Vaughn Davis Bornet, RIP at 102
This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, founder of the History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books).
Let's begin with the cliche. "So, Mr. Bornet, what is the secret to living a very long life?" It was the question he got used to being asked. And it was the subject of a speech he gave to the Medford, Oregon Rotary Club when he turned 100, which we published a few months later. The following year in another piece on HNN he went into more detail. There was no secret, he answered. He lived a long life, he supposed, because he didn't smoke, he stayed active "mentally and physically," and he married a good woman. (She passed away in 2012.)
He did have one secret about that speech, however, which he shared with me afterwards. He managed to deliver it standing upright only with the help of a man who stood behind him out of view. He may have graduated from Emory and Stanford, risen to the rank of commander in the US Navy during World War II, worked at RAND and written an armful of books on labor, Herbert Hoover, and Lyndon Johnson, but he was human.
He also was unsentimental. Or was it just his endearing sense of humor on display when he wondered if having children helped or lessened one's chances of surviving a long life:
"I am of two minds about children’s effect on longevity. They may shorten your life by sometimes almost driving you nuts. Or, they may actually lengthen your life, as they may pay part of the bill for that fancy retirement home. They can provide a really good motive to stay alive as they visit weekly or monthly, bringing chocolates."
Vaughn wrote some sixty articles for HNN through the years, beginning in 2007 with, "How Race Relations Touched Me During a Long Lifetime." Characteristically, it showed his continuing engagement with world affairs. When Mitt Romney was on pace to win the GOP nomination in 2012 Vaughn penned a piece that helped put the issue of Romney's LDS faith in historical perspective. Mixed in with the articles on politics were dozens that spoke specifically to historians: reminiscences on the death of his friend, the diplomatic historian Norman Graebner, reflections on life as a historian here and here. (If you're a student thinking about a career in history those two articles might help you make up your mind.) Along the way he wrote numerous articles about life in America as it used to be: here and here, for example.
Throughout those articles from the early years of HNN Vaughn took the attitude that he'd seen it all and we'll be fine. In May 2016 he declared flatly: "Why I’m Optimistic About Our Future." Then Donald Trump was elected president. From then on Vaughn often seemed like a man in a state of shock. This historian who had seen it all in his 100 + years -- in the Great Depression he'd watched powerless as his family lost their house and car as he was shipped off to live with an aunt -- now seemed dumbfounded by events, caustically commenting on the "spectacle of government by guesswork." "So it has come to this," he observed in despair.
As events unfolded he pleaded with me to do whatever I could to draw attention to Trump's failings. Meanwhile, he did all he could. He reviewed Michael Wolfe's book, then Omarosa Manigault Newman’s, then Bob Woodward's.
Vaughn was most comfortable in the role of patriot. These were the kind of articles he wanted to write: "How Military Service Changes You," "It Has Been 63 Years Since I Raised My Right Arm and Joined the Navy", "Good Luck, People of Our 50 States!" And in his final piece for HNN, written back in May, he suggested, " 'This Too, Shall Pass.' History, and Life, Say So!"
Still, Trump unnerved him. His last book, published just a few weeks ago, is titled, "That Trump!" In the book, which consists of both new material and his HNN Trump articles, he aims to be objective but his disgust with Trump is self-evident. At one point he hopes Trump will simply resign.
Vaughn hoped to live to see the end of Trump's presidency. He didn't. But maybe we will -- and soon.
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