Bill Brands and Doug Brinkley discuss all things Roosevelt

Historians in the News

H. W. "Bill" Brands and Douglas Brinkley are, perhaps, Austin's two best-known historians. Though both teach at prestigious universities — Brands at the University of Texas, Brinkley at Rice — they spend much of their time writing engaging, best-selling American history books for a general audience. Brands, 55, who has lived in Austin for 20 years, has written about figures as disparate as Benjamin Franklin, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Brinkley, 47, who moved to Austin last year and commutes to Houston, has cast his net even wider; his love of Americana has embraced Ronald Reagan, Hunter S. Thompson and Rosa Parks.

By the standards of academia, both men are extremely productive. Brands has written 22 books in nearly as many years; Brinkley has written or edited even more than that in a shorter span of time. Next week, Doubleday will publish Brands' weighty biography, "Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt." Brinkley is working on a book about another Roosevelt, Theodore, and the birth of the modern American conservation movement.

In advance of their appearances today at the Texas Book Festival, we asked the two men — who have been friends for years — to sit down and talk about their profession.

Bill, you're about to publish a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Doug, you're working on a book about Teddy Roosevelt. Can you tell me what inspired these projects?

H. W. Brands: I've gradually been working my way — I don't want to say working my way, exactly — through all the American presidents, and after a while, when you're writing about the big figures in American history, there are a few that you gravitate toward. I had been avoiding Franklin Roosevelt for a while, in part because I really didn't have a handle on him and he didn't particularly appeal to me. I couldn't see that he would be an obviously attractive subject for a book — the way Theodore Roosevelt is. Theodore Roosevelt is very cinematic; with Franklin Roosevelt it's a lot more subtle. But I decided to do it because I started out writing about the 20th century and I wandered my way back to the 18th century and I moved into the 19th century and, well, I wanted to come back to the 20th century. And if you're going to deal with 20th century American public affairs, you really can't avoid Franklin Roosevelt. So once I got started on the project, I became convinced that he is the great American president, in terms of political leadership, in terms of political savvy and just innate genius. And I think he's had more effect on American life in the 20th century ever since than anybody else.

When you started — and even finished — this book, you couldn't have known that it would come out as we're enmeshed in the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. Given how steeped you've been in this material, do you get chills of recognition as you read the morning paper?

Brands: Yes. And so far, we're in the Hoover phase. Now, whether we move to the Franklin Roosevelt phase remains to be seen. I would hesitate to say that Barack Obama or John McCain are not Franklin Roosevelt; that remains to be seen. Because, actually, nobody realized that Franklin Roosevelt was going to become what he became until after he was elected. But, yeah, there are some very eerie, very scary parallels between the early 1930s and now, including a sense that nobody really understands what's going on and nobody knows what's going to happen next.

If you were starting the book now, would you have done anything differently in the writing of the book?

Brands: Well, probably not, because writing a book, at least a book this big, is a long process and you really can't aim at a moving target, at least in my case. One of the things I often tell my students is that if they really want to understand history, they need to abandon the use of hindsight, forget everything that happened after the period they're studying. Because the people who were alive at the time — Franklin Roosevelt didn't know what was going to happen, he didn't know what was ahead. So if you want to get in the heads of the people who were alive in some moment in the past, you have to forget what happened afterwards....

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