Another post for the Bloomberg Echoes blog, this one in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act.
And the struggle continues…
For the last several months, for two hours a week, I have been locked in a soundproof room with James K. Polk. Yes, that Polk: 11th President, architect of the war with Mexico, subject of a They Might Be Giants Song (alas, to my ear, not one of their best efforts; I suppose they thought the obscurity of the subject was good enough. Me, I would have gone for Millard Fillmore).
OK, I am not actually locked into that little booth. And of course Mr. Polk has been dead for some 160 years. What I am doing is recording his diary for the New Mexico State Library’s division for the blind. It’s very similar to the volunteer gig I did a few years ago in Chicago, with one main difference. There, we read books requested by our clients, and multiple readers did one book. Here, it’s one reader, one book. And the readers choose the books to record.
Yes, that’s right, I chose to read aloud Polk: The Diary of a President 1845 1849 (edited and annotated by esteemed historian Allan Nevins), thinking some hearing-impaired person might be longing to share in its wonders too.
Gotta keep those History Nerd bona fides up.
Actually, the diary makes some sense for our library. We try to focus on books that have some appeal to Southwestern clients, and what could be more relevant than getting the perspective of the president who brought much of that region into the Union? And it seemed right up my alley to choose something that would give me new insight into one of our presidents—perhaps a bit of a controversial one—given my role at Biographers International Organization (here’s a sample of the newsletter I edit, for the curious). Finally, if I’m gonna read a book out loud, it might as well be about history, since that is my vocation.
I say Polk is controversial because as a champion of manifest destiny at the expense of Mexico, he seems to have tapped early on some of the imperialist impulses that truly emerged some 50 years later, and there was a chauvinistic element in his attitude toward the Mexicans. And of course he was all for letting slavery expand into America’s newly gained Western lands. Or am I wrong?
In his introduction, Nevins offers a historiographical view of Polk that dismisses earlier claims such as those. He says an “anti-slavery interpretation of the Mexican War” led late 19th-century historians to paint Polk as a conqueror marked by “Machiavellian adroitness” who lied to Congress—or suppressed facts, as Nevins puts it, to get a war with Mexico he already wanted. Not so, Nevins claims: Polk was honest and conscientious, if stiff and mediocre, and not capable of “deceit and double dealing.” (Of course, there is this observation of Polk from a contemporary political adversary, John Quincy Adams, who called him a “slaveholding exterminator of Indians.”)
Nevins wrote in 1952; later historians were more apt to side with their 19th-century brethren in assessing Polk’s aims and attitudes. After all, he ran on a Democratic platform in 1844 that was staunchly expansionist. Still, as one college textbook from 2000 notes, war was not inevitable with Mexico; Polk just “made decisions and carried them out in ways that exacerbated already existing tensions and made war difficult to avoid.” In the end, the authors claim, Polk was lucky things turned out as well as they did, but many of the gains he sought—primarily California and the Rio Grande as a border with Mexico—might have been obtained without a war that killed 50,000 Mexicans and left many others under the rule of a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon nation that disdained them.
H. W. Brands, writing in 2002 (The Age of Gold) emphasizes that California was the prize Polk truly craved. He asked Mexico to sell the land; when it refused, Brands says, “Polk determined to take California by force.” Not a vote for casting the Mexican War as an accidental conflict, I don’t think. And, apropos of the Adams’ description quoted above, the 2003 work Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, by William Dusinberre, shows how Polk’s Southern roots and slave holdings shaped his pro-slavery political views, including support for the gag rule in the House.
So what does the Polk diary reveal about the man? To be fair, I’m only about halfway through, but he does come across as someone who knows his “private” words will be read by others (as surely all president have for generations, if not all the way back to Washington). He also also endured something modern presidents I’m sure are glad to be done with: entertaining complete strangers who come to the White House seeking handouts and loans. Not government money, mind you, but Polk’s personal funds. Perhaps that’s what made him seem so humorless, except when recounting his exasperation with Congressmen and others seeking political favors (so glad that practice has ended). He also seemed to keep close track of personal and political slights, sometimes impugning the motives of those who disagreed with him, showing some of the self-righteousness and pettiness he has been criticized for by some historians.
I don’t particularly like the Polk who emerges from his own words, but that probably reflects my biases. But like anyone else, he has his high and low moments. He condemns one Protestant minister seeking a chaplaincy in the army for his “abuse of Catholics and…fanaticism,” and he made a personal loan of $100 in gold to a Congressman, even as he deplored the man’s descent into alcoholism (the lawmaker soon after killed himself, leaving Polk to comment on the “melancholy” of intemperance). Yet Polk also had derogatory views of the Mexicans (though not an uncommon stance for Americans of the day), and he found it amusing when a Portuguese diplomat gave a “solemn account” of the queen of Portugal’s miscarriage. Huh?
I’ve seen several sources that say at one time Polk was often included in historians’ lists of the top ten presidents, primarily, I assume, because of the huge expansion of the country that went down on his watch. A 2010 poll I found still had him highly ranked, at #12. So, as I keep reading and recording, I’ll try to keep an open mind about Young Hickory.
And dead last in that survey? Andrew Johnson. I don’t think I’ll be reading his diary any time soon.
I may be a History Nerd, but I proved today in spades that I am not the smartest researcher. I’m writing this from Minneapolis, where I’m gathering information for a new book. A few months ago back in my office, doing some preliminary research online, I became convinced that the Internet and the books I had found would not be enough—or at least “authentic” enough, whatever the hell I meant by that—so I planned a trip to the Twin Cities to dig into the primary sources.
I’ve worked with primary sources before, of course. Back in college, I spent countless hours at the microfilm machine, poring over old Hartford Courants and government documents for papers on immigration, among other topics. For my first bio, on Madeleine Albright, done while she was still serving in the Clinton administration, I made requests to Colorado libraries for clippings about her father’s academic career, and trekked into NYC to look at her dissertation. (I tracked down a sibling too, hoping for an interview, but word had already come down from on high: No talking to the media. But it’s for a kids’ book I explained. Still no dice. So heartless.) Then there was the train trip from Chicago down to beautiful Carbondale, home of SIU, where I went through some of the paper of Victoria Woodhull, spiritualist, advocate of free love, first American to publish Marx’s Communist Manifesto in English, presidential candidate almost 40 years before all American women could vote (with Frederick Douglass as her running mate), first woman to crack the male-dominated world of Wall Street. The work was for a historical drama still unwritten.
So, I am no stranger to archival research, if not exactly a master of it, as some of my colleagues in BIO are. But I was not prepared for the sense of “WTF am I doing here?” that crept up through me as I approached the desk of the library at the Minnesota Historical Society (an aside—the facilities there, which include a history museum, are stunning. I am not a state historical society maven, but I would bet few states have something that rival what the North Star State has.)
Yes, despite my usual attention to detail and planning, I got there today—the only day I could go, since the library is closed on Sunday and Monday, something else I failed to explore in my usual OCD-like way—and I really didn’t know what I wanted. Thankfully, I knew there was one collection of research material there I couldn’t find anywhere else, and I blurted out its name.
OK, the librarian said, which box?
Which box? Now I really felt out of my element. I imagined all the BIO folks snickering a bit. I made a stab, wrote Box 4 on the slip, and waited for the staff to wheel out a box. My random choice wasn’t totally bad; I actually found some folders with some useful information. But before I could go through it all, I had to leave for a semi-hokey bus tour related to my subject. All right, BIO bastards, stop laughing. I know: Like you could get any useful information for a serious history book from a—bus tour! Well, I like to have an idea of the geography of places I’m writing about, and while the book is about all of Minnesota, a lot of the action takes place in St. Paul. So I headed to the Wabasha St. caves, not far from the Mississippi, and let myself be driven around and lectured to for two hours.
I doubt, though, that most people would call it a lecture. The tour guide was more about schtick, though there was some substance. And without that little excursion, I wouldn’t have learned about Summit Avenue, supposedly home to more Victorian mansions than any other street in the country and to authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis. And there were a few tidbits I heard along the way that might prove useful. I had been hoping for pictures that might be appropriate too, though that was a bust (the gray sky and fog didn’t help with that either).
The tour over, I went back to the historical society to finish going through my box. There was little useful left, but also not enough time to get another box, so I headed back to the hotel with only one brief detour—to buy some beer. I needed it.
Tomorrow, it’s back to the research, though this time to one of the libraries at the University of Minnesota. I doubt there will be boxes of material to comb through, but at least I can access old copies of the local newspapers that aren’t available online. Maybe. You see, I didn’t think through that part of this research adventure too well either. But that’s what makes it an adventure—and me less than a professional historian. But I will muddle through the book, and I’m sure it will be fine. And if all goes well, there may be another book on the same topic. So this time next year, look for the befuddled-looking guy stumbling around the Wisconsin Historical Society library.
No new post today from Santa Fe (though there is lots a-cookin’; maybe more on that later). Just wanted to plug a blog post I wrote for Bloomberg View, the op-ed section of the Bloomberg media empire. If you are a fan of history or trains, you might enjoy it.
Thanks for reading the post and the History Nerd.
One reason why I chose to live in New Mexico (or perhaps why the L of E chose me) is its rich history. I know, no matter where you live, you can find interesting historical tidbits about people and places, but something about that intersection of the three cultures here, played out amidst such amazing scenery, has captivated me since my first excursion to Santa Fe and Taos more than 15 years ago.
Unfortunately, of late I haven’t been exploring the area too much to experience some of that history firsthand. I rectified that a bit yesterday, with a trip to the Puye cliff dwellings followed by a drive to Los Alamos. It was a day of contrasts: the ancestral Pueblos and 20th-century Americans, pottery shards and detritus of the Cold War. But all of it was framed by the Jemez Mountains and a sense that this is truly a unique place.
The Puye cliff (and mesa) dwellings date back to about the 900s and were occupied for almost 700 years. Today’s descendants of the residents live just to the east and north at Santa Clara Pueblo. The Santa Clarans administer the cliff site today and provide the guides for the tour.
Before the tour, I wandered around the Exhibition Hall, which had a one-day treat. Two state archaeologists were on hand, displaying artifacts—genuine and replica—representing some 14,000 years of New Mexico history. The state, you may know, was the home of two paleo-Indian sites that gave their name to past cultures: Clovis and Folsom. We saw arrowheads from the era, some made from obsidian, which turns up frequently at Puye (the Spanish, when confronting the Aztecs to the south, quickly learned of the acute sharpness of weapons made from this volcanic rock, and in modern times surgeries have been done with obsidian tools, which leave behind smaller scars). The discussion included a short lesson on how the paleo-Indians hunted, and how the dry New Mexico climate has helped preserve artifacts that would have disintegrated in other parts of North America.
We also heard how the first New Mexicans used the atlatl, as people around the world did to increase the range and force of their thrown missiles. The diffusion of the atlatl is a mystery: was it spread by migration and/or trade contact, or did it originate independently in areas as distant as Australia and South America? I don’t know, but I do know I love to say atlatl. Atlatl, atlatl, atlatl!
Thank you for indulging my juvenile diversion.
The archaeologists went on to explain how the ancestral Pueblo people and their descendants made a fiber from yucca, which was used for shoes, clothing, and baskets, among other items. One of the archaeologists explained that waterproofed yucca vessels could be used as cooking pots, with hot rocks dropped inside to warm a stew. In recent years, some Indians of New Mexico have been turning to that fiber again.
For the tour itself, I chose the mesa dwellings, since I’d already seen the larger and better known cliff dwellings at nearby Bandelier. Sam was our guide, and he took us inside the kiva on the mesa, which is surrounded by the ruins of several buildings with many small rooms, one fairly well-preserved larger building, and a spot where a reservoir once sat (farming went on down below the mesa). Sam explained that artifacts still cover the site. The Santa Clarans had halted an early dig there when the Anglo professor in charge, Edgar Hewitt, took all the bones his team found of the long-dead dwellers and less than respectfully threw them into a heap, which he then covered with rocks. Today, Sam said, some tourists take home pieces of pottery they find (which is against the rules), only to return home and begin experiencing odd, supernatural occurrences. The shards are returned post haste.
To return to the welcome center, we had a choice of taking a van or walking down, then using a ladder, as the Pueblos once did, for the final descent. One woman in our party was game, so the rest of us followed. That simple choice showed the serendipity one must rely on when traveling/exploring. Although I sometimes unsteadily navigated the foot holes long ago cut into the rock, I made it down to the ladder. And on the ledge Sam pointed out petroglyphs, including one he said is perhaps the earliest depiction of a Spaniard in what became the United States. He also showed us a tiny piece of turquoise he found on the trail. The gemstone, like the pieces of obsidian we saw all around, came from mines not far from the dwellings.
The tour at Puye is not cheap–$20 for what was supposed to be an hour, though ours was more like 90 minutes, thanks to the walking descent. And Bandelier gets all the attention for cliff-dwelling attractions. But this little excursion barely an hour from my home was rewarding because of Sam—a person with direct ties to the people who once lived there. And like other ruins of ancient Southwest cultures or the surviving pueblos of New Mexico, Puye awed me again with the resourcefulness of people who could thrive in such seeming isolation in a challenging environmental setting.
Leaving Puye, I headed for Los Alamos, on a drive that offers some stunning scenery. In the town, I headed for spot decidedly less ancient than Puye and less stunning than the drive: the Black Hole. Something of a Los Alamos institution, I only heard about it because it was holding its going-out-of-business sale this weekend. The Black Hole was the all-consuming passion of “Atomic Ed” Grothus. He called it a military surplus store, but from what I saw, nothing of it was the guns and camo you usually find in such places. Grothus gathered much of his surplus from the nearby Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb (Grothus once worked at “the Lab,” as everyone here calls it, until he decided he’d rather not be at a place associated with nuclear annihilation.)
Grothus was not overly about selling his wares; he just liked to accumulate them. As he told NPR a few years back, his store’s name reflected the fact that things enter the Black Hole, but they never leave. I wandered through the collection of atomic-era relics, mostly wondering what I was looking at. But a group of what I assumed to be artists, at-home tinkerers, and curio buffs seemed to be finding things to their liking. When the sale is over, I wonder if some of this stuff will end up in a dump—or a museum.
Our archaeologists back at Puye said that the essence of their work is using artifacts to explain how people lived. The obsidian and shards on the mesa tell one tale. What will the electronic equipment and pumps and pipes Ed gathered say about us? At least we can say, with I hope some conviction, that the nuclear holocaust that seemed so imaginable during the Cold War is a distant memory. But what the Los Alamos scientists wrought will never go away, even if the Black Hole does. The histories of the modern era and the ancestral Pueblos will still sit side-by-side here in northern New Mexico, and the History Nerd is better for it.
In my new role as seeker of all things biographical, I stumbled across a small news item: The History News Network had conducted an online survey, trying to find the least credible history book currently on the shelves. The top five turned up some heavy hitters: Bill O’Reilly on the right, Howard Zinn on the left. But taking the top prize was David Barton, with his biography of Thomas Jefferson (and a forward by Glenn Beck!), The Jefferson Lies.
Barton is not a professional historian. He is, like me, a History Nerd of sorts, delving into the past for his own enjoyment. OK, that’s not entirely true. Barton has an agenda (yeah, yeah, I do too, but finding the truth, at least as much as that’s doable, is at least part of it). Barton is also an evangelical Christian who thinks Christians should be running things, damnit, like they did in the good ol’ days, when our Founding Fathers created America as a Christian nation, based on the Bible. The same Bible that contains heavenly inspired writings and teaches us it is God’s wish to oppose the minimum wage and a progressive income tax and government efforts to combat global warming.
Somewhere in the midst of his born-again zeal, Barton seemed to confuse the theocratic Puritans (though some would debate that adjective) with the FFs, who included several Deists and a few other guys who did not want religion shaping laws, as much as they might personally accept religious values. But don’t tell that to Barton or the folks who accept his version of history as, shall we say, gospel.
Barton caught the media’s eye a few years ago, though I had never heard of him until he clinched his recent dubious historical honor. Seems like some right-wing pols had found him useful for winning evangelical votes, going back to W. in 2004 and presidential candidate wannabes Bachmann and Gingrich this election cycle. The Ph.D.-wielding Newt even went so far as to say that he “”never listen[s] to David Barton without learning a whole lot of new things.” (Which just goes to show what a Ph.D. is worth these days.)
The Jefferson Lies, critics said (including some conservative Christian scholars), is filled with several distortions and plain untruths about our 3rd pres and the author of the Declaration of Independence. Barton tries to paint Jefferson as Christian who wanted a Christian nation and did not want to build a wall between church and state—at least not at the expense of Christianity in the political realm. But in all his supposed exhaustive research, Barton apparently never came across the tidbit that one of the three things Jefferson himself said he wanted to be remembered for—along with creating the University of Virginia and writing that declaration thingy–was crafting Virginia’s Statue for Religious Freedom.
Jefferson was a Deist—he believed a creator, call him/her God if you will, did indeed set things in motion in the universe. And then he/she gave humans free will and the capacity to think for themselves. So in the statute, Jefferson wrote: “All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities,” because “all attempts to influence it [a free mind] by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness.”
Thank god for those words! Because as we know, hypocrisy and meanness from religious types seeking to impose their way have been driven from the land.
The brouhaha over Barton’s book led his publisher to pull it from the market, though you can still buy it at Barton’s own website. And presumably the little media empire he has built, with a radio show and public speeches and a staff to help coordinate it all, still chugs along. Apparently spreading historical distortions in the name of religion pays. But of course, Barton’s fame—and perhaps hubris?—led to the public outcry against his brand of history. How many others out there, of all political stripes, stay beneath the radar and manage to poison the minds of voters, one lie at a time?
Was it really only twelve years ago this November when the eyes of the world were focused on one state, when just a few hundred votes separated the two men vying to be the leader of the free world? I remember it so vividly, the drama, the political machinations and partisanship, the sense that Election Day snafus or faulty tabulation had denied the true intent of the voters in that crucial state.
I am, of course, talking about my new home, the great state of New Mexico.
What’s that you say? Didn’t another state dominate the news in the weeks after the 2000 election? Hmm, I suppose Florida was the focal point of all the post-election hijinks. But New Mexico actually had a closer vote tally: Gore won there by less than 400 votes, while Bush took Florida—theoretically—by 537. Of course, a few million more votes were cast there, and Florida’s 25 electoral votes were a wee bit more important in deciding the election than New Mexico’s measly five. Still, for a time, the unsettled results in both New Mexico and Oregon were mentioned in the same breath as Florida’s disputed outcome, and it wasn’t until December that the Bush team publicly announced it would not seek a statewide recount in NM (something, of course, it fought tooth and nail in Florida; hell, Bush didn’t even want the manual recount in four counties).
Why is the 2000 election debacle on my brain? Probably because I just finished a book on it–for a client who informed me this week it is ceasing publication of all books, this one will most likely never see the light of day, and my getting my second payment for it is not a done deal. Given all that, I might be tempted to post the whole thing online, because I think it was a pretty good book, if I say so myself.
And because, as much as Antonin “Funny Man” Scalia exhorts us all to “get over it” (it being specifically the SCOTUS decision that ended the recount and left legal scholars from all over the political spectrum gape-mouthed), immersing myself in the details of what went on in the 36 days after Election Day (and various vote-stifling efforts before and during it) leaves no doubt that if voter intent were truly discerned, as Florida’s law calls for, Gore won Florida and the election.
I know, I know, the usually mild-mannered History Nerd is opening up a can of really big and disgusting worms here; let me say right off the bat that I’m not going to engage in any online debates with people who disagree. It’s an opinion, though one based on a lot of reading of what went down. And as one lawyer (a pro-Gore lawyer) said in 2002, “There is no neutral view…of Bush v. Gore.” Hell, even Sandra Day O’Connor, who was in the 5-4 Republican majority that halted the recount, said she wasn’t sure if they made the right decision.
But John Paul Stevens, a dissenter, was completely sure of this: The Court never should have issued a stay of the recount in the first place and heard Bush v. Gore. “There just obviously wasn’t any irreparable injury to allowing a recount to go through because the worst that happens is you get a more accurate count of the votes.”
Reading about all the legal maneuvering that went on after November 7, rediscovering the nuances of hanging and dimpled chads and the flawed butterfly ballot, learning for the first time about the Brooks Brothers riot and the steps Bush was taking even before the election to sway public opinion if things didn’t go his way—it set my mind a-spinnin’.
But perhaps even worse was realizing that even after states got rid of error-prone voting machines (though in some cases replaced them with machines susceptible to hacking and that left no paper trail) and Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (which some Republicans are now trying to hamstring by defunding the Election Assistance Commission the law created), the election process in this country is AFU.
Adding to the problem: The two parties have diametrically opposing views (quelle surprise!) about voting. Republicans, in the face of almost non-existent fraud, want to make it harder for people to register and vote, which several studies have shown will potentially drive down the votes of certain constituencies that tend to vote Democratic. Democrats believe everyone who is legally eligible to vote should be able to, with of course some safeguards to prevent fraud (voter ID–good; government-issued photo IDs–not so much). Yes, yes, I’m partisan, but which one sounds like the definition of “participatory democracy” most people would prefer?
We know that the 2000 election was followed by another fairly close contest, with Ohio being the deciding state. The popular-vote contest there was not a nail-biter, though more than one person thought some shenanigans (deliberately creating long lines at polling places in poor, urban, traditionally Democratic areas; possible rigging of machines) helped give Bush that large margin. And once again, though under the radar, New Mexico seemed to have some voting irregularities of its own (and compared to Ohio, its vote was fairly close: Bush won by about 6,000 votes). A study conducted by Help America Recount.org showed that the state had a high percentage of presidential undervotes (no vote recorded) on a certain type of voting machine. Some areas also had high tallies of “phantom votes,” meaning more votes recorded than ballots cast.
By 2008, New Mexico had passed a law that required an automatic recount in close elections, though the issue was moot that year, as Obama swamped McCain in the state. In general, Obama’s comfortable margin across the country didn’t raise the specter of 2000 and 2004. But what will happen this year? Could another close election be decided by court battles and inaccurate counting of votes? Sadly, yes. We’ve already seen Florida trying another voter purge that has raised questions, as the one in 1999-2000 did. We have tough voter ID laws in place that will suppress some Democratic votes. And most damaging of all to the voting process, we have too many partisan officials, from secretaries of state to county canvassing board members, overseeing elections and the counting of votes. Whichever party you belong to, how good would you feel about a partisan from the opposing party deciding the outcome of a tight election?
The 2000 presidential race showed that the idea of one person, one vote—and then having that vote counted properly—is an ideal not being practiced. And that’s one reason why we shouldn’t just “get over” the results of Bush v. Gore and the Florida recount.
As I mentioned previously, I’ve been immersed of late in a biography of John Kennedy, which has renewed my interest in the biographer’s craft (which, not coincidentally, is the name of the monthly newsletter I’m now editing; you can see a sample of an old issue here). I was particularly struck about all the scholarly ink spelled over who exactly wrote JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, which took the 1957 award in the biography/ autobiography category. I suppose professional historians take an interest in this kind of thing because, you know, they do their own research and writing and like to see others in their field rewarded for the same.
So here’s what the latest scholarship seems to suggest (at least as outlined by Robert Dallek in his An Unfinished Life): Kennedy relied on the research and first drafts of others (primarily Ted Sorensen) but wrote the final draft. Dallek sums it up this way: “Jack did more on the book than some later critics believe, but less than the term author normally connotes.”
Hmm. But only JFK’s name is listed on that prize, yes, not the “committee” Dallek says did the work.
Both Dallek and Sally Bedell Smith note that Joseph Kennedy’s journalist friend, New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, lobbied Pulitzer voters to make sure JFK got the prize. (Krock had previously helped turn Kennedy’s senior thesis from Harvard into the well-received book, Why England Slept.) Dallek says the voting committee had five books above Kennedy’s during their deliberations; Smith specifically mentions books on FDR and jurist Harlan Stone as biographies that were originally deemed more worthy. Yet Kennedy got the prize and increased prominence. The book and its success stirred this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, who was not very impressed with Kennedy’s liberal credentials (though to be fair, JFK never considered himself a liberal). To the former First Lady, the Senate’s rising star would have been more impressive if he had “a little less profile and a little more courage.”
I don’t know what other books were in the running for that Pulitzer in ’57. The Pulitzer website does not list the finalists that far back. But you can get an idea of some of the competition for that year by checking out the finalists for the National Book Award (NBA) in history. The biographies included what I assume is the same FDR bio that Smith mentions, James MacGregor Burns’s Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. (Burns went on to write a glowing pre-presidential campaign profile of Kennedy in 1959). Or it could have been another FDR bio, Frank Freidel’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Triumph. Also on the list: Old Bullion Benton, a study of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and Samuel Flagg Bemis’s John Quincy Adams and the Union, the second part of a two-volume biography by one of the most respected historian of the first half of the 20th century. (Interestingly, Benton and Adams make up one-quarter of Kennedy’s profiles.) Another finalist that year was Richard III, by Paul Murray Kendall; several sources say Kendall’s book was the runner-up for the NBA.
So, Kennedy had some stiff competition for his Pulitzer. Authorship aside, did he deserve it? I can’t answer that, but his experience could be another example of the importance of having friends in high places. After his lobbying efforts, Krock said in an interview, “I worked as hard as I could to get him that prize.” It would be flip for me to say, “Perhaps harder than Kennedy did in marshaling the work of his committee.”
But it does seem fair to say that Kennedy never felt any remorse about how the book was written or how it won the prize. Not like Krock later did. After explaining his hard work for Kennedy, the journalist added: “Those are the facts. I don’t take any pride in them.”
At least that’s how much of my life has felt the last week or so, as work has led me to write another biography of another president (I’ve lost track how many this is; suffice to say, I know more than I care to about a lot of presidents).
This is one is about the much-beloved and –reviled JFK. I’ve written one about him before, and plenty about his involvement in the Cold War. I started this round of research with Thomas Reeves’s A Question of Character. Reeves said he spent much of his life enamored with Kennedy, but as a professional historian he wanted to puncture the myth of Camelot and get at the true essence of the man. And as most historians now know, even if most Americans don’t, it’s not a pretty picture: Papa Joe’s spending to help buy influence (and votes), the Mafia ties, the philandering, the lies about his health (and about his authorship of a Pulitzer-Prize winning book), the drug use. You read this and think, “This is the caliber of person we elect to the most important political position in the world?” Of course, all presidents have flaws. But if the truth had been known about JFK in his lifetime, would he have been the 35th president? And could he have taken on the saint-like characteristics that some still cherish today if not for his assassination?
Probably not. And no.
But my book, alas, will not delve too deeply into the sordid underbelly of American politics and this president’s life. Though I do hope to show the kids how a public image can be oh-so-artfully manufactured. Surely that has only become more relevant in the 50 years since Dallas.
My other biographical endeavor has a totally different angle. I belong to a group called Biographers International Organization (BIO), the only craft guild/support group for those scribes who attempt to document others’ lives for a living (not that more than a handful actually make a living at it). Last year, in my defunct blog, I chronicled my experience at the BIO national conference in Washington, DC. I was moderator of a panel on writing YA bios, got to meet lots of interesting writers, and developed the sense that what we biographers do is something special, if not always as impressive to others as what novelists or poets or reality-TV stars do.
I’ll be at this year’s conference too, an unexpected development thanks to my new role in helping put out BIO’s monthly newsletter. I wrote some of my first pieces for the May edition, and found it quite gratifying to research all things bio and then write about it for adult readers who share my passion for biographies in particular and reading/writing in general.
Here’s some of my first scribblings for The Complete Biographer, commenting on the release of Robert Caro’s fourth volume of his The Years of Lyndon Johnson:
Along with the recent praise for the book have been profiles of the author almost everywhere you turn: a long piece in Esquire, stories by CBS and NPR. Some of the attention for both book and author, one BIO member swears, is simply the media’s excitement over getting to use penultimate so often, since Caro plans one more book to close out Johnson’s life (due in two or three years). Yet even the casual fan of biographies can see something approaching heroic in a man devoting almost 40 years of his life to trying to capture the essence of such a towering political figure as Johnson.
Caro’s dedication to and skill at his craft was apparent at the 2011 Compleat Biographer conference. Winner of that year’s BIO Award, Caro delivered a keynote speech that addressed the importance of place in defining a subject’s character. He had immersed himself in the West Texas hill country of Johnson’s youth—just one part of the research that has made Caro so admired. But don’t, Esquire writer Chris Jones says, call Caro obsessive. The biographer told Jones, “That implies it’s something strange. This is reporting. This is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to turn every page.”
When The Years of Lyndon Johnson is done, readers will have turned several thousand book pages—and know Caro has turned every page in the former president’s life.
40 years. Thousands of pages. The LBJ bio does strike some as obsessive, but to biographers, Caro is a master of our craft: a dedicated researcher, a striking writer, a seeker of the truth—as much as any historical writing delivers “the” truth.
My new BIO gig got me reflecting on biographies in general: Reading my first in elementary school, almost always of athletes. One of Sal “the Barber” Maglie has always stuck in my mind. Writing biographies, from the long list of presidents to Robert Hooke (about whom I knew nothing beforehand) to a graphic-novel treatment of the life of Muhammad Ali.
Thinking about the biographers through ages, especially Suetonius and Plutarch. Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars was the first history book on ancient Rome that I ever read. As to Plutarch, his Lives still reach us today, even if we don’t know it, since Shakespeare used him as a source for some of his historical plays. Then there are the ancient biographies of a guy who had some worldwide impact: Jesus Christ. You may have heard of him? Of course the writers of the Gospels were not exactly trained in the nuances of objective historical writing…
I find it interesting that the primary biography of the New Testament, along with Plutarch’s writing, were intended to show the lives of other to make moral statements. Biographies often try to show the goodness in others to inspire us, as we immerse ourselves in their courage and wisdom. And other times they are cautionary tales that warn of the dangers of hubris and roads taken that lead to perfidy.
Every life is a narrative. We all crave narratives to explore, whether our own or others. I may never be a Robert Caro, but when I write my 5,000-word, watered-down presidential bios, I still aspire to reach the standards set by the best practitioners of my craft. And give my readers a narrative that satisfies some deeper need.
Mitt Romney has a history problem. I’m not talking about his personal history; his public persona suggests his worst infraction was sneaking a sip out of a bottle of Coke behind the family’s sprawling Bloomfield Hills home. No, I mean he has a problem getting the facts of history right, as an op-ed piece he wrote to rattle his saber at Iran shows. The thrust of the piece was to paint Barack Obama as weak in the face of Iran’s rising nuclear threat, and he would be different, by gum. He started the piece by referring back to the release of the U.S. hostages on January 20, 1981, just minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.
To Romney, the release was Iran’s acknowledgment that they faced some tough times under Reagan’s watch if the hostages weren’t freed (not, as is widely accepted, because months of negotiations and internal Iranian concerns led Ayatollah Khomeini to agree to their release). Yup, why Reagan was so tough on the Iranians, he secretly sold them weapons, in violation of U.S. law and his own promise never to deal with terrorists. Yeah, Romney pines for the good ol’ days, under Sheriff Ronnie. You probably won’t hear too much from Romney on the Iran-contra scandal…
Attending Phyllis Bennis’s recent talk about U.S.-Iranian relations got me thinking about the shared history of those two countries. The recent past, with the hostages and ever-tense relations often inflamed by bellicose rhetoric, has not been pretty. But the History Nerd wondered: Was it always thus?
Depends on who you ask, I guess. Justin Perkins recounted receiving some good treatment at the hands of the Muslim government of Persia, circa 1835. Perkins was the first American missionary to live in what we now call Iran, arriving there in 1834 with his wife. His mission was to work with the Nestorians, a Christian sect that traced its roots back to a 5th-century dispute over the teachings of Nestorius. The Persian Nestorians lived in and near the mountains of Kurdistan. Perkins not only had to deal with a foreign culture as he spread Congregationalist teachings and general learning. He also confronted religious obstacles in the form of local superstitions and “papal errors” that had crept into Nestorianism, the latter courtesy of missionaries sent from Rome. Perkins’s son recounts these years in Persia in the biography he wrote of his father, noting that even though the Nestorians were surrounded by “the gross darkness of Mohammedanism,” the land’s Muslim rulers treated the elder Perkins well. One member of the ruling family ordered that Perkins and his associate have army protection, as thanks for their “attending to the education of the people, and render[ing] the people useful by teaching them European science.”
The Americans and Iranians first established official diplomatic relations during the 1880s. (An earlier trade treaty had been negotiated but never put into effect.) By this time, Persia was still an independent nation, but a shell of the great empire it had once been. Actually, three separate empires had risen and crumbled in the region, starting with the Achaemenid dynasty of the 6th century BCE. By the 19th century, however, Persia had become another battleground in the “Great Game” between Russia and Great Britain for dominance in Central Asia. The glory of Cyrus and Darius and Mithridates and, yes, even Khosrow I, was long past.
That point was forcefully driven home in 1919, when the Anglo-Persian Agreement gave the British virtual control of Iran. The people, as U.S. State Department correspondence indicates, were incensed by their government’s capitulation, but feared demonstrating against it because of the presence of British troops. One report said that Iran’s intelligentsia realized some foreign influence was inevitable, and “they would have welcomed such on the part of the United States.” Persians hoped for some sort of American remedy, and some were disappointed when it never came. The rising tide of nationalism, though, led to the takeover of the government in 1921 by the first Pahlavi shah, the father of the infamous shah who would be one of the greatest U.S. allies in the region—and a player in the later hostage crisis.
By this time, a discovery beneath Persian soils set the groundwork for those deepening U.S.-Iranian ties. The country had oil, lots of it. And as we all know, America would eventually need some of that oil, and a general balance of power in the region that favored its interests. But Americans did not arrive in any force in Iran until World War II. Fearing a German takeover of the country (the first shah had established close ties to Germany), the Soviet Union and Great Britain invaded Iran in 1941. A small number of U.S. troops and civilians arrived to help move supplies through Iran–the so-called Persian Corridor–to Russia and keep oil flowing to the Allies. The Americans built roads and operated plants that made vehicles and aircraft for the Soviets. Thousands of Iranian civilians also took part in these efforts.
At the end of the war the Soviet Union was not happy, because it didn’t have the oil interests that the Brits and Americans had secured during the war. Joseph Stalin tried to reassert old Russian influence over northern Iran, supporting rebels there. He ended that support in April 1946, and Iranian troops, working with a U.S. military adviser, crushed the rebellion. The Soviets were out of what was a historical sphere of influence for them, and we were in. But U.S. leaders would continue to fear Communist influence in Iran and do whatever they had to do to keep a friendly regime in power there.
Those steps included using the CIA to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 and putting the second Pahlavi shah onto the Peacock Throne. This part of the story is more familiar, so I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say, said shah used petrodollars and cozy U.S. relations to build a brutal dictatorship, which led to the revolution of 1978 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Which begat the hostage crisis and 30-plus years of tensions and talks of going to war with an Iran that supposedly covets nukes, to intimidate Israel and no doubt tweak the Americans yet again.
To the Iranians, Iranian-American professor Vali Nasr claims, 1953 was a motivating factor in the future animosity between Iran and the United States. The U.S.-inspired coup was a “humiliation,” one that was “exorcised by the taking of the American hostages in 1979.” The Iranian nationalism that first emerged during the 1920s had been stoked anew, and remains today, even if many Iranians oppose the new authoritarian regime that replaced the old one (“Meet the new boss…”).
What do the Iranians think of the tough talk from a Romney or other Americans? Efraim Halevy, a former head of Israeli intelligence, said that Romney’s op-ed piece could fuel Iran’s desire to quickly do more work on a weapon, before Romney—conceivably—wins the election. But Iran’s real concern was not building a bomb, Halevy asserted, but preserving its regime, as economic sanctions begin to take effect. Whatever happens, our relations with Iran will remain complex–perhaps a little too much so for the historically challenged Romney.