David Donald: At Last at 85 He's Become an Iconic Figure

Historians in the News

LINCOLN, Mass. --Historian David Herbert Donald was reading in his back yard one afternoon when he noticed two strangers -- a well-dressed, middle-aged couple -- standing just outside the fence.

\"I got up and said, `Is there anything I could to do to help you,\'\" Donald, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, explained during a recent interview.

\"`We are from Ohio,\'\" he quoted the woman as saying, \"`And we are in New England on a tour of great American authors\' homes. We just finished in Concord. We went to Emerson\'s house and Hawthorne\'s house and Alcott\'s house and on our way back we thought we should stop in Lincoln and visit your house.\'\"

The 84-year-old scholar, mild in voice and manner, giggles self-consciously, tickled by the memory. Unless you\'re David McCullough or Stephen Ambrose, the historian\'s life is generally a private affair, confined to the regard of your peers. But Donald is sought out by the known and the unknown, presidents and common readers.

Fame, like a stranger in his yard, has come to him.

He has won Pulitzers for biographies of abolitionist Charles Sumner and novelist Thomas Wolfe, but his books on Abraham Lincoln are his true legacy. Presidents, from Kennedy to Bush, have summoned him for White House lectures and receptions. Many fellow scholars acknowledge him as the leader in the field. There\'s even an award named after him, the David Herbert Donald Prize for \"excellence in Lincoln studies.\"

Last spring, Donald was the first honoree....

In 1996, Donald published \"Lincoln,\" widely considered the best one-volume work on the president and so popular that both presidential candidates that year, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, claimed they were reading it. Some scholars had hoped for a more expansive account of the president, but critics and fellow authors praised him for a thorough, yet readable book.

\"His book on Lincoln is not only a classic in the field ... it is a treasured resource,\" said Doris Kearns Goodwin, who lives near Donald and has her own Lincoln book, \"Team of Rivals,\" coming out this fall.

\"When I first began working on my Lincoln book, nearly a decade ago, he generously invited me to his home so I could peruse his fabulous Lincoln library. He sat with me for hours, suggesting which sources were the most important to begin my journey.\"

Donald said he\'s fortunate that he never met Lincoln and risked getting too close to his favorite subject. But he has had the chance to meet some contemporary leaders, starting in the early 1960s when he was invited to the White House by President Kennedy.

\"The president was sitting in his rocking chair, with a yellow pad, taking notes while I talked,\" Donald recalled.

Other presidential encounters followed: a White House visit with Lyndon Johnson (\"a difficult man,\" Donald said), a talk on Lincoln for the first President Bush. Inscribed copies of former President Clinton\'s \"My Life\" and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton\'s \"Living History\" lay on the mantel in Donald\'s living room....

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