tv Writing Presidential Biographies CSPAN August 6, 2016 1:55pm-3:16pm EDT
on c-span. listen on your desktop or mobile device. watch anytime at c-span.org. >> up next on "the presidency," historians talk about the process of writing a presidential biography. they have written about george washington, andrew jackson, ulysses s. grant, franklin d roosevelt, and george h.w. bush. this was part of a pulitzer prize symposium hosted by the george w. bush presidential center. it is just over an hour. [laughter] mr. bush: thank you. that is enough. laura and i want to welcome you. all of us who work here are thrilled you are here. i've got mixed emotions. i am thrilled to be a part of this. but i'm disappointed you're not here to give me the pulitzer prize for the book i wrote.
[laughter] every good organization needs a pulitzer prize recipient on the staff. 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 putin about the necessity to have a free press in order for the society to be a wholesom and vibrant society. he had just suspended the independent press. this was in slovakia. i couldn't identify it during the debates. [laughter] mr. bush: 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] mr. bush: he said you fired the newsman. i said, are you talking about dan rather? in our society, the press is independent from the politicians. 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 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 want to thank the press for what you do. my relationship with the press, it's a symbiotic relationship. you need me and i needed you. i really don't miss much about washington. 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. 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 oswald's face as the bullet from jack ruby's gun penetrated oswald's 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 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 tanding. steve is a prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the
arizona republic in phoenix. e is a witty and prolific spot cartoonist who will be covering these events over the next couple of days. he is a graduate of richardson high school right here in north texas. [applause] please take an opportunity to introduce yourself to steve during the intermissions tonight and tomorrow and look at the carb of sketches that he will be developing throughout the program. [applause] is my pleasure to invite the president and ceo of the george w. bush presidential center to the podium. mr. ken hersh. [applause]
ken hersh: thank you very much, keven. the performance from the dallas theater center, i want to thank joel farrell. and all the great performers for that treat. also the charming and witty chair, julie hirsch. she is also here tonight that had absolutely nothing to do with the performance, but we absolutely have to recognize her for her attendance this evening. [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 pew lis zer prize winner who's are with us tonight, the absolutelyly wonderful public servants who have helped and served this country in so many different 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 director of the c.i.a. and secretary of defense. ambassador mark langdale. thank you for your service. [applause] he pulitzer prizes recognize significant work and the 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.
women's empowerment, military service wellness and transition. we understand that our job here is to use the power of this platform to convene and amplify and make an impact on very important issues of the day. it served that purpose and my role is to help build connections between that connection and the grounder communities, the communities of dallas, of s.m.u., of texas, the united states and the world. it's a humbling task and in the first week, it is an absolutely fantastic one. thank you for helping me start this journey. 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 selling 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 merging economies. it is something that is very 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. ron is one of the most distinguished commentators in business and finance today. his book won the pulitzer prize in 2011. 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 charles warren 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 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. to discuss presidential biographies, the challenges,
then and now. thank you. [applause] mark: thank you, ken, con gracesed on your point. it is a pleasure to moderate this panel with this illustrious group. 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, let's start with you. jon oh, thanks, pick on me. first of all, i was misinformed like casablanca. i didn't know there were other
books. i called annette, she didn't tell me. that was kind of upsetting. i have two tests. one is, do i feel there is a place in the scholarly and popular conversation for argument about that person. it is wonderful that we are here with ron because one of reasons i wrote about jefferson is ron had surrounded jefferson 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. so you can justify a new look.
annette: every generation asks new questions. thomas jefferson is the most 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. it's a font of information, a font of questions.
there was no question for me at all whether there was anything to say about them. they're different questions depending on the answers we ant to have today. mark: you mentioned 900 full-scale biographies of george washington. did you read them? where did you start? ron: a lot of my so-called friends kept asking me why i wanted to perpetrate number 901. was that really necessary. you do a biography because you have new information or you can do a fresh portrait of the person. i had an epiphany when i was working on hamilton during the revolutionary war. he was george washington's aide-de-camp during the war. he had a feud with washington. 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 was a very close friend of
washington. he sat down and wrote a letter to his father-in-law and said the great man and i have come to an open rupture. he shall for once repent of his ill humor. that line kept reverberating in my mind. i had this image of a saintly george washington and hamilton is giving me the sense of that volatile powder keg of a boss. he tended to hand that very perceptive word portraits of people. even working with george washington for several years. washington is seemingly the ost 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. he wasn't that at all. mark: you said great figures in history can carry the weight of their flaws. how do you ensure that you are presenting a balanced portrait? ron: i find it when i go on with the biography, particularly if i feel it is going to be an admiring biography, i go out of my way, mark, to put every up pleasant fact about the character in the book. y 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 their defects. one of the interesting things that happened with the hamilton
show. a lot of broadway producers said the protagonist of a broadway musical has to be sympathetic throughout the show. hamilton in the second act really tests the sympathy of the audience. he is involved in a sex scandal. he encourages his son to go off on a duel 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, jim, before you read this, i want to tell you 150 pages into this, you may this this is a very negative portrait of george washington, washington when he was young, he was often rather contracts
and pushy and 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 unsparing in this portrait of washington. the main problem they have with the million plus people who come to mount vernon every year, he seems like a plaster saint and hence unreal and hence boring. the important thing is human nicing him. when you humanized someone, their compliments actually seem that much greater because the reader can identify with this character as a person who has the same sorts of problems that they did. annette: if you care about the person. i became interested in thomas jefferson when i was in third grade in texas, i'm a texan i should say. [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 and you think that person's life says something to an an audience and worth spending your time working on, there is no point in doing an unrealistic picture. you want everything there. you want to take the measure of the person. you have to have the necessary sympathy. that doesn't mean that you gloss over anything. it does mean that you try to see the world through that person's perspective and to bring that perspective to your readers. if you are serious about it, you really care about the person and the reader, that is the thing that has motivated me to write about jefferson and to study about jefferson, to study jefferson and to put it out there in a realistic way. you have to have warts and all. jon: as a jackson biographer i don't have this problem. [laughter]
we're just trying to get to the skin next to the wart. my guy has had a tough couple of months. annette: a tough couple of years, actually, a tough couple decades. jon: ron has a broadway show and the $10 bill. my guy isn't even on the $20 anymore. the reason i did jackson to some extent was i do think in the popular imagination, people to tend to go from the founding to lincoln pretty quickly. there is sort of a big period there. ron: right to t.r. annette: there was an age named for him. ron: better or worse, he was the only president who has an airy named for him. for better or worse. just because you are the most honored person in the world. at monticello there is a whole
room devoted, it's kind of embarrassing for all of us. not since annette gordon-reed dined alone has there been such a gathering. jackson embodied some of our best instincts and our worst. f you don't deal with jackson, you can't deal with antebellum america. he may have been on the extreme edge of the mainstream on the two central since of american life, african-american 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 reopened the question of native american removal. congress never revisited it. and his devotion to the union in putting down john c. calhoun was causing problems early in
order to keep the union together, it gave us 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. the other thing i'll say just in general, my own seven is we learn more from the past if we look it in the eye than if we look up 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. all day long, the middle of his brain is grinding and his thoughts, not those of other things are his history. 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 for writing a biography about thomas jefferson and calling it a psychohistory. all biographers do that. the book most blessed of the patriarchs is out now. it's out in the hallway. 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 hat. you can look at the patterns you discern help 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 psycho analyzing person. jon: ralph waldo emerson said there is no history only biography.
if you don't practice psychiatry without a license, you should find another line of ork. ron: there has to be psychological understanding. hat 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. recreating this world. i think to introduce modern psychological jargon has a way of breaking that spell. the present suddenly invades he past. another problem with
introducing modern psychological terminology which is very often, if the word didn't exist, the phenomenon that it's describing may not have existed. sigmund freud wrote about hysteria in victorian women, i don't want to write hysteria in writing in the 18th century. not only is the term foreign, ut 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. annette: jargon is typically wrong. it's problematic. mark: define that. ron: if i suddenly start saying that george washington had an
oedipus complex, you have to way to analyze the character that is true to the period. people were not introspective w 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: adams had the most interesting mind in that way. having spent 11 or 12 years with george washington and alexander hamilton, they were so extraordinarily bright and they never seemed to kind of turn the search light of their intelligence on themselves. hen they reveal themselves inadvertently revealing themselves, i could give one small example with george washington. everyone noticed he had this poker face. 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. you are approaching the end of your second term. washington said my face never reveals my emotions. it was interesting that he corrected someone for uggesting that he had revealed 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. you never want to talk about it. that's a sign of a lack of mental health. in the 18th century that was considered a sign of strength that you are not constantly stewing about what your mother did to you when you were 5 years old. it was a very different
world. it's not an easy problem to deal with. ron: i have a problem that is not difficult to prove which is the best kind, that's why it's a theory. 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 era in doing this and the jackson era is quite fascinating. i think it's partly attributable to the rise of the novel. i think people started reading novels and started seeing themselves in more narrative terms. annette: people and women began to keep diaries in ways they had not before. so that is for the female side of it, storytelling and narrative because much more -- >> i found when i started doing
washington, we probably have at least 1,000 descriptions, firsthand descriptions of washington left by different people and i found them always very, very frustrating because someone would say, i had dinner with the general last night. i have never felt some inventory ration in the presence of men. as the biographer, you're looking at the small change of everyday life. you're looking for details that will make the person become alive. in the 18th century, you can read this if you read alexander pope, it was part of english literature in the 18th century. the language in our standards is very, very abstract. then as the 19th century goes on, not only is there the psychological awareness, but more of that kind of sensory detail descriptive detail. i have gone from writing hamilton, washington, now i'm doing use lisiest s. grant. i felt like i died and went to
heaven because when people described grant, they described the way he looked, the way that he moved, the way that he sounded. i found that compared to writing, i did the best i could with washington and hamilton, but i feel with grant that i'll be able to evoke this personality in a way that would have been almost impossible with an 18th century figure. the remember any sense is so much more colorful and contained anecdotal, you mentioned that john adams who john adms did have almost kind of a novelist mind and all sorts of things would pop out of his unconscious mind, but he others were very, very, washington, hamilton, jefferson, madison, very controlled. annette: it's much better, it's wonderful that jefferson had grandchildren from the 19th century because you began to
get, monticello, the papers of thomas jefferson has something called the family letters project. so they're collecting a lot of the letters from his grandchildren. so many of the things that happened in the 1790's or when he is in france or other places, you get descriptions of him that are from his grandchildren or there is one isode, he is in a forest and his manager falls ill and he is frantic about it. he ends up writing a letter to his daughter, we almost lost him, but he is fine now, two lines. but his granddaughters are writing to their mother and talking about him just pacing, being frantic waiting for the doctor. he really didn't like doctors, but if you just read jefferson's letter, you would say this is a nonepisode. his grandchildren writing to their mother sort of depicted this person who is completely
undone about the possibility. they say i don't know what is going to happen if he dies. you wake up and he is dead. you would never get that from him. everything is understatement. that was the goal, the presentation he was supposed to have. winning litzer prize biographer last month and talking 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. you really do. particularly when you're looking back in time, you have to immerse yourself in their times. you really do have to in so many ways live with them. so is it important that you like the subject that you're tackling or at least that you elate to them? >> i think so. i wouldn't want to spend five, years with ight someone i disliked despite several relationships i've had through the years.
[laughter] >> absolutely nothing. >> you know there are biographers, particularly years multivoice mail biographers who have an advantage in the multivoice mail world where you can disapprove but then redeem the character. i won't mention who that is, but .ou work closely just to pick an example at random. but i don't think it is -- as high geography versus trying to be honest. what i find is i have this sort of that check toward the end of each project where i think -- is ? is as true as i can make it not if it is totally true, but as true as i can do. i feel a moral obligation, not to get too gooey about it, but
to say despite what critics may say is too positive, some may say i was too hard on this or that, and i just went through this with president bush senior, most believe honestly political figures are kind of 60/40 like versus dark -- light versus dark. kind of the nature of the game. i honestly believe he is 80/20. 17 years thinking about doing the book, six years interviewing him, dealing with a diary he weekly, several times a week as president. he was not perfect. he will admit that, but taken all in all, i think there was more light than dark, significantly more light than dark. that was as true as i could make it. i think sometimes if you are
writing with the critic on your shoulder, i think that way madness lies. i really do. if you are always worried about mostthe worst -- with the -- what the toughest critic will say, i don't know how you finish. gordon-read: the harrington's are different because that is a biography and there are people you like more than others and at some point, there are things you are doing or not doing -- there are things they are doing or not doing that you can get exasperated, but i had a great amount of sympathy for the slave family and the circumstances they were in. jefferson, as i said, i spent a big part of my life looking at jefferson, reading about jefferson and slavery at monticello and his life as a political figure.
him very much as a subject. i basically do not think he was a malicious person. i think he is a very interesting person and a life that is worth studying. wood of the impulses, the impetus of doing is we had kind of gotten tired of jefferson writing where people are basically the critics, like you are saying. yours is not like that, where it is basically i'm going to show him how much better i am that he is and i understand this and he does not understand all of that. the book is really about what jefferson was doing in the world, not what we thought he should be doing in the world. if you do that, if it is all, as you say, a running catalog of "i know this and you don't and are this,"than you are at those a person who sort of injected himself on the public stage and have the confidence or arrogance, whatever you want to call it, to think that he could
be a leader and had some conflict about that, did not like controversy, did not like conflict, but nevertheless, injured in a very confrontational and profession.den insteadeep that in mind of the hammer of vengeance that you are going to 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, which i didn't like him. [laughter] ms. gordon-reed: arthur schlesinger junior asked me to do the american president series. i did not like him. i would not want to spend seven minutes with him, more or less seven years.
i'm saying that, but he was in a .orm asleep important person you have to step back from the like and dislike and think about why every american should know about him, because this was an era of missed opportunities. a lot of what we are dealing with now we might not have been dealing with if he had been a different man. it's not about your best friend, it is who and how they affect the progress of the american nation, and there's no question that he did, but he is worth knowing about, if he is a pleasant person or not. chernow: i find i spend more time thinking about who will be the subject of a 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, nothing can go wrong. if you pick the wrong person, nothing can go right. you are trapped with this person for many years. i think that if someone writes a biography -- and this often happens -- you run the risk of it being a valentine, which is not good. also, if someone writes a biography because they want to get someone they don't like, very often, they can end up with an ugly tone. i think that one should start out with the presumption that this will be a favorable book. i think it is very unfair to start with the presumption that this is going to be hostile portrait of the person. but it is interesting. and annette have an identical experience, but the
most frequently asked question is did you like him, and i'm not sitting around thinking that i would like to have a beer with u.s. grant. he would have liked to have a beer. havehernow: they could been an interesting experience. it would have told me a lot. for me, i always loved portraits of the old masters, and when i look at a portrait by rembrandt queenng orz or or merchant or poke, they were not wondering if they liked the person. they were trying to capture the person is vividly as they could and bring the person vividly to so the viewer would -- that all sorts of feelings would be invoked and the viewer, that in the same way real life, we do
not have one view of a friend or family member or acquaintance. we have kind of many different views. i think it's a portrait is real enough, the reader should end up having a rather complicated feeling about the person. ms. gordon-reed: can i ask a question? you two are different in the sense of playing the role of -- well, i wrote a biography of johnson, as i said, as sort of a one-off. i'm not really 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? fairly sure i will never write a biography of anyone else that is not related to jefferson or hemmings. the biography in hemmings is in
a way like a biography of jefferson. you guys play around. [laughter] ms. gordon-reed: you are promiscuous biographers. i protest.: ron may not protest. it's lots of fun. i mean, i'm sure monogamy is great. [laughter] mr. meacham: is this taped? [laughter] no, no, to me, it is what is fascinating. what draws me to subject is their complexity. to writem not trying books so people will build statues of people. most of the books i write, they are taking down. but i think that to me, the perennial human drama is the people that i write about our flawed human
beings who have soft power over the lives of others. to what extent, what drove them to seek that power and how did they wield it and to what effect. ms. gordon-reed: let me follow up on that -- mr. chernow: well, well, well -- whoa, whoa, whoa. the monogamy question. i think it is difficult to jump around different periods more than it is different personalities. just now i'm doing u.s. grant, so i have had to master the mexican war, the civil war, reconstruction. civil war and reconstruction, the literature is so vast. i like i'm out on the north day inc on a very stormy a row but sometimes. it is indescribably difficult, feeling like you are creating the knowledge from the ground up. when you are in a
new country and your senses, live? in a way, suddenly being in a with new characters, you are very, very responsive. maybe if i spent my entire career, not just with grand, with sherman, andrew johnson, abraham lincoln, robert ely, all these different characters -- , withst with grant sherman, andrew johnson, abraham someln, robert e lee 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. mr. updegrove: is that because you are in and exploratory phase and you are open to new interpretations about it -- about the individual? mr. chernow: 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. so there is something to think about. jon is right playing the field , has its advantages. mr. meacham: i think we dropped the metaphor. [laughter]
: you have covered presidents who have passed on to the ages. we mention your biography of president bush. covering a living figure, one who is very much alive, not only who is alive, but someone you have come to know. jon very briefly at "newsweek" and you had a bust of george h.w. bush. mr. meacham: it was the only bust of george h.w. bush. e: what are the challenges of doing a biography of a living person? mr. meacham: distance, obviously. most, the overall fascinating aspect was i wondered how much i missed in
books i have written where i have not known the person. i have never had dinner with thomas jefferson. i have never had dinner with andrew jackson. georget had dinner with bush. i would try to write what he was like as a literary matter and i would know what i was missing. and that raised the literary bar rather higher than i would have expected. so it seems to me, if you spend time with someone, you are able to judge what you have written and your conclusions by a different standard than what you have gotten out of the papers or the archives. and so, to me that was a surprise. i expected it to be somewhat easier frankly as a literary matter. go have lunch. write it up. how hard can that be? well, it turns out that is pretty hard. if you're literary skills are
not firing on all pistons at that particular moment, you are not capturing what he was really literary skills are not firing on all pistons. 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] mr. meacham: i asked dana how he did that impression and he said it was mr. rogers trying to be john wayne. [laughter] mr. meacham: absolutely
hilarious. so, you had to get past that, past the supermarket scanner and the wimp factor. you had all this stuff. i was out talking for a couple 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 disproved darwin. [laughter] mr. meacham: that is kind of a critical thing. 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 rule is sort of 25 years in my mind, the line between
journalism and history. 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. i think he is an underrated president who did remarkable things and had enormous political faults, failed in the fundamental political test of a presidency which is being reelected. but i do believe -- and this is an interesting lesson, it aims to me, for this era, 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, as you will recall, a not particularly gentle campaign in 1988 but he became the last great compromise president and "read my lips." for which he paid enormously, and we are
still living with the impact of that split within the republican party at that time. mr. updegrove: is it more difficult to critically assess someone you know, someone whose family you know and someone who you can call a friend? mr. meacham: sure it's harder. absolutely. but 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 diaries, and mrs. bush's diary. mrs. bush kept a diary -- still does -- from 1948 forward. is he gone? mr. updegrove: we are being
taped. just so you know. mr. meacham: i know he's not going to watch it, so it is ok. [laughter] mr. meacham: when president bush 43 found out his mother had given me her diary, he said , " she gave you what? that's not good for me." [laughter] mr. meacham: 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 from mao about firing the empty canons of rhetoric. he was like the admiral in mary poppins. he would fire the canon but just
expect the noise to carry it. he did not expect it to carry over. am i in the tank with him for that? i don't think so. ms. gordon-reed: with the hemmings, you have descendents of the family. 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. their ancestors, they had an interest in all of that. as a historian, you really do have to keep your distance in that way and call it as you see it. mr. updegrove: let me ask -- you have voluminous letters from thomas jefferson, which give you a glimpse into his mind. you have no letters from sally hemming. where do you start?
ms. gordon-reed: you have to write around it. we have letters from her brothers. we have the memory of her son. have statements from other people. you have to -- figures who don't -- 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 come along with you in that way, but you cannot make stuff up. it is much harder. it was easier to write about the hemmings of monticello then an about sally hemmings. you could actually create a portrait of the family but not regarding the individual. not every individual could withstand an entire biography. and the power of annette's work with such a
paucity of sources she still achieved so much. ms. gordon-reed: you try to evoke the time frame as much as you can. 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, but he is still too many people -- he is still, to many people, mysterious. there is still a job to be done with interpretation. it is still much better to have it than not. mr. chernow: it is a real problem. there is a tyranny of words. when you are writing a history, you tend to follow the paper trail. where the paper trail is richest, you devote the most space. particularly, for me the greatest frustration in writing about the 18th century -- in the 19th century, if there are holes
in the story, usually you can , fill them. in the 18th century, there are these black holes. i think of hamilton's boyhood or even washington's boyhood. george washington's father died when he was 11 and there is exactly one sentence in all of his papers referring to his father. for hamilton, the first one third of his life is played out in the caribbean where there is scarcely any paper trail at all. obviously, it had a tremendous impact on him. there is a temptation to do less about those places because as you found with sally hemmings, the paper trail is so thin. but i think then it becomes especially incumbent on you to do whatever you can, work whatever sources you have to build the context and the circle -- circumstances for what happened.
so it is a little bit of smoke and mirrors because you are in a a particular period persons life without the person necessarily being in the foreground of it. but otherwise, you get a situation where particularly, -- and this is a big problem with presidential biography that fits 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. even going back with george washington, in the most recent -- to give you some sense of just how abundantly documented presidential lives are, with george washington, we now have 135 documents. every year, they publish another volume or two.
they now have published about 70 volumes of a projected 90-plus volumes. now, doing grant. there are a quarter of a million documents. even with that, with 100 35,000 -- 135,000 with washington, i or 150,000 with grant, i feel like i am swimming in washington -- in resources, but i really do not know what i would do if i had the resources of a modern presidential library. i am friends with bob. when he was working as a newspaper reporter in the early days, an editor told him to turn the next page. he has been turning the next page for 40 years and it is kind of never ending. i think that is a real problem. we have done such an extraordinary job of preserving these presidencies that we threaten to overwhelm rather than inspire all future biographers.
it becomes more difficult to make sense of it. i will just say one last thing -- i think what has happened, because in the earlier years, and the founding era, when you had gigantic editions of papers that could be anywhere from 52 to 90 volumes -- and then with the modern biographies, you get -- with the modern presidential libraries starting with hoover or fdr, you get millions or tens of millions of documents. i think what has happened is that it has had a reverse effect. the biographers become less ambitious. to do an old-fashioned cradle-to-grave biography, he -- people look at the already 70 volumes of george washington. to do an authoritative review of washington, to have to master 70 volumes, and of course, that is just the starting point. i think that is a problem that
we have not resolved. may i ask you a question even though you are the moderator? you are the one really close to this problem. what should biographers do when there is such an immensity of material and well classified and catalogued material available? one of theve: challenges you have with the modern presidency is the freedom of information act where people can file a request. after reagan, to have libraries processing records reactively. it is difficult sometimes to get the material you really want as a biographer. sometimes, that is not a problem. i am at the johnson library. you have so many aspects of that presidency that are still germane today. we see frequently researchers delve into papers relating to civil rights or education and so forth, and most of those are
available, but johnson is so hard to put your arms around because his legacy is so vast. so i teach more and more specialization of johnson with the exception of the biographer who has devoted more of his life biographerhnson as a than johnson spent living it. [laughter] mr. chernow: people ought to do a moment in the life or a theme or an episode. and that is fine because the resources are tremendous but there is also something about seeing an entire life between two covers in terms of rendering an assessment of this person that is kind of lovely to read if not to write. mr. meacham: i would also argue that current events may suggest that history may have a great deal to say to us about how to
move forward. if not as a gps, at least as a diagnostic guide. i would argue that the enterprise itself has rarely been more important. mr. updegrove: we will take questions in just a moment so if you would start queuing up at the microphones. let me ask ron, has the "henomenal success of "hamilton made you approach biography any differently? mr. chernow: i am not writing in rhymed couplets. i would like to perform just once the opening number and for -manuel has notn taken me up on that. tonight was my chance. the pulitzer team could have
asked me to do that. it has been interesting working with lin. when i started to work with him, he came to my house a few months after i met him. he sat down on my living room couch and he started snapping his fingers. i'm going to do it. in the middle of a forgotten spot of the caribbean. and he did the whole first song. [laughter] mr. chernow: it changed my image and changed my life. [laughter] mr. chernow: but when he finished singing the song, he said to me --what do you think? i said i think it's the most amazing thing i have ever heard. you have condensed the first 20 pages of my book accurately in a two-minute song. but i was thinking that i either -- that either you write very tight or i write very long. but it has been interesting because his powers of compression are absolutely fantastic. there is an epilogue in the show
which is similar to my epilogue in the book where you jump forward in time and you have eliza as a widow. lin did not do that until the very end -- he wrote that scene and i wondered how do you even fast-forward that way in a shell that many years. he has eliza coming out and she has a beautiful couplet. he establishes her attitude about the passage of time. i learned a lot by watching him. he has an uncanny ability to pluck the essence of a character or a relationship or a situation. sometimes, when i am writing, i think -- what would lin pull out of this? it's still going to be an 800 or
900-page book, it was a very useful exercise to work with someone who is a master of distillation in that way. mr. updegrove: one final question before we go to audience questions. a quick question for each of you. you have someone ready to carve another portrait on mount rushmore. who should it be? mr. meacham: annette. mr. updegrove: it means, you will have to leave monticello. ms. gordon-reed: that is a tough one. i don't know about carving people on mount rushmore. mr. meacham: good point. i would put fdr and eleanor. a two-fer. ms. gordon-reed: that makes
sense. mr. meacham: what about jackson? mr. chernow: i am tempted to say grant. prepublication of the book, that will seem like a big stretch for most people in the audience. but i must say this -- americans, possibly the most single written about timeframe in history is the civil war. but americans are shockingly ignorant of reconstruction and what happened during reconstruction and you cannot understand the civil war without understanding the years of reconstruction. you cannot understand modern american politics without understanding what happened with reconstruction. grant was the figure, the figure, after lincoln died, who really straddled those two worlds -- the civil war and reconstruction. i remember when i started the book.
sean willard said -- between abraham lincoln and lyndon johnson, the most important figure in the african-american community was ulysses s. grant. as i have been doing the research, that has been -- that insight has been overwhelmingly vindicated. mr. updegrove: ok. >> it seems like presidential biographies are so much more important and better received than biographies of any other americans. the people on mount rushmore have been well covered and those on our money, franklin roosevelt and johnson. as you think about your next book, and ron, you have thought about grant -- is there a temptation to pull a harry truman or david mcculloch or a coolidge and try to elevate them
and become their advocate to give them more significance and prove there are all kinds of reasons why they belong up there ? is there that temptation as you evaluate your next book? mr. updegrove: talk about your next book. mr. meacham: there is a temptation to find if there is someone in the conversation that is not there that should be is the way i would put it. it is not my job -- i don't think it is part of my task to get people on rushmore or get them memorialized. if i write about you, you tend to get thrown off the currency. [laughter] mr. meacham: it may not be good news for anybody that i am writing about them. but i am pretty close to deciding to write about dolly and james madison. part of it is that madison is one of the most important americans of the early republic who honestly -- i still have a hard time imagining what it would be like to sit down and have dinner with him. one of the purposes of biography
is to bring a life back into being. mrs. madison helps enormously they are obviously because you can sort of imagine that -- helps enormously there. to me, it is an interesting mountain to climb because he had to, i believe this coming even casee democratic -- lower d -- politics of the early republic, you had to be able to impress your personality on and of people in a significant enough way, that james madison had to do that. and to be a two-term president, to have been secretary of state, to have been such a critical figure at the constitutional convention, if you read contemporary descriptions of someone like madison, you do not come away thinking -- that is the guy i want to go fishing with. but i think part of the mission if i do this is going to be figuring out what was it about
him -- this is true in the bush book -- what was it about him that put him in ultimate authority. and then what did he do with it. yes, you do want to find someone -- it seems to me you want to find someone -- i think grant -- i think i am not being presumptuous, grant has not had a chernow in a long time. lincoln gets a lot of folks. fdr gets a lot of folks. kennedy gets a lot of folks. so that is part of my thinking. less to figure out a way to celebrate them. but i do believe in recovering them. so well,ow: you put it i'm not going to add anything. mr. updegrove: yes?
>> actually, i have a bunch of questions. i'm going to ask one to run w.ernow -- to ron cherno i love the george washington book. i know how much research you did on that. i was reading henry cabot lodge biography about washington. and how he was honored in france and england. was that true? mr. chernow: it is interesting -- george washington has really had a tremendous worldwide reputation. and even, it was interesting to me that when the book was published in england, i did not know what the reception was. so many of the reviews expressed extraordinary admiration that they have for washington to the fact that they had terribly mismanaged the relationship. washington was a raging anglophile with a coveted commission in the regular army.
he could have so easily been co-opted in the global military machine that the british had and they did not. and i think george washington, like abraham lincoln, is a figure that has become kind of universal. i think that is true. mr. updegrove: yes, sir. >> you guys write biographies for presidents. in the last viewed -- the last few decades, the presidents theirlves sometimes write own autobiography. these days, the presidential candidates tend to write their own biographies. my question is -- how would you compare your work to the -- [laughter] mr. meacham: let me say one thing, at least on the
candidates' books, we are pretty sure that they have not written them and we are not even sure that they have read them in some cases. [laughter] mr. chernow: when i started working on grant, grant published very famous memoirs. a couple of months after i was working on the book, i ran into a friend on the street who asked me -- how do you write a great biography about someone who has written a great autobiography? i have to say the question , stopped me dead in my tracks. of course, there are some small omissions in his memoirs for example, there is no mention of his two-term presidency. small things like that were omitted. basically, i realized the president made me go back to his memoirs and read them differently. because i realized that what my job was as a biographer was to talk about everything he did not want to talk about. in the 1850's, he failed at one
business venture after another to the point that he was reduced to selling firewood on the street corners of st. louis. that kind of miserable for your period of his life is skipped over in his memoirs in two sentences. it was useful to go back and realize that when people write their own memoirs, no matter how candid they appear to be, they kind of cover over the failure and misery and emphasizing what , quite understandably, they want history to remember them about. that is quite different from the job of a presumably more objective biographer studying their life. ms. gordon-reed: jefferson started a biography and ends it when he returns from france and then he says he is lord talking
-- bored -- board talking about himself. it was strictly a statement about his public life. he did not think people should talk about their private life. someone asked him to give the names of his grandchildren. and he thought they would be bored about that. you want to tell the story about what people did not want to say. we don't see ourselves -- our vision of ourselves is not the only thing. the terse rendition of the story of beryl. it's the people around him who give a picture of who this person was. we don't see ourselves in the same light as the people around us. that is what biographers bring to the mix -- everything. not just the individual cost perspective. mr. updegrove: we are about to timeout. annette will give you the last word. we have heard about ron's next book about grant, and jon's next book about the madisons. what is your next project?
ms. gordon-reed: my next project, after the somatic biography of jefferson, i'm going back to the hemming family and working on another volume of that and then i will do a two volume biography of jefferson. he says three. mr. meacham: it will be three. mr. updegrove: we look forward to those. i want to thank you all for being here tonight. thank you so much. [applause] mr. updegrove: well done, as always. ms. gordon-reed: thank you. mr. updegrove: well done, annette. pleasure. nicely done. [applause] thank you very: much. narrator: you're watching american history tv, 48 hours of programming on american history on c-span tv.
follow us on twitter for information on our schedule and to keep up with the latest history news. >> sunday night on "q&a," james robertson discusses his book "after the civil war: the heroes, villains, soldiers, and civilians who changed america." robertson: they went as far back in generations as there were settlers in the country, and i think one has to keep that in mind. slavery is without question the major cause of the civil war. i'm not belittling slavery, but you can explain the actions of good, decent men. they fight because virginia needs them. not that they supported the confederate cause -- neither one did. at 8:00 eastern on c-span's "q&a." >> coming up next, a discussion
exhibit "1776 -- ,"eaking news: independence featuring the first newspaper printing of the declaration. the artifact is on loan from philanthropist david rubenstein, who discusses the importance of the document and why colonists wanted to break free from britain. this event is about 45 minutes. >> good evening. i'm delighted to welcome all of you who are here tonight and those of you who are watching on .elevision and online i'm jan newhart, the chair and chief executive officer of the freedom forum. tonight, we mark the opening of um's nese
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