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tv   Historian Walter Isaacson Ford Foundation President Darren Walker  CSPAN  April 21, 2022 1:00pm-1:46pm EDT

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>> so walter isaacson. son of new orleans. of broadmoor. >> sorry. product ofbroadmoor . rhodes scholar. every night intellectual. recipient of how many awards? we don't have enough time. walter, you have documented through these biographies of some of the most complicated, complex and challenging personalities of history. and of course your biography of benjamin franklin stands out because franklin,
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franklin was an evening not for so many and i want you to talk about why this film because of course ken is an extraordinaryinterpreter of history, particularly on american culture . but why today is an old dead white man like benjamin franklin relevant? >> ben franklin is the historical figure we most need today. he's the person who tried to unite colleges, to dissipate the discussions and ideologies. he was a person most most connected science and statecraft . believed
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about the importance of saying let's not jump to conclusions but have the experiments made whether it was about lightning or taxation. he tied us together with the poster syndrome so he did so much but the main thing is the archetypal moral life whether it be our nation's moral life, a quest for self-improvement but the flaws that needed to be faced later in his life so he could help rectify them. the most obvious was that he enslaved to people when he left his print job in philadelphia and then he becomes appalled at that concept. he talked about public education in your book and the panel earlier . he starts to think, the economies of the education in philadelphia and the associates of doctor gray because they had public
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schools to teach children of slaves and freed slaves. then, having done this uscompromise that only believed that to hold a democracy together we had to make compromises but the hardest thing we do in our life is no when to make a compromise and when to stand on our principles. he got it wrong sometimes. he made a list of every time he got it wrong . he wrote the apprentice, walked through philadelphia famously but the last one is the great rock that in his life was tolerating slavery and he said how can i rectify ? he rectifies it by becoming the president of the society for abolition of slavery which was pretty early for that and creating a revolving fund. you talk eloquently that
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charity is not just charity, it's fighting injustice that remains is a system. so by starting so many civic organizations, the first free library of philadelphia. there's no revolving fund for people who have to start small businesses. for me being the greatest innovator of the time from the lightning rod, full of grace in the quintessential american. flawed but on a journey y of moral affection. >> during his life he actually received that transformation. >> and during the life ofour country . i find him to be a metaphor for the country. we are trying'in fits and starts to achieve that transformation. but even at the end of his life in his journal he's trying to figure out what didn't i do?
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when my students at tulane, i understand why you want to take names down but before you do it thank they put your portrait on the wall here someday want 100 years from now will be causing people to say we've got to take that person's portrait down . was it because you ate meat or you have a car or maybe you were supportive of washington. be able to challenge your own beliefs and see howhistory might judge you . >> among your other biographies. >> i wrote a little about him . >> but you've written about him and the difference there is jefferson was unable to make.
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>> john said that earlier this morning and and gordon reed was here. but i call it the jefferson conundrum meeting how do you judge people who were great in many ways but in light of history, i hate it when people use in the context of their time which is usually a meuphemism for excusing a moral lapse. but there were so many people who fall prey to the jefferson conundrum. even in my writing about biology, you have james watson who is the greatest biologist of the 20th century. does the structure of dna but becomes racist basically in his feelings about race and heredity. how do you teach watsons biology, how do you teach jefferson's history? and gordon reed was interesting yesterday which dis it's too easy for us to
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just dismiss a jefferson. i do give , i think that you earn extra credit for being ahead of the curve of history . >> franklin's reputation. he is held in higher regard through the lens of moral framework. >> right and he comes to grips with slavery and of course jefferson doesn't even freeze with sally hemmings much less his renderings to slaves. so yes i think even as we, the great thing about history is we get to reassess people. we also have to be humble about knowing what they know. >> but your point that he is ma metaphor for today and that's why he is relevant. it is as if that dialectic between franklin and
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jefferson continues. that tension of jefferson saying i know that this is wrong. but this is necessary in order for me to have all of this. i think in some ways that's a metaphor. >> and here's something that's also bad about jefferson is that he was actually a deepermoral thinker . i love ben franklin but ben franklin is tactical and gets it but sometimes you know deep philosophers in madison and jefferson are amongst them and yet the deeper philosopher whose reading john locke and writing all these treatises, they still can't have the common sense of an average printer and
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shopkeeper likeben franklin on market street . as a deeply reflective person who had all the great philosophers, jefferson should have gotten it a little bit better . >> so interesting that and i a think your narrating through american history metaphorically through franklin and really when people ask the question today why are these guys relevant i think it's a powerful articulation of why we need history, all of our history o and why understanding these men is so important to understanding today . i think walter among the things you've been able to do and throughout your career is look back and look forward.
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like franklin to john. >> that was a had snacker. >> walter, why did you? >> if you want to know what ben franklin really was you say i was an inventor. lightning rods to clean burning stoves. even inventing concepts like the concept of federalism where you have other states in the union and they coexist . so what sets franklin apart is he's the greatest innovator of his time . thinking of new things whether it's invention or concepts or ways to balance power or figuring out how to do experiments on the temperature of the water in the atlantic to figure out the gulfstream. whereas mister meacham became interested in grand political leaders, as to ben franklin i said i'm more interested in n innovators tand one of the
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things about franklin and jefferson together is in what i thought you were a philistine if you didn't appreciate the science of the time. if you didn't try to understand different balances and checks . if you didn't understand anatomy. we lost when i was young this sense that we all had to appreciate science. so what i did was after franklin i said what caused us meaning people on our side to be e intimidated. it was sort of einstein. you don't have to be einstein to understand einstein so i wanted to do a book on him to has the t science beauty and that led me of course after i did ben franklin , i did write franklin and einstein, you'll appreciatethis . b i get a call from steve jobs and he says do me next. franklin, einstein, you.
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how arrogant. but then they realized that steve jobs had done more to affect our lives in any secretary of state or fed chairman or even president and the fact that i walk around with an iphone and have my gps and mike huber and everything else. so i became interested more in innovators than inpowerful leaders . >> getting back to franklin, franklin was a big believerin hehumanity . i mean, the notion of being well read and the notion of rtwhat we think of today. >> and because he didn't get to go to school. he was the 10th son of a puritan and being the 10th son he had all these ties to the lord. his father was going to send him to harvard to study for the ministry a long time ago when he knew how to train
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ministers but franklin let us w say was not cut from the cloth. at one point he said to his father when they were so salting away the provisions he said let me say grace right now, get it done with once and for all. we don't have to say it every meal so his father decides not to send them to harvard and he runs away to philadelphia. but it's that sort of self taught person where he's ntapprenticed to his brother who is a publisher and printer and every night he takes books down from the d shelves and what franklin does, there are two people in history, maybe three if you count aristotle but to people in the history of humanity who really tried to learn everything you could possibly know about every subject . leonardo da vinci and ben franklin and that's why i wanted to do biographies of both. what they see is the connection between the arts and humanity.
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as you said at the end of your talk that people, steve jobs once said and it goes right to your story about poetry that basically the reason bill gates created the zune which was the most god-awful product to be done in smicrosoft, almost unusable is because he studied only coding whereas steve got jobs studied calligraphy, poetry, dance and art in college so that edition that steve did whenever he did a product launch he showed the last slide was the intersection of the art and technology. so that's what we do at tulane but that's what you're saying to is the key to creativity. >>speaking of creativity , philadelphia during franklin's time was the cradle of creativity. >> absolutely. >> why wasthat ?
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>> i think it's deeply important to understand why some places and sometimes become cradles of creativity and if we go through history you can start in 1570 with florence because the half of the renaissance. you have 1770 where philadelphia is. 1970 ouwhere the stanford area is and you say what makes it work? in philadelphia and in florence in particular as you spoke about early and i love the comment on it's a shame that diversity got defined in the context of the boxy decision instead of the context of the glorification we figure in new orleans by having a diverse culture. we know that's a great thing, not something to be imposed by law but if you look at let's pick florence. when leonardo goes there he is a total misfit. he is born out of wedlock. he's gay, he's left-handed.
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he's distracted. but he gets to florence and the medici family thinks he's great. he's accepted in a town in which people come in from the ottoman empire, following the silk road that has the greatest diverse city anywhere. that's why the renaissance happens there. in 1770 four ben franklin one runs away from boston with all the respect of boston which we both like it was a very puritan monoculture and if youdeviated in any way . if you like on the wrong side of the oucrisis of god's grace and love you had to leave and go found rhode island or something waso he runs away and comes to philadelphia where these arabians and jews and anglicans and blacks and slaves and free slaves and the city's name, city of brotherly love, philadelphia. that diversity allows the
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birth of america. >> but he was truly a singular figure in this. did he have, he didn't have a medici, the patrons in philadelphia. >> not exactly ndbut they were trying to find patrons but what he does is more create a community. not just patrons but civic leaders. he created what he calls the liberating process because it wasn't the wealthiest of philadelphia, it was for the middle class. they called it we the middling people who are the shopkeepers on market street, a leather aprons because they were the people who opened the door of the shop and they were there and that leather apron club decided to figure out how to do civic improvements.
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and every month they come up with one. the free library, the militia, the academy that becomes pen and whatever. i think that was his secret and you see it in great cities where it's not just cisome patron handing down things. but this sort of civic life. >> i think it's interesting when contrasted with so many of the other founding fathers who werejust flat out elitist . >> if you want to rag on port jefferson, we're not here to defend him.they both start academies. university of virginia and then the academy of philadelphia becomes pen so if you read their founding documents and this goes back to your previous panel, jeffersons free for the university of virginia was to skim at the top the cream, the elite and train them for great leadership. franklin in his eco-academy
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was to take every kid from every walk of life and make them able to be marked more participatory in our economy and it was not supposed to be a selective place for the elite. i still think when you talk about public education, that's what we have to regain the notion of is that education is not supposed to be a privilegefor the elite . >> how did you and can come to work, what was that like? >> we're having dinner in washington together and i had worked with ken a little bit, can have come down to tulane. he said who should ido next ? and michelle and her father had all helped do these libraries and i said you've got to do ben franklin and here's why. our countries becoming more
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fractured . who was the person who tried to find the common ground? it was at that dinner at a restaurant in georgetown that michelle and i convinced them to do it but it was an easy sell because i think can have a feel for ben franklin. he was the founder, two things about him that made him good for this. first of all, he was the only middle-class founder. most of them were land owning aristocracies 'like the jeffersons, medicines or the merchant aristocracies like the adams and john hancock families, whatever. we did not really have middle-class nor in england was there a middle-class and ben franklin's greatest invention is inventing the concept of the middle class . shopkeeper and being the backbone of america . >> the whole idea of civic america really came out of that.
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all of what came after that. >> octocqueville, it's pedantic for me to say this but only seven of us have read it and that's scott maybe at newman. but i do think tocqueville gets something wrong franklin gets right which is tocqueville says there was a disconnect between americans individualism and their association forming instincts that they always are forming associations and what franklin said is no, it is a barn raising, quilting bee instincts ltthat are individualistic but allow us to come together in voluntary associations. >> tocqueville also said on the issue of race.
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>> and he came down to new orleans in 1840 or so. you're right, tocqueville gets most things right. >> but franklin got that right to. they all had this. they all have that assessment . >> that was interesting, jefferson had that too intellectually . but i think again this is the really hard part for the privileged class in america. who throughout history have wrestled with the philosophical enlightened views of what is right and wrong. and what is needed to feed their privilege.
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>> this is what what you did with ford and what you've done in your book is a concept i have wrestled with. when somebody gives me a new idea i had wrestled with which is that when philanthropy comes a way to protect a system jthat has some inherent injustices that's a problem and that foundation has to deal with the underlying injustices not just njthe cells that the wealthy can feel are giving back but that's hard. >> andrew carnegie didn't see a problem with any quality. he thought that god had imbued men like ken with special talent and it wasn't about questioning. the fact that there were children falling into the arms armpits because there
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was no osha, it didn't really affect them because that was what it took to make carnegie industries. >> i think with carnegie and rockefeller it was a double whammy which was you had this sense of almost god-given privilege but also a social darwinian schism. because darwin had come along in the late 1860s and like well, it's just survival of the fittest. that really hurt america in that post reconstruction period through the industrial revolution . and it took onin your book you write about it the carnegie's and rockefeller's and others to have a sort of a move forward in their thinking. >> this is where your work on watson and others means is it also a period where the
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american eugenics society gains and who were the founders of eugenics? >> harbor labs is found funded by your foundation before you were ahead. >> but the reality is philanthropy was itself investing in the ideas that were rooted in the notions of hierarchies of social construction of race. but that's philanthropy.op these were progressive great american families, philanthropists who believed that italians were not as smart as british or scandinavian people.
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>> as ned said earlier we think that was a long time ago we're not that far removed when he was talking about his father. that american eugenics movement is a 1920s and it's only when the nazis taken over it gives it such a horrible stench that we act like we never felt like that. >> and there was robison in her great book cast reveals the nazis came to the american south and state stay the ways in which laws have been passed against minorities and i hadn't understood that before the book. she really uncovered some interesting things.
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>> it gets to a deeper thing which is why we wrestle with history and when you say why are these founders important it's important obecause we carved them in marble and put them on a pedestal. there rare important because we wrestle with our history and this is something i fear fornow when we're starting to get lost . from both the left and the right and the woke and the right wing and everybody's saying don't teach it that way. no, what you have to do is be like franklin and keep that ledger and say what did i get wrong and let's wrestle with everything from science, our eugenics and my friend devon thomas finished a book on the atom bomb. that was something that's a complex thing and we all have knee-jerk reactions. we should take history and say i use a word that's a horrible word that's called complex affiant and when any of our students say we had to do it that way i say let me complex affiant for you. >> in a democracy complexity, messiness is part of it.
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>> we are losing the ability with anything from pp gerrymandering to money politics to have people sit down and say there's a complexity here, let's see if we can sort it out as opposed to going to either side . >> you grew up in the city. this complex place. >> complex especially on race and is particularly useful having grown up here to recall all the first times that you understood race . of course fatherhood was somebody who led us in but i can remember maybe 500 yards from here, i'll ask and. walking across the ottoman park with my cousin alan bissinger geand back then are maids and the son of who was our age of one of the maids. we were going to that merry-go-roundin ottoman park .
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and i was like five or six so learning to read and i want to go to the merry-go-round. suddenly i stopped and threw a tantrum and i said i don't want to go. it occurred to me there was a sign i had seen before but never knew or thought about and it said whites only. i just wanted to avoid having to go there so all of us in our lives but especially if you grew up in this place broadmoor when i grew up and latoya cantrell was there but we at an early age developed a radar about it. others, we talk about this endlessly about the need to reengage with our radar. >> but walter, i think people like you are effectual.
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you lead a particular kind of life. it's easier for you. >> i'm privileged enough to be that way. >> and your privileged enough to be able to reject ideology and tropes that are sent to you with the objective of dividing you from other americans. but not everyone is as safe and secure. so how do we think about those people who are still vulnerable and do feel invisible? >> and resentful and i should be talking about whites as
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well as blacks, people that feel this mobilization of and free markets andtechnology, outsourcing may have made us a richer nation but make us less behind. you've already dragged on the abstinence . >> i love itespecially when you rent . >> i remember six or seven years ago before from was nominated, walking across thinking about how everybody there was involved and said we all love free trade. we've taken trips across america when i was at "time magazine" and i began to see resentment of the people who free trade made it great. they could go to walmart on a sunday afternoon get a flatscreen tv set that was half the price of what it had been a few years earlier but that on monday morning they couldn't catch the early bus to go to the maytag plant because it had been moved to mexico and there was a resentment building up that was somewhat racist and
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definitely anti-immigrants and how come everybody's trying to see finished in our schools and we can't get a job in a plant now etc. and those of us who believe in that consensus got it wrong. we were unaware of the legitimate resentments that were building up in society in terms of prosperity of the 90s. >> i think that's a fair and accurate assessment of what happened and so i guess walter, where do we go from here? you are a great a great american university. you've got a platform, what's your counter call? >> it begins with reinventing ben franklin in america. that we should do a lot more here instead of saying it never happened. i believe that manufacturing shouldcome back . i believe that the jobs are
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the heart of a stable society . we definitely within franklin for me so i think as we face all these challenges around the world, there's a line from pogo. it was a cartoon strip but he said we have met theenemy and he is us . the point was we have to create the type of opportunity society that people felt that they may have had 50 or 100 years ago. there's no generation in america thattfdidn't feel the country would be better for their children that it was for them except for now . i think we have to rebuild america and its ability to create and increase things. >> you think benjamin franklin gave us a god? >> he gives us a guide because he believes it came from a sort of middle class
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and small businesses being able to grow. for every apprentice e, to be to then start enterprise and startup entrepreneurial culture. that's what market street was built upon in the 1770s in philadelphia when franklin was there and that's when i do think sometimes we feel resentful not just because of big government but also nsbig corporations and i'm like you , i believe in the american system, free-market capitalism but we don't want people to be alienated and think that big corporations can crush us. my kids in my tulane class have good ideas for services they want to do but the main gl thing they worry about is how can facebook or google crush me when it becomes good so we have to have a sense whereso people can start businesses again . and by the way and make it
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equitable. my wife kathy is very involved in entrepreneurs we in idea village which is fun for people unlike me who had a and or uncle who gets help to the high bar or whitney bank. to make sure everybody has an opportunity to start something they believe in. >> last point i'd like you to address is because we are here at tulane and in many ways like many of the great american universities tulane is grappling with the role of higher education in a democracy. i like you to reflect on what the role is and what are today things that were you and the things that give you reason for open encouragement because you are in the midst of t.
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>> as a historian i go back to ben franklin when he said what was the purpose of the university he was doing, it's to create good citizens for the country we were trying to become and to create opportunities for each new generation. and sometimes we lose sight of that in highereducation , but shaping good people who become good citizens is the role of the university. you were very close to and i was very close to one of the most wonderful saints who walked this earth. the late great peter gomez at harvard. he was a minister of memorial church and i don't remember much but i do remember the sermon he gave on the day we graduated which is he called it what we forgot to tell you . he said we told you this was a great, exclusive place and
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you were privileged to come here and made it more exclusive as he went up. what we forgot to tell you is it's not about his exclusivity, it's about inclusivity because that's what you're going to be judged on is how many people you brought into it . and afterwards he told me the story as somebody came up and he was saying what do you want to be and the person said i hope i'll be successful but i want to be president of the united states and peter said aim higher. he said the university has produced a lot of powerful people. it's even produced a few presidents but it hasn't always produced kind people and good people who care about including others into it. that's what we should have taught you andthat's what we forgot to tell you . >> it's still true and i think it reminds me of wb deploy and the souls of black
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men. when he talks about the count to 10. and the work of men like him and other elite blacks how to cultivate althat talent. later in his life, he was challenged and he came to understand that it wasn't just about creating a coterie of elite blacks but it was about creating an environment that the other 90 percent could thrive in. and to equip themselves with the ability to lift others up rather than simply building leadership who could then engage with the broader white elite community.
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e and so in some ways he was you know, in talking about the souls of black folks engaging him in his own excavation of ideas that were based on a kind of a white elitist system and a white higher education emsystem as a graduate of harvard like you was able to interview into his own sort of a framework as he grew older and wiser was challenged. >> that's what professor louis gates would teach us about due boy as well but it's about franklin, it's about all of us is he wasn't always perfect. what he did was he reflected on g.i've gotten this wrong. just like franklin said i got t the biggest thing of all wrong. i've got to figure out how to move forward.
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dubois said that too and that's also the purpose of the university to give you that humility to keep thinking . get up every morning and think two things to yourself. i'ma lucky person . i'm grateful and my gratitude will make me more inclusive of the other thing you should think is okay. let me question every belief i had the night before because i'm probably getting some things wrong and that's something we've lost as a society too. once you get locked into your beliefs these days you get in your echo chamber of talk radio or cable news and we don't say hey, maybe i was wrong about free trade and the davos concerts or affirmative action or the robert e lee otstatue and we have to say i got some things wrong. >> franklin was a deeply curious person. >> that stems from that which is every moment of his life
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like leonardo da vinci he would see something and stop and try to find out more about it. i saw a wonderful rainstorm today. he studied how the wind is going in rainstorms and it helped him figure out how the storms went to the coast a certain way. that curiosity about the symbol strengths. in ben franklin's notebooks leonardo's notebooks and albert einstein's notebooks it's the same question they ask witches why is the sky blue? all of us see a blue sky every day or two. but when where children we may ask why is it blue? we lose that curiosity about the every day wonders of nature and that's what the truly creative people is is they never outgrow their wonder years .
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>> walter isaacson, you never cease to amaze me. >> same back at you darren. >> thank you walter for inviting me. [applause] >> give it up for walter isaacson. >> thank you. >> first ladies in their own words. looking at first ladies, their time in the white house and the issues important to them. >> it was a great advantage to know what it was like to work in school whichbecause education is such an important issue both for a governor but also a president . that was very helpful to me. >> using materials from our award-winning biographyseries 1st ladies . >> i'm very much the kind of person who believes you
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should say what you mean and mean what you say and take theconsequences . >> and our online video library will feature first ladies lady bird johnson, betty ford, rosalynn carter, nancy reagan, hillary clinton, laura bush, michelle obama and melania trump. watch first ladies in their own words saturday at 2 pm eastern on american history tv on c-span2 or listen to the series as a podcast on the free mobile app or wherever you get yourpodcasts . weekends are an intellectual feast. every saturday american history tv documents america's stories and on sunday book tv brings you the latest in nonfiction books andauthors . funding comes from these television companies and more including cox.
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>> cox is committed to providing eligible families access to affordable internet through the connect and computer program, bridgingthe digital divide one connected and engaged student at a time. cox : bringing us closer. cox along with these television companies supports c-span2 as a public service . >> i'm going to take controlhere because otherwise i won't be able to . you all may remember in 1962 njohn kennedy held a very successful statevisit to france . and mrs. kennedy was enormously popular on the farewell dinner, closing o dinner in front of de gaulle bu and others k said i used to s be the president of the w united states but now i am simply a man whoaccompanies jacqueline kennedy to paris . i'm the man who accompanied her to new orleans


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