Douglas Brinkley: Interview

Historians in the News

Susan Larson, in the Times-Picayune (6-7-05)

...He[Brinkley] describes the media circus that was part of the origin for his most recent book, "The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion."

"I was in Normandy last June, working with CNN on their coverage of the D-Day anniversary," he said. "I was in a little Normandy village with Wolf Blitzer, and we were in this little car and suddenly the phone rang, and the producer answered it, and she said, 'Reagan's dead.' And that changed a lot of the coverage. We were spending the night in this cemetery and over the water in the Channel they were doing a lot of fireworks and there was this kaboom! kaboom!, and all along the white crosses and stars of David there was this eerie red glow. And all the coverage became centered on the Pointe du Hoc speech."

In a nutshell, these are Brinkley's gifts -- to be on the scene, to describe it in vivid detail, and to see the possibilities within a given moment. Listening to the replays of one of Reagan's most important speeches, Brinkley became interested in how that speech had come about -- and as a biographer of both Jimmy Carter and John Kerry, he knows the importance of public oratory and the complex process of creating it. As he began doing research at the Reagan Presidential Library, what was originally conceived as a magazine article grew into a book, and with Brinkley's characteristic speed, it's being published a year later.

Some readers might be surprised that Brinkley would move from Kerry to Reagan, but he follows his passions.

"You know the history of World War II appreciation, which we've all been a part of here, really began in 1984, when Time put it on the cover and Lance Morrow did this incredible piece and Reagan did the Pointe du Hoc speech," he said. "Communities began to recognize, 'Oh my God, we've got a Normandy veteran.' And the men didn't talk at that age, they were just hitting the 60s, just getting into the senior bracket, and Reagan talking about them at Normandy made it somehow OK to talk about yourself in that way.

"And then it snowballed. And (UNO historian Stephen) Ambrose was next in line to catch that wave. He didn't like Reagan that much, politically, but he recognized that those speeches were just unbelievable, like a trigger point. And that's when the Eisenhower Center started, interviewing all those veterans from '84 to '94. Steve saw Pointe du Hoc. You can't go there and not be moved. More moving than the Alamo or Mount Rushmore."

Ambrose, founder of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans and of the National D-Day Museum, was an important mentor for Brinkley. Ambrose died in 2002.

"I think about him every day," Brinkley said. "I miss his voice. It was so direct and wise. I learned about a work ethic from him -- he was an extraordinarily disciplined guy. And I learned that curiosity was the great gift to have as a historian, that it wouldn't be work if you were curious, because you couldn't stand not knowing. I had that, but he brought that out in me. . . . And he taught me that D-Day is the turning point in 20th-century history. There's a debate whether it's D-Day or Hiroshima/Nagasaki; those two events were very transformative.

"Reagan and Ambrose, more than anybody, turned our country from recognizing D-Day rather than Pearl Harbor as the biggest World War II anniversary. Before 1984, the big date everybody knew was Dec. 7. But Pearl Harbor was about our poor naval preparedness and it's hard to build a World War II triumphalism out of that."...

Brinkley made the bestseller lists for the first time in 2004 with "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the War in Vietnam," which drew criticism as well as praise. "I'm very proud of that book," he said. "It tells you what a tinderbox Vietnam still is . . . There's not a reporter in the country who wouldn't have killed to have been ahead of the game and to have had Kerry's diaries when I had them. And part of my work is to figure out where the interesting material is."

But he insists he's not partisan: "That kind of right/left stuff doesn't interest me. I have some right-wing friends, a lot of libertarian friends, a lot of Democratic friends too. I'm trying to find a good story about America to tell."

And he enjoys the limelight. His schedule this week includes radio (the Don Imus show) and TV appearances ("Today" and "O'Reilly Factor") -- "and you get notoriety with that," he said, confessing to an occasional bout of pre-show nerves. "But you have to be part of the mix. I'm doing less now, because of the kids. You could be like (author Thomas) Pynchon and just not.

"But I'm a natural lecturer and speaker. My mother was a drama teacher, my sister has done ABC news for ABC in San Francisco, and my father was a social studies teacher who went into business. So I come from a teaching family. Naturally, if I have a view on something, I'm going to talk about it.

"My mom has a drawing I did when I was 7 years old of the Vietnam War," Brinkley said. "History's always been part of my life. I don't get up thinking, 'Oh, I've got to go to work.' I think, 'Oh, I get to continue!' "

Brinkley has been described as a celebrant, a cheerleader for American history, and it's hard not to celebrate along with a man who speaks in superlatives, who looks at the world in terms of "great gifts." Reagan's great gift, according to Brinkley, is "that there was no meanness to his spirit." Ambrose taught Brinkley that "curiosity is the great gift."

Critics have said that Brinkley's all over the map. "That's my great gift," he said, and laughs uproariously at himself.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

John Allan Wilson - 8/12/2005

Brinkely got used by Kerry and is probably going to safer ground with Reagan. He didn't do the due dilligence on what Kerry told him and it bit him bad on the backside when the bloggers took him apart.