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tv   Writing Presidential Biographies  CSPAN  July 31, 2016 11:59pm-1:19am EDT

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the people who elected me to come here and be your voice. thank you so much. have a great one. >> i was at the ohio delegate breakfast this morning. i feel that the lack of education and school systems has been lacking for too long. especially in my city of cincinnati, ohio. ohio literacy rates are very low. hopefully we can get these issues solved. >> am 17 years old and the youngest member of the california delegation. i pledged with bernie sanders and i got involved in the delegate process because i was inspired by my grandfather who was an organizer. it has led me to really fight for what is right and for the voices of those who are not voiced and that is what i'm doing at the convention in the hoping to represent the youth.
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>> delighted to be at the convention. my first convention. i've been working for hillary for eight years. to get her in the white house. that's why i'm here. it is my passion. >> i'm from ohio. i'm a delegate for bernie and i 21. am this is my first convention. i am the state director of college students for bernie and i'm really excited to be here. my generation and the millennials, we are about the same size of the baby boomers and it is really important for us to show up. we are having a great time at the convention and looking forward to the rest of it. >> voices from the road on c-span. talk next, historians
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about the process of writing a presidential biography. this event was part of a pulitzer prize centennial the george w. bush presidential center. it is just over an hour. [applause] >> thank you. laura and i want to welcome you. of the president and ceo bush center and all of us who work here are thrilled you are here. i must confess i have mixed emotions. i am thrilled to be part of this, and i'm disappointed you are not here to give me the pulitzer for the book i wrote. organizationd needs a pulitzer prize recipient on the staff.
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here at the bush center, we have bill mckenzie. [applause] thank you for convincing us to join you in hosting this. it is very exciting for the bush center that you are here. all the members of the pulitzer prize board as well as the representatives from 41's library and i forgot lbj's number. [laughter] as a history buff, i aim thrilled that jon and annette and ron chernow are here to be interviewed. [applause] in order to get my book reconsidered, i thought i would share an anecdote with you. i was tasked to talk to vladimir
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putin about the necessity to have a free press in order for the society to be a wholesome and vibrant society. he had just suspended the independent press. this was in slovakia. i couldn't identify it during the debates. [laughter] i said, vladimir it is very important that you have a vibrant press. he said, you are a hypocrite. you fired the famous newsman. i said what the hell are you talking about? [laughter]
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he said you fired the newsman. i said, are you talking about dan rather? in our society, the press is independent from the politicians. as it should be. the job of the press in a free society is to hold people who got power to account. you are going to need that to have a vibrant society. make sure you don't say that, that i fired the famous newsman. people in our country going to think the you are ignorant. sure enough, we have the press conference. first question, moscow times. mr. president putin, president bush talked to about a free press in russia? did you bring up the fact that he fired the famous newsman? i
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want to thank the press for what you do. my relationship with the press, it was cordial, because i understand it's a symbiotic relationship. you need me and i needed you. i really don't miss much about washington. but i will tell you that the intellectual stimulation from dealing with a vibrant free press was a very important part of the job. thank you for coming and i hope you enjoy the evening. [applause] >> in a moment i will ask all of the pulitzer prize winners with us tonight to stand and be recognized for their great work. i would like to recognize one winner in particular. his work has special relevance. think back to 1963.
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a remarkably composed photograph that crystallized a historic moment. actually, there were two remarkable photos. the one by bob jackson was snapped a fraction of a second and later than the one by the dallas morning news photographer and as a result they captured the grimace on lee harvey on his world's face as the bullet from jack ruby's gun penetrated his gut. to quote the denver post, jackson's photo has maintained the command that photojournalism always had and still does. it can tell a full story by freezing time. please welcome bob jackson who flew in from his home in
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colorado to be with us tonight. [applause] i would like to ask all the pulitzer prize winners who are with us here tonight to stand and be recognized for the great work. [applause] steve benson, please remain standing. steve is a prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the arizona republic in phoenix. he is a witty and prolific spot cartoonist who will be covering these events over the next couple of days.
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he is a graduate of richardson high school right here in north texas. [applause] please think an opportunity to introduce yourself to steve during the intermission. is my pleasure to invite the president and ceo of the george w. bush presidential center to the podium. he will introduce our first panel discussion. mr. ken hirsch. [applause] ken hirsch: thank you very much. the performance from the dallas theater center, i want to thank
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joel farrell. and all the great performers for that treat. also the charming and witty chair, julie hirsch. [applause] i was born at night but not last night. the bush center is a special place. this is my first week on the job. it is a little bit humbling to present tonight is very humbling panel. i want to thank even more than the fuel to prizewinners, the
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absolute wonderful public servants who have helped and served this country in summary capacities. i want to thank haley barbour, the former governor of mississippi. general michael hayden the former director of the cia. leon panetta, the former secretary of defense. ambassador mark langdale. thank you for your service. [applause] it is important to recognize great contributions that help tell the past and shape the future. here's the bush center, we think about that every day. the mission of the bush center is to motivate and develop leaders. we try to foster policy and take action. we do that around key areas like economic growth and human freedom and democracy. we understand that our job here is to use the power of this
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platform to convene and amplify and make an impact on very important issues of the day. you serve that purpose in my role is to help build connections between those communities. dallas, smu, the united states and the world. it is a fantastic task. when we study the past, the presidents have a lot to do with it. we are honored to have some of the most esteemed voices join in telling and describing the history of what the presidency and the press are all about. as president bush said, a strong press is not something that we talk about only in emerging economies. it is something that is very
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vital to the foundation of our democracy. to have this great panel is a real pleasure. ron chernow is one of the most distinguished commentators on history today. in 2009 his work with lin-manuel miranda on the pulitzer prize winning broadway musical hamilton was inspired by his biography of alexander hamilton. annette gordon-reed is the professor of legal history at harvard law school. she won the pulitzer prize in history in 2009 for the hemingses of monticello, an american family. her forthcoming book on thomas
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jefferson, we'll look forward to that. jon meacham is a presidential historian and executive vice president at random house. his book american lion, andrew jackson in the white house, won the prize in 2009. he just wrote a book on george herbert walker bush. our moderator is the director of the lbj presidential library in austin. he's an analyst for abc news on matters relating to politics in the presidency. thanks to each of you in attendance for making this a very special evening. please welcome our panelists. [applause] mark: it is a pleasure to
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moderate this panel. we will start with presidential icons like washington and jefferson and lincoln. that is well trodden territory for biographies. for george washington alone, there are 900 biographies. i will ask each of you, when you are tackling a mammoth subject like a george washington or thomas jefferson or an andrew jackson, where do you start? jon: i was misinformed. i didn't know there were other books. i have two tests. one is, do i feel there is a place in the scholarly and
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popular conversation for argument about that person. it is wonderful that we are here with ron because one of the interesting things about jefferson is that he surrounded jefferson both from hamilton's and washington's perspective. our friends david mccullough had done john adams. jefferson had been more of a foil and a supporting character in the broad historiography of the last decade or so. i thought there was a place to talk about jefferson on his own terms. i always try to make as much use of archives as i can. see can justify a new look. annette: every generation asks new questions. thomas jefferson is the most
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interesting man in the world. there are so many aspects of his life. we've learned so much more about him. slavery at monticello and so forth. there was a life to be rediscovered. it has always been present but it never been looked at. there are always new things about jefferson. there were some aspects to his life. it's not just the politics. it could be music and art and all kinds of things. because of the declaration of independence, it is a continuing story in the american saga. every generation who tries to make their place in the american nation uses the declaration. people around the world do it. is a fountain of information and questions. there was no question for me at all whether there was anything to say about them.
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they're different questions depending on the answers we want to have today. ron: a lot of my so-called friends kept asking me why i wanted to perpetrate number 901. you do a biography because you have new information or you can take a fresh look at a person. i had an epiphany when i was working on hamilton. he was george washington's aide-de-camp during the war. he had to justify this decision to quit washington's staff. he had to justify this decision to his father-in-law, philip schuyler. he said that the great man and i have come to an open rupture. he shall for once repent of his
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ill humor. that line kept reverberating in my mind. hamilton is giving me the sense that he was a volatile boss. he tended to hand that very perceptive word portraits of people. even working with george washington for several years. washington is seemingly the most familiar person in our history but in some ways he was the most unfamiliar. that was my opening wedge. i could pry open a whole world of emotions that were very intense and volatile. he was seen as a man of marble.
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he wasn't that at all. mark: you say to great figures in history can carry the weight of their flaws. how do you ensure that you are present in a balanced view? ron: if i feel it is going to be an admiring biography i go out of my way to find every unpleasant fact about the character. my greatest fear is that people will say he did not mention all these things. i find he is a great figure that he or she will be able to carry the weight of those flaws. one of the interesting things that happened with the hamilton show. a lot of broadway producers said
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the protagonist of her broadway musical has to be sympathetic throughout the show. hamilton in the second act really loses the sympathy of the audience. he is involved in a sex scandal. he encourages his son to go off on a dual in which his son dies. there were all sorts of flaws. as i watch the audience's reaction, i found them having even more admiration for him. we had humanized him. i had the same experience. i finished the washington biography i sent a copy to jim reese, the president of mount vernon. i said 150 pages into this you may think this is a very negative portrait. he was often rather crass as a young man. very money conscious and status conscious. i tried to have all of that in there. jim wrote back and said i am so glad that you were completely
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unsparing in this portrait of washington. the main problem they have with the million plus people who come is that he seems like a plaster saint. and perhaps boring. when you humanized someone, their compliments actually seem that much greater because the reader can identify with them. he has the same source of problems that they do. annette: i became interested in thomas jefferson when i was in the third grade. in texas. [applause] if you really care about the person, there is no reason to write something that is not real or not realistic. if you care about the individual
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and you think that individual's life says something to audience as worth spending your time working on it this no point in doing an unrealistic picture. you want everything there. you want to take the measure of the person. that doesn't mean that you gloss over anything. you try to see the world through that person's perspective and bring that perspective to your readers. if you are serious about it, that is the thing that is motivated me to write about jefferson. you have to have warts and all. jon: as a jackson biographer i don't have this problem. [laughter] my guy has had a tough couple of months.
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annette: a tough couple of decades. jon: ron has a broadway show and the $10 bill. my guy isn't even on the $20 anymore. he is the link from the founding to lincoln. he was the only president who who has an era named for him. for better or worse. just because you are the most honored person in the world. not since annette gordon-reed dined alone has there been such a gathering.
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jackson embodied some of our best instincts and our worst. if you don't deal with jackson, you can't deal with antebellum america. he made been on the extreme edge of the mainstream on the two central sins of american life, slavery and native american removal. but he was within the mainstream. that may be uncomfortable to talk about but it is true. nobody ever went back and re-open to the question of native american removal. congress never revisited that. he put down john c calhoun to keep the union together.
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he gave the union 30 more years to form those mystic chords of memory. if you don't deal with jackson, you can't deal with the american soul in its light and dark elements. we learned more from the past if we look at in the eye that if we look out at it adoringly or down on it condescendingly. mark: mark twain said a small part of a person's life is his acts and his words. when you are tackling a biographical subject, you have to make inferences about their mindset and their motivations. how does one responsibly introduce psychology into biography? annette: i think it is necessary. there was a biographer, fawn brodie, who got into trouble
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writing about thomas jefferson and calling it a psychohistory. the book most blessed of the patriarchs is out now. what my co-author and i tried to do is to be responsible in reading jefferson's words and looking at his actions and making inferences about that. you can look at the patterns you discern. you hope you see what the person was attempting to do in the world. i don't think it's possible to present a picture of a subject without trying to get into their mind. that is what all biographers do. whether they are doing psychology or not they are psychoanalyzing. jon: ralph waldo emerson said there is no history only biography. if you don't practice psychiatry
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without a license, you should find another line of work. ron: there has to be psychological understanding. what is very important in general is not to introduce anachronism. we love about biography is that it casts a spell, it transports you into the past. to introduce modern psychological jargon has a way of breaking that spell. the present suddenly invades the past. another problem is that if the
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word did not exist as of phenomenon it describes also may not. sigmund freud wrote about hysteria. i don't want to write about that for the 18th-century but the phenomenon was foreign. maybe it wasn't even happening in freud's vienna. one has to use psychological insight but without the whole paraphernalia of modern psychology. if i suddenly start saying the george washington had an oedipus complex, you have to find a way to analyze the character that is
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true to the period. people were not introspective in the way that they are today. starting perhaps in the mid-19th century. people were not analyzing their own psyches. annette: john adams did. ron: george washington and alexander hamilton were so extraordinarily bright and they never seemed to turn that searchlight of their intelligence on themselves. when they reveal themselves inadvertently, i could give one small example with george washington. everyone noticed he had this poker face.
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it was very difficult to read his emotions. i found myself wondering was this accidental or deliberate. during the second term, as he was approaching the end, the british ambassador said, i can see the happiness on your face. washington said my face never reveals my emotions. he directed someone for suggesting that it could reveal his emotions. we are so different because we all pride ourselves now i'm showing emotion. in the 18th century, we would consider silence if you had a troubled childhood. we see that as a lack of mental health. in the 18th century that was a strength. you are not constantly stewing about what your mother did to you when you were five. it was a very different world.
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jon: i have a theory i have never been able to prove -- which is the best kind. not only in this talk -- psychological detail, but the narrative details. you can see a shift from the founding to the jackson era into the lincoln era where suddenly, people start narrating scenes. the distinction between the jefferson air at in doing this and the jackson era is quite fascinating. it is partly attributable to the rise of the novel. people were reading novels and seeing themselves there. annette: women began to keep diaries in ways they had not before. for the female side of it, storytelling. ron: when i started doing washington, we probably have at least 1000 descriptions,
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firsthand descriptions of washington left by different people. i found them frustrating because some would say -- i had dinner with the general last night. i have never felt such veneration in the presence of a man. with a biographer, you are looking for details. that would make the person come alive. you can see this if you read alexander pope. as part of english literature. the language by our standards is very abstract. as the 19th century goes on, not only is there more psychological awareness but there is more sensory detail, descriptive detail. i have gone from writing hamilton and washington and now i am doing grant and i feel a guy have died and gone to heaven because when people describe grant, they describe the way he looked, the way he moved, the way he sounded. i found that compared to writing
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washington and hamilton, with grant, i will be able to invoke this personality that would have been almost impossible with an 18th century physical. the reminiscences are so much more colorful and detailed and anecdotal. you mentioned john adams -- he did have a novelist's mind. the others were very -- washington and hamilton and jefferson and madison, were very controlled. annette: it is wonderful that jefferson had grandchildren. from the 19th century. then, monticello -- there are
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the family letters project. they are collecting a lot of letters from his grandchildren. many of the things that happened in the 1790's or when he was in france or elsewhere, you get descriptions of him that are from his grandchildren. there was an episode when his manservant becomes ill and he is frantic. he writes a letter to his daughter saying that we almost lost him but he is fine. their granddaughters -- his granddaughters right to their mother about how he was pacing, frantic, waiting for the doctor. what if you had just read jefferson's letter, you would think this was a non-episode but when you read the granddaughters letter to their mom, they depict a man who is almost undone. everything is under statement from him.
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that was the goal, the presentation. jon: -- mark: she was talking about how she selects the subjects that she takes on. she says -- i think about the person i want to live with for the next seven years. particularly, when you are looking back in time, you have to immerse yourself in their time. it is -- is it important that you like the subject that you are tackling or that you at least relate to the subject? jon: i think so. i would not want to spend seven or eight years with someone that i disliked, despite several relationships i have had in the last few years.
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[laughter] there are biographers, particularly multivolume biographers, who have an advantage in the multivolume world where you can disapprove, but then redeem the care and. i will not mention who that is but you work closely with them. [laughter] just to pick an example at random. but i do not think -- trying to be honest. what i find, is i have a good check towards -- gut check towards the end of each project where i ask -- is this as true as i can make it? i fill a moral obligation, not to get to the weight of it, but a moral obligation to say -- despite what critics may say, do i believe this? and -- i just went through this
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with president bush senior who i believe honestly, most political figures are kind of 60-40 light versus dark. it is the nature of the game. i honestly believe george h w is 80-20. that is my view. 17 years, inking about doing the book, six years of interviewing him, and reviewing a diary that he kept. he was not perfect. he will admit that. but taken all in all, there was more light than dark. significantly more like then dark. that was as true as i could make it.
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i think sometimes, if you are writing with the critic on your shoulder, that is the way madness lies. i really do think that. if you are always worried about what the worst that's what the toughest critic is going to say, i don't know how you finish. annette: what are the impulses for doing this? there are people in the family that you will like more than others. at some point, there are things they are doing or not doing that you could get exasperated with but i had a great amount of sympathy for the family, the totality of the family and the circumstances they were in. jefferson -- this has been a big part of my life. looking at jefferson. reading about it and slavery at monticello and his life as a political figure. i like him very much as a subject. i don't think he was a malicious person. i think he was a very interesting person. and a life worth studying. but one of the impetus of doing these -- we have gotten tired of
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reading about jefferson. i will show him how much better i am then he is and he doesn't understand. the book is really about what jefferson thought he was doing in the world, and not what we thought he should be doing in the world. if you do that -- if it is a running catalog of -- i know this and you do not. what did you think you were doing? there was a person injecting himself on the public stage and had the confidence or arrogance to think he could be a leader. and had some conflicts about that. and didn't like controversy. didn't like conflict but nevertheless, entered a very confrontational and conflict ridden profession.
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what was this about? who was this person? if you keep that in mind instead of the hammer that you will wreak havoc on this person because you think you are better than he or she is then that is a problem. i did do a tiny biography of andrew johnson. i did not like him. [laughter] annette: arthur schlesinger junior asked me to do the american president series. a short thing. i thought i could venture into that but i did not like him. i would not want to spend seven minutes with him let alone seven years. jon: good thing it was a short book. ron: a short presidency. annette: he was a pivotal president though. you have to step back from the
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like or dislike and think about why every american should know about him. because this was an era of missed opportunities. a lot of things we are dealing with now, we may not be dealing with if he had been a different man. it is not about your bff -- it is who and how did they affect the progress of the american nation. there is no question that he did. he wasn't worried about being a pleasant person or not. ron: i spent more time thinking about who will be the subject of the book than any other question. whenever i speak to writing students about this, i always say that writing a biography is a lot like marriage. to pick the right person, and nothing can go wrong. if you picked the wrong person, nothing can go right. you are trapped with this person for many years. [laughter] if someone writes a biography,
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and this often happens, you run the risk of it being a valentine which is not good. also, someone might write a biography because they want to get someone and you can and up with an ugly tone. one should start out with the presumption that this will be a favorable book. it is unfair to start out with the presumption that this will be hostile -- a hostile portrait of the person. the single most frequently asked question why readers is, and i can do grant -- do you like grant? i can honestly say that i am not thinking day after day whether i
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would like to have a beer with grant. that would've been an interesting experience and it would have told me a lot. [laughter] but for me, i always love to be -- to have portraits of the old masters. when i look at a portrait by rembrandt of a king or a queen -- they were not inking -- do i like this person? they were trying to capture the person as vividly as they can and try to bring that person to life. so the viewer would have
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feelings evoke in them. the same thing in real life, we do not have one view of a friend or a family member, we have many different views. the portrait of a presidential biography is similar. it is rather complicated. annette: may i ask a question? you two are different in a sense -- i wrote a biography of johnson as i said as a one off but i am not interested in writing about anyone else other than jefferson or monticello related things. what is it like writing about wildly different people in different eras? i am fairly sure i will never write a biography about anyone else that is not related to jefferson or hemmings.
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you guys play around. [laughter] you are promiscuous biographers. jon: i protest. it is fun. monogamy is great. [laughter] is this taped? [laughter] to me, it is what is fascinating. what draws me to subjects is their complexity. i am not trying to write books
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so people will build statues -- it is so they will bring them down. but i think that to me, the perennial human drama is -- the people i write about our flawed human beings that sought power over the lives of others. what drove them to seek that power and how did they wield it and to what affect? ron: it is an excellent question. the most difficult aspect of jumping around -- it is fun to jump around to different time frames than just different personalities. i am now doing grant so i have had to master the mexican war, civil war, and reconstruction. the literature is so vast, i feel like i am out on the north atlantic on a stormy day in a tiny robo. that is the difficulty. you are re-creating the knowledge from the ground up. indescribably difficult. what it is fun. you know the way you are in a new country and your senses come
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alive. in a way, suddenly being in a new timeframe with new characters, you are very responsive. i think if i spent my entire career not just with grant but with sherman, sheridan, abraham lincoln, and all of these different characters, i think my reactions would not be as strong as they are. not because i was unfamiliar with these people before but i am learning about them at an entirely different level writing a biography about grant. some people will say -- how many years are you spending? and i often say -- i find that a lot of my best insights into the character come in the first year or so. and then there is a certain familiarity that comes into play and so there is a point of diminishing returns. the longest i have spent was on washington. six years. you do reach this point of diminishing returns. mark: is that because you are in and exploratory phase and you are open to new interpretations
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about it -- about the individual? ron: it is like meeting a new friend. you have a strong reaction. samuel beckett said habit is the great deadener. you get fresh insights about jefferson. but i do not know that i could do that -- it is something to think about. playing the field has its advantages. mark: you played the field -- jon: i think we should drop the metaphor. mark: roosevelt, jackson, jefferson -- you have covered presidents that have passed through the ages. and your biography of president bush. you have covered a living figure
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but one who is very much alive. not just alive but someone we have come to know. i worked with jon briefly on newsweek and he had a bust of bush in his office. and then you came to know him as you dig your biography. what are your challenges of doing a portrait of a living person? jon: distance. the kind of critical distance we are talking about. to me, the most fascinating, overall lesson of doing it was i wondered how much i missed in books that i have written where i have not known the person because i have never had dinner with thomas jefferson or andrew jackson. having had dinner with george bush, i would try to write what he was like as a literary matter and i would know what i was missing.
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and that raised the literary bar rather higher than i would have expected. if he -- it seems to me, if you spend time with someone, you are able to judge what you have written and your conclusions by different -- by a different standard than what you have gotten out of the papers or the archives. and so, to me that was a surprise.
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i expected it to be somewhat easier frankly as a literary matter. go have lunch. write it down. it turns out that is pretty hard. if you are -- if you're at literary skills are not firing on all pistons at that particular moment, you are not capturing what he was really like. he was a particular challenge. he is a man i believe who became president of the united states because of a quiet, persistent charisma but charisma is not a word often associated with the 41st president. and so trying to explain how this man, through a very unconventional path, came to hold ultimate authority in a nuclear age was tricky. the other tricky thing is he is so encrusted with all of the popular cultural images about him. sometimes, it was like writing a biography of dana carvey. [laughter] i asked dana how he did that impression and he said it was mr. rogers trying to be john wayne. [laughter] absolutely hilarious. so, you had to get past that, past the supermarket scanner and the wimp factor. i was out talking for a couple
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of months and it is interesting that people are at once very nostalgic -- we have if i may in 25 years moved from a republican president who could not talk about himself to -- [laughter] so -- it is like what henry adams said about the movement from washington to grant, it disapproved darwin. people have lived through it and they think they know what they think about him. so i had to fight against that and make a historical case for him. the line between journalism and history.
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it took that long i think to get a view of him which i happen to think is the truest view that i can write. he is an underestimated president who had enormous political faults, failed in the fundamental political test of a presidency which is being reelected. but i do believe that he did a lot of things wrong on the way to power but once he had power, he did the right thing at his own political cost. he opposed the 1964 civil rights act when he ran for the senate in 1964 but in 1968 he voted for open housing. he runs a not particularly gentle campaign in 1988 but he became the last great compromise president and "read my lips." for which he paid a norm asleep. we are still living with the impact of that split within the republican party at that time. mark: is it more difficult to critically assess someone you know, someone whose family you know and someone who you can
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call a friend? jon: absolutely. in my view, you call them as you see them. he made that possible in many ways. you will appreciate this -- this does not happen very often. i cannot think of another presidential family that would hand over the presidential diary, the vice presidential diary, and mrs. bush's diary. she kept a diary from 1948 forward. is he gone? mark: we are being taped. just so you know. jon: i know he will not walk in so it is ok. [laughter] when president bush 43 found out
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his mother had given me her diary, he said --she gave you what? that is not good for me. [laughter] it was totally fine. there was a great deal of trust and i tried to be worthy of it. he lied i think about iran contra. i think his fundamental political failure was that he drew a line about what you say on the campaign trail and what you do in governance. that was a mistake. he picked up a line in china about firing the empty canons of rhetoric. he was like the admiral in mary poppins. he did not expect it to carry over. am i in the tank with him for that? i don't think so. annette: with the hemmings, you have descendents of the family.
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many of whom i am friendly with and so forth but you really do have to call it as you see it and families have their understandings about their family motivations. as a historian, you really do have to keep your distance in that way and call it as you see it. mark: you have the luminous letters -- voluminous letters from thomas jefferson's that give you a glimpse into his mind. you have no letters from sally hemming. where do you start? annette: we have letters from
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her brothers. we have the memory of her son. you -- when you are piecing together the life of someone who did not write anything, you have to work around it. you have to be transparent with the audience. as long as you are clear with your readers about what you have and what you do not have, people, along with you but you cannot make stuff up. it is much harder. it was easier to write about the hemmings of monticello then about sally hemming. you could actually create a portrait of the family but not regarding the individual. jon: and the power of annette's work with such a possibly ups -- paucity of sources she still achieved so much. annette: you try to evoke the time frame as much as you camp
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there are some things that we know about her but no letters which are the lifeblood of history. if you remember, the call that letters are not always correct. if you think you have this voluminous amount of information about jefferson, he is still mysterious. there is still a job to be done with interpretation. it is still much better to have it than not. ron: it is a real problem. there is a tyranny of words. when you are writing a history, you tend to follow the paper trail. particularly, for me the greatest frustration in writing about the 18th century -- in the 19th century, if there are holes in the story, you can fill them. that in the 18th century, there are black holes. i think of hamilton's boyhood or even washington's boyhood. george washington's father died
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when he was 11 and there is exactly one sentence devoted to his papers to his father. for hamilton, the first one third of his life is played out in the caribbean where there is scarcely a paper trail. there is a temptation to do less about those places because as you found with sally hemmings, the paper trail is so thin. but then it becomes especially incumbent on you to use whatever sources you have to build the context and the circle ansys for what happened. so it is a little bit of smoke and mirrors because you are doing a particular timeframe in a person's life. but otherwise, you get a situation where particularly, and this is a big problem with
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presidential biography that hits all of us, as soon as you hit the presidency, you get the mother lode of paperwork. mark was telling me before, how many documents there were in the lbj library, how many pieces of paper? and he said 45 million.
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