What is better than reading a book by one of your favorite historians? The answer is reading a book in which that historian is interviewed, giving more insight into their work. That is the pleasure of delving into “The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians,” by David Rubenstein, published in 2019. Rubenstein has interviewed many of the great historians of the present day and has edited and transcribed the questions and answers into a book, much like an oral history.
Rubenstein is co-founder and co-chairman of The Carlyle Group, a lucrative private investment firm. He has had a lifelong interest in history, and the wealth he accrued made it possible for him to pursue that interest. Rubenstein has not only purchased original documents important in American history and made them available for the public to view, but has helped preserve American monuments. He tells how in 2007, he learned that the only copy of the Magna Carta in private hands, a document that inspired the Declaration of Independence, was to be auctioned at Sotheby’s and was likely to leave the country. Rubenstein purchased the document and put it on permanent loan to the National Archives. Among the many national monuments his philanthropy has helped restore are the Washington Monument and Monticello.
Rubenstein is very much a believer in the famous quote by philosopher George Santayana “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is certainly true that politicians who have a knowledge of history have often been more adept leaders. That is one of the reasons that Rubenstein organized what is known as the Congressional Dialogues, where members of Congress were invited to the Library of Congress to listen to him interview noted historians about their books, thus these leaders learned more about their country’s history, perhaps aiding them in their jobs. The first Congressional Dialogue took place on June 18, 2013, and featured author Jon Meacham talking about his book “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.”
Besides Meacham, some of the other master historians interviewed in the book are David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Walter Isaacson, Cokie Roberts, Doris Kearns Goodwin, A. Scott Berg, Robert Caro, Bob Woodward, and even U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., among many others.
Each conversation is prefaced with some very brief background about each historian and even these short pieces are sprinkled with fascinating facts. For instance, Pulitzer-Prize winner Robert Caro, who is best known for his exhaustive four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, with the fifth volume in progress, writes on an old Smith-Corona typewriter. Further, he and his wife do all of the research for these massive books themselves, with no other research assistants.
It is interesting to read each author’s thoughts on their work, especially how they settled on their topic. Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” admitted that she was scared when starting a book on Abraham Lincoln, since literally thousands of books had already been written on the sixteenth president. She finally opted for a completely fresh angle, Lincoln’s relationship with his one-time rival cabinet members. The book was not only an enormous success, but formed the basis for the Steven Spielberg movie, “Lincoln.”
One question Rubenstein poses to the historians is what question they would ask the long dead subjects of their books if given the chance. Goodwin stated that, rather than ask a question to Lincoln and another of her subjects, Lyndon Johnson, she would rather tell them how they were remembered by history. For instance, she would inform Lincoln how he has become a venerated figure by Americans. She would tell Lyndon Johnson how legislation he passed, such as Medicare and the Civil Rights Act, have continued to have a major positive impact on the lives of Americans some 50-plus years after they were signed into law.
David McCullough, whose many books include Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams, was asked which of these two men he would rather meet for dinner. He chose Adams, stating that he would have more questions about the bygone period in which Adams lived. One of the reasons he selected Adams for a biography, after originally planning a dual biography of Adams and Thomas Jefferson, is that he was one of the neglected Founding Fathers, with his presidency sandwiched in between those of the more captivating George Washington and Jefferson. The same could be said of Harry Truman, whose presidency fell between the more dramatic figures Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Both Adams and Truman were more popular after they left office.
Cokie Roberts, one of only two women included in the book, along with Goodwin, while perhaps better known as a commentator and journalist, has written three books that focus on women in history, from pre-Revolutionary times to the Civil War. Roberts, who died in 2019, discusses the influence women, such as Abigail Adams, had on their powerful spouses. She also talks about her research and the importance of letter-writing in those early times for historians today.
Rubenstein notes that, while all of his subjects are skilled writers, some can tell a story orally in just as entertaining a way, singling out A. Scott Berg, best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning biography “Lindbergh.” Berg’s storytelling ability is certainly evident in his interview.
While Chief Justice Roberts is not a historian, although Roberts had considered that as a profession, Rubenstein chose him as an interview subject to talk about his background and the workings of the Supreme Court. More members of Congress attended this interview than any of the others since they rarely in their jobs actually interact with members of the court.
“The American Story” is available at the Knox County Public Library, along with many of the books the historians discuss. Stop in and check it out and get some additional perspective on our American history.