinced you operate at a different level. of efficiency of ability and yes of memory did any teacher of yours in your life try to teach you how to remember no didn't have to do you before you speak before a group do you go and spend a couple of days reading up on? certain subjects well, no, i mean it depends on the group. i mean, actually i've put it was you're at the an old speaker. and i put a lot of effort. into crafting a text and and making sure that it's individualized. i mean, there's nothing worse. we've you know, we've all heard them and they and they can be very successful. but you know, there are people who give the same speech. basically before diverse
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audiences and do it for years and years and years and you know, that's fine. i will find that really boring. i mean particularly as i get older i welcome the intellectual challenge. of creating something that's unique. for this particular audience this particular event. i mean, they're old that it seems to me on the part of the speaker. you have an obligation. not just to tell them something. well, let's get an example you gave the eulogy. and a eulogy at both betty ford's funeral annette gerald ford's funeral. yeah. how much time did you spend and how did you go about preparing for those eulogies? i don't know how you prepare for it. i think. in a way in the case of president ford i i worked on a
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draft. months in advance of his passing for the reason that i did not want. to be caught at the worst possible time when my own emotions were involved and and run the risk of not doing your best possible work and so that's something that i wrote. in draft form probably six months before he passed how long did it take you to get to the draft one? hours, you know days. a few time couple of days. oh, yeah a few days and you because you go through i mean, i you know, you don't write books you rewrite books and that's true for me with speeches. it's a different kind of writing. a speech i'm a victim of my own
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facility. i used to type. peck with two fingers i go to 665 words. you know and that but the i can write a speech i can bang out speech in an hour. i have written your jesus. in a hot tape my story. it's been probably 10 or more years. i was out of the door institute. and a good call lawrence, kansas in lawrence, kansas from senator dole. actually from his from his office. and he had a favor to ask he needed to speak. he needed georgie. madam chiang kai-shek had died. i think she was 106. okay. well, you know madam chang had not been in the news a lot lately. so the conventional sort of clips as a source. we're not really available. um turned out that she was to be
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you were guys. at saint bob bartholomew's church a night next to the waldorf in new york same place where president hoovers funeral was held and what i didn't know at the time was that the ceremony was going to be half in chinese. and half an english two people have been asked. to give you images bob dole. and paul simon senator from illinois who as a child. was the son of chinese missionaries so, you know you weren't something new every day. so anyway, i think truth be told. door was asked because in those days he and his law firm were working with the taiwanese government. i don't know. i have never asked him. all i know is i i needed he needed within 24 hours. and acceptable suitably
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heartfelt eulogy of madam jankai-shek and i wrote it in an hour. i just sat down and you know. um, i think look at one book. but you know there are there are times. oddly enough, i won't call it inspiration. but you know, there are jobs, you know that basically you know. without being told what the occasion requires you know what his style is. you have an instinctive sense of the political sensitivities? i mean, i know something about taiwan i know something about shanghai check and his government and the relationship and i mean, you know, you know, you don't want to say something that will offend people. and an ultimately, you know, i won't say there's a formula. but obviously you're gonna say
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nice things, but they have to be credibly nice things go back go. go back to other your reference. i used to type. yeah. when did you change? and what did you change to did we look didn't type right is disappear. i mean, i think i've never been good. i have i have dictated, but i'm not good at dictating. how do you do it now? how do you write now and right i write everything right everything wrong in which is very valuable for me. first of all, it's it forces you to slow down. you see with the speech with the typewriter. you could bank out a speech in an hour. do you do it in a pen or a pencil? cuphead and what happens is so i will write a draft in long hand and it's pretty messy. and i have a long suffering. marvelous typist in kansas who has been? actually taught me how to use a computer. very limited command that i have
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when i went out to warrants in 2001. and and we've been working together ever since she typed everything. and including the rockefeller book, which you know 882 pages. and as i say no chapter of that book went through fewer than 50 drafts. which is on the face of it? observed, what does that mean? 50 drafts? well, it means that. most chapters in typescript would run between 30 and 40 pages type 30 or 40 pages times 50 and then times 30 which is you know, the number of chapters in the when you take a you've written a chapter and you're going to rewrite it. how long does that take you 50 times? yeah, see that see that's what i'm yeah. is it's absurd. but that book was unlike anything.
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i've any other project i've ever done. now the ford book that i'm working on now for example is just as deeply researched. and hopefully written with as much care for some sense of literary style and narrative flow all those things. hopefully that you bring to anything. but it's i hate to use the word workman like but the process so far. has been much more well smoother. linear, i guess is probably the best word. the rockefeller just it seemed to take forever. and and that was because not so much the the writing process, but the mental process you have to remember, you know, i was 14 years old. in the floor demonstration in miami in 1968 carrying my rockefeller sign. now in some ways that gave me
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away up. but in some ways that was real baggage. you had to work. i had to work my way through. the residual memory as a sort of uncritical admiration to something much much more rigorous much more critical and then you had to make sure you didn't go too far in the opposite extreme in the in the pursuit of quote objectivity in the pursuit of detachment in the pursuit of critical assessment becoming overly critical have you read? have you read a biography of every president? you know, i think i probably have the reason i ask you a question is can you tell when a historian is on a side? oh sure.
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we'll stop and think. it's not just that subject most nonfiction authors drawn to subjects that they're not only interested in. but in some sense are attracted to i mean, is it a love hate thing you well, i mean, i mean you could love five night number of people. who are of such a temperament or psychology as to derive satisfaction? from butchering a life or a reputation i mean how many people get up every morning say today with a smile on the face. i'm going to write about someone i detest name an example of book that's been written that you knew that an author who detested them. the individual.
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oh gosh now we're getting i don't want to be contemporary because because their authors i admire and and work i admire greatly but there are clearly there are authors that are clearly partisans. revisionist history this is a terrible generalization. stop and think of the motivation behind revisionist history, whether it's the left of the right, you know, whatever. it's motivated by the fervent belief. that someone has that the conventional story is all wrong. that the historians and the biographers have even overlooked something or distorted something or maybe i have access to new information. i tell you someone i'd admire who's for example, gene strauss. spent 14 years writing a biography. of jp morgan it's a brilliant
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book. and it's a tortured. book because she wrote. a book or the as i understand it the better part of a book about jp morgan and then she had the intellectual. honesty and the and the unflinching integrity having done all that work. to conclude that what she had written was fundamentally at variance. with the jp morgan who she was discovering. by going in a systematic thorough way through his papers and through material that had not been utilized in the past. she was willing to revise her revisionism in effect and that
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that's you know, you've got to admire. people like that. i mean there aren't a lot of people like that. anyway, so the consequence was it took her? 14 years to write this book which i think his universally. regarded as the definitive work on a on a very look, she she was willing to accept. complexity and nuance that morgan is is one of the classic gilded age plutocrats who invite caricature. i mean, he was a caricature himself you look at the pictures and you know, the famous red red nose, you know that he medical condition then it's been retouched in some pictures and i mean, he looks like an ogre. and and for years, we thought the very term robert barron. there's a whole category of
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post-civil war larger than wife capitalists johnny rockefeller andrew carnegie henry clay frick. i mean, you know know the people we love to hate. and for a very long time and there's a whole school of history this book in 1934 by matthew josephson called the robber barons and it appeared at the depths of the great depression and it was it was just it caught on it. it was a the perfect book for the time it posited at a time when big business was at the absolute needier of its popular reputation. and and so all these years later i mean there's a class example about one book can have incredible enduring long after people forgotten the book or the title, but the robber bear kissed his mark twain. gave his name the gilded age. it's a minor comic novel that nobody would read today. nobody does read except.
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because the gilded age has has come to define the period between the civil war and the beginning of the 20th century. so name it. someone like i mean it goes back to the monkish nature of writing. think of the bravery the debt talk the intellectual guts that it that it showed to say i'm going to devote my wife to this project. and to reach your point in the project. with all the passion and all the commitment. intellectual emotional physical that it requires and then halfway along to say, you know, i've got this wrong. i've got to start over. and and not only that but to then take responsibility. for the rather radically
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different portrait portrait that emerges which is much richer. much for but but different from the classic robber baron that were accustomed to reading about what role do reviewers play in the sale of books. you know, i i think it's there's a dynamic field. is a minor tragedy? that there are a lot fewer. sections minor tragedy. yeah, well to most people it's a minor tragedy. maybe it's a major tragedy to me. obviously there are fewer newspapers. the newspapers that survive a shorter they've had to make decisions about their priorities. and unfortunately one of the first things to go has been book reviews. sections now you obviously there are compensating factors. there are any number of online?
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reviewers and i don't mean for a moment to dismiss their significance. one i'll tell you the one one trend at least. i've noticed that i'm particularly sensitive because for reasons it will be obvious. every book i've written. has been based on original research and i mean not hours and hours, but years and years. of sitting in an archive you know never employing a research assistant sitting in archives going through boxes of paper. i mean, maybe it's a weakness. it's doing way i know how to do. and not consciously looking for undiscovered facts, but but being open being open to them because they may call into question what you think, you know about about your subject. okay? example the most recent book i publisher 14 years in the making
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big biography nelson rockefeller full. of newly revealed you know political slash historical details. stories that hadn't been told i mean, you know. for interesting not a single and there was an excellent reviews. they're generous reviews. i'm not criticizing but i noticed there was virtually i don't think anyone mentioned. the fact want any of the individual facts that there was all of this new information. it just went absolutely, you know under the radar. and i sense the because i read a lot of reviews obviously and i write reviews. and it just seems as if that's an element. of of notice that has has
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vanished well because you said you write reviews and what's your own philosophy of how you treat an author? oh, i'll tell you. well. i i that's i feel strongly. because i've been through the process first of all. you know the easiest thing in the world whether it's a theater review or book review or anything, you know is you know, you can write gags. you can always think of nasty things to say that may very well be quoted and and get you some some recognition. and i always tell myself, you know, i put myself or i try. to put myself and it's not hard in the position of the author who i don't care if the book is good or bad. i don't care if it succeeds or doesn't i'll address that. but you've got to take seriously. the effort that an author has put you've got to try at the
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outset. see what he's getting at. whether whether he's exceeds or not is another is another matter. i guess what i'm saying is you've got to give an author of benefit of the doubt. and that that may seem unduly. generous, i mean i have no trouble being critical. but i think you know. i tend first of all to be a cheerleader for books and for serious books and above all for serious books written. for a popular audience which is a diminishing category and which needs all the cheerleading, you know that they that they can get so the books that tend to come my way. for i mean i get lots of books about presidents. and just in the last year. for the wall street journal reviewed a couple books about
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eleanor roosevelt. and a big biography about speaker mccormick john mccormick, which which i thought succeeded west's biography, although it was fine biography. then as an encyclopedia. of congressional history during you know much of the 20th century is an extraordinary. sort of source work if i would say any student of congressional history in the 20th century. be sure and look at this book you you'll be
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