The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians (Part 1)

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1816-88), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Truly rich people seem to come in various forms. Hard-nosed, coldly economical ones like Fred Trump, vulgarian showmen with Boeing 757’s and gold penthouses in the sky like his son, and then another category: the kind of people who use their wealth to enlarge humanity as a whole. Bill Gates, who has plunged billions into infectious disease control (Malaria, HIV, Tuberculosis) as well as nutrition and sanitation. George Soros who has focused on economic, legal and social reform, particularly for Jewish causes. And private-equity supremo David Rubenstein (worth $3.3bn according to Forbes 2020), who has developed a new kind of ‘patriotic philanthropy’ which focuses on enlarging the American public’s awareness of their own history: he has donated to Museums and State Departments original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, the Constitution, the Bay Psalm Book (the first book printed in British America), and the Magna Carta (which served as a model for the Founding Fathers when writing the Constitution). He has donated millions for the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the JFK Centre for the Performing Arts and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. And for the last seven years, he has conducted interviews with notable historians (such as David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin) in the Library of Congress, many of which have been collated and published in The American Story.

The result is a light, but tremendously enjoyable read that covers a broad period history – from the Founding Fathers to Ronald Reagan. Each chapter focuses on an individual figure, mostly former Presidents (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, FDR, Eisenhower, JFK, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan) but other kinds of prominent figures feature (the politician Alexander Hamilton, the wives to the Founding Fathers, the celebrity and pilot Charles Lindbergh, the Civil Rights Activist Martin Luther King, and the final interview with Chief Justice John Roberts covers the workings of the US Supreme Court). Rubenstein asks the historians probing questions which deal with the controversial aspects of such individual’s lives (e.g. why didn’t Washington cling to power like other revolutionaries such as Mao and Castro? How could Jefferson write that “all men are created equal” when he kept slaves and had a relationship with his sixteen-year-old slavegirl? Why FDR did not intervene more quickly to stop the Nazi extermination of the Jews?) Much, of course, is left unsaid – naturally to encourage us to read deeper into the characters. And they really are characters – protagonists and, occasionally, antagonists: the flamboyant polymath Benjamin Franklin is contrasted with the stable ex-commander in the form of Eisenhower; intensely principled figures such as Lincoln and Dr King are compared with Nixon who Bob Woodward clearly really dislikes (‘he thought he was untouchable’), as well as the deceptive guile of Lyndon B. Johnson. The latter is portrayed by Robert Caro as a calculating tactician seeking ‘power for power’s sake alone’, and one who changes the nature of power in Washington completely. Be under no illusion, these are not merely a selection of miniature hagiographies.

Rubenstein clearly subscribes to the ‘Strong Man’ model of history, commenting that the chapters focus on “leaders who [individually] changed the course of the nation”. Given that the audience to the original interviews was almost entirely made up of Congressmen and Women it is hardly surprising that there is an explicitly didactic theme to the book, and he states in the Introduction that he hopes senators and representatives will use “information about the great leaders and events in our country’s past . . . for what it can teach us about future challenges”.

He is, of course, right. I doubt Donald would put somebody in the pilot-seat of his aforementioned Boeing if they’d never read the manual and logged flight hours. Likewise, the dangers of leaders being unaware of history are evident to see. When we forget the horrors of war, we become more jingoistic (a la George W. Bush); when leaders do not know of, or experience the effects of infectious diseases, departments solely focused on preparing for such eventualities are overlooked and underfunded (I hardly need cast aspersions here).

I also am in agreement with a quote from David McCullough that “History is an antidote to self-importance”. It must surely humble any wannabe-leader to read of the accomplishments of George Washington, or any self-proclaimed ‘poor boy done good’ when comparing themselves to Alexander Hamilton: an illegitimate orphan from the West-Indies who served as the first Secretary of the Treasury and invented the first fiscal, monetary, accounting and tax systems, the first Central Bank and the first US Mint. Moreover, history has another function – it enables leaders to consider policies in a longer-term perspective with the view that they too will be judged by future historians. Indeed, many Presidents were Historians: Eisenhower, Kennedy and Teddy Roosevelt all wrote award-winning books on the past (Crusade in Europe, Profiles in Courage and The Naval War of 1812).

Rubenstein proves that the inverse of this is also true – history is innately reassuring. People like to claim that ‘we’re more divided than ever’ – those people clearly haven’t read about the Founding Fathers. Presidents have always fought with Congress – compare Donald being refused funding for his wall with George Washington being engaged in a constant struggle with Congress for more economic and weaponry support during the Revolutionary War. Nor are Political partisanship, backstabbing and petulant insults new: in the George Washington administration, Jefferson the Secretary of State employs a man on the public payroll to edit a newspaper critical of the President. Compare Trump referring to Sanders as “Crazy Bernie” with Hamilton commenting that Adams was “mad and I shall soon be led to say as wicked as he is mad.” John Randolph’s threats to “reveal the men in [Dolly Madison’s] life” are almost a mirror of the point in the 2016 claim when Hillary accused Trump of sexual misconduct, and he put together a panel of women who accused her husband of much the same.

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

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