‘The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians’

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THIS COMPELLING COMPILATION LOOKS AT SOME OF THE PIVOTAL FIGURES WHO SHAPED OUR NATION

For those who love history and enjoy biography, David M. Rubenstein has delivered a masterstroke with “The American Story,” in which he presents his interviews with authors of notable biographies. Among them are David McCullough on John Adams, Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton, Taylor Branch on Martin Luther King Jr., Walter Isaacson on Benjamin Franklin, Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson and Doris Kearns Goodwin on Abraham Lincoln.

“The American Story,” which covers 39 books in discussions with 15 authors, grew from an idea Rubenstein proposed in 2013: to present a dinner series for members of Congress in which he would interview acclaimed historians in the gilded setting of the Library of Congress.

He said his purpose was “to provide the members with more information about the great leaders and events in our country’s past, with the hope that, in exercising their various responsibilities, our senators and representatives would be more knowledgeable about history and what it can teach us about future challenges.”

He also hoped that bringing the members together in a nonpartisan setting might reduce the rancor in Washington. Six years later, he admits the jury is out on the former and that absolutely no traction has been gained on the latter.

Rubenstein, who made his fortune ($3.6 billion) in private equity as co-founder of the Carlyle Group, styles himself as a “patriotic philanthropist,” having purchased the last privately owned original Magna Carta for $21.3 million and loaned it to the National Archives.

In addition, he has given $7.5 million to repair the Washington Monument, $13.5 million to the National Archives for a new gallery, $20 million to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and $10 million to Montpelier to renovate James Madison’s home. So, when the “patriotic philanthropist” asked to host his own interviews at the Library of Congress, the answer was, quite sensibly, yes.

Yet Rubenstein brings more than his b-for-boy-billions to this book. He has delved deeply into American history, having read at least one biography of each president and “every single biography” about John F. Kennedy, the commander-in-chief with whom he feels the greatest connection.

He has donated millions to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where he chairs the board of trustees. He recently contributed $50 million for the Kennedy Center’s expansion, called the Reach, upon which his name is chiseled in marble.

As much as Rubenstein admires our 35th president, however, his interview with biographer Richard Reeves (“President Kennedy: Profile of Power”) shows some of the dark side of JFK’s reign, including the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, and the attempted assassination of Fidel Castro.

Some readers will be startled to learn that JFK knew in advance about the Berlin Wall (“for which he was practically a co-contractor,” says Reeves) and had, in effect, consented to building it to protect the small U.S. force of 15,000 soldiers in West Germany from the hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers on the eastern side.

“The American Story” shows almost every president to have had a flaw that scarred his legacy: FDR turned away Jewish refugees, sending them back to sure death under Hitler; JFK misfired on the Bay of Pigs; Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate; Vietnam doomed Lyndon Johnson; and, with the exception of John Adams, all the Founding Fathers owned
slaves. Yet, as Isaacson put it so well, “The Founders were the best team ever fielded.”
In mining nuggets of history, Jean Edward Smith (“Eisenhower in War and Peace”) reveals that D-Day might have failed had Hitler not been sleeping. His best Panzer tank troops were available to repel the invading Allies, but only he could give the order to use them, and no one dared wake the Führer during the initial hours of the landing. By the time he woke up, the Normandy beachheads had been secured.

Did the Allies know Hitler had orders not to be disturbed while sleeping? Or was it a matter of the great good luck that Smith said accompanied Eisenhower throughout his life?

The Q&A format of this book is ingenious. Rubenstein, who’s mastered his subject matter, asks informed questions that stimulate impressive responses — and he is not above probing into the personal and provocative: About Benjamin Franklin: “He seemed to
have a lot of girl friends.”

About Alexander Hamilton: “He had a bit of an amorous reputation. In fact, what did Martha Washington call her tomcat?”

About Dwight Eisenhower: “He was the only [World War II] general who may have had [an affair with] his ‘driver.’ Is that right?”

About Ronald Reagan: “Did he dye his hair?”

Rubenstein’s most engaging interview, with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., comes at the end of the book.

Roberts studied history as an undergrad at Harvard with hopes to make it his career, but then changed his mind.

“I was driving back to school from Logan Airport in Boston one day and I talked to the cabdriver. I said, ‘I’m a history major at Harvard.’ And he said, ‘I was a history major at Harvard…’ [After that] I thought I would move to law.”

Rubenstein, also a lawyer, responds: “In the first year of law school — really in the first month or two — you realize certain people have the ability to quickly do legal reasoning. They have the knack of it, and some people don’t. You must have realized that it wasn’t as hard as you had thought it would be.”

Smart as Rubenstein is, you have to love Roberts, who graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School: “It was as hard as I thought it would be. It was pretty hard throughout.”

“The American Story” is a creative concept that delivers delicious bite-size bits of American history to those who haven’t had the time or inclination to read widely. I devoured every page with immense pleasure.

Georgetown resident Kitty Kelley has written several number-one New York Times best-sellers, including “The Family: The Real Story Behind the Bush Dynasty.” Her most recent books include “Capturing Camelot: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the Kennedys” and “Let Freedom Ring: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the March on Washington.”

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