The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians (Part 2)

The lessons in this book not merely for politicians, but for leadership in general are obvious. The importance of teamwork is continually stressed in regard to the Founding Fathers, who despite grating upon each other had complementary personalities: “you have somebody of great, high rectitude: George Washington. You have a couple of really brilliant people: Madison, Jefferson. You have very passionate visionaries: Sam Adams, his cousin John. And then you have somebody who can bring them all together: Ben Franklin.” The quality of having a backbone and principles is also praised: John Adams defends the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre, knowing that it will likely destroy any leadership ambitions, but instead is elected to the Massachusetts Legislature because he was recognised as somebody who wasn’t willing to blindly follow the crowd, and the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence knowing that they would likely be executed for treason. The merit of hard work is made clear in the recounting of how both Hamilton and Adams manage to raise themselves from lowly beginnings to the highest positions in America by grafting like ants at the nest, but equally valuable is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s point that leaders needed time to switch off (FDR’s cocktail hour every night in the White House during WW2, and Lincoln visiting the Theatre more than a hundred times during the Civil War). Compromise as a path to glory is clearly a double-edged sword: the finished Constitution was clearly a successful compromise as it differed in significant ways from the views of every signatory (e.g. Franklin wanted plural leadership of 3 presidents and Hamilton wanted a president-for-life), but Franklin’s fondness for compromise came back to bite him on the behind when he was blamed by his Pennsylvania constituents for not completely rejecting the Stamp Act of 1765. It is perhaps interesting that the best people to lead are often those who do not want to do so at all – Jack. D. Warren notes how Washington’s public claims that he did not want to be President were echoed in his intimate letters to friends and thus likely true.

No less clear are the lessons for what to avoid like the plague. Namely, hubris – personified most clearly in Rubenstein’s exchange with Bob Woodward on Nixon. Underestimating opponents can be equally as dangerous, particularly if they do happen to be imbued with humour, charisma, charm: LBJ underestimating JFK when campaigning for the Democratic Party nomination on account of his physical weakness (he had Addison’s Disease), and Carter neglecting to realise the power of Reagan’s stage presence, one-liners and ‘everyman’ personality are cases in point.

However, the best chapter is arguably less didactic, and is instead an almost Odyssean epic story: Rubenstein’s riveting interview with the historian A. Scott Berg about Charles Lindbergh: a twenty-five-year-old airmail pilot who was the first person in history to fly across the Atlantic (in thirty-three-and-a-half-hours).  Berg is an incredible storyteller – there are truly frightening aspects in his story of the flight (the magnetic storm which turns his plane around three times); we can almost feel for ourselves the great feat of physical endurance – his tiredness causing him to, at times, hover metres above the ocean so he can feel the salt on his face, his visibility impairment (the plane lacked a front window as it was occupied by a huge fuel tank), his frightening inability to find a place to land in Paris. And like all rags-to-riches Dick Whittington-esque stories, the effects are dramatic and rapid in scale: 150,000 people watch him land in Le Bourget, four million people turn out for the New York parade to celebrate his return to America, and a quarter of the population see him on his countrywide tour. Virtually overnight he becomes the most famous man in the world, and perhaps the first truly modern-day celebrity. OJ Simpson’s ‘murder trial of the century’ is cast into the dirt by the tale of Lindbergh’s son being killed by a German immigrant and the ensuing trial, and like countless actors and singers today, he gets involved in politics. Jay Winik, in his chapter on FDR, talks about how Lindbergh’s promotion of the non-interventionist approach to war and the America First movement is instrumental in delaying the American response to WW2, including when the Sudetenland, Poland, France, the Netherlands and Belgium are invaded and despite Churchill’s pleas.

People who don’t read history don’t know what they’re missing, something that it is a tremendous shame. Immensely interesting, richly written but never overly detailed, very readable and at times humorous (imagine telling the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that you think “the highest calling in life is private equity” with a straight face), anyone interested in leadership or America and its place in the world would do well to read The American Story.

Featured image by Wally Gobetz, available under Creative Commons 2.0 licence

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