Douglas Brinkley: Named Head of the New Theodore Roosevelt Center at Tulane

Historians in the News

The big house on Jefferson Avenue, white brick and soaring glass, looks as if it would be an oasis of calm for a writer. Inside, it's a buzz of activity.

Historian Douglas Brinkley, dressed in a suit and tie, runs around the house in his sock feet, one shirt button undone, as he waits for the latest fax. Anne, his wife, supervises a housekeeper and a nanny and the carpenters who are installing remarkable custom bookcases for the curving hall downstairs.

Only the children -- daughter Benton, almost 18 months, and son Johnathan, almost 6 months -- sleep peacefully, as does Maxie the dog, who has staked out a place near the front door, next to the bike and the stroller. Books and papers are everywhere, and the carpet is impossibly white. It's family life at its daily, complex best.

Brinkley switches off the big-screen TV, filled with cartoon images, and sinks into a chair as he holds a grapefruit soda. It's the lull before the book tour, and while celebrity is nothing new to the head of the newly created Theodore Roosevelt Center for American Civilization at Tulane University, it's still as demanding as it is gratifying.

He 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."

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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."

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