Wednesday, April 15, 2020

No. 365: David Rubenstein's Fascinating Book

David M. Rubenstein is co-founder and co-executive chairman of the Carlyle Group and a prominent philanthropist. In October 2019, Simon & Shuster published his book entitled The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians. The book consists of 15 conversations with prominent historians about important figures in American history, and a conversation with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. about the U.S. Supreme Court. Here is the list:
Jack D. Warren Jr. on George Washington
David McCullough on John Adams
Jon Meacham on Thomas Jefferson
Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton
Walter Isaacson on Benjamin Franklin
Cokie Roberts on Founding Mothers
Doris Kearns Goodwin on Abraham Lincoln
A. Scott Berg on Charles Lindbergh
Jay Winik on Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Jean Edward Smith on Dwight D. Eisenhower
Richard Reaves on John F. Kennedy
Taylor Branch on Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement
Robert A. Caro on Lyndon B. Johnson
Bob Woodward on Richard M. Nixon and Executive Power
H. W. Brands on Ronald Reagan
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on the U.S. Supreme Court
David McCullough
When I acquired Rubenstein's book, I could not resist the temptation to start with his conversations with two of my favorite writers: David McCullough and Robert Caro. McCullough received Pulitzer Prizes for his magnificent biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams. Here is a small part of Rubenstein's conversation with McCullough about Adams:
In addition to being the most ardent advocate for independence, Adams made two decisions. He recommended somebody to be the general of the army for the American colonies and somebody to write the Declaration of Independence. Why did he pick George Washington and why did he pick Thomas Jefferson?
He picked Thomas Jefferson because he felt he was the best writer. And he liked him very much and admired him very much.
Washington was a clear choice. There wasn't really much mystery about that. There were so very few to choose from, and they were all young in their thirties or early forties, with no experience. They'd never done this before; none of them had. And it's just miraculous out of this tiny population—2,500,000 people and 500,000 of them were slaves held in bondage. Couldn't vote, had no say.
One of the most important virtues or admirable qualities that we all should know and understand about John Adams is he's the only Founding Father to become president who never owned a slave. As a matter of principle. And [his wife] Abigail was staunchly of that same point of view. The slaves weren't all in the South. They were sort of a status symbol in Boston, and you had servants who were slaves. That was the thing to have.
[Adams] was not an abolitionist, though?
No, he wasn't. Nobody was making an issue of that at the time because they had determined that "we can't solve this one now—we've got to sidestep that." They were really putting in the closet an issue they knew eventually had to be solved.
Robert Caro
Caro has received two Pulitzer Prizes. The first was for his towering biography of Robert Moses, the little known but hugely powerful shaper of New York City. The second was for the third of the first four volumes in his as yet unfinished monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson. Here is a small part of Rubenstein's conversation with Caro about Johnson:
We've largely covered the four volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson that you've written. With the beginning of the Johnson administration, you end the fourth volume. When is volume 5 coming out? Is it going to be one volume or two volumes?
Well, you're ruining this terrific interview. I'm about halfway through.
You do all your research and then you write—or type—on your Smith-Corona?
That's in theory true, but when you get into each chapter, you suddenly realize that some file that you had thought wasn't important at the Johnson Presidential Library is key. So you have to go back and look into it.
I want the last book to be in one volume. I'll tell you why: because the arc of Lyndon Johnson's presidency is one arc. He starts with the greatest victory in the history of American politics—to this day, still. Sixty-one-point-one percent over Barry Goldwater, his Republican opponent in the 1964 presidential election.
So he starts with the greatest triumph you can imagine. By the end of it, Vietnam has consumed his presidency, and he has to leave office and go back to his ranch. I want that all to be in one book because I see it as one story....
Lyndon Johnson died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-four, relatively young. Would he have been able to survive with modern medical technology?
I asked his cardiologist that very question. He said, "We could have fixed him in a half-hour angioplasty."
I then read the other 14 sections of the Rubenstein book with great interest. I found the book fascinating, and strongly recommend it.